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Laura Weidman Powers, 33, and Tristan Walker, 31, co-founders of nonprofit Code2040, both hail from New York. Yet, their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Manhattan, Powers had the opportunity to attend Hunter College High School, a prestigious public school that counts Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda as among its illustrious alumni.
Across the river in Queens, Walker was just three years old when his father was killed. His mother worked for the New York Housing Authority, and brought up Walker and his two siblings in a tough neighborhood as a single mom. “She’s a strong woman,” Walker says. “She raised the three of us in tepid conditions, but she pushed into me and always told me: ‘You’re the guy.’”
Diversity has united both Powers and Walker to become a Silicon Valley force for change. In 2012, they launched Code2040, an organization that wants to create a pipeline of talented black and Hispanic students and aspiring entrepreneurs, and funnel them to the biggest tech firms in the world. “In terms of talent placement and building bridges from education to employment, there was just not a lot happening when we started,” Powers says.
That has changed, as some of the world’s biggest companies are knocking on Code2040’s door, looking to tap into its pool of candidates. Last year, Google (goog) handed out a grant of $775,000 to fund two new programs under Code2040. Apple (aapl) offered three-month paid internships to 10 Code2040 fellows. Last December, the Knight Foundation announced it was supporting the organization with $1.2 million, enabling Code2040 to double the size of its programs.
Their success comes at a time when tech companies are trying to fill a gaping hole in workplaces across Silicon Valley. In a 2014 study, Google data showed that blacks and Hispanics made up just 1% and 2%, respectively, of its workforce in the U.S. Both Twitter (twtr) and Facebook’s (fb) tiny fraction of black and Latino employees fare no better, and in the U.S. Census Bureau report, both races were deemed “consistently underrepresented” when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, jobs.
The journey to the doors of huge tech firms has been ironic for Powers and Walker, since both of them knew so little of Silicon Valley during their student days. “I didn’t even know Silicon Valley existed,” says Walker of his schooling and early working years. Laid off from a Wall Street job at J.P. Morgan (jpm), Walker ended up at Stanford’s business school pursuing his MBA. After graduation, he landed jobs at prominent tech startups like Foursquare and Twitter (twtr).
By 2012, Walker found himself at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz as an entrepreneur in residence. There, he sat through pitch meetings and saw firsthand the make-up of individuals who sought to be disruptive. “I would look at [founder] Ben Horowitz, and he would always ask two questions: Does this leader have the courage to build something important? And is this person asking ‘what if’ enough?” He would soon leave to start Walker & Company, a health and beauty startup dedicated to the needs of people of color.
He would ask his own “what if” over coffee with Powers, his former Stanford classmate and close friend. Together, they looked around and saw a paucity of minorities in surrounding tech companies. “We came from a place where we saw lots of diverse talent and people of color, to a place where we weren’t really feeling that around us,” said Powers. “Was there a way we could build bridges to correct that, so that companies could have access to an untapped pool of talent?”
Initially, Powers and Walker started a paid internship program, and traversed the country looking for ambitious black and Hispanic students who wanted a chance to work in big tech companies. The more uncertain path, however, was how companies would react to their idea of placing more diverse talent within their teams.
The response was overwhelming. “We just got a lot of ‘yes’s across the board, and not just ‘yes’s, but people saying, yes, the industry is not diverse, but nobody is talking about it,” says Powers. “We had so many responses that went, tell me what I can do to help. That was when we realized, this is bigger than we thought.”
From placing five fellows at paid internships in the tech sector, Powers and Walker have now worked with 75 different companies, and will be putting their fellows in startup like Slack and Lyft this year. They are also partnering with seven major tech hubs this year for their Code2040 Residency program, a year-long residency for up-and-coming black and Hispanic entrepreneurs.
All this to achieve their namesake, a passionate play off a recent prediction that in 2040, non-whites will form the majority of the American population for the first time ever. When that turn of events happens, it will be through the openings created by people like Powers and Walker that could change the very face of Silicon Valley. “This seems like a ‘nice to have’ today, but it will quickly turn to a ‘need to have’,” says Powers. “Your workforce will look different. Your consumers will look different. It takes a while to figure this out, and make the changes internally. And if you don’t figure out now, you will be left behind.”