How Delawareans are working to grow access to the innovation economy
A recent report from Paychex.com found Delaware ranks second in the nation for number of minority-owned businesses as a ratio of the overall population. The same report placed Delaware first for the number of minority women-owned businesses.
It sounds good, but those numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story. “The total GDP of those minority- and women-owned businesses is an extremely small percentage of the GDP of the state,” says Dan Young, director of the Doctor of Business Administration program at Goldey-Beacom College. “It is also easier to incorporate here than almost any state — for both for-profits and nonprofits.”
The innovation economy, with its highly desirable — and highly lucrative — tech and research opportunities, still has work to do in expanding access to more diverse populations. In Delaware, entrepreneurs, government officials, academics, non-profits and others are trying to close that opportunity gap.
The gap “isn’t just a Delaware thing,” says Young, who also mentors young entrepreneurs at Goldey-Beacom. “This is a global thing, and it’s perpetuated by a number of different pieces.”
One tangible barrier to creating a more diverse workforce, Young explains, is the entrenchment of recruiting practices. “I think employers need to be much more cognizant of the lead sources that they’re using to recruit,” says Young. “People have wholly different soft skill sets based on their life experiences.” Young is a big booster (and an alumnus) of the University of Delaware. But, he says, employers will find qualified candidates at Delaware State, Delaware Technical Community College, Lincoln University, Wesley College, and Goldey-Beacom, too.
Making coding skills accessible
One of Delaware’s most prominent organizations working to rewire the recruitment pipeline is Zip Code Wilmington. “Zip Code Wilmington was created without the intent of serving any particular demographic, but we wanted to make sure that it was accessible to everybody,” says Executive Director Melanie Augustin. “Part of that is because we know that there is a diversity issue in tech, and wanted to just get the best-qualified people in the door, regardless of their race, religion, gender, any of that — and that included regardless of their ability to pay the exorbitant cost at a lot of the coding schools in the region.” Zip Code offers unlimited scholarships to low-income students.
“We’re really able to reach a broad group of people with various backgrounds through this program,” Augustin says. “They’re all here not because they’re diverse but because they were the smartest, most capable folks we found.”
Zip Code’s current cohort is 58% female, while 30% identify as belonging to races underrepresented in technology (i.e. African-American or Latinx). An outcomes report covering April 2017 through April 2018 showed 93% of enrolled students graduated. Within one year, graduates received an average salary of $74,134.
Zip Code has been working well for sponsoring employers like BlackRock and JP Morgan. “I think when people step outside of the Ivy League box, or even of the college-education requirement box, and just say, I want people who are going to be driven, who are going to be here because they want to do the work, and they’re going to work hard — I think when people start to see that successfully working in their work environment, then they will open their minds to hiring more people like that,” says Augustin. “And that’s what we’ve seen, because our partners have seen that succeed and so they keep coming back and hiring more.”
Educating under-represented founders
Garry Johnson III is a UD graduate and the entrepreneur behind KnowCapp, a financial services startup that helps small business owners gain access to capital. But as he went through the Summer Founders program at UD last year, Johnson honed in on the lack of diversity in the tech industry in general.
“One of the problems that I found was that there aren’t necessarily opportunities for all types of entrepreneurs to get the resources and education and mentorship that they need,” Johnson says, adding that, at a tech conference, “I walked into an event where I wanted to interview people about diversity with the technology and entrepreneurship space and, basically, I was the diversity that was in the room.”
After talking to lots of minority entrepreneurs and to investors, Johnson conceived the First Founders accelerator, which he launched in February with support from New Castle County and 1313 Innovation. “I launched this accelerator specifically focused on educating underrepresented founders in understanding how to develop scalable businesses,” he says. The first cohort of 10 enrollees is working its way through First Founders’ 12-week program now.
Johnson has also left his mark on Delaware’s innovation economy by launching the “I Have a Dream” Pitch Competition, which is open to African-American boys ages 8 to 18. It is part of the One Village Alliance’s Raising Kings, an annual monthlong event to honor the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Closing the opportunity divide
“Our mission is to connect young adults in the Wilmington area who don’t have access to opportunity — either because of their finances or because of the neighborhoods they live in — and provide them with the skills that our corporate partners need,” says Peter Lonie, site director for Year Up Wilmington.
Year Up takes students with little or no job experience through a six-month training program that instills both hard skills and soft ones. Students learn Java programming through a partnership with Zip Code Wilmington, and take classes in business or computer science at Wilmington University. After those initial six months, students spend another six months interning with a participating employer, with a view to being hired full-time.
After 2 1/2 years in Wilmington, Year Up is working with its fifth cohort of students. Of that cohort, 94% identify as Black/African American, Latinx/Hispanic or multi-racial. Fifty-four percent are female.
Past cohorts have done well, with 95% going on to either a job placement or post-secondary education. Those with jobs received an average wage of $19.18 an hour.
Currently, a cohort consists of 40 students, but this fall, Year Up Wilmington plans to double that number to 80. “You have young adults with little or no work history and give them opportunities to grow,” says Lonie. “At the end of a year, they leave with 22 credits toward an associate’s degree from Wilmington University and have a job with benefits and a career path.”
Encouraging girls to choose cybersecurity
A diverse tech workforce is also an important goal for the Delaware Department of Technology & Information (DTI), a state agency. DTI’s efforts to plant the seeds of a cybersecurity career start with presentations to fourth-graders in schools across the state, says Solomon Adote, DTI’s chief security officer. The presentations educate students about how to stay safe online and, ideally, get them to start thinking about the concepts involved in cybersecurity.
DTI’s work continues with DigiGirlz Day, a free day of programming aimed at eighth- and ninth-grade girls. “At that age, there are already patterns that girls shy away from STEM-type careers,” says Sandra Ennis-Alexander, disaster recovery coordinator at DTI. “So nine years ago, we partnered with Microsoft to hold Delaware’s first DigiGirlz Day, and since then, it’s gone from 100 students to 200.” Through hands-on activities, DigiGirlz exposes girls to careers in fields such as robotics or application development.
For high-schoolers, DTI works with the Department of Education to encourage schools across Delaware to participate in Girls Go CyberStart, a series of interactive challenges that allows teams from different schools to compete against each other.
Still going strong
FAME Inc. has been in the business of diversifying Delaware’s STEM workforce for 43 years. Founded in the 1970s by DuPont, it was one of the nation’s first nonprofits focused on exposing under-represented populations to science and math professions. FAME’s offerings include project-based classes, intensive STEM-based courses and summer programs.
One important part of FAME’s programming is to expose students to STEM pioneers who were female or part of a minority population. “It’s important for our young ladies and for black and brown children to know their forefathers have made contributions, so they don’t feel like they’re not part of STEM history,” says Don Baker, FAME’s CEO.
FAME has served thousands of students across Delaware, but isn’t planning on slowing down. The nonprofit recently announced a partnership with Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay and is working with the Delaware Pathways program on an online platform called STEMulate Change Talent Engagement Connection (TEC, for short). The platform, which Baker expects to launch before the end of the year, will allow young people in their late teens and early 20s to create profiles that can help connect them with post-secondary education or match them with employers such as Boeing and Corteva Agriscience.
In January, FAME purchased its first-ever piece of property, near downtown Wilmington. The nonprofit is embarking on a capital campaign to renovate it with lab and classroom spaces. “The main focus is going to be around academics and innovation,” says Baker. “We’re super excited about showing both students and industry that we can marry education and innovation together.” ID
Additional reporting by Tina Irgang Leaderman