It’s 5 p.m. on a sunny Friday and in a corner of Silicon Valley, a jazz band is playing a swing song, people are tucking into plates of catered Mexican cuisine, and Chris Cox, Chief Product Officer at Facebook, is chatting to some developers about to showcase their projects to an audience. But this is no ordinary Demo Day. This is the culmination of a month’s hard graft for about 20 students and 9 tutors at the StreetCode Academy, East Palo Alto’s first and only accelerator.
In 1992, East Palo Alto was a place people didn’t go. A crack cocaine epidemic and gang disputes took a huge toll on the community, and the city’s extraordinarily high homicide rate earned it the dubious title of Murder Capital of the U.S. Since those dark days, the city has dramatically cleaned up, with the violent crime rate decreasing faster than the national average, but East Palo Alto remains something of an anomaly — the last bastion of affordable housing in Silicon Valley, as well as the only place with a predominantly Latino and African-American population.
The tech boom has caused the price of real estate to rocket, few inhabitants can afford to own their own homes, and the city suffers from an absentee landlord phenomenon born out of the 2008 subprime credit crunch. Yet EPA, as it’s known, lies just across Highway 101 from Palo Alto, the immaculate home of Stanford University and Google’s Larry Page, and less than two miles from Facebook HQ in Menlo Park. A right ventricle in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Cox, Facebook’s number 3, has long had connections to East Palo Alto via a reggae band he joined while still a Stanford student. Earlier this year, he donated $1M to Live in Peace, the philanthropic organization that runs StreetCode Academy and its summer accelerator program. “It was clear to me how much determination and drive and creativity there was in this community,” he told the Demo Day crowd.
The four week accelerator bootcamp, held at an educational center in EPA, aimed to teach a crop of young people the skills they would need to land a job at one of the tech behemoths down the road, or even start their own business: iOS app development, entrepreneurship, and Unreal game engine development. Some came with existing projects that got a kickstart from applying new technical knowhow. “We want to give the people in this city the confidence to cross the bridge to the other city and ask someone for a job,” says Eugene Jackson, founder of Rogue Empire, a StreetCode Academy-nurtured project that combines community outreach, at-risk youth and MMA fighting.
The students were expected to step up to the plate, give it their all, and get a feel for the true startup experience. “We wanted to take our most motivated students […] and have them reach for really astronomical goals and push them as hard as we could to reach them”, says Shadi Barhoumi, lead instructor at the program. “We wanted to show them that unrelenting, tireless, dogged work pays off.” Some students regularly worked until 2 a.m. “I achieved more in 4 weeks than I had achieved in 4 years,” said Gary Gates, who founded a t-shirt brand.
“For many years, East Palo Alto wasn’t seen as an asset to the broader tech ecosystem and today we’re really proving and we’re showing that our young people in our communities have brilliant new ideas,” Olatunde Sobomehin, StreetCode Academy’s Director, told me. Ideas such as clothing lines, training groups, a multi-level collaborative video game, and DiverseCity, a YouTube channel dedicated to celebrating diverse role models.
Diversity — or the lack of it — is one of the biggest social problems facing the tech industry. Despite its efforts to “drive diversity”, Facebook’s latest employee statistics showed 91% of the workforce is white or Asian. Only 2% of employees are black. Sobomehin believes that just as the tech industry needs to undergo a sea change in its approach to hiring, it’s also essential to train young people from ethnic minorities in the skills they need to take on tech jobs: “We’re doing it at both ends. We are appealing to tech companies to really take seriously the talent we have to offer […] At the same time we’re bringing new ideas and new people to the field through entrepreneurship.” One of the program’s success stories is David Chatman, founder of Ambition Spotlight, who learned HTML skills and CSS through another Live in Peace program. He went from building his own website to doing design work at Facebook.
Since being a part of StreetCode Academy, two students have landed contracts in graphic design and app development, and one a placement at Microsoft. 10 year-old coding star Tayo Sobomehin, Olatunde’s son, made Meteor Disaster, an app based on Space Invaders that has been submitted to Apple’s App Store.
Salofi Tautuaa, one of the partipants in the video game project, has been made a conditional offer to go to a coding college alternative in San Francisco called Make School. He did have some coding experience before joining the program in March, but said it has taught him a “programmer’s mindset” in a more immersive way. “Previously I wasn’t as driven to actively pursue a career in tech”, he says. “Now after going through StreetCode, there have just been so many opportunities that have opened up.”
The project will relaunch with after-school classes in January, 2016.