‘Projects we support expose kids to opportunities they might not otherwise see. They demystify what it is to be a tech employee and how to prepare for a tech career.’
As chief of community engagement at the Kapor Center for Social Impact in Oakland, Calif, Cedric Brown, MA ’90, aims to make U.S. tech entrepreneurship more diverse and inclusive.
I was fortunate enough to get into the Graduate School of Education’s Administration and Policy Analysis program as a master’s/PhD student. I intended to focus on higher education administration in pursuit of a career in student affairs, something campus-based. I thought that these great institutions of higher education were the perfect place to help young people incubate what their life path would be; to experiment, to become their 2.0 selves. (Though, of course, I didn’t use that language then.) I was an activist, a leader, as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, and I thought, “I’ve had a great experience: how can I, in turn, help other college students feel that they’re walking down a road where they feel fulfilled?”
Which, in the end, didn’t happen at all.
I was blown away by the kinds of resources we had access to at Stanford. At the end of the 1980s, I, along with every other Stanford student, had a personal email address. It was hard to get into the account because the access code was so long. You read your email on an old-fashioned black screen with green lettering. Nevertheless, it existed and I had it. Email access didn’t really pick up for another five or six years nationally, but we were on the cutting edge.
I was also exposed at Stanford to a level of freedom in the way people thought about identity and in the way they accessed resources. You could do what you wanted to do in terms of your own learning.
But I didn’t really dig the PhD process. I don’t think I did enough due diligence as to what it would be like to be a doctoral student. I completed a master’s, then wanted an apartment and a real job. I figured maybe I’d go back after some real-life experience.
My first job after the master’s program was with the San Francisco Unified School District, working with a health-related program in a middle school. That opportunity led to another and to another and then to where I am today.
At the Kapor Center, we focus on trying to diversify the tech sector through a number of strategies. We do research and community engagement in the Oakland tech ecosystem. The Level Playing Field Institute focuses on nurturing a diversity of STEM talent. Kapor Capital is a seed-stage investment/venture capital firm looking at tech platforms with positive social impact. Altogether, underneath this roof we look at how to solve social problems, how to increase the diversity of talent, and with that greater diversity of talent to solve larger social problems.
For example, how do we ensure that remittances – systems whereby people send money overseas – work well? If you don’t have family who live abroad, you won’t think about that. But remittance systems that work well help to solve problems of global poverty. We solve larger problems by solving the smaller ones.
We support the people who are doing frontline work. For example, I helped start and find funding for Brothers Code, which mainly exposes African-American boys to opportunities in the tech sector.
We helped to start a Bay Area effort, the College Bound Brotherhood, to help young Black men complete the state of California’s A-G requirements for college admissions. Its lessons are transferable to any group of under-resourced students.
The Level Playing Field Institute has a National Science Foundation grant to build a prep curriculum for students of color underrepresented in STEM fields to enter AP Computer Science. At several campuses including Stanford, the institute runs the Summer Math and Science Honors (SMASH) Academy, a five-week free residential program that targets ninth graders from low-income or first-generation college families or ethnicities underrepresented in STEM.
These and other projects we support, including the Hidden Genius Project and Black Girls Code, expose kids to opportunities they might not otherwise see. They demystify what it is to be a tech employee and how to prepare for a tech career. Kids emerge from these programs feeling like, “Yes, I can code. Yes, I can participate.”
I am amazed at the tech platforms they come up with. I was most impressed by one that would match people coming out of the justice system with employment opportunities. It was a tool that underscored that our parolees have value.
These young people look at issues that plague their peers. They create solutions for folks who look like us, who are us.
Learn more about the 2018 SMASH Academy at Stanford and elsewhere.