Christina Lewis Halpern, founder and director of All Star Code, talked to TechRepublic about her career as a journalist, staying true to her father's legacy, and social entrepreneurship.
When she was just 12 years old, Christina Lewis Halpern's father passed away. Just before it happened, he named her to the board of his family foundation — an event that had a profound impact on her career path. She grew up observing how various nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations work — and most of it was oriented around economic and social justice for historically oppressed people.
Halpern's father, Reginald Lewis, was a pioneering black businessman. As the owner of Beatrice Foods, he was the first black man to own a billion-dollar company in the US, and was known as the one of the most successful black men in finance in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Yet, Lewis was born in humble circumstances — in segregated Baltimore in the 1940s. When Halpern started digging on his history while writing her memoir a few years ago, she found that one of the reasons he was so successful was a prep program at Harvard Law in the 1960s, an access program for black students.
"Assuming students wouldn't know much about corporate law, they would tell them, and then if they decided to apply [to law school], they were better prepared," Halpern said. "It was such a simple idea — is an idea like that needed now? Where's the place that it could be needed? The answer came to me: The tech industry."
Today, she is the founder and executive director of All Star Code, a youth organization focused on training boys of color for the technology and computer science industries. All Star Code, which launched last year, has worked with more than 200 students in the New York area, providing exposure to the tech industry through a summer academy. It piloted last summer and is doubling this year, with a target of exposing 10,000 boys to computer science by 2020.
"I started watching, and what excited me was I saw how much the tech space was growing and no one was really thinking about it in this way," she said. She talked to 200 different people — nonprofits, tech experts, and many others — about this problem, where it was, and what solutions could work. "It [received] such tremendous response, everyone saying it was a good idea to push it forward, that I ended up decided to focus on it full-time," she said.
She started with a one-day event, since no one had ever done tech inclusion efforts with young boys of color. She heard from many people that no one would ever align themselves with the cause — that there weren't enough kids, that it was too weird. She even heard that there weren't even enough students interested in computer science because they all wanted to be basketball players.
But Halpern met someone who had already founded a nonprofit that could mentor her, she found donors who wanted to invest to make it happen, and she got started. It was incredibly fun, though not without a steep learning curve. Halpern, who has a background in journalism, compared coming up with a business plan to writing a story. She was well prepared for that.
In her previous life, Halpern was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, where she wrote about real estate and business. Her reporting during the recession exposed her to the world of wealth inequality, which has been a refrain throughout her career as a journalist and philanthropist, and her later writing for the NYT Magazine and foreign reporting in Africa proved to her that being an advocate for the oppressed was what she was most passionate about.
At first, starting All Star Code felt similar to being a journalist — all the research and preparation and interviews — but when she decided to host her first event, Halpern realized how different entrepreneurship was. She had a plan for how the boys would arrive the first day and how the day would go, but then one showed up early. She had no idea what to do with him.
"That's when I realized the organization had come off the page," she said. "It was still planning but it became about people and relationships and managing. It [was] no longer something I was in control of, vs. something on page, you're constantly editing."
Her father's legacy is what has kept her going — that in order to make the leap like he did 50 years ago, she has to keep pushing with this mission. There is such little diversity in the tech industry, and boys of color are often left out of the conversation.
"Tech is the next thing, Halpern said. "Wall Street in the 60s is like tech today."
In her own words...
How do you unplug?
"As a wife and mother of two it's hard to have true hobbies. I love cooking, I cook Sunday nights, on weekends with my family. I love to jog, I have a four-month old right now so it's been hard to get to the gym. I love walking outside in the country. I enjoy reading, reading Brown Girl Dreaming right now. I love movies, definitely some Netflix. I like to ski. And, yoga. A lot of fitness things."
What is most rewarding for you day to day?
"The kinds of people that I have been meeting and working with; the people who have been drawn to All Star Code, is continually engaging for me. I love hearing ideas and how they're looking to make a change in the world and brainstorming with them around how to solve problems. It's a constant learning process as I talk with stakeholders and partners and donors. It's fascinating and so exciting."
Looking back, what is some advice you'd give yourself?
"I would so encourage young people, people in high school, in college, just out of college, to really get off the ladder. Not to say don't work, but to think about themselves and their careers as more of a circle, or a path, and to really work hard to find the kinds of activities and work and people they enjoy in and of itself, not just of where they think it's going to lead them. Too many of us come out of school and there's this ladder...this leads to that leads to that and that's why I'm doing this and young people, especially if they want to do anything entrepreneurial or in tech will end up in such a better place when they reach their mid-30s if they, early on, get off the track and find activities and work that is enjoyable to them."