The woman who started an organization to close the wealth and ethnicity gap in the tech industry talked to TechRepublic about addressing uncomfortable issues and creating real change.
Find comfort in being uncomfortable.
That was the takeaway from a conversation with Laura Weidman Powers, the energetic, passionate founder of CODE2040, an organization that aims to close the achievement, wealth and skills gap for blacks and Latinos in the US by creating programs to encourage and assist them to find STEM jobs.
"It's only when we work outside our comfort zones that anything truly meaningful gets done. That's the case for myself. I'm uncomfortable everyday in my role at CODE2040. There's a ton of learning on the job," Powers said. "That's hard and in some ways, that divides the world in half. There's something you can learn from it if you really want to be a leader in the world."
That's her goal: to stay uncomfortable, and have an impact in addressing uncomfortable issues. Powers jokes that she wants to put her own organization out of business — that is, make it unnecessary because this skills gap in the STEM industry is so huge. It's also largely avoided, as most of the conversations revolve around the gender gap.
Powers went to Harvard, where she ran an organization called CityStep that greatly influenced her interest in public service. The group helps students build self-esteem through community involvement and creative self-expression. Powers took the model she used with CityStep Harvard and integrated it into West Philadelphia schools. It was her first job right out of school, one that she fell in love with, and she still speaks as highly of it.
"I thought about what I was excited about, what I was passionate about, and capable of," she said of the position as leader of the organization.
The program is still in place today, years after she left, which is something Powers takes pride in. She said it was an extraordinarily powerful experience, and even more so knowing she laid the foundation for an influential organization.
After leaving City Step, Powers worked with non-profits and web development companies for a few years before deciding to attend Stanford for her MBA, thinking she would take the skills back to the non-profit sector. But instead, she became really interested in the tech world, which she hadn't considered before, and loved the carefree, non-traditional mentality of the West Coast compared to the East.
"I was going to meetups and industry events, realizing there weren't a lot of people that looked like me. This lack of diversity, and seeing the power of the tech sector, was a big part of inspiration of where CODE2040 came from," she said.
So over a cup of coffee, Powers and a classmate who had similar experiences decided to start an organization to address it.
The main program of CODE2040 is its fellowship program, which is designed with a robust curriculum that help fast-track minority achievers to become technology leaders. They have internships with tech companies who focus on providing opportunities for blacks and Latinos, as well as mentorship and networking. A lot of times, it's students who otherwise wouldn't have a way to participate in a program like this.
"We see 2040 as not a charity, not about doing a favor. It's about connecting extremely talented, untapped pools of individuals with companies who are desperate to hire so they can grow," Powers said.
She threw a stat out, to demonstrate the importance of this issue. Computer science jobs command some of the highest starting salaries in the US. On average, it's $77,000 per year. That's about twice the median household income of a black or Latino family.
It's not simply about shedding light on these issues. It's making real, tangible change to the numbers. It's making sure that when blacks and Latinos make up 42% of the US population by 2040, there are far more than the current 18% that earn computer science bachelor's degrees in US colleges and universities.
"I want to know that I set things in motion and laid the foundation in such a way that other people can pick up the torch and continue without me," she said. "The epitome of really great leadership is being able to put that foundation in place that people are empowered and systems are changed."
In her own words...
How do you unplug?
"Yoga. I think of it as physical and mental workout at the same time. It's a stress reliever for me, and I find that because I'm so unplugged, I often solve problems when I'm in a yoga class. I also cook dinner almost every night because it's really relaxing for me. You can't be checking email when you're cooking."
What are some of your other hobbies?
"I love traveling, and I do it a ton for work. I also try to travel for pleasure, by taking a big trip out of the country once a year. Leaving the country totally resets your perspective and you can't check email as much."
What advice do you wish you had when you were starting out?
"Just start. Too many people hold themselves back, think of ways to say 'no' instead of 'yes,' particularly when doing something new. Just start and accept that failing is a possibility... but if you don't do anything, you will definitely fail."
What do you do when you really need to focus?
"If I really need to focus, I stay home. I have a tiny office in my apartment and will bang something out with my cat sitting next to me on the printer."
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