Solving tech's diversity problem may be a key to saving San Francisco
When she brought her young students to an industry event, TechCrunch Disrupt, she dodged a minefield of fratboy-like behavior that made her students feel unwelcome, she said. This is the same event that heralded a prank app called "titstare," which invited users (presumably male) to upload photos of themselves staring at women's breasts.
The app was displayed on a stage before some of the most influential players in the tech industry, but Bryant's students were in the audience too.
"They were shocked, like everyone there. It was disconcerting for the parents and the girls," she said. Though she's careful not to overplay the damage done (the girls "laughed awkwardly," she said), the takeaway of the conference was that women and girls were not the intended participants. "It's like a frathouse. I thought, 'oh my god, this is like college all over again. This sucks.'"
Latino students at the Mission Economic Development Agency face similar barriers.
At Mission and 19th streets sits MEDA, a nonprofit that has long worked to help Mission residents gain a foothold in San Francisco workplaces. This begins even in the lobby, where a small kitchenette in the corner plays host to a chef who mixes up a mean ceviche, with spices admittedly leaving this reporter in tears. He aspires to open his own restaurant, and MEDA is helping him get there.
The upstairs houses a group of students called the Mission Techies. They seek support in their aspirations to enter the tech industry, but for them the dream may be further off than the chef's.
Gabriel Medina, policy manager at MEDA, doesn't mince words. These are the "challenge" kids, he said, but they've done him and program manager Leo Sosa proud.
The Mission Techies pull apart computers to learn about their innards.
Sosa described a visit from Google and Facebook engineers who taught his students rudimentary coding skills. One student, Jamar, was so engrossed in programming that one engineer asked: "Is he okay?!"
"Jamar is on the coding program, [and he's] on fire," Sosa told the Guardian, while sitting in a MEDA office.
But students like Jamar, an African American San Franciscan, face an uphill battle before they ever get to the step of applying for a job like one at Google.
After visiting some tech offices, the students felt less sure of themselves.
"They were like 'I don't see no black guys, I don't see no Latinos. Leo, do you really think I can get a job here?'" Sosa told us. For them, the mirror-tocracy did not reflect an image they recognized.
By many measures, MEDA's Mission Techies program is a success, taking kids of modest means and equipping them with digital skills that can aid their employment prospects. Mission Techies, Black Girls Code, and other programs such as Hack Reactor and Mission Bit all nip at the heels of the education pipeline leading to tech industry employment. They also share a common focus: They're educating largely minority populations, often low-income, and located in the Bay Area.
The solution to tech's diversity problem and to San Francisco's displacement may spring from the same well: educate the people who live here to work in the local industry. But in order to do that effectively, afterschool and summer programs alone won't do the trick.
The schools themselves need disruption.
In the midst of the tech hub, the San Francisco Unified School District finds itself surrounded by tech allies. Still, change comes slowly.