Christina Lewis Halpern is the founder of All Star Code, a program that prepares young black and Latino boys to enter and advance in the tech sector. She says the lack of diversity of this population is the crisis that no one is talking about because it’s a problem few know exists.
Why the emphasis on Latino and black boys?
I am very supportive of diversifying tech in general and of women’s equality, and I consider myself a feminist. But there are a lot of education programs for girls in computer science and for girls in STEM already and very few targeting black and brown boys, and so in that respect black and brown boys are invisible.
What are the obstacles blocking black and Latino boys from the tech sector?
There are many. This group of boys is challenged in a number of additional ways that women and other groups are not. In general, they face much harsher discipline, starting in preschool. They are far more likely to grow up in poverty. There is, generally speaking, a lack of role models due to the large numbers of African American men who are in prison.
To go forward into the field, the type of recruiting that companies do from historically black colleges and universities is not done in a thoughtful way. Companies are looking for a profile. They like to hire a white or Asian engineer with an advanced degree from MIT or Caltech. I’m not against students going to Caltech, but the narrow profile is just a sorting tool and it’s missing a lot of talent—students who are choosing to go to other kinds of schools for a variety reasons but for whom there are still a lot of reasons for them to be successful.
Furthermore, the best jobs are never posted publicly and that particularly includes looking for a cofounder or hiring at a startup, and often parents don’t understand the career path. They are pushing their children into more traditional jobs, such as doctor or lawyer.
At your Friday panel, ‘Cracking the Code: Why Black and Latino Boys Matter,’ you also discussed the cultural differences in the way black and Latino boys are raised and taught. Can you speak to those differences?
Parents are more likely to tell a black boy, ‘You can’t act out, you have to act correctly.’ They are afraid. The focus is on discipline. The focus is on not talking back – ‘Don’t question me and my authority and just do that what say.’
And that relationship to authority is antithetical to the tech start-up world, which is flat and your boss is still your boss but also your friend and you are expected to come up with your own ideas and pursue them.
Celebrating failure also is often not the mindset that you see in black and brown communities. You see more a fear of failure and a pride of having a fear of failure because that is what they find motivating for them.
You were a journalist for the Wall Street journal. Why did you make the decision to start your own company?
Five years ago, I was still a journalist and was asked to write a memoir about my father. In the course in doing that, I really examined his life and success and career path, and he went to this special summer program, the first prep program that any law school ever created designed to start recruiting black students. By doing this program, he ended up going to Harvard law school. I looked at that initial program, and it was successful for Harvard. It is part of the reason that school has a strong network and legacy of African American students. And I wondered whether anything like that could be needed today? What wave do we need to catch? And the answer is clearly tech.
Is there anything else you would like people to know about the issue?
If there were a call about what other people should do, it’s that we have to teach these boys, give them the security to fit, to keep creative, to come up with their own ideas. We have to give them that support and space.
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