From White Center to Stanford: Technology Access Foundation Helps Kids of Color Prepare for High-Tech Jobs

9/29/08Follow @xconomy

Something like 2.7 percent of the workforce at Microsoft is composed of African Americans. This under-representation is true of plenty of other technology companies, too. Lots of people complain about the disparities in education that lead to numbers like that, but Trish Millines Dziko and her colleagues at the Technology Access Foundation are doing something meaningful about it.

Millines Dziko is the co-founder and executive director of the foundation (TAF), a nonprofit organization in Seattle that aims to help kids of color get the technology skills they need to prepare themselves for college and to join the high-tech workforce. It turns out that it’s about a lot more than lofty ideals and talk—she convinced me she’s building a pool of talented workers that Microsoft and other companies will want to tap for years.

Before I got anywhere near that conclusion, I first had to learn a little about Trish. She’s African-American, and grew up in New Jersey. She went to Monmouth College on a basketball scholarship, as a 5-foot-8 point guard (which she notes is pretty small by today’s standards). She started off majoring in electrical engineering, but when those classes conflicted with basketball practice, she switched to computer science and got hooked, and graduated in 1979.

She went on to a 17-year career in a variety of high- tech jobs during the computing revolution in the 1980s, and ending with an eight-year run at Microsoft in mostly technical roles, including more than four years on the SQL server program. “I was always the only person of color in the group on the tech side, and one of a handful of women,” she says.

She was often tapped to recruit more students of color on college campuses, but she quickly got frustrated because the pool wasn’t really deep enough at colleges to recruit enough people who looked like her. “We needed to get to them earlier,” she says.

So Millines left the company and started TAF in 1996. The idea was to start with eighth graders, exposing them to computer skills in an after-school program, twice a week for three hours at a time. Then companies who agreed to sponsor the program also agreed to hire the kids as interns for the following summer, at $10 an hour, Millines says. The program started with 32 kids, and after eight months, 27 were still with the program, Millines says. “And all 27 of them got jobs,” Millines says.

With results like that, the TAF was in business. TAF has morphed quite a bit since its first year. It is serving more than 300 children this year, Millines says. It has also launched its most ambitious program yet, the TAF Academy High School in Federal Way, in which it designed a full public school curriculum and trained teachers there in how to prepare students for work in the high-tech economy, Millines says. It has enrolled 130 kids in the school, and expects to generate its first graduating class in 2012.

The annual budget for all of this has grown to $2.8 million, and a staff of 22 full-time workers, Millines says. The companies who donate to the program include Microsoft, Group Health, Safeco, RealNetworks, and Expedia.

I wanted to know what Millines thinks she can really deliver in terms of results, not just helping companies feel good about themselves as corporate citizens. She didn’t duck the question, or try to manage expectations downward, partly because she hears that question pretty regularly. TAF plans to keep track of how many kids get into college (some have already gone on to top-ranked schools like Stanford, Swarthmore, and the University of Washington). It will measure what careers they choose, and how they do. She’s clearly thought hard about how to show these companies they’re getting a return on their investment.

“A lot of those companies say they don’t find the talent they need in the U.S., so they go to places like Pakistan or Russia to find talent,” Millines says. “They have a well right here that’s untapped. We need talent to grow right here, and we need their commitment to help build it.”

Millines sees TAF getting much bigger in the years to come, as it gets more experience in the schools, not just as an after-school program. By 2016, she envisions having 4,100 kids in TAF programs in Washington state getting prepared for college. She’s now in the midst of raising $14 million for a building to host professional development for teachers, develop new teaching methods, and make room for more than 1,000 kids in the White Center neighborhood to participate in TAF programs. “We’re expanding. We’re legit now,” she says.

“We’re going to give high quality education to kids who have been systematically left out,” Millines says. “We give teachers a set of technical tools and methods for teaching that are not well used today. We’re doing something innovative for public schools in this country. It’s the only way to be.”

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  • Dick Thurnau

    Friends of Hicks Lake are very enthused of the prospect of TAF (Technology Access Foundation) plan to build their learning Center in Lakewood Park. The building will be three stories high and contain 22,000 sq. feet of tech labs, offices, and rooms for community meetings.We have visited their present facilities several times even when classes were in session. One student showing me the project he had untaken it was so far over my head I had the faintest idea all i could say what a wonderful job.We went before the full King county Council to lobby for TAF and the County did give a grant of two million for their building fund.TAF`S presence in our community will provide a learning opportunity unsurpassed for our children and a boost for our image. Students who graduate from TAF 100% go on to college that is an accomplishment worth noting. If TAF can obtain all their funding a start on the learning center is scheduled for spring of 2009