By: Connie Matthiessen
Date: Friday, April 16, 2021
At The Hidden Genius Project, young Black men learn coding and entrepreneurial skills, and are encouraged to pursue their own tech projects. With support from the Last Mile Education Fund, young women in computer science navigate financial obstacles that too often block the path to graduation and a career.
These are two of the 16 organizations that the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation funded in a recent round of grants totaling $4.1 million. The goal? To “expand tech education and build an inclusive tech workforce,” according to an announcement.
The Patrick J. McGovern Foundation’s eponymous founder started the International Data Group (IDG), a tech publishing giant that produced the publications ComputerWorld and MacWorld, the “For Dummies” book series and major international trade shows. McGovern died in 2014 at the age of 76.
The McGovern Foundation is committed to “bridging the frontiers of artificial intelligence, data science and social impact.” If that sounds a bit futuristic and sci-fi, the foundation’s core values—“inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility” according to its website—are rooted in very contemporary concerns.
Vilas S. Dhar, the McGovern Foundation’s president, has spent much of his career working to make technology a tool for social good. To do that, Dhar believes, technology has to reflect and serve diverse communities. As Dhar put it recently, “If a better society requires better technology, then better technology requires a more diverse and ethically grounded workforce. That is what is guiding our grant making.”
In a recent piece, we explored how McGovern is merging with the Cloudera Foundation to find new ways to make the tools of artificial intelligence and data science available to nonprofits. Here, we discuss how several McGovern grantees are taking on a lack of diversity and prevailing norms in the tech sector that often stifle women and people of color.
Barriers and “bro” culture
Creating a more diverse technology workforce isn’t a new goal, of course. Over the years, as IP has reported, many corporate funders have launched initiatives to boost the number of women and people of color working in technology and other STEM fields. Foundations from the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have also funded initiatives to support underrepresented students in STEM.
But the tech world remains stubbornly white and male. According to a 2018 report from Brookings, “Blacks make up 11.9% of all workers but only 7.9% of C&M [computer and math] workers. The gap is even larger for Hispanics, who make up 16.7% of all workers but only 6.8% of C&M workers.”
And men still outnumber women in technology, according to a 2021 report on Women in Tech by TrustRadius. The report also found that when women do land tech jobs, they often face a pervasive “bro” culture and barriers to promotion.
The McGovern Foundation’s recent grants support groups working to mix things up in the world of tech.
A safe, empowering space
The Hidden Genius Project, based in Oakland, California, was founded in 2012 by five Black men who worked in technology. They saw an abundance of potential among the many young, unemployed and underemployed men in their communities, and an abundance of opportunity in nearby Silicon Valley.
The Hidden Genius Project works to bridge that divide. Its signature Intensive Immersion program provides Black high school students with entrepreneurship, leadership and computer skills, and encourages them to pursue inventions of their own. Avin Keith, a Hidden Genius alum, created an app that drivers can use to compile insurance and registration details on their phone for easy access in the event they are pulled over by the police. “Throughout the history of America, Black people have been harassed by the police when they get pulled over and I wanted to eliminate the fear cops have when drivers ‘reach’ for their information by creating an app for it,” Keith said in a profile on the organization’s website.
In another program, The Hidden Genius Project also provides seed funding and training for alumni who have tech projects they want to take to the next level. Another offers training in career skills via a year-long internship program. Hidden Genius alumni often stay involved as mentors, educators and “brand ambassadors” who reach out to the larger community.
“We’re a safe, empowering space for boys and young men to grow as leaders, to gain digital skills and to learn what it means to be an entrepreneur,” said Brandon Nicholson, the organization’s founding executive director. “Some come for the tech, some come for the entrepreneurial skills, some come for the friends and the community. We welcome them all. Of course, the curriculum is a major part of it, but we are a youth development organization first and foremost. That is our main goal.”
The last mile
Ruthe Farmer has been toiling in the trenches of tech inclusion for much of her career. She first became aware of the lack of women and minorities in computer science after she graduated from business school. Since that time, she has worked in many roles to promote diversity, including a stint in the Obama White House as senior policy advisor for tech inclusion.
Over the years, Farmer noticed the countless, often small obstacles that derail talented students. “I’ve seen it many times: High-quality students get tripped up by trivial things,” she said. For students that don’t have parental support, she pointed out, a car problem or a utility bill can block the path to a degree or an important internship.
“Philanthropy often says, ‘Let’s find the students who are the best of the best, and support them,’” Farmer said. “But I would argue that you can’t be the best of the best if you can’t get your needs met. As a society, we are not optimizing for resilience, we are supporting kids who have never struggled, kids who are likely going to succeed anyway.”
The Last Mile Education Fund, which Farmer co-founded and now leads, helps low-income female students through financial snags large and small without asking a lot of questions or requiring them to navigate endless red tape. “We don’t ask about a student’s GPA,” Farmer said. “If you are a junior or a senior in computer science or engineering, you are worthy of our investment.”
One Last Mile student, for example, lost her housing just three weeks before graduation. Her only option was to return to her family home, a small trailer shared by multiple family members, where shaky internet access would make studying difficult. A $600 grant from the Last Mile helped her pay for temporary housing so she could study for her exams. She earned her computer science degree and is now working at a top social media company.
Farmer marvels at the sacrifices some students make to pursue their dreams. One student she spoke to was budgeting for just one meal a day. Another needed $40 for a table and chair, because she was finding it difficult to do school work perched on a mattress on the floor. A third has been working on her degree for seven years, having taken time off to work and help her family. “Many low-income students are an important part of the economic engine of their entire family,” Farmer said.
If students like those the Last Mile helps can make it to graduation, they are on the path to a well-paying job—today, many of the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs are in STEM fields. “There is a massive shortage of talent in these spaces,” Farmer said. Her organization is built on a sustainability model: The young women who receive grants are encouraged to give back when they have a job and the means to do so, creating what Farmer calls a “virtuous circle.”
Jobs of the future
According to Dhar at McGovern, the work of organizations like the Hidden Genius Project and the Last Mile Education Fund is particularly urgent because there are so few signs of change in the education pipeline. “In America, half of kids don’t have access to a computer science education if they want it,” he said, pointing out that only 47% of high schools teach computer science, according to research by Code.org—and those are typically schools in suburban, largely white areas of the country.
Other McGovern grantees include Girls Who Code, AI4All, and AnnieCannons, an organization that provides training in computer science to survivors of human trafficking and gender-based violence. Also receiving funding were programs at Oxford, MIT and Stanford that explore and promote ethical and human-centered applications of technology and artificial intelligence. See the complete list of grantees here.
“We need to ensure that we’re investing now to build the kinds of skill sets and pathways that American workers need,” he said. For Dhar, that means exposing kids from all communities to technology, beginning in kindergarten, and supporting them all along the way. It also means not letting talent and potential go to waste.
“I think all the recent conversations about equity reflect our growing realization as a society that a digital future that concentrates power and capital in just a few hands isn’t the world we want,” he said.