CODE2040 fellows Yuri Farias Gomes and Amy Quispe with Founder and Chairman Tristan Walker. (Photo/Credit: Amy Schapiro)

CODE2040 brings diversity to Silicon Valley

Take a look at the faces of CEOs, founders and venture capitalists at Silicon Valley high-tech startups and you’ll notice almost all of them are white. CODE2040 — a new fellowship program matching talented black and Latino students to paid Silicon Valley internships — wants to change that.

“The year 2040 is the year when people of color will collectively be the majority. We see it as a call to action,” says Laura Weidman Powers, Founding Executive Director of CODE2040. The fellowship finds students from across the country and places them with paid internships in Silicon Valley tech startups. The fellows receive two mentors and attend workshops and lectures featuring the industry’s top developers, investors and entrepreneurs. CODE2040 wants to give students of color amazing opportunities and develop future leaders in the tech industry through networking.

“I’m welcomed in the tech industry. I can go to the White House and hold my own. That’s really cool,” says Amy Quispe, a senior at Carnegie Mellon who interned at Tumblr as a fellow at CODE2040. Quispe attended the Tech Inclusion Round table at the White House in August and was recognized by several faces, thanks to CODE2040. “People are saying I’m a future leader in the industry and they want to work with me,” says Quispe who now has resources and connections in the field. “It’s nice to have a community to go to when I need to graduate. I don’t have to start from scratch.”

The connections and opportunities provided by CODE2040 are designed to combat the low number of people of color in the computer science and engineering community. Only 6.7 percent of Hispanics pursue a computer science degree and only 5 percent of African Americans, according to a study by the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology. What makes this under-representation all the more startling is the population’s projected shift: The Census Bureau estimates that by the year 2040 Caucasians will become the minority in the U.S.

“In the next 25 years not only is the population going to look very different, the workforce is going to look very different,” says Powers, who notes that more companies are implementing technology and the economy has become reliant upon entrepreneurial efforts, according to a Kauffman study. Powers says, “If we don’t attract people of color to these careers now, our country will have a crisis.”

CODE2040 was founded in February and launched its first pilot program this past summer with five fellows who Powers says “took a leap of faith with us,” as CODE2040 was essentially a startup itself. The idea came from Tristan Walker who attended business school with Powers. During Walker’s tenure at Twitter and Foursquare and Powers’ stay with several non-profits and tech startups the two Standford-graduates noticed a lack of diversity. They also noticed that talent and resumes only take a student so far. In today’s world, connections can make or break a career.

“The opportunities are there, but it’s hard to see them if you’re not plugged in,” says Powers. For that reason, when a mentor signs onto CODE2040 they also commit to sharing contacts to create “a strong support system” for fellows.

For CODE2040 fellows like Yuri Gomes, a student at Stony Brook University who designed his own video games in elementary school, access is everything. “I met the head recruiter of EA Games at an event and told him I was passionate about games. And he was willing to help me out,” says Gomes who exchanged emails after the introduction. Gomes, who’s from Brazil, had an internship at Jawbone where his talents gained the attention of the VP of Software Engineering.

As a matter of fact, all of the industry leaders were impressed with CODE2040’s five fellows and some companies have already put their bid in for the 2013 class, which will have 20 fellows. “Many startups don’t have HR departments who actively seek out diversity. We fill that gap,” says Powers who notes that most of the Silicon Valley startups they’ve connected with want to bring in more Latinos and African-Americans.

“Diverse communities are more creative and come up with more solutions that appeal to a wider audience,” says Quispe who’s been coding since the sixth grade. She had no idea coding could turn into a viable career until she took a computer science class in her junior year of college. “Not until this summer, did I even fully embrace that [computer science] was an option for me. Other bright young Latinos are out there, who could make a difference, but they don’t know about their options,” says Quispe who hopes she can inspire others. “Maybe they can see me and say, ‘she had those options, I have them too.’ Seeing someone like yourself makes a world of difference.”

CODE2040 believes that plugging students of color into Silicon Valley will create more than examples of excellence. They hope it will create tomorrow’s tech leaders. “I want to come back here and succeed,” says Gomes. “I want to make this field a viable career path,  not only for blacks and Latinos, but for everybody because that’s how we develop innovative ideas.”

When asked about the year 2040, Powers simply said, “By that year we would like to execute ourselves out of existence.”

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