Less than 5% of tech jobs in the US are occupied by women of color

Program hopes to change that by giving free training and help finding jobs, says CEO of NPower.

Command Shift: Program works to put more women of color into technology careers

TechRepublic's Karen Roby spoke with Bertina Ceccarelli, CEO of NPower, about Command Shift, a program to increase the number of women of color in technology careers. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Karen Roby: We're glad to have you because this is a really important initiative that we're talking about. You guys just released, just in the last couple of days, a program called Command Shift. Tell us what you're trying to do here, and then we'll talk a little bit more about the training with NPower and the things you guys are doing.

Bertina Ceccarelli: We are thrilled to launch Command Shift, which has been a program that we have had in our sights for a very long time. The core objectives of Command Shift really, notably, are to increase the number of women of color who enter, stay and thrive in burgeoning tech careers, number one. And number two, really to advance pay equity for women of color in the tech sector. And we're just so happy to have large companies behind us on this initiative, including companies like Citi, Citi Foundation, EWS, Guardian, World Wide Technology and Comcast, just to name a few.

Karen Roby: Talk a little bit about the numbers here. I mean, what are we in terms of the disparity of how great is this need to get people involved?

Bertina Ceccarelli: Well, one of the reasons why we chose to make this a specific focus is that if you think about the numbers of women of color in technology today, it is woefully inadequate. In fact, less than 5% of tech positions nationally are occupied by women of color, even though their representation in the general population in the U.S. Is nearly 25%. So, we have a lot of work to do. And I think by putting a very intentional focus on reaching women, particularly those who might be traveling non-traditional pathways, to consider programs that may offer certifications, alternative pathways to entering the tech career, we can begin to improve those numbers more quickly.

Karen Roby: And I think that's so important to put out there Bertina, because we know about the supply-and-demand issues with tech workers and companies are saying, we have the jobs, "We just don't have enough people to fill them with qualified people." But not everyone has to take that traditional route to get there. Talk a little bit about NPower and the work that you guys are doing and the type of training that you're offering.

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Bertina Ceccarelli: NPower is a national nonprofit, highly rooted in community, devoted to race and gender equity in tech. And really our job is to launch thriving tech careers and change trajectories largely for young individuals and veterans from under-resourced communities. And we do that by offering free IT training, industry recognized certifications, professional development, mentoring, and importantly, connections to jobs, working with companies across the country, both large and small. About 81% of our graduates find full-time employment upon completing the program or they choose to continue their education. What this does is not only increase the supply of talented and trained workers for the tech sector, but we're also helping individuals in many cases, escape intergenerational poverty and begin to earn more than family-sustaining wages and begin to build wealth.

Karen Roby: What are some of the bigger obstacles you see Bertina, when you talk about people getting into this industry, especially women, how difficult is it for them? What are some of the stumbling blocks?

Bertina Ceccarelli: Last year we launched a report called, Breaking Through, Rising Up: Strategies for Propelling Women of Color in Technology. What we learned was fascinating. In fact, one of the barriers is particularly for young women, there is an entrenched belief that a tech job is all about coding and bro culture. And sure coding is a really, really important part of technology, but there are hundreds of career paths and a lot of great companies who have supportive cultures who are really eager and interested in cultivating and developing great talent.

So, part of our job at NPower is really to help individuals understand the breadth of career opportunities ahead for them in the area of tech that might include cybersecurity, project management, IT business analyst, data analyst. Some of which will require coding skills, but not always. That is one of the fundamental barriers. The second is just knowing what it takes. So whether that is knowing what kind of certification programs to enter into, what kind of college degree to consider, who to network with, what kind of companies to consider. So navigating that and creating smooth and seamless pathways is a big part of the work that we do.

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Karen Roby: Very good. And finally, Bertina, when you look at this initiative for Command Shift, what does the rollout look like? How do you get the word out? How do you get all the different parts involved here to make this a success?

Bertina Ceccarelli: The bigger, the better. I think when it comes to these kinds of coalitions, the ambitions and aspirations are significant, as needs to be the number of partners willing to lock arms with us and say, "We can do better together. We share these values, and we want to make a contribution." I think that first and foremost, having two really strong co-chairs in LaDavia Drane, from AWS, and Timicka Anderson from Citi, is a great place to start. These are powerful women who have lived experiences in their own technology careers and will help us galvanize others. Having a core group on a steering committee to help shape our goals and lead our strategies is also an important step.

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But importantly, also hearing from the voices of our alumni and really hearing firsthand, what are the opportunities they're seeing today in the companies they're working for? And where do they see the challenges or the barriers that a coalition like this can help overcome? And I'll just give you one interesting example. We find a lot of companies are doing a much better job at hiring for diversity, but then sort of fall back on managing for assimilation. So rather than take the greatest advantage of all the diversity coming into their companies, they're expecting the same kind of behaviors, the same approach to problem solving, fitting in.

One of the women I spoke to recently who graduated from NPower is working for a great financial services organization. Working in a group that is dominantly white men, feeling as though she wasn't necessarily getting all the support that she could get because her ideas were overlooked. Her voice was not being heard. Well, she turned to a mentor who gave her some excellent advice on having some honest conversations and using her voice differently to talk about what she needed to thrive in her career. And she's since been promoted. And her story is such a strong example of where mentoring is valuable. And helping the individuals who are coming into these positions, not just feel like I've got to do the same thing that everybody else is doing, but rather I bring a unique set of lived experiences that can contribute to the business value of this company.

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