After working at startups in Silicon Valley, Laura Weidman Powers and Tristan Walker co-founded CODE2040 in 2012 to take on the diversity gap in the tech industry. Named for the decade when people of color will become the majority in the U.S, CODE2040’s mission is to place computer science students from underrepresented backgrounds in tech internships while also providing companies with training and resources to improve workplace diversity.
Powers approached social change from an entrepreneurial angle. She pursued an MBA at Stanford to learn how business could fuel public service. In August, she took on a 6-month position as a senior policy adviser to U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith at the White House. She’ll be working with Smith to address the diversity gap in the tech industry through hiring efforts and entrepreneurship support for minority Americans. When the Obama Administration ends, Powers will return to San Francisco to further develop Code2040’s new “entrepreneur in residence” program that financially supports minority founders. At just 33 years old, Powers adds this role to an already impressive resume that includes both startups and nonprofits.
She spoke with Fortune about running a business, balancing various projects and being strategic in her career.
This Q&A has been edited for grammar and clarity.
On joining the White House tech team
“I’d been running [CODE2040] for about four years when I first met Megan Smith (the U.S. chief technology officer), and Megan talked to me about the president’s vision for including all Americans in the innovation economy, and it really resonated with me. The opportunity to take a 6-month stretch and do this work with the platform of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House seemed like too good a chance to pass up.
“[Code2040 is] very much still a startup, and we’re entering a phase of big growth and it was a hard decision to make to take some time away from leading that. But it’s the right thing to do for Code2040. These are opportunities that I wouldn’t have — Code2040 wouldn’t have — at this point in our life cycle. So I’m looking at this as a chance to create impact and a chance to deeply learn in ways that I can bring that experience back to Code2040 and be a stronger CEO on the other side.”
On the advantage of a startup mindset
“I think it’s really fascinating to be in a place where the systems and the impact are so big, when I’m used to being so scrappy. And it means that we are looking at these big opportunities with a kind of iterative mindset, that I think is really helpful to getting things done.
“The ability to sort of be scrappy and move quickly is even more valuable when, you know, we have this 6-month stretch left to create a bunch of impact, which everyone is really excited about doing straight through to the end.”
On CODE2040’s new entrepreneurship program
“It’s one thing to talk about the tech companies that exist and it’s another thing to talk about the tech companies of tomorrow. And it’s the entrepreneurs of today founding those tech companies of tomorrow. So how do we make sure that pool is as diverse and inclusive as possible as well? That’s what led us to launch our entrepreneurship program as well. We started with a pilot with three entrepreneurs in residence in three cities around the country: Austin, Chicago, and Durham in 2015. And this year, we have seven entrepreneurs in seven cities around the country.
“So that is really going to help us understand: What are the ways in which the systems surrounding entrepreneurship and tech broken are broken, particularly for folks from underrepresented backgrounds? How do we look at access to capital — financial capital, social capital? How do we look at the way that entrepreneurs are equipped and prepped? And what do we learn that will lead us to launch new programs or initiatives to solve for those problems?”
On advice for aspiring entrepreneurs
“When making choices in your career, you can decide to create impact or you can decide to learn at any given point. And both of those are great and valid, but be intentional. I think if you can be really intentional about what change you’re having on the world and what you’re learning to make you more effective at doing it, really everybody can have a career that has a positive impact whether you’re explicitly in public service or that’s your side project.
“I think what has been really gratifying for me in my career to date is I feel like I’ve been able to put public service at the forefront. There have been a couple of stretches when I’ve been working for a more traditional, for-profit company, it’s always been with an eye toward, ‘What skills do I need to gain so I can be more effective in creating impact?’”