While the tech industry continued to try to figure out what to do about its diversity problem, 50 high school and college students of color were getting a taste of what it might be like to work in Silicon Valley at MVMT50’s inaugural hackathon, held over the weekend at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas.
Organizations like MVMT50 have been looking at ways to address the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, where blacks make up about 2 percent of the workforce. The diversity hackathon is one way to expose young people to opportunities they might not even be aware of, said Autumn Caviness, who organized the hackathon and is assistant director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Honors Program at HT.
For those unfamiliar with a hackathon, it’s a competition that brings together coders, software designers and innovative thinkers to conceive and create Web- or mobile-based applications. For the diversity hackathon, students had to create mobile apps that would tackle real-world problems in three key areas: justice, health and education.
On Saturday the students were broken into teams and assigned a mentor and began working out ideas. Many of their ideas spoke directly to the challenges they face every day. One team suggested an educational game that would use different scenarios to teach students how to respond to racial conflicts. Another group proposed an app called Discreet, a sexual-history diary where users could log their sexual activity and keep track of their sex partners.
For two days students huddled over computers, drew sketches and gathered data. By Sunday evening the nine teams were ready to present a demo of their apps to five judges at a reception featuring family and friends.
The app that took first place, called Pipeline, sought to address the school-to-prison pipeline, which has had a staggering effect on black and Hispanic boys. The app would motivate students to stay in school by calculating their expected financial gains and improved life span, since those with higher educations tend to live longer and earn better salaries.
Caviness said that although most of the students weren’t necessarily studying math or science, it was important that they got a chance to network with the local tech professionals—many of them people of color—who volunteered to work as mentors for the two-day event.
“I want them to leave with connections,” said Caviness. “To me, it was about moving beyond what we consider a traditional hackathon and really being able to think about, how do you create and build social capital?”
Networking was the primary reason that 18-year-old Jaylin Turner, a communications major at HT, decided to participate in the hackathon. “I understood that we were going to be able to present at the end of the camp, and so I wanted to have an opportunity to showcase my abilities to show that I am a good communicator,” said Turner.
Her team’s app, called Right Track, was designed to help low-income families develop healthy eating plans by calculating the cost of healthier food options based on a family’s budget.
The creativity of communities of color is an untapped resource and something the tech industry needs to recognize, said Caviness—especially when you consider that young African Americans and Hispanics are the driving force behind the tech industry’s most popular social media tools.
“It’s absolutely absurd to me that African Americans and Latinos lead social media but those numbers are not reflected in Silicon Valley, on the boards of Silicon Valley or in the tech industry,” said Caviness. “And yet we make that media happen. We power Twitter, we power Instagram and we power Snapchat.”