Building Diversity in Tech - One Esquire At a Time
Hobnob execs develop a tech program with South-Central LA’s teenage Alpha Esquires
LOS ANGELES, CA--On a Saturday morning in September, twenty young men in crisp white shirts and ties filed into the Crenshaw High School library. Under the watchful gaze of their mentors, they introduced themselves with confident handshakes and direct eye contact. These polished students belong to the Alpha Esquires, a mentorship program for African American boys enrolled in Los Angeles-area intermediate and high schools. On this occasion, the Esquires were gathered to learn a new language: software coding.
Coding has incredible reach, explained Hobnob CEO Tina Fitch. Technology has changed how we share information, is starting to drive our cars, controls our security, and manages access to basic utilities like water and power.
Fitch knows this firsthand. She’s a tech entrepreneur who personally launched two start-ups: Switchfly, a global SaaS platform generating about $2bn in annual bookings, and Hobnob, a mobile-first invite service that beautifully streamlines how people gather for events and fundraisers. With a notably diverse team, including two female founders and a Latino CTO, Hobnob is a rare example of diversity in the tech world. Fitch wants to change that, which is why she joined the Alpha Esquires’ board of directors and sponsored their Day in Tech.
“The world needs you,” Fitch said, running through industry statistics. “The tech industry needs you.” Less than five percent of engineers are black or Latino—even though diverse companies have proven to be more successful and more profitable. Among that five percent is software engineer Christopher Ketant. He joined Fitch in encouraging the Esquires to pursue lucrative careers in technology. He talked about overcoming deeply personal obstacles on his own path to success, suggested that the boys use his example as motivation, and assured them that they could become whatever they wanted—if they reached out for the tools.
The young Esquires were a prime audience for this message. Ages eleven to seventeen, they come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. To qualify for the Esquire program, the boys and their parents must commit to attending field trips like this one twice a month. They participate in twice-weekly tutoring sessions and ongoing personal development projects. From the start, the kids learn how critical it is to give back to the community and shepherd their own. The program is run by volunteer mentors from the local Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity chapter —the same fraternity that nurtured Dr. King, W.E.B. Dubois and Thurgood Marshall.
Among the most devoted mentors is Alpha Esquires president De Shon Andrews. The LAPD detective has been coaching kids since he was nineteen years old. Now forty-six, he can’t count the number of young men he’s helped navigate through their vulnerable adolescent years. Two of his sons are Esquires and the three of them attended the Day in Tech together. “It was Greek to me,” Andrews confessed, “but the boys just lit up. They had so many ideas. They were talking about code writing. It got me thinking, where would they go to express all of these ideas it weren’t for a program like this? Who would encourage them? Their parents are probably like me—not tech savvy.”
That’s precisely the reason for the partnership with Hobnob and iFoundry. Hobnob’s Mobile Architect, Tommy Hanks, created iFoundry, a non-profit coding academy for underprivileged kids, in 2011. It’s a proven success; Hanks’ first two “graduates” started at Dartmouth and Brown this fall. Hanks provided the hands-on portion of the Day in Tech, laying out the career path of engineers, income opportunities, and curriculum for his training program. The Esquires listened raptly to his presentation, then huddled around his laptop as he showed them the magic behind the curtains—how to write the code that drives popular apps and video games.
By the day’s end, fourteen Esquires signed up for iFoundry’s intensive coding camp. It’s free, and includes access to all the equipment needed, thanks to iFoundry and sponsorship from technology companies like Hobnob. Camp attendees will gain the skills and confidence to apply Objective C (programming language) and create marketable tech products, learning fundamentals of not only coding, but also product design, marketing, finance, and management. It’s bound to be hugely beneficial—and not just for the kids. Hanks observed that over the years he’s happiest when sharing his skills with the community. “I feel better in general when I am actively engaged in good works.”
Andrews agrees. “When a kid texts me to tell me how he’s doing, that’s my reward.” He praises the Alpha Esquires program as “one of the purest acts of altruism” he’s ever encountered. “The people involved want the boys have more access to things than we did. They don’t care whose name is on the wall or on the stationary. They just want to see the boys succeed.”
Fitch was thrilled with the Esquires’ response to the Day in Tech.
One of the boys started the day by saying he wanted to play professional basketball. After the session, says Fitch, “He was talking with his friend about how to build an NBA stats app.”
Learn more about the amazing leadership, mission, and work of Alpha Phi Alpha’s Esquire program and contribute to their program. Or text #alphaesquiresLA to 462-662 and RSVP Yes to participate in their next fundraiser.