It's early on a Saturday morning, and the brand-new Spotify headquarters in New York's Flatiron District are bustling with high schoolers. Nearly 20 young, black men have gathered here to spend the day learning how to come up with a business idea, a brand, a marketing strategy, and a pitch deck to present what they've learned to a panel of judges. Laptops, giant markers, and paper pads are everywhere, and the students plot out ideas ranging from a digital hub for hip-hop fans to a reggae music-creation app to a portal for discovering indie artists.
These students are the first-ever participants of All Star Code, a young organization that seeks to attract young, black men to the tech industry by outfitting them with the skills necessary to land full-time jobs early in their careers.
"A lot of people in our community have a problem admitting that to work in technology, you often are a skinny, upper-middle-class white guy," says Kane Sarhan, a cofounder of the apprenticeship-based education startup Enstitute and the day's instructor. "These organizations aren't just saying there's a massive problem. They're putting a stake in the ground and saying, There are no black people here or There are no women here."
Christina Lewis Halpern, All Star Code's founder and a former business reporter for the Wall Street Journal, chose to focus on the young, black male demographic after she noticed several new tech-prep programs popping up that catered to the tech industry's historically marginalized groups—for example, what Girls Who Code does for women. But she noticed there were too few tech programs geared specifically toward young, black males.
"This is a group that doesn't have advocates, and that needs more people who are able to speak for them in this industry," Lewis Halpern says. "I saw that that's something I could do, and also it seemed that if I didn't do it, I didn't think anyone else would."
Lewis Halpern was inspired to found All Star Code by her late father, Reginald F. Lewis, who became the richest African-American man in the 1980s. She credits her father's success to a Harvard Law School summer program he accessed early in life that recruited and positioned young, black men for success at the school.
"I thought, If my father were a young man today, where would he want to go? He wouldn't want to go to law school," Lewis Halpern says. "He'd want to be in Silicon Valley. So I thought, well, are there any black people in the space? No. Has it already been diversified? No."
The daylong workshop at Spotify was the first real step All Star Code has taken, since its inception, toward realizing Lewis Halpern's ultimate goal, a six-week-long, intensive summer course that provides students with programming training, as well as experience with entrepreneurial “soft skills” like leadership and teamwork. As of press time, All Star Code's inaugural summer session is slated to begin in July 2014.
Based on the response she received from the students who attended All Star Code's first workshop, Lewis Halpern won't have much trouble filling seats in the summer program.
"Technology is new. We're going to be doing this for the rest of our lives," says Shakeem Brown, 15, a sophomore at New York City's Pace High School who participated in All Star Code's workshop. "As I get older, I want to know: What can I make better in the world? What type of new technology can I create?"
[Image courtesy of All Star Code | Photos by Natalie Keyssar & Michael Schwartz]