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CodeStart Incubator Goes Beyond Code to Equip Underserved Youth With Tech Skills

By Sherrell Dorsey

Atlanta is arguably the Southeast’s fastest-growing tech hub and a worthy locale for launching and growing a startup. Despite its formidable reputation for spindling talent and multimillion-dollar tech companies, much of its inner-city community is stricken by startling statistics related to the education challenges and unemployment realities of Atlanta's young black residents. For this particular group, systemic barriers have limited their ascent into the growing tech ecosystem, thwarting their potential to participate in what is now the global innovation economy.

Enter, CodeStart — a highly innovative bootcamp designed to move beyond coding fundamentals and equip young people of color, between the ages of 18 to 24 without a college degree, with a desire for lifelong learning, critical-thinking skills, and pathways to personal and professional development.

CodeStart is a collaborative project spearheaded by TechSquare Labs, an incubator, seed fund, and 25,000-square-foot co-working and corporate innovation space; The Iron Yard, a national intensive code school and startup accelerator; and the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency (AWDA).

Rodney Sampson, investor, serial entrepreneur and recently-named partner and head of diversity and inclusion initiatives at TechSquare Labs, cites the public-private partnership as a response to the need to grow diverse talent in the tech space.  

“We asked ourselves: How can we take a group of disconnected youth and test their aptitude, lifelong learning, and bring to them an ability for software development? The thesis is to increase the pipeline of minority technical talent and source that talent to solve real addressable problems,” Sampson explained.
Conducted in a 13-month interval, the program leads students through hard coding skills and provides housing, laptops, and access to personal coaches and mentors.

Students are well-positioned to participate frequently with Atlanta’s bustling technology community. Campus classes are located in the heart of Atlanta’s most innovation district: an encampment of co-working spaces, the TechSquare Labs studio and the Georgia Institute of Technology’s campus.

In their inaugural year, students are required to stay “on campus” in a selection of apartments in Atlanta’s metropolitan Midtown neighborhood. Students partake in daily coding classes and ultimately become 100 percent immersed in the language and culture of computer programming and computational thinking. By hosting students in a college-like environment, Sampson believes the design of the program helps to stave off distractions for students returning to homes that may be unstable, unsupportive or simply not helpful to their goals.

What’s most significant about this particular program is that it is not wrapped in a charity case, underprivileged jargon. CodeStart strategically vets a team of eager young people that are passionate about the opportunity to join the tech ecosystem and are committed to moving the work forward.

“There is so much more in terms of soft skills that are important for these new developers. We assume that colleges teach [these skills]. They may teach the hard skills, but they don't teach the value of a dollar, building relationships [or] navigating pain-points ... This is important in the evolution of education. Period,” Sampson explained.

Though in its infancy, the program is positioned for continued success. CodeStart has raised nearly $30,000 for scholarships through its current GoFundMe campaign. It costs an average of $50,000 per student to run the program. 

Partial funding for the program is provided by the AWDA to the tune of $250,000. Sampson and his partners are now raising an additional $500,000 to support programming costs from donors and corporate partners.

The experiment, if proven successful, could serve as a potential model for other cities developing incubators to meet the unique needs of youth in communities of color that are traditionally academically and economically underserved. Wrapping coding skills within the context of life skills inevitably beckons forth a generation of well-rounded software developers.

The male-to-female ratio in this year’s CodeStart cohort is still quite low, with only three of the 15 young people in the program being young women — a ratio Sampson mentioned he’d like to see shift as the organization continues to grow and vet candidates for ongoing cohorts.

CodeStart aims to produce 450 new software engineers over a four-year period. It also has plans to dole out scholarships to the Iron Yard’s independent coding programs for ongoing study and mentorship.

No doubt Sampson and his partners have developed a standout framework for preparing not just another cohort of die-hard coders, but perhaps something more important: Prepared citizens that are being groomed to introduce themselves in a way that proffers their skills and aptitude first, and allows their backgrounds and ethnicity to simply be part of their identity which adds additional value to the environments in which they work and serve.

Ed note: For more information or to support CodeStart, visit their GoFundMe campaign

Images courtesy of Rodney Sampson, CodeStart

Sherrell Dorsey headshot

Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

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