Ford STEAM Lab, #YesWeCode Collaborate on Hackathon in Detroit

Ford STEAM Lab, #YesWeCode Collaborate on Hackathon in Detroit

A few weeks ago, I was talking with the team behind Growth Strats, a Detroit-based consultancy that aims to create a nationwide model for incubating new ventures from urban entrepreneurs. All of the Growth Strats co-founders happen to be men of color.

I asked the Growth Strats partners about access to capital and resources, and why women and minorities often feel like they’re excluded from many of the tech opportunities taking root in Detroit.

Terrence J.L. Reeves, a corporate lawyer with Growth Strats, put it like this: “I went to a fundraising program last year. A prominent investor on the panel said, ‘If you don’t get introduced to me by someone I know, I won’t respond.’ In an area like Detroit, venture capital firms are mostly run by Caucasian or Jewish people, so what that means to women and people of color is, ‘I won’t respond to you.’ In Detroit, where we have a city that is 80 percent minority, that process is still the case—I understand people are busy, but I think that criteria is totally misplaced.”

It’s a conversation happening in every tech hub from Silicon Valley to Boston: How can the community help kids in urban centers like Detroit capitalize on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) career opportunities? What are the best ways to help young people who are interested in coding, software development, and entrepreneurship breach barriers, real or perceived, and access the resources needed to launch a tech startup?

Those questions are central to a two-day hackathon for Detroit middle-schoolers being held this Friday and Saturday at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center at 2826 Bagley Street. Called the Ford STEAM Lab—that’s STEM plus an “A” for arts—the educational program is being sponsored by the automaker, the Oakland, CA-based #YesWeCode and Level Playing Field Institute, and local tech-training organizations Sisters Code and Grand Circus.

One hundred tweens will gather to learn coding skills and then present their ideas for apps to a panel of celebrity judges that includes Van Jones, the author, environmental activist, and founder of #YesWeCode; Detroit-born rapper Big Sean; and Detroit Free Press opinion editor Stephen Henderson. The students are competing for more than $30,000 in prizes and scholarships, and MSNBC will be on hand to broadcast part of Friday’s activities live.

Michael Nobleza, deputy director of #YesWeCode, said his organization was born out of a conversation Jones had with the rock star Prince. The pair were chatting at a holiday party in 2013, not long after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, FL.

“Prince asked why a white kid in a hoodie is seen as a techie, but a black kid in a hoodie is seen as a thug,” Nobleza explained. “He said we need to produce more black Mark Zuckerbergs and Sheryl Sandbergs.” And with that (plus a celebratory Prince concert), #YesWeCode was launched with the goal of training 100,000 minority youth in high-level computer programming.

Nobleza said by 2020, there will be approximately 1.2 million tech jobs open in the United States, and #YesWeCode wants to make sure that urban communities are helping to fill the pipeline of prospective employees.

“There’s untapped genius in communities of color, and we want to lay the groundwork and infrastructure for growth,” Nobleza said. “We get stakeholders together and connect them to create a pathway for middle- and high-school students to succeed.”

Nobleza described the current inequality problem as one of “preparatory privilege,” meaning there’s lots of interest in technology in cities like Detroit, but few programming course offerings that go beyond the introductory phase. “The perception is that these kids aren’t interested or capable,” Nobleza added. “It’s as much about self-identity and perception as it is about opportunities available.”

Van Jones has worked closely with the Obama administration in the past, and it was at a recent White House event that he was introduced to Ford executives. “They were getting ready to launch the STEAM Lab and they wanted to ramp up,” Nobleza said. (The Ford STEAM Lab program was started in October to foster student interest in tech entrepreneurship, automotive design, and vehicle technology.)

At the two-day hackathon in Detroit this week, the kids will form teams of five and work with two adult mentors, at least one of whom is a software developer. They will be tasked with creating apps that address education equality issues in Detroit Public Schools.

“We’re excited and proud to be in Detroit,” Nobleza said. “We hope to develop deep relationships on the ground there.”

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