A plan to get more black boys in tech

April 7, 2014, 1:00 PM UTC
All Star Code founder Christina Lewis Halpern, center

FORTUNE — The technology industry lacks diversity, full stop.

Structurally, there are a lot of reasons for why this trend may grow worse instead of better in the future. More than many other industries, tech relies on social networks — who you know — to get in the door. Higher education once helped jump-start these networks, but the college degree is no longer the great equalizer it once was. For one, it’s harder to gain acceptance into and pay for tuition at the academic institutions that bestow credibility on students and open doors for them professionally. (For example, Stanford admitted just 5.07% of applicants for the class of 2018.) And these degrees are not even the currency that best confers credibility among working technologists.

What matters is knowing how to think critically, and how to code. What matters is knowing the people who can help you connect to the opportunities that arise when you have these skills. When that’s what matters, a lot of people get shut out. Consider: Less than 1% of tech company founders are African-American, according to research firm CB Insights.

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That’s why the many organizations that have cropped up in the last couple of years to help level the playing field are so critical. Launched in 2011, Black Girls Code hosts workshops and after-school programs for younger girls. Launched in 2012, Girls Who Code offers a summer immersion program for young women that includes instruction and mentorship. And then there is the newest organization to tackle this issue: This summer, All Star Code will accept its first class of young men of color — rising high school juniors — for a six-week summer intensive course in New York. Applications are due April 20.

All Star Code had its public launch last fall during a one-day event at Spotify’s New York offices. (Spotify Head of Artist Services Britt Morgan-Saks is on the board.) Founder Christina Lewis Halpern, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, invited 45 students and their parents to spend a day in workshops structured to help them design and pitch their own startup companies — and hear directly from tech executives.

Halpern, 34, was inspired to start All Star Code by her own family history. In 1965, her father Reginald Lewis, a middle-class black teenager from Baltimore, attended a prep program at Harvard Law School. It piqued his interest in the profession, and he went on to attend Harvard Law School and subsequently start his own firm. A corporate takeover dealer, he rose to become one of the wealthiest businessmen in the nation before dying of brain cancer in 1993.

After chronicling her father’s legacy in a memoir, Halpern felt compelled to pursue a career creating a program like the one that helped her dad. “I thought, well where is the next opportunity?” she said. “And it was clearly the tech sector.” After reviewing the efforts of other nonprofits in the space, many of which focused on girls specifically, she decided to focus on where she saw the biggest unmet need: minority boys.

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This summer, an inaugural class of roughly 20 students will complete a rigorous six-week computer science education program where they will learn basic coding techniques as well as the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. They’ll meet with mentors and tour the offices of local tech companies such as Tumblr and LinkedIn.

Just as important, Halpern says, All Star Code will work with the boys on important career skills including presentation techniques and conflict resolution. “What prevents many outsiders from pioneering into a new space is actually the soft skill piece,” Halpern says. “It doesn’t have to do with how good you are as an engineer technically. It’s how comfortable you feel in the environment and the cultural framework you operate in.” The organization plans to build in programming for parents, too.

Admission to the program is need-blind, but Halpern says that 75% of the students who showed up for the fall event were drawn from public or charter schools. More than half of them were low-income, she says.

Halpern is currently funding the organization in part through the family foundation seeded through her father’s success — though a fast-growing number of individuals and foundations have signed on to offer both money and support. They all subscribe to her fundamental vision: “When you broaden the diversity of people who are working on solving the probems that challenge us as a nation,” she says, “only good things can come from that.”