Tackling Tech’s Racial Job Divide

Fern Gillespie | 2/19/2021, midnight
There’s an intensive one-year computer science training program in Brooklyn that teaches software engineering to Black and Latinx recent high ...
Woman Standing While Carrying Laptop Christina Morillo/Pexels photo

There’s an intensive one-year computer science training program in Brooklyn that teaches software engineering to Black and Latinx recent high school graduates. The program then places these young adults in corporate entry level positions that can potentially pay $100,000 a year.

The place is the Marcy Lab School, a comprehensive computer science program in Bedford Stuyvesant training young people between the ages of 19 and 20 Reuben Ogbonna, co-founder and executive director, utilized his skills as a math teacher and leadership instructor to create an alternative to college for the many students served by the program. In Marcy Lab’s flagship program, the Software Engineering Fellowship, students achieve skills and experience to launch a career as an entry level software engineer. They receive extensive workforce development counseling and are paired with mentors at the companies where many of the students end up working. Through 2,000 classroom hour curriculum , these young adults learn how to build a full-stack JavaScript web applications and solve real world problems using technology skills. The classroom curriculum time is then followed by a three-month paid corporate apprenticeship where the students become part of an engineering team.

“We have a ridiculously high bar for academic rigor,” said Ogbonna. “Marcy Lab provides a lot of individual and one on one support. In addition to course work, part of the core curriculum deals with résumé writing, LinkedIn networking, negotiating a salary and courses on race and class systematic inequities.”

Right now the technology industry is booming. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, software developers had a median salary of $101,790 in 2019. It estimates that the demand for software developers will rise 22 percent by 2029. Yet , the U.S. Census shows employment in the top tech firms hovers at under 5.5 percent for Blacks and 6.8 percent for Latinx populations. Positions for Blacks and Latinx professionals are even lower in the technology field and for leadership positions across the corporate sector.

“The need for high-quality tech training is more important than ever,” said Jerelyn Rodriguez, co-founder and chief executive officer of The Knowledge House, a nonprofit organization in the Bronx. “The demand is so high there’s room for all of us to operate and fill gaps in the technology and education ecosystem.”

The Knowledge House empowers and sustains a talent pipeline of technologists, entrepreneurs, and digital leaders from high school grads to working adults. It offers a 12-month Innovation Fellowship where students get nine months of project-based instruction. They also work on a technology product with a team that can solve a challenge facing the local community. It educates, empowers, and mentors students with skills needed to launch a successful career in the technology industry. The program is open to high school and college students and working adults earning under $50,000 a year. To benefit borough residents, the organization has strong partnerships with Bronx companies, nonprofits and CUNY colleges. Over 1,600 students have graduated to date. The starting salary for Knowledge House graduates is approximately $60,000 a year with. some graduates make between $80,000 and $90,000 after the first year of working. Within two to three years these same professionals can earn six-figure salaries. Knowledge House is looking to grow and expand programming to Black and LatinXx communities in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Newark.

Both Ogbonna and Rodriguez are Black innovators who are social entrepreneurs. Ogbonna, who holds a degree in economics from Duke University, worked as a program director at Teach for America and a student dean at Coney Island Prep in Brooklyn prior to founding Marcy Lab. School. Rodriguez, who is a Black Latina, holds a degree in film studies from Columbia University. She is a “Forbes 30 Under 30” honoree who like Ogbonna worked with Teach for America and as an entrepreneur manager for the Bronx Business Incubator. These two leaders are passionate about having Black and Latinx young people succeed professionally and personally, and gain the ability to give back to their communities.

"Students at Knowledge House have been creating apps that connect homeless people impacted by COVID to housing resources,” said Rodriguez. “Another team has worked on a platform that connects graduates and alumni of local job training programs with each other to create a peer support network. It’s also important that the students gain real work added to their portfolios during instructions.”

Marcy Labs is interested in high school graduates with grit, persistence and creativity. “We don’t accept SAT scores or require Grade Point Averages. What we’re looking for is a mindset,” said Ogbonna. “Coding is hard. We want students who when they encounter hard things, they won’t give up. These students can master the tech skills faster than some of the older adults. They grew up with the iPad in their hand and social media is second nature to them.”

During 2020, the crises with COVID and racial tension provided the opportunity for BIPOC tech training nonprofits to work more closely with corporations. “After the murder of George Floyd, a lot of corporations that hire technologist made solidarity statements where they promised to diversify their workforce,” said Rodriguez. “They showed interest in investing in racial equity work. A lot of corporations with philanthropy programs started seeing workforce development has a way to offer COVID relief and economic recovery opportunities for Black and Brown people.”

JP Morgan Chase has been on the frontline supporting both the Knowledge House and Marcy Labs. “JP Morgan Chase was the first institution to provide us with a grant. That changed everything for us. At Marcy Labs, we never doubted that we could be keep the lights on because we had that support,” said Ogbonna. “They have been a source of non-monetary support as well. providing us with mentors and hiring students as a software engineers. JPMorgan Chase has provided me with an executive coach.”

For the Knowledge House, JP Morgan Chase came to the rescue when COVID hit. They permitted an advance on the organization’s two-year grant and were able to increase the stipend students receive while in the program, a critical need to help pay basic life expenses.

“I think that we have to put these opportunities to excel in tech careers in front of more Black and Brown young people,” said Rodriguez. “As long as organizations like JP Morgan Chase are supporting organizations like the Knowledge House and Marcy Labs and other organizations doing similar work, we’re going to see Black and Brown families build their generational wealth.”