Entrepreneur shares insights about tackling tech gap

CODE2040 co-founder and CEO Laura Weidman Powers

CODE2040’s mission is built into its name.

The organization has a goal of making people of color proportionately represented in the country’s tech sector by 2040 — when minorities will become the majority of the U.S. population.

CODE2040 co-founder and CEO Laura Weidman Powers shared her strategies for tackling the technology opportunity gap and creating more inclusive workplaces with local entrepreneurs and tech workers at COCO’s co-working hub in Uptown on May 4.

“What does the consumer base of tomorrow look like? It looks like the population,” she said. “What does the workforce of tomorrow look like? It needs to look like the population otherwise companies are not going to be able to grow and thrive. They are not going to be able to get access to the talent they need to succeed.”

The organization faces an uphill battle to tackle its mission. The number of black and Latino employees at top Silicon Valley companies is around 5 to 7 percent, according to CODE2040, a nonprofit based in San Francisco. The number of students of color who earn computer science degrees annually is about 18 percent.

The number of students graduating with degrees ready to go into the tech sector also lags far beyond the need. An estimated 70 percent of tech jobs will go unfilled by 2020, according to the organization.

She said it was a turning point for the industry in May 2014 when Google released its workplace diversity numbers showing that women made up 17 percent of its workforce, blacks 2 percent and Latinos 3 percent — dismal figures that got industry leaders to admit there was a problem that needed to be fixed.

“Basically overnight the whole conversation about diversity and tech changed,” she said.

CODE2040 has launched three main programs to tackle the opportunity gap: a fellows program for top students of color who intern at top tech firms in the San Francisco Bay Area; a Technical Applicant Prep (TAP) program that helps students and young professionals land jobs; and an entrepreneurs in residency program for black and Latino entrepreneurs.

COCO is hosting entrepreneur-in-residence Alex Rodriguez, co-founder of WorkMand, an on-demand platform connecting businesses with local contractors for manual labor services, as part of the partnership with CODE2040 and Google for Entrepreneurs.

As part of the program, Rodriguez gets a $40,000 stipend, a COCO membership and a retreat to Googleplex in Silicon Valley for training and networking.

“Really what we’re doing is learning a lot about what issues entrepreneurs of color are facing — what needs they have,” Weidman Powers said.

She said the tech sector can respond to change quickly and has the potential to make a big impact on addressing racial inequalities.

“Tech has a huge tolerance for experimentation, for risk taking, for learning from mistakes, for changing opinions and directions based on data — it’s just part of the culture and the DNA,” she said.

She said her organization is also exploring ways to work with the financial industry since so many jobs are tech related.

When asked about what Minneapolis can do to attract more diverse talent, she stressed the importance of building “authentic communities of support” to make relocating a more attractive option.

Weidman Powers has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a JD and MBA from Stanford University. She has earned many accolades for her work with CODE2040, including being named one of 10 Female Executives on the Rise by Fortune and one of the 100 Most Influential African-Americans in 2013 by The Root.