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An Interview With CODE2040, A Non-Profit Out To Diversify Silicon Valley

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I had a chance to discuss an amazing new non-profit program called CODE2040 with one of its founders today, Laura Weidman Powers. The mission of this program is to bring diversity to Silicon Valley by bringing in talented minorities, who are in school for engineering, to Silicon Valley for the summer, mentoring them and finding them positions with companies.

The non-profit is the brain-child of Tristan Walker, current EIR at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, and formerly of foursquare. The list of board members and mentors are nothing short of impressive:

Tristan Walker, Ben Horowitz, Amber Saloner Tennant, Bea Perez and Marc Hedlund sit on CODE2040’s board. The mentors include Megan Quinn, Marc Bodnick, Charles Hudson, Wences Cesares, Tracy Chou, Kevin Weil, Matt Hunter, Richard Kerby, Marc Hedlund, Erin Teague and Hunter Walk. These are all extremely talented and knowledgable people here in the greatest place for technology in the world.

Here’s our chat, I specifically enjoyed learning about the meaning behind the organization’s name:

TechCrunch: Can you tell us how the idea for the non-profit came about?

Laura Weidman Powers: Tristan Walker (currently an EIR at Andreessen Horowitz, formerly head of business development at Foursquare) set out to create CODE2040 to fix two problems he saw contributing to the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley: 1) lack of awareness – not enough knowledge about the opportunities in the Valley and how great it can be to build a career in the innovation economy; 2) lack of access – many of the most high performing people of color don’t have access to the network you need to be incredibly successful in Silicon Valley. Tristan faced both these issues firsthand at the start of his career, not understanding the power and potential of the Valley until he moved here for business school, and starting out without any of the network he needed to succeed and with very little guidance on how to begin building that network.

This is all in the context of a massive demographic shift that our country is undergoing – Census projections show that people of color will collectively be the majority in the US in the year 2040. It’s important to have that shift reflected in the ranks and the leadership of innovation hubs like Silicon Valley. Currently studies show this is far from the case with fewer than 1 in 18 technical employees in the Valley being Black or Latino/a. CODE2040 aims to open doors for talented underrepresented minority talent in the Valley in order to help diversify leadership in the Valley and in the US as a whole in the area of high tech innovation and entrepreneurship.

Tristan and I were classmates at Stanford GSB. We got together for coffee in late 2011 right after I left a job in product development at a startup. Tristan pitched his idea to convince me to be the person on the ground launching CODE2040. I was excited about it and agreed to join Tristan as the organization’s Founding Executive Director. The organization launched in February of this year with Tristan as Chairman of the Board, and myself at the helm.

TechCrunch: What’s missing in Silicon Valley when it comes to bridging the gap with minorities and how does your organization help that?

Laura Weidman Powers: Silicon Valley is a place where smarts and ability are prized but where investors and hiring managers tend to mitigate risk by relying on their networks for intel on potential hires or investments. We are working *with* that mentality by creating an institutional bridge into these high performing networks, and short circuiting the time it generally takes to amass a top tier network.

TechCrunch: Talk a bit about the submission process and who you’re looking for.

Laura Weidman Powers: The application process focuses on finding outstanding engineers with a passion for entrepreneurship. There is a written application, a coding exam, a phone screen, and then a matching process with our host companies. We are looking for top Black and Latino/a engineers excited to immerse themselves in Silicon Valley, learn what it’s like to work at a startup, hear from founders, engineering and product leads, and get top notch executive coaching and hands on experience via interactive workshops.

TechCrunch: What does the future look like for the organization and do you see a big shift in diversity coming in Silicon Valley?

Laura Weidman Powers: We are recruiting 10-15 companies to host about 20 students in summer 2013. We are also starting to think about what expansion will look like, e.g., to other cities. We are also excited to support our alumni in ther careers as we grow. Our long term goal is to execute ourselves out of existence. We hope CODE2040 isn’t needed anymore by the year 2040.

We definitely think diversity in Silicon Valley will shift because the market is shifting and SV companies will need to adapt to meet their markets where they are. We think we are really well positioned to help startups make this shift to ensure that they are and remain competitive.

TechCrunch: Tell us what you’ll be doing at Disrupt.

Laura Weidman Powers: Spreading the word! We had an awesome first summer and are really excited to recruit and gather partner companies that want to host interns in summer 2013. We are looking for companies who are excited about hosting top engineering talent and also excited to support CODE2040’s mission. Come find us in Startup Alley!

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So there you have it, a fantastic idea turned into an actual organization, planning to help make real change in the world. It doesn’t get much better than that, and we’re excited to chat with the CODE2040 team at TechCrunch Disrupt next week and watch the support build around them.