To celebrate Black History during February, CNBC + Acorns Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow. is spotlighting everyday Americans who are investing in neighborhoods, schools and small businesses to create brighter financial futures.
During January, CNBC asked readers to nominate individuals in their communities making groundbreaking changes.
Evin Floyd Robinson got the idea to build America on Tech over a cup of coffee. A former technology consultant at Accenture, Robinson was catching up with a colleague, Jessica Santana, and the two realized that the lack of diversity within the technology industry wasn't due to a lack of talent but a lack of access to opportunity. They laid out their business plan for America on Tech on the back of a napkin.
"Instead of being upset or disheartened by some of the literature and reports that were out there, we decided to be a part of the solution," Robinson told CNBC.
Robinson and Santana, now CEO, launched America on Tech (AoT) in 2014 in Brooklyn, New York. The nonprofit organization aims to give young people of color equitable access to compete for opportunities in the technology sector.
What started as a mentoring program for high school students interested in technology has grown into a bi-coastal organization that has served nearly 4,000 students to date. Initially, students were taught how to build websites with front-end and back-end web development skills. But after surveying their students, AoT has grown its curriculum to now include product management, UX design, digital media marketing, and cybersecurity. A team of around 20 staff and 45 contractors make it possible to serve students. Many of the instructors are former or current technologists that volunteer to teach for free.
With offices in New York and LA, and plans to open a third in Miami, AoT continues to grow, but methodically. Robinson says staying true to the organization's values and providing students with the right tools is paramount to its success.
Instead of partnering with whole school districts, AoT searches for schools that need the most help. One of its criteria is that 70% of students must be eligible for free or reduced lunch prices. Robinson says this is an indicator that students attending the schools are likely living below the poverty line.
All the programs are free for students and funded by fundraising. If a student does not have access to hardware or software, AoT is able to provide students with the technology they need through partnerships with corporations including Blackstone, Nike, FactSet, Citi Bank and NBCUniversal.
Prior to the pandemic, classes were taught in person at corporate partner sites like FactSet or Google. But with schools shifting to remote learning, AoT had to adapt as well, and it quickly transitioned to remote options. But now as schools have welcomed back students, AoT is going to a hybrid model, where technical skills will be taught remotely and professional development programs – such as interview prep and networking – will be in person.
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The average class size is around 20 to 25 kids. Most students join during their sophomore year in high school for a year-long program where they can sample different skillsets. Most remain active alumni through college. AoT offers numerous scholarships for students and says that about 85% of alumni in college are pursuing degrees in the technology sector. These alumni have access to AoT's fellowship programs developed with corporations to create a career path from skill development to full-time employment.
Robinson is aware that many of the students enrolled with AoT may suffer from imposter syndrome, the feeling that one is not qualified and should doubt their abilities. But Robinson says that what students may perceive as a disadvantage can be beneficial. "Not many people are coming from that same walk of life or that same path. Those actually become competitive advantages. And so the conversations that I have, when I'm speaking to the students, is about how do you foster that difference and hold it up in a 'light' way that makes you more competitive," he said.
One thing that stands out to Robinson is seeing entire families get involved with the programs, with the siblings of students joining AoT.
"The students that are going through our programs are not being left behind in this innovation curve," Robinson said.
Students with an opportunity to compete for high-earning technology jobs can be positioned to make better decisions for themselves and their families, and as a result of more income, have the options of being more entrepreneurial and politically active.
Many companies' sourcing practices for tech positions are still lagging, targeting only specific colleges and universities and not capturing the diverse talent pool, but Robinson is hopeful that these practices are changing. Companies are waiving college degree requirements and looking to alternative career pathways in tech. "So you see improvement, that was not always the case," he said. "I think if we're going to see any large kind of societal swing towards a more equitable future, that work has to be done, in this moment, to correct a lot of things that are going on," he added.
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Disclosure: CNBC parent company NBCUniversal has a partnership with nonprofit America on Tech. NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.