Increasing Diversity in Tech: An Innovative Fellowship Program

Observers have been lamenting the relative lack of diversity in the tech sector for several decades. The average tech worker, in the public mind and in fact, is male, young, and either white or Asian.

A Successful Program Expected to Scale

What’s the best business strategy to augment diversity? Recently, Fortune reported that a fellowship program run by Code2040, a nonprofit dedicated to raising the participation of black and Latino “A” students (which it dubs “Latinx”), has been highly successful in both scaling fellows and training its tech partners, which include Airbnb and Lyft.

Code2040 started with five fellows in 2012. This year, it placed 135, a significant increase in just five years.

It is also optimistic that the program will continue to scale its business leadership, with projected participation of 225 fellows in 2018, 300 in 2019, and 500 in 2020. If these figures prove true, the participation will increase exponentially over the next five years, just as it did in the first five.

Fellowship winners work on projects such as LinkedIn’s Android system and the iOS system for Slack. The program gives experience working in tech development of course, but also in soft skills just as increasing confidence and handling being on teams that may not be diverse.

Computer education and real-world experience are key to filling the pipeline.

Participants come from the top computer science schools, just as those working in Silicon Valley do. Stanford and MIT top the list for the number of participants.

There is no shortage of potential reasons adduced for the lack of diversity in tech. Some feel it’s the very strength and critical mass of the current culture, white/Asian, male, and young, and that lack of diversity begets more lack of diversity. Some feel it’s a pipeline issue. Some feel it’s cultural fit.

Code2040’s program is one option for filling the pipeline and increasing cultural fit. Its website notes that, while just 5% of employees at leading tech firms are black or Latinx, students from those groups earn 18% of computer science degrees. The implication is that they plan to meet or exceed the percentage of those trained in computer science.

Forty-five percent of fellows feel that they expanded their tech network as part of the program. Twenty-two percent reported a drop in imposter syndrome, a constellation of feeling inadequate and that other people may perceive them as not right for the job.

Using Silicon Valley Methods 

Code2040’s mission was developed in part to address long-standing economic inequities in the United States. Black and Latinx families often earn less than families of other ethnic groups. But Code2040 also has a unique approach to fixing those inequalities. Tech worker salaries can be high and employment is usually stable. Tech can be a way to build long-term wealth not only for individuals but for the group as a whole.

As its website also points out, tech and the larger world of discovery and experimentation of which it is a part is a robust place to experiment with problem-solving of all types. After all, problem-solving is what digital innovation is all about. Code2040 makes its methods the object, not just the subject. The organization clearly plans to capture the methods — “experimentation, data-driven decision making, and failing forward,” to cite its website, to solve long-standing economic and cultural issues.