By Co-Founder, Kevin L. Nichols
OAKLAND, CA [May 31, 2022] OAKLAND, CA [May 31, 2022] The lack of diversity in the technology industry disproportionately affects Black and Indigenous People of Color (“BIPOC”)’s access to generational wealth, high-income earning jobs, owning real estate, and owning stock in some of the most highly prolific companies in the world. Access to these technical career pathways starts as early as preschool, so equity in education is paramount in creating opportunities for BIPOC students to excel. “Black and Latinx adults comprise roughly 30% of the United States population, yet only between 7% and 8% each of individuals employed across all computing and mathematical occupations (BLS, 2015) and across the high-tech sector (EEOC, 2016)” (Leaky Tech Pipeline Report, Kapor Center, 2018). To combat these statistics, I invented The Social Engineering Project, Inc., (“TSEP”) a Google and Microsoft-funded social impact venture with Stanford University designed to address the lack of diversity in the tech industry through culturally relevant STEM pipeline programs for BIPOC students that lead to technical career pathways. I will validate TSEP’s accomplishments and evince its innovation.
In April 2015, I attended an event organized by The San Francisco Foundation (“TSFF”), Policy Link, and USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity that indelibly changed my life. One of the key takeaways was that the wealth and economic gap of BIPOC were growing exponentially since 1979, in part, due to the rising home prices near tech companies’ headquarters and the better quality of education in the public schools in these zip codes because of their property taxes. Through gentrification, BIPOC families were forced to move out of these areas and send their children to either under-performing schools, home-school, or pay extra for private schools in order to remain competitive, which was inequitable. At the conclusion of the event, the presenters stated that this condition would worsen significantly over the next 20 years unless something was done immediately to address the lack of diversity in the tech industry, which at that time was less than 3%.
As I digested the takeaways from the event, I recognized that this was a complex problem that required a systems thinking approach to solve. In junior high school, I decided that I wanted to be a mechanical engineer and spent my summers and Saturdays at U.C. Berkeley’s Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement (“MESA”) Program, attended Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, CT. and the Cherub Program at Northwestern University to study engineering and science. During my internship at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a mechanical engineering intern, I decided that I no longer wanted to be an engineer and wanted to be a civil rights attorney instead. Although my plan was to work in a large law firm as a paralegal to observe how to run my own law firm one day, I decided that I did not want to be a lawyer either. I ended up falling in love with the tech side of the legal practice and starting diversity programs in international law firms, and teaching personal branding, social media, and networking. After attending the 2015 TSFF event, I took advantage of an entrepreneurship course taught by Michael Bush, Founder & CEO of a Great Place to Work. The course taught me how to develop an impactful mission statement, select core values that I was passionate about, and approach solving a big problem using SMART metrics. No matter how hard I tried to focus on starting a for-profit start-up company, I was haunted by the lack of diversity problem in the Bay Area and felt that it was a dereliction of my duty if I did not try to solve it. How do I motivate and inspire BIPOC students to persevere through the rigorous coursework of engineering and science, and change how the tech industry looks at talent and diversity at scale?
While pondering this question, a friend of mine from high school, Dr. Bryan Brown, who was a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, had previously approached me with an opportunity to assist his Ph.D. program. He developed a culturally relevant pedagogy that was designed to make BIPOC students fall in love with science and engineering and trains teachers on how to teach it at scale. Around 2013, Dr. Brown wrote a grant to the Nationals Science Foundation to train 10 students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (“HBCUs”) using this curriculum, and as a byproduct, they would run a week-long STEM camp called, “Science In The City”) for their final. For the first two years, all that Dr. Brown asked me to do was market the camp to get 50 BIPOC students to attend the camp for free, which was very easy. After the grant expired and Dr. Brown resumed teaching full-time, we thought the tech industry and philanthropy would embrace a proven STEM camp at Stanford by providing financial support, however, we were wrong. We did not raise any money and did not have a Science In The City camp in 2015. So, in 2016, I had the epiphany of creating an organization to address the lack of diversity in tech. I approached the vice president of compliance at Google to support our camp and he recommended that Google.org fund Science In The City and TSEP was born.
In the tech industry, social engineering means stealing passwords and conducting nefarious activities online. However, our name comes from a famous lawyer named Charles Hamilton Houston, who laid out the framework for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, and said, “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on humanity.” Technically, I am not a lawyer or an engineer, but I look at the quote as, “You are either part of the problem or a part of the solution.” TSEP provides culturally relevant STEM pipeline programs that motivate and inspire BIPOC students to fall in love with STEM, gain exposure to technical career pathways, and equip them with the tools to successfully navigate obtaining a tech job. I will highlight several of our most impactful programs: 1.) Science in the City — A weeklong day camp at Stanford that teaches 50, 5th and 6th grade BIPOC students math, chemistry, physics, and engineering; 2.) TSEP Overnight Camping Conference — a weekend-long outdoor camp that teaches 120 BIPOC high school students about work/life balance (hiking, mindfulness, yoga), tech careers (Northrop Grumman, Walmart Labs, GoPro, and Apple lead technical workshops on real projects that they work on at work), Entrepreneurship (pitch competition), college, and personal branding/networking (to leverage the relationships made with industry and classmates when they return); 3.) Global Hackathons — With the United Nations’ Global Hackathon for Justice, we assemble the United States’ team to compete against teams from South Africa, Bolivia, Indonesia, etc.; and 4.) Youth Design Lab — Week-long summer camp for BIPOC high school students of color to learn design thinking with IDEO. These programs are innovative because they not only incorporate a combination of work/life balance and the outdoors, but they go beyond offering computer science or coding solely. Our goal is to motivate students to excel in STEM so that they can have a wider variety of STEM majors to select. Moreover, a good portion of our curriculum is developed by industry, for example, GoPro has led workshops on how their drones work and how to build and design their cameras, and Fitbit has led workshops on how the algorithms in their wearable devices convert signal movements into steps. Finally, I teach our students the importance of personal branding and networking. From 2011–2014, I was one of 4 high-end users featured on the LinkedIn login screen, thus over 250 million users saw me when they logged into the site.
In summary, “Innovative leaders understand that fulfilling their dreams to change the world means they’ve got to spend a significant amount of time trying to discover how to change the world.” (The Innovator’s DNA, Dyer 2019). I built TSEP with the goal of encouraging BIPOC students to take matters into their own hands and pick themselves up by their bootstraps. In doing so, I realized that I already have failed. As tech companies export their workforce overseas for lower-paying wages and create hostile work environments filled with racism and microaggressions, I am leading BIPOC students to a well where their thirst will never be quenched. When I increase my impact by working with large tech companies like Intel — who want to increase manufacturing domestically and create jobs for Americans in America and leverage my political connections through organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus — to positively impact domestic workforce policy to improve the working conditions for BIPOC, then, I will truly succeed, as The Social Engineer. TM