raceAhead: Succeeding as a Black Intern In Silicon Valley

July 12, 2016, 2:04 PM UTC

Turns out, sometimes interns at fast-paced tech firms need some specialized coaching in order to thrive at their fancy temp gigs. “I wasn’t getting any of the Star Wars jokes,” laughs Josuel Musambaghani, a 21 year-old math and computer science student at Morehouse College. “Everyone talks in Star Wars jokes.” At other times, a crippling anxiety known as “imposter syndrome” threatened to derail his confidence. “But I was prepared and I had someone to help me adapt.”

Musambaghani is a two time Code2040 Fellow, a Google-funded non-profit. It seems to be doing an unusually good job of anticipating the needs of talented, young technologists who come from non-traditional talent pools – black and Latino, specifically – and helping them succeed at tech giants.

He is also exactly the kind of person who is poised to thrive in Silicon Valley, but would never have gotten his foot in the door any other way. More on that in a moment.

Code2040 was started by two Stanford B-School pals, Laura Weidman Powers and tech entrepreneur Tristan Walker, in the summer of 2011. Both were struck by the level of opportunity in technology, but also the glaring lack of diversity among its coding stars. “The narrative at the time was that it was all a meritocracy,” says Powers. “You deserve to be here. And if you’re not here by now, then you don’t.”

The Fellows Program helps identify, train and support qualified tech talent of color, and gets them in front of some 30 tech companies – Apple, Intel, LinkedIn and Lyft, among them – who are looking to diversify their summer intern ranks. The Code2040 staff spend a lot of time smoothing the path on both sides of the equation, and the organization has learned a lot about what can predict intern success at tech companies.“It’s more than just making sure students are showing up prepared,” says Powers. “It’s helping companies do a better job vetting and onboarding them, too.”

The fellowship program started five years ago with five fellows. This year, 87 students accepted offers of paid internships from a pool of 880 applicants and over 200 finalists. Code2040 helps the students find housing and creates an instant network of support and advice.

Musambaghani is a stand-out in any crowd. He grew up in Democratic Republic of Congo, the son of a university professor and now, a stay-at-home mother. “She has a theology degree she isn’t using,” he explains.

He also grew up a witness to conflict or its aftermath, first on the heels of the genocide in nearby Rwanda in 1994, and the subsequent crisis that flooded Goma, his home city, with refugees. Then, there were two Congo Wars. He specifically cites the overrun in 2012 by an armed rebel force called M23, which brought renewed chaos and violence to Goma. “It was all so uncertain,” he says simply. “You never knew what tomorrow would be.”


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How are your summer interns doing? Share your inclusion tips: raceAhead@newsletters.fortune.com

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Your ancestors dragged these black people from their homes by force; and in the white man's quest for wealth and an easy life they have been ruthlessly suppressed and exploited, degraded into slavery. The modern prejudice against Negroes is the result of the desire to maintain this unworthy condition.
—Albert Einstein