Black teens hack the Silicon ceiling to 'unleash their genius'

In a middle-class, racially mixed neighbourhood in Silicon Valley, black teens are learning how to code as part of a program to tackle the lack of diversity in the high-tech workforce.

Shut-out African-American youths say they have to create their own networks

'Hidden Genius Project' teaches young African-Americans to code

8 years ago
Duration 3:38
The unique program aims to prepare teens for jobs in Silicon Valley.

An hour after the children at Claremont Middle School in Oakland, Calif., boarded their school buses for home, 16 teens are seated around slightly too-small tables in slightly too-small chairs, passing around laptops that a few classmates brought from home.

It's the only way they can retrieve the code they've written to build their websites.

"If you don't have your own personal machine, at least four of your brothers do," program director Akeem Brown tells the students.

"So kindly ask your brother, 'Brother please can I access my code from your computer?' "

In this middle-class, racially mixed neighbourhood, a class of black kids learning how to code is a little unusual. But they're here thanks to the man sitting quietly in the corner.

Students have to share laptops that classmates have brought from home. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Jason Young is the president of MindBlown Labs, which makes an app that teaches teens how to manage their money. His background is unique among Silicon Valley CEOs. Young grew up in two of the most notorious Los Angeles neighbourhoods: Inglewood and Compton.

"My father was a drug dealer who spent most of his adult life in jail," Young says. "I had many challenges growing up. I also had a lot of opportunities." 

Those opportunities led to scholarships and, eventually, a career in the tech sector. That's when he realized that in the cubicles and boardrooms of Silicon Valley, he was almost always the only African-American.

The statistics reflect his experience. Even though black people make up about 13.2 per cent of the U.S. population, companies like Google and Yahoo have revealed that only two per cent of their workforce is black. 

Hidden Genius Project founder Jason Young sees his protegées as the future of American entrepreneurship. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"I noticed that there was a lot of opportunity being created," Young says, "but there were certain groups — particularly young black men — that were being left out of that opportunity. And for me it just didn't make sense."

That's why Young says he created the Hidden Genius Project: to help redress that balance.

"We have a particular focus not on the highest-performing young people but on young men who are really in the middle," Young says.

"I felt that these young men really had all of these qualities and they just needed the proper training and access to the right networks to unleash their genius."

Every Wednesday while most of his friends are playing video games, 14-year-old Donovan Nutting is learning how to write his own.

"Technology's the future," says Nutting, who wants to be a game designer. "So when I say I know how to code a little bit in HTML and Python, that's something unique, that's a characteristic that's really special. So I don't think it's nerdy or anything, I think it's a positive and that's something to be proud of."

Even though black people make up about 13.2 per cent of the U.S. population, companies like Google and Yahoo have revealed that only two per cent of their workforce is black. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The program runs on donations, so students have to make do with obsolete computers from the Oakland Unified School District, which lets the group use a classroom in one of its middle schools. Despite the challenges, the two-year-old program already boasts success stories.

"Who knows what this is?" instructor Eugene Lemon asks, pointing to a line of code on the projector. "Besides George."

George Hofstetter puts down his hand. Thanks to what the 16-year-old learned at the Hidden Genius Project, he's now getting paid to help several local businesses design their websites. But he feels in order to succeed at the next level, being a good coder may not be enough.

"Race is a very big barrier," Hofstetter says. "Especially for an African-American teenager wanting to pursue a tech career." 

It's the way you look, the way you sound, Hofstetter says. Because there are so few black people in technology, there's no one there to defuse and counter the stereotypes prospective employers might have.

"I was actually at a tech summit earlier today and I felt extremely intimidated by the environment I was in," Hofstetter says. 

Participant George Hofstetter, one of the program's early success stories, wants to tackle race issues with technology. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

That's why the Hidden Genius Project also focuses on networking. Young says it's another area where black people in technology fall behind.

"Getting into the tech industry requires a network," Young says. "By and large, those networks don't include black people...

"I don't think it's individual racism. But it's more structural racism, which is that they're simply not in the networks. People recruit people from their networks. So if nobody who looks like you is in that network, you simply don't get the opportunities."

Students like Barry Brand are learning a hack. You don't have to worry about getting hired, Brand says, if you can hire yourself.

"I think coding is a good way to start your own business, so you can become your own entrepreneur and don't have to rely on someone else for a job," Brand says. "I think it's helped me become more of a man, helped me see how things really work."

Students learn languages and frameworks like CCS, Python, HTML and Bootstrap. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The class's next project is to create a website to highlight their CVs. One of the students asks if you need a CV to get an internship.

Hofstetter pipes up and says "No." It turns out he's already a veteran of several tech company internships. His goal: CEO. But that, he says, isn't his dream. 

"My dream is to change the world's perspective on race."

Like most of his classmates, he's convinced that even the most intractable problems can be solved with code.


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.