Laura Weidman Powers: Opening Doors for Minorities in Technology
Silicon Valley thinks of itself as the cutting edge of more than just technology; it considers itself a force for social change. But in an era when the United States has elected and re-elected an African American president, only 1 in 18 leaders of technology firms is black or Latino, says Laura Weidman Powers. She is the cofounder, with her 2010 Stanford MBA classmate Tristan Walker, and executive director of Code2040, a nonprofit group that is working to open the doors in Silicon Valley for black and Latino engineers.
In its first year, Code2040 placed 5 fellows into paid internships at Silicon Valley companies, including Jawbone, tumblr, Rockmelt, and Circle, and expects to place 15 this summer. Before they enter the fellowship, applicants need to pass a coding exam, a phone screen, and then a matching process with Code2040’s host companies.
Just 30, Weidman Powers already has a resume stuffed with accomplishments: degrees from Harvard (AB in psychology) and Stanford (MBA and JD) along with stints as a product development executive and web producer at two technology startups. She was a codirector of CityStep, a community service organization, while she was an undergraduate at Harvard. In 2013, she was awarded a Social Innovation Fellowship by Stanford GSB's Center for Social Innovation.
Weidman Powers talked to Bill Snyder about the startup she cofounded and the path that led to it.
What’s the significance of the name “Code2040”?
Our country is undergoing a massive demographic shift. Census projections show that people of color will collectively be the majority in the U.S. in the year 2040. It’s important to have that shift reflected in the ranks and the leadership of innovation hubs like Silicon Valley. We hope we’ll have worked ourselves out of a job long before then.
How does the program work?
We call it a fellowship program. We bring top-performing black and Latino computer-science students to our fellowship program. We place them in an internship with a top tech company. The students get mentors, we have a speakers series, we do skill-building workshops, leadership development, and coaching.
Silicon Valley fancies itself as the cutting edge not just in technology but also socially. But women and minorities are badly underrepresented.
I think it is the most entrepreneurial and innovative environment. But there's absolutely an under-representation, and that's what we are working to correct. The system is out of balance. Just 1 in 14 tech employees in Silicon Valley is black or Latino, just 1 in 18 is in leadership, [according to a report by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.]
Why is this still the case?
It’s a puzzle that a lot of people are trying to figure out right now. There’s been a lot of conversation around pattern matching as a contributing factor. It ends up being kind of a closed loop or a self-fulfilling prophecy when you have entrepreneurs and executives who like to invest in people that remind them of themselves and those they've seen succeed in the past. So we're trying to introduce a new pattern: Here's a new group of students that are really sharp and successful, and it makes sense to invest in them in every sense of the word.
Are you optimistic about the course of race relations in this country?
I am. I don't want to say [progress] is inevitable, in the sense that nobody has to work at it, but the number of people who care about these issues and how hard they are working makes me optimistic.
What inspired you to cofound Code2040?
Tristan Walker and I were classmates at the business school. We met for coffee in late 2011 right after I left a job in product development at a startup. Tristan pitched his idea to convince me to be the point person in the project.
Why did you accept his pitch?
I had never seen myself as an entrepreneur, but being in Silicon Valley for the first time I was surrounded by the huge potential you see here. But at the same time I wasn't seeing the level of diversity I saw growing up in New York or working in West Philly. So I had the realization that “hey, this is something I could do.”
You’ve been around a number of nonprofits in the last 10 years. Is there something they, as a class, could do better?
I felt the nonprofits I spent time in and around in the past were too risk averse, and their income was too divorced from their programmatic activities. I'm excited to create in Code2040 an organization that is nimble and responsive to the market, thoughtful and innovative about generating revenue, and yet still completely mission driven.
You obviously put a lot of time and effort into being a student at Stanford. What was the most important thing you took away?
The business school emphasizes that it is important to think about your personal strengths and passions as well as your professional and organizational goals. Leadership is not an end, but a means to achieving something beyond yourself. At Stanford you don't strive to be a leader, you strive to make an impact via your leadership. The emphasis on self-knowledge and intentionality, and the message that those things should not be optional or afterthoughts but are core parts of success, was really powerful for me.
What gets you up in the morning?
There's so much to do. It feels like there's so much opportunity in this space, and we have three different programmatic extensions we are evaluating right now in addition to expanding the fellowship programs. I have to get up and get it all done.
What is the best advice you've ever gotten as an entrepreneur?
The best advice or coaching I've ever gotten has been around being thoughtful about listening to other people and trusting your own judgment. People always have an opinion about what you should be doing with your time and your company, and nobody knows the whole story the way you do. I use that advice daily, hourly even.
Women are poorly represented in Silicon Valley, yet Code2040 isn’t focused on that issue. Why not?
I like to point out that we do work with women all the time, a subset of woman — minorities. We work with other organizations that work with women. It’s not that I think one issue is more important than the other. But there aren’t many groups focused on what Code2040 is working on, while there are a lot of amazing groups working on the underrepresentation of women in tech.