Fund Worth Up To $100M Seeks to Increase Diversity in Tech Workforce

A first-of-its-kind fund has launched with the mission to increase diversity in the tech industry by removing financial barriers and increasing access to tech education for anyone interested in pursuing it. The Tech Opportunity Fund is a partnership between the Iron Yard and Code Fellows, which offer tech training, and the financial literacy organization Operation HOPE.

“We saw the need in the industry for something that unites code schools and employers to help increase access to tech education,” says Jessica Mitsch, the executive director of the Iron Yard code school. “Our responsibility, as tech educators, is to support the startup industry around diversity. As a whole, 93 percent of technical jobs are filled by men, and that doesn’t represent the general population.”

Over the next five years, the Tech Opportunity Fund hopes to award $100 million in “diversity scholarships” to in-need students from groups that are currently underrepresented in the tech workforce, including women and people of color, although the fund is counting on other code schools, organizations, and employers joining the effort to get to that $100 million goal. The Iron Yard has committed $40 million in full-tuition scholarships; Code Fellows has committed $5 million in full-tuition scholarships; and Operation HOPE will serve as the fund’s financial literacy and entrepreneur training partner.

In addition to providing scholarships to code school programs, the Tech Opportunity Fund will work to remove other barriers that can prevent people from pursuing a code school education. Partnerships with city governments and civic organizations will address needs such as affordable housing, financial literacy, counseling, and transportation.

The Tech Opportunity Fund is also calling for employers, other code schools, and civic organizations across the country to join the effort by providing funding for scholarships and contributing resources that will support scholarship recipients.

Vice-president Joe Biden mentioned the Tech Opportunity Fund in a speech about the importance of tech training last week; Mitsch says the fund was created in part to carry on the Obama administration’s efforts to promote code schools and the TechHire initiative to the nation’s young people.

“The idea started with [U.S. chief technology officer] Megan Smith,” Mitsch explains. “The code school industry is relatively new, so how do we carry on after Obama leaves? And what does broad opportunity look like?”

Mitsch says because there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the overwhelming lack of diversity in the tech industry, the Tech Opportunity Fund wanted to take a holistic approach. The goal is to provide students with both academic opportunities and the support system they need to be successful after classes end.

Operation HOPE, an organization started in Compton, CA, 25 years ago, was brought on board with the idea that if people are empowered to understand their finances, it can help propel them into the middle class.

“Operation HOPE also sees tech education as key to helping people move forward,” she says.

The Tech Opportunity Fund was piloted in Atlanta as part of CodeStart, a yearlong training program that focuses on workforce development and entrepreneurial support. Students age 18-21 were given housing, transportation, and a stipend to cover living expenses. Mitsch describes the program as an alternative to traditional colleges and universities. “We’re interested in students already in the workforce who want to retool as well,” she says.

Although the students will have to meet a code school’s basic admissions requirements, there are no special skills needed to be eligible for the fund. Mitsch says students supported by the fund will study the same curriculum as the rest of the code school.

There’s an easy and free way for prospective students to check out the Iron Yard program in Detroit, Mitsch says. The school’s downtown location offers crash courses that highlight the Iron Yard curriculum every other Wednesday from 6-8 pm. The next crash course is on Sept. 28.

Other cities with Tech Opportunity Fund educational partner locations include Indianapolis; Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, TX; Seattle; Durham, Charlotte, and Raleigh, NC; and New York City. Applications for the Tech Opportunity Fund are expected to open by January.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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