Equity in Tech: Achieving Workforce Diversity in STEM from the Ground Up

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Martinez (front and left) with his Digital Nesters. Digital NEST (Nurturing Entrepreneurial Skills with Technology) is
rooted in the socio-economic struggle of a small coastal town surrounded by a large agricultural region.
Watsonville, California shares the challenges many underserved communities face with high rates of poverty and
unemployment, a high number of high school dropouts and a low rate of college graduates.

By Jacob Martinez
10 min read

On a cold October evening in 2013, I was at my local farmer’s market when, in the distance, I noticed a young woman sitting in front of the local community college building typing away on her computer. She was wearing only a thin sweater to shield her from the chill of a typical foggy night along the California central coast. Curious to see what she was up to, I approached and recognized her as one of my former middle school students. I was happy to hear she was now in college, working toward transferring to a four-year university.

When I asked what she was doing in front of the locked building at night, she explained she came for the WiFi so she could complete her homework assignments. “I don’t have internet at home, the library and school computer lab are closed, and I can’t afford to go to a coffee shop.”

I went away that night so discouraged. Here was an amazingly talented young woman with high aspirations of attending college, yet hitting barriers along her path again and again. Barriers in that vast digital divide where access to technology means access to education and opportunity. I had to do something.

A Staggering Divide

At the time I ran into my former student, I had been working for a research organization on National Science Foundation funded work intended to build and diversify the technology workforce. Specifically, the goal was to get more Latinos and Latinas into tech careers. 

The lack of Latino/a representation in technology is staggering. Latinos, who are becoming the majority in California in an era in which technology is the prime economic driver, have dismal representation in the technology field. In a field where there is a huge shortage of workers, an estimated 1 million technology related job openings by 2020 that will be unfilled, and some of the best paying jobs, Latinos/as are not to be found. According to the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report, Latinos made up 17% of the U.S. population, yet a survey in 2013 found they only earned 6% of the computer science bachelor’s degrees awarded, and they represented less than 2% of PhD candidates. The economic opportunities that can improve one’s income and can positively shift the economic well being of entire families are not going to the Latino/a community.

The lack of representation in this lucrative and rapidly growing sector is especially troubling because Latinos/as must dig themselves out of a huge economic and educational hole. Large percentages of Latinos/as are in low-income communities and school districts where access to technology and training is difficult. Understandably, the local schools and communities are addressing issues of poverty, crime, and low academic performance, not necessarily preparing a college-bound tech workforce.

The conditions at home are no better. Many households lack a functioning computer and adequate Internet access. Furthermore, many Spanish-speaking parents don’t know how to technologically support their children. Students, like the young woman I met at the farmer’s market, that do go on to college find themselves lightyears behind their counterparts and without reliable and affordable technology and internet access. There is just no way Latinos/as can compete against peers that have grown up with unlimited access to technology, high-speed internet, and mentors.

Digital NEST provides training, peer collaboration and professional mentorship to support youth in mastering the
technological skills they need to pursue higher education and careers in our globally connected world. 

Not the Only One

Growing up in a predominately white community in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, I was used to being one of the few people of color in my high school—an experience that continued as an undergraduate in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).

It is hard to explain the emotions I felt during my first SACNAS conference in 2001. To be surrounded by so many people of color who shared my passion for STEM made me feel like I finally fit in. My excitement was short lived when I learned the isolation I experienced daily in my classes at UCSC was an accurate depiction of the dismal representation of Latino/as in the sciences across the board. I was a rarity in this field, and what that meant on a grander scale was disheartening yet motivating. Yes, I was one of few, but at SACNAS I learned I was also part of a larger movement to increase Latino/a representation in STEM.

Although I had originally been on the PhD track, on graduation from UCSC, I needed to take a break. I’d been in college for the last six years: three years at community college and three years at UCSC. I just couldn’t see myself going on to graduate school and getting my head back in the books for the next four years. I found a job on campus with a diversity program that encouraged and supported youth of color in pursuing STEM. I began counseling students on the path I had just been on and helped them maneuver through classes where they were one of the few people of color. I fell in love with this work. I enjoyed sharing my experience and the strategies I had developed to navigate the foreign world of higher education in the sciences. Having no examples in my life of successful Latinos in STEM, it was humbling, but not surprising for me, when I found myself as the mentor for many of the students walking through our doors.

The work at UCSC led me to other STEM-based programs in the region. I began to run math, engineering, and science achievement (MESA) programs in Watsonville, California, a low-income, predominantly agricultural community. I launched the summer algebra program to help incoming high school freshmen succeed in math. From there, I went to work on the NSF-funded project mentioned earlier, which was intended to help build a diverse tech workforce by encouraging middle school Latinas to pursue computer science. I served as the director of the initiative and launched my current 10-year career in technology education. At that point in my life, I made the decision I wasn’t going back to pursue a graduate degree in biology. I had found my calling to work in communities and build a highly skilled workforce, so I received my graduate degree in instructional science and technology.

