5:34am

Mon July 21, 2014
All Tech Considered

Next To Silicon Valley, Nonprofits Draw Youth Of Color Into Tech

Originally published on Mon July 21, 2014 10:07 am

Twenty-year-old Taneka Armstrong wants to land a high-tech job, but her day starts at Taco Bell.

Armstrong stands behind a steel counter, making Burrito Supremes and ringing up customers. She counts pennies and quarters. She also gets orders from her bosses, who she says can be pretty condescending.

"They're just like, 'Oh, did you know that already?' Or, 'Can you do this?' " she says. "Yes, I've been doing it, for almost a year now."

Armstrong is a native of Oakland, Calif., next door to Silicon Valley, and she lives two lives. This first one, which starts as early as 5 a.m., doesn't challenge her or pay well. And that's why she set off in search of life No. 2: learning tech skills.

That's not an easy path, though. Technology companies have a problem when it comes to employee diversity. The workforce at places like Google and Facebook is overwhelmingly white and male.

To counter that, a growing number of nonprofits are popping up in Oakland to help young blacks and Latinos break into the industry.

The Goal Is Exposure

Every afternoon this summer, Armstrong is in the offices of a small nonprofit called Hack the Hood. Her job is to fix websites for clients.

"I'm trying to do an outline," she says, staring at a page on her laptop that has a lot of links. "You click on it, it takes you everywhere in the world. I like short and simple."

This summer, the teens will meet top talent from the companies that make the popular apps they download. Armstrong says there's some chance she'll get deep into coding. Or she might prefer a nontechnical job, like sales and marketing.

That exploration is part of the process, says instructor Zakiya Harris.

"Nobody ever asks young people that come from affluent neighborhoods why they're doing programs, because the notion is it's exposure," she says. "The more you expose young people to opportunities, the better they're going to become as adults."

She wants to find ways to empower young people with "low-hanging fruit" — skills in the tech industry. That way, she says, "they can start earning some money in their pocket that's going to actually lead to a career, and not just a dead-end opportunity in a service job."

In Search Of Funding

These big ideas come with a small budget line. That's where people like Freada Kapor Klein come in. She's an investor in Silicon Valley and a leading philanthropist for coding nonprofits.

Her Kapor Center for Social Impact is tracking new and growing programs. Klein says the sheer number is increasing rapidly, but "it's unclear how to measure their effectiveness."

Her foundation gives a few million dollars a year. That scale of contribution is rare. She estimates that "foundations are giving tens of thousands of dollars, and in the aggregate you might be getting hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Google recently awarded Hack the Hood a half-million dollars for being a winner in its Bay Area nonprofit competition. The tech company has been studying why women don't enter computer science, and has pledged to give $50 million overall to programs in the U.S. and abroad that try to recruit women.

Klein is talking to Twitter and others about the factors that make tech a "tilted playing field." She's asking them to step up their game.

"What's going to distinguish tech companies going forward is who takes this seriously and who doesn't," she says.

For her part, Armstrong is taking the work seriously. With Hack the Hood last summer, she experienced the challenge of pitching services. Her team would go door-to-door offering to build websites for local business owners. "What's the catch?" they'd ask. She'd explain over and over, "No, it's free. We're a nonprofit."

Armstrong says that process can feel weird, but it's better than making burritos.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Well, here's one way a few nonprofits are trying to eliminate the high unemployment rate among young blacks and Latinos - create a gateway to highly sought after tech jobs. In Oakland, California, just outside of Silicon Valley, a lot of young people are wondering how they can move from fast food counters, say, to high-tech desk jobs. NPR's Aarti Shahani tagged along with one young woman who's trying to make the leap.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: This high-tech story starts at Taco Bell.

TANEKA ARMSTRONG: Order 209. Come on up. French fries? You have a nice day, OK?

SHAHANI: Taneka Armstrong makes Burrito Supremes and sells Coke. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Taco Bell restaurants sell PepsiCo products, not Coke.]

(ICE POURING)

SHAHANI: She counts pennies and quarters, and she gets orders from her bosses who can be pretty condescending.

ARMSTRONG: They just be like oh, did you know that already? Can you do this? I was like yes, I've been doing it for almost a year now.

SHAHANI: Armstrong lives two lives. This first one, which starts as early as 5:00 a.m., doesn't challenge her or pay well. That's why the 20-year-old set off in search of life number two.

ARMSTRONG: I'm trying to do an outline of a website.

SHAHANI: Armstrong is staring at a laptop in the offices of a small nonprofit called Hack the Hood. Hood because here in Oakland, California, things can get pretty rough, and hack because that's slang for making money in tech. Armstrong is spending her afternoons here this summer. Her job is to fix websites for clients.

ARMSTRONG: It's a lot of other links, like, you click on to take you everywhere in the world. I like short and simple.

SHAHANI: This summer, the teens will meet top talent from the companies that make all those apps they download. Armstrong says there is some chance she'll get deep into coding, or she might prefer a non-technical job in the tech sector like sales and marketing. And that's OK.

ZAKIYA HARRIS: Nobody ever asks young people that come from affluent neighborhoods why they're doing programs.

SHAHANI: Zakiya Harris is a program instructor.

HARRIS: The more you expose young people to opportunities, the better that they're going to become as adults.

SHAHANI: Harris's work with the teens is based on this question...

HARRIS: How can we empower them with some low-hanging fruit - skills in the tech industry so they can start earning some money in their pocket that's going to actually lead to a career and not just a dead-end opportunity in a service job?

SHAHANI: It's a really big question with a really small budget line. Freada Kapor Klein is an investor in Silicon Valley and a leading philanthropist for coding nonprofits. She gives a few million dollars a year, and that's rare.

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Foundations are giving tens of thousands of dollars for new programs. And in the aggregate you might be getting hundreds of thousands of dollars.

SHAHANI: Google recently gave Hack the Hood half a million dollars after it won a competition. The tech company has pledged to give 50 million overall to programs in the U.S. and abroad that try to get women into computer science. Kapor Klein is talking to Twitter and others asking them to step up too.

KAPOR KLEIN: What's going to distinguish tech companies going forward is who takes this seriously and who doesn't.

ARMSTRONG: We was going to small local businesses and asking them if they wanted a website for their business.

SHAHANI: Taneka Armstrong was at Hack the Hood last summer, too. And she liked the challenge of pitching their services to business owners.

ARMSTRONG: What's the catch? What's the catch? I was like no, it's free.

SHAHANI: Armstrong says that process can feel weird but it's better than making burritos. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.