An hour after the children at Claremont Middle School in Oakland, Calif., boarded their school buses for home, 16 teens are seated around slightly too-small tables in slightly too-small chairs, passing around laptops that a few classmates brought from home.
It’s the only way they can retrieve the code they’ve written to build their websites.
“If you don’t have your own personal machine, at least four of your brothers do,” program director Akeem Brown tells the students.
“So kindly ask your brother, ‘Brother please can I access my code from your computer?’ ”
In this middle-class, racially mixed neighborhood, a class of black kids learning how to code is a little unusual. But they’re here thanks to the man sitting quietly in the corner.
Jason Young is the president of MindBlown Labs, which makes an app that teaches teens how to manage their money. His background is unique among Silicon Valley CEOs. Young grew up in two of the most notorious Los Angeles neighborhoods: Inglewood and Compton.
“My father was a drug dealer who spent most of his adult life in jail,” Young says. “I had many challenges growing up. I also had a lot of opportunities.”
Those opportunities led to scholarships and, eventually, a career in the tech sector. That’s when he realized that in the cubicles and boardrooms of Silicon Valley, he was almost always the only African-American.
The statistics reflect his experience. Even though black people make up about 13.2 percent of the U.S. population, companies like Google and Yahoo have revealed that only two percent of their workforce is black.
“I noticed that there was a lot of opportunity being created,” Young says, “but there were certain groups — particularly young black men — that were being left out of that opportunity. And for me it just didn’t make sense.”
That’s why Young says he created the Hidden Genius Project: to help redress that balance.
“We have a particular focus not on the highest-performing young people but on young men who are really in the middle,” Young says.
“I felt that these young men really had all of these qualities and they just needed the proper training and access to the right networks to unleash their genius.”
Every Wednesday while most of his friends are playing video games, 14-year-old Donovan Nutting is learning how to write his own.
“Technology’s the future,” says Nutting, who wants to be a game designer. “So when I say I know how to code a little bit in HTML and Python, that’s something unique, that’s a characteristic that’s really special. So I don’t think it’s nerdy or anything, I think it’s a positive and that’s something to be proud of.”
The program runs on donations, so students have to make do with obsolete computers from the Oakland Unified School District, which lets the group use a classroom in one of its middle schools. Despite the challenges, the two-year-old program already boasts success stories.
“Who knows what this is?” instructor Eugene Lemon asks, pointing to a line of code on the projector. “Besides George.”
George Hofstetter puts down his hand. Thanks to what the 16-year-old learned at the Hidden Genius Project, he’s now getting paid to help several local businesses design their websites. But he feels in order to succeed at the next level, being a good coder may not be enough.
“Race is a very big barrier,” Hofstetter says. “Especially for an African-American teenager wanting to pursue a tech career.”
It’s the way you look, the way you sound, Hofstetter says. Because there are so few black people in technology, there’s no one there to defuse and counter the stereotypes prospective employers might have.
“I was actually at a tech summit earlier today and I felt extremely intimidated by the environment I was in,” Hofstetter says.
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