Something Missing

Through the second half of my career in technology education, I felt there was something missing from all the programs I was leading and seeing out in the field. There needed to be a place that was addressing the day-to-day lack of technology access and education in Latino/a communities: a place that might help remove some of the persistent roadblocks to success continually faced by Latino/a youth. Perhaps if we could provide a safe, hip, and supportive work/study environment at the same time we taught 21st-century workforce skills, we could see the numbers change. 

The feeling that something different could be done to increase Latino/a representation in tech stayed with me over a number of years until that evening I crossed paths with that former middle school student at the farmer’s market. That night, the seeds of the Digital NEST were sown.

In the fall of 2014, I launched the first Digital NEST (nurturing entrepreneurial skills with technology) in Watsonville. We provide the tech access, education, and mentors needed in our low-income, rural, predominantly Latino/a community. The long term goal of Digital NEST is to create sustainable and scalable technology centers in vulnerable communities all over California, creating economic equality for the residents of low income and rural communities by breaking down the digital divide, teaching them the technology skills needed to become competitive and self sufficient in the digital future.

We provide access to a creative, hip, cool workspace where youth ages 12-24 can access top-of-the-line technology. We have laptops loaded with all the software needed to create and learn. In addition to laptops, we have digital cameras for video production, a 3D printer, drawing tablets, and countless other gadgets for youth-NESTers-to use. In addition to the tools, we provide training and education that leads youth into high paying jobs and prepares them to compete in higher education. We teach workshops in writing resumes, web development, digital filmmaking, programming, and mobile-application development. We give youth access to the tools and education necessary to make them highly sought after by local employers, technology companies, and universities.

Digital NEST members work with state-of-the-art technology
in a safe and learning-focused environment.

Access + Opportunity = Economic Justice 

The access to a creative space, technology tools, and education are some of the foundational components on which the Digital NEST is built. These components are key to our ultimate goal of creating economic justice in low-income, rural, Latino/a communities. We do this by not only preparing our NESTers for high paying jobs but also by being a local technology solution for businesses and organizations. We provide low-cost technology support to businesses and organizations, helping them strengthen their revenue. This support includes website design, marketing support in the form of video and graphic design, social media management, and other support that often is too expensive for small businesses and organizations.

Building a highly skilled local workforce and supporting small businesses and organizations can result in huge economic shifts in a community. NESTers that are now able to secure better paying jobs, rather than typical minimum-wage jobs, will generate more income for their family and community. Businesses and organizations that are recipients of low-cost technology support are now seeing an increase in business because of increased visibility on the web or better marketing materials, all of which translates to increased revenue and, ultimately, a stronger local economy. Businesses and organizations are now able to increase wages, create more jobs, and expand, putting more money back into their communities. This, in turn, will spark more local spending and generate more local tax revenue, which will increase resources for schools and other community-health needs. As the economy improves, many of the negative social and community-health indicators like poverty, crime, high school dropout rates, drug use, and rates of diabetes will decrease.

A Growing Movement

Digital Nest is part of a growing movement to diversify the tech workforce. There are Latinas like Laura Gomez, founder of Atipica, a company launched to improve the hiring process for a diverse workforce. Laura was named by Latina magazine as one of 24 Latinas making an impact in technology. She is looking to make an impact through her company and her involvement in initiatives to grow Latino representation. “Latinos are not separated from tech, but in fact, high adopters and consumers. It is important that we aspire to careers in tech because it is changing industries and communities. We need to have representation so that we decide what the change looks like for our communities and future generations.” 

Eutiqio (Tiq) Chapa, with the Latino Entrepreneurial Institute at Stanford, is at the forefront of supporting new ventures led by Latinos/as. Supporting new entrepreneurs in tech leads to transformation. “Great jobs help our Latino community continue to grow our wealth and subsequently our influence and quality of life. We need to be creating the future in which we will soon be nearly a third of the United States! As more Latinos are successful at all levels we will be able to increasingly hire, promote, and lead in the startups and companies which we are only a small part of now.” The Latino Entrepreneurial Institute was founded in 2012 to support Latino owned businesses and help them grow into larger businesses.

A Call to Action

Digital NEST is working to create sustainable and scalable
technology centers in vulnerable communities all over California.

Two years after the idea came to light, the Digital NEST has now exceeded our expectations for what would be possible. We have had over 470 youth become members of the Digital NEST and take classes in programming, web design, graphic design, and other technology related fields. The growth has caused us to move to a new location that is almost four times as big as our current space. We have built partnerships and received support from companies like Facebook, Wells Fargo, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Opening our second location is on the horizon and represents the beginning of our dream to replicate this model in low-income communities around the country. 

The Digital NEST along with leaders like Gomez and Chapa know we must diversify the technology workforce if we are to help shape what the future will look like in our communities. Latinos/as are not represented in the workforce, which, in turn, means that whole communities are not represented. If we are to build a society where people have opportunities to become economically sound, we must address this lack of representation in technology. Our individual, community, and country’s health demand it.

 

About the Author

Jacob Martinez is a social entrepreneur focusing on strategies to increase the representation of Latinos/as in technology and the sciences.

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