For African-Americans looking to succeed in the tech industry, success involves much more than just having the technical skills. It can be an uphill battle, especially if you're poor.
At Tech Square Labs in Midtown Atlanta, you’ll find glass walls and high ceilings. It follows the typical design trends of today’s “hip” innovation centers and co-working office spaces.
It's also where 14 African-American students are learning how to code in Java. Code Start is a free, yearlong training program and accelerated boot camp for low-income people between 18 and 24.
Code Start founder Rodney Sampson, a diversity evangelist in the tech industry, runs the program.
“It's an experiment on whether or not we can take 'disconnected youth' who’ve been labeled by the system, and teach them how to be a junior-level software engineer or developer,” Sampson said.
The idea for Code Start was born last summer when the director of Atlanta’s Workforce Development Agency, Michael Sterling, toured one of Sampson’s minority coding and entrepreneurship classes.
All of the students are from Atlanta and have a high school diploma or GED, but not a college degree. Code Start student Daniel Lawrence said it’s the most fun he’s ever had learning.
“Every single day is tangible progress. That’s the most amazing part of it," Lawrence said. "One day I could be totally confused about a concept, and the next day I’m laughing at the way I felt about the day before. It’s a beautiful adventure.”
The full-time program is funded through donations and a $250,000 grant from Atlanta's Workforce Development Agency. The students were chosen through a months-long process of vetting and interviews by the agency. They get free housing and a monthly $500 living stipend.
Encounter With Police
These students aren’t just tackling problems in their classroom.
Because some low-income students don't have bank accounts, Sampson has paid them in postal money orders.
But when one student tried to cash his money order, a clerk suspected it was fake because she said she didn’t see it in her computer system.
She took his ID and told him to call the police on himself.
When Sampson arrived, the 19-year-old student was in handcuffs in the back of a police car.
“I could see the intersection of civil, human and economic rights, inequities colliding,” Sampson said.
When Sampson spoke up for his student, Atlanta police officers immediately began to grill him about the money order.
“And so they were like: 'Do you have the receipt?' At first, I was like, 'I don’t have to prove that I purchased something.' But here I am pulling out a receipt on Forsyth Street in downtown Atlanta, showing these officers that I purchased all of these money orders, so I was a little uncomfortable doing that,” Sampson said.
Sampson tweeted about the incident and pointed out that the clerk, officer and student were all black.
“When that officer puts on that blue uniform, he is now adopting the institutionalized racism, discrimination, bias, classism, you name it, that goes with doing his job," Sampson said. "But when you lack that education and you lack that historical context, it’s quick to say this has nothing to do with race. Unfortunately, most things in America have to do with race because race is our Achilles’ heel.”
Sampson said he just wants the tech industry to give his black students a chance.
"We’ve got to have the tech culture being open to welcoming them, not automatically thugifying them or stereotyping them, but giving them the benefit of the doubt that these people bring something to the table. Some creativity. Some type of experiences, some authenticity."
In Atlanta, even for successful black entrepreneurs like Sampson, “we experience this invisibility factor.”
During pitches and meetings, clients and inventors direct questions to his white male partners or employees, even when he was the inventor or came up with the business plan.
"One [black, female entrepreneur] had to go to 300 investor meetings just to raise $1.5 million," Sampson said. "She hated the process, but it was necessary. And here again, she was never viewed as the sitting expert on the technology and the industry and the opportunity. It was always someone else in the room, a subordinate or an employee that was answering most of the questions."
That's why, Sampson said, he's focused on emotional development and teaching the soft skills. This summer, students will be coached on interviewing skills, financial literacy, resume writing and cleaning up social media profiles before they are matched with paid internships.
“You have to essentially build up their confidence," Sampson said. "And just basically say hey, no matter what happens, you may go to a tech conference at a hotel and rather than people asking you about your startup, they’re asking about the restroom. Well, you’ve got to get over that; you can’t leave. You’ve got to stay. You’ve got to stay engaged.”
Katiana Stevens said the program is hard at times, but having classmates who are also from the same background helps.
“A lot of us have been on the verge of tears after the first week. However, we’ve built a strong sense of community, really fast," Stevens said. "So we’ve all muscled through. We support each other and tell each other to keep going.”
Stevens said she aspires to become a software developer after she completes the program.