Laura Weidman Powers, JD/MBA ’10: Cracking the Code for Tech Sector Diversification

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Laura Weidman Powers, JD/MBA ’10: Cracking the Code for Tech Sector Diversification

Co-founded by a 2013 Social Innovation Fellow, CODE2040 gives minorities, the U.S. economy, and social justice a boost with internships for engineers.
July 23, 2013
Laura Weidman Powers, JD/MBA ’10, founding executive director of CODE2040

The growing need for qualified professionals to fill the rapidly expanding positions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is converging with a massive demographic shift that will result in blacks and Latinos making up 42 percent of the U.S. population by 2040.

While these groups are growing, their representation in STEM fields is not. Currently, minorities constitute only 7 percent of the technology workforce. The dearth of minorities in this sector will likely contribute to a worker shortfall within the next decade, and will also reinforce this country’s wealth gap.

To address the issue, two students from Stanford GSB — Laura Weidman Powers and Tristan Walker, both MBA ’10 graduates — have launched CODE2040 with a summer fellowship program, which places high-potential black and Latino software engineering students in internships with top software-development startups. This has created a new pathway to educational, professional, and entrepreneurial success in technology for underrepresented minorities.

“For the students we work with, leadership roles in the innovation economy in hubs such as Silicon Valley often seem out of reach,” points out Weidman Powers.

CODE2040 also provides mentorship, leadership training, and network development opportunities. The organization is already helping minority students enter the tech workforce, and providing them with the resources they need to stay and succeed there as engineers, technologists, thought leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs.

The Problem

The intersection of two trends in the United States points to an eventual economic crash if the country does not start preparing underrepresented segments of the workforce now. The first is a huge shift in demographics, swelling the proportion of the U.S. population that’s black or Latino. The second is the rise of the technology sector: STEM jobs make up the fastest-growing category in the country, and 70 percent of those jobs involve computing.

Black and Latino workers are not currently filling STEM positions –– particularly computing jobs –– at the rate needed for the American economy to keep pace over the next 30 years. These minorities make up a fraction of the technology workforce, and fewer than 4 percent of students from these groups study computer science. It is projected that 1 million software jobs will be unfilled by 2020 if current trends in computer science education continue.

The situation also highlights a discrepancy in terms of social justice. Computer science jobs command some of the highest starting salaries in the United States: about $65,000 per year in metropolitan areas, which is roughly twice the median household income of a black or Latino family. The unemployment rate for STEM workers is lower than that for all workers, yet the unemployment rate for blacks and Latinos is three times the nationwide rate. Encouraging traditionally underprivileged groups to move into positions of greater economic power is a social imperative.

The Novel Idea

CODE2040 aims to close the achievement, wealth, and skills gaps between blacks and Latinos in the United States and their peers by creating access, awareness, and opportunities in technology and engineering.

By placing promising software engineering students in summer internships with top startups, the flagship fellows program is designed to accelerate their success, fast-tracking them to become leaders in technology.

We found that the students we were speaking to on campuses often weren’t aware of what they needed to do to make themselves appealing candidates for internships, so we’re providing resources to fill this gap.
Laura Weidman Powers

CODE2040 gives talented minorities who might not otherwise have access to power networks the opportunity to work directly with software engineering teams as developers on mission-critical projects. The students also meet as many as three times a week and on some weekends for special events and talks on various topics to support their professional development. They receive training on topics such as employing user-centered design, building an online presence, and interviewing effectively. Each student benefits from contact with two mentors — one an accomplished professional in the field, another a near peer — who make themselves available to answer questions and provide further advice and support.

“Our students often don’t have a sense of their own potential, because they may never have met someone who looks like them who has succeeded in their field,” says Weidman Powers.

Through CODE2040’s summer program, the fellows get exposure to others in the field, a support group of peers who may come from similar backgrounds or face similar challenges, and the opportunity to interact and network with top professionals who are invested in their success.

The company places a heavy emphasis on having its participants give back in turn. Fellows serve as mentors and role models for the underrepresented students who come after them, inspiring a new generation to pursue technology by demonstrating that it is a viable option for “people who look like me.”

Weidman Powers and Walker started their Silicon Valley fellows program in 2012, offering positions with exciting new companies — such as Nutrivise, RockMelt, and Tumblr — to five students attending state and Ivy League schools. The second class boasts 18 students who will be working for companies such as Facebook and Jawbone, as well as smaller enterprises, including Stanford startups Addy and Docmunch. The students range from college freshmen to second-year master’s students.

Students in the pilot CODE2040 program affirm that their sense of their own potential and the possibilities for their careers have been greatly expanded by their participation. The 2012 fellows who graduated from college last year are now enjoying promising positions in Silicon Valley startups or their own entrepreneurial ventures.

“All of this correlates strongly with the relationships they cultivated and the skills they received from their experience in their internships,” says Weidman Powers, who serves as CODE2040’s executive director. “They now have the skills, network, and mindset they need to become leaders in their fields.”

In addition to growing the fellows program locally and nationally, Weidman Powers and Walker are putting together resources for students to use to better equip themselves to get internships, via CODE2040 or elsewhere.

“We found that the students we were speaking to on campuses often weren’t aware of what they needed to do to make themselves appealing candidates for internships, so we’re providing resources to fill this gap,” says Weidman Powers. “We’ve already learned so much by running the pilot of the fellows program that is helping us shape our expansion.”

The Innovator

Growing up in New York City, Weidman Powers was inevitably surrounded by both diversity and inequality.

“I realized early on that this was not just inequality of circumstance but of opportunity,” she says. “I was fortunate to benefit from the strivings of my grandparents and parents, from an amazing public school education, and from a support system that always said, ‘Yes, you can do whatever you put your mind to,’ but I recognized that not everyone had those kinds of supports. And I’ve always been drawn to service and giving back, for as long as I can remember.”

As an undergraduate at Harvard University, she got a taste of both giving back and entrepreneurship as co-director of CityStep, a 30-year-old community service organization on campus that introduces children in public schools to the performing arts. Upon graduation, she garnered funding to expand the program to the University of Pennsylvania and recruited undergraduates, as well as elementary and middle schools, to participate in the pilot year of the program.

“The experience of being able to create something out of nothing shaped the way I thought about my career and what’s possible,” Weidman Powers says.

After Harvard, Weidman Powers worked as a project manager for a web development company, and held other eclectic positions that included tutoring and managing a large public art project in New York City. She came to Stanford in 2007 to pursue her joint JD/MBA.

Subsequently, she says, she “got hooked on the tech scene.” While a student, she worked as a vice president of product development for Border Stylo, a technology startup.

“It was the first time I worked with engineers and understood the power of their training. At the same time, I noticed there wasn’t a lot of diversity in the field, and that bothered me,” Weidman Powers says.

At Stanford Graduate School of Business, she met Tristan Walker, who had made similar observations while working in Silicon Valley.

“At Stanford, we experienced the value of various career and coaching resources, and we wanted to combine that with a social justice mission to help minorities have better opportunities in the tech field,” Weidman Powers explains.

Knowing that the internship model is successful in helping students get jobs, she and Walker chose to focus on that route, and CODE2040 was born.

“I feel like the sky’s the limit with what we can do to make an impact for blacks and Latinos,” Weidman Powers says. “We aim to do nothing less than close the wealth and achievement gap in the United States for blacks and Latinos by 2040. There are many leaks in the professional-opportunity pipeline for people in these groups, from kindergarten to retirement, and we will continue to look at where our core competencies lie to keep expanding.”

Laura Weidman Powers received a JD from Stanford Law School and an MBA from Stanford GSB in 2010. In 2013, she was awarded Stanford GSB’s Social Innovation Fellowship, which provides up to $180,000 in funding, along with advising and support, to graduating students who want to start a nonprofit venture that addresses a pressing social or environmental need during the year after graduation.

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