Rising star: Christina Lewis Halpern
Rising star: Christina Lewis Halpern
Written by Anna Nordberg
Memoir writing usually isn’t the spark behind a tech startup, but for Christina Lewis Halpern, it gave her the idea for All Star Code, a New York City-based nonprofit that prepares minority boys for careers in the technology industry.
“A prep program,” says Lewis Halpern, who speaks quickly, yet clearly, and has a tendency to emphasize points she’s passionate about with her hands. “It was such a simple idea, but very innovative at the time.” It led her to think about what today’s equivalent might be — “Where would my father go now? Where would he see opportunity?” — and she realized the obvious answer was the technology industry.A journalist for most of her career, Lewis Halpern was driven by the question of how her late father, the legendary businessman Reginald Lewis, had been able to pioneer into a rarefied field like corporate law as a black man growing up in segregated America. She learned that in 1965 he attended the first Harvard Law School summer program for black students from black colleges.
“A prep program,” says Lewis Halpern, who speaks quickly, yet clearly, and has a tendency to emphasize points she’s passionate about with her hands. “It was such a simple idea, but very innovative at the time.” It led her to think about what today’s equivalent might be — “Where would my father go now? Where would he see opportunity?” — and she realized the obvious answer was the technology industry.
Its main purpose is not to mint the next Mark Zuckerberg but to give more young men of color a suite of skills — hard skills like coding, soft skills like leadership — to get a job in a technology company early on in their careers. That experience can then serve as a springboard to climb the company ranks, create their own startup, or break into other industries desperate for tech-savvy marketers and strategists, like retail, hospitality, media and PR.All Star Code is certainly not the first organization to think of a computer camp for kids. What makes it different is who it’s targeting — minority boys at the high school level — and how it’s preparing them.
The way All Star Code is tackling the issue of underrepresented minorities is radical, too. While Silicon Valley tends to fall for its own hype about rags-to-riches entrepreneurs and meritocracy, Lewis Halpern is pragmatic about how pathways to tech jobs present particular barriers to young black males.
“For many minorities, college is the ticket to class mobility,” says Lewis Halpern, who lived in Paris for many years as a kid and later attended the Dalton School in Manhattan, where she still lives with her husband and toddler. “That [a lot of] the tech industry doesn’t seem to value college — that was a huge alarm bell for me.” For one thing, the whole “drop out of a prestigious school and make for the garage startup incubator!” battle cry is inconceivable to many minority families, where parents encourage their kids to enter stable careers like law or banking. Especially since, as OZY editor Sean Braswell points out, our most successful tech entrepreneurs tend to come from wealth and can expect a cushy landing if they fail.
While 18 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to blacks and Latinos, only 9 percent of tech industry employees are black or Latino.
That’s why All Star Code’s year-round workshops and upcoming summer program focus on eventual job placement — not just startup fever. While 18 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to blacks and Latinos, only 9 percent of tech industry employees are black or Latino. And African-Americans make up less than 1 percent of tech startups’ founding teams. Getting more young boys of color into the technology pipeline matters.
Does it matter that All Star Code is based in New York, rather than in the epicenter of all things tech — Silicon Valley? Perhaps. The industry can certainly be clubby. There’s an informality to Silicon Valley networking that can make it hard for underrepresented groups to break in. “People are hiring through LinkedIn and posting jobs on their Facebook pages, which means friend networks can be very closed off,” says Lewis Halpern.
That’s why Lewis Halpern has put the focus on prep programs and mentorship: She understands that connections to the tech industry are just as important as crackerjack coding skills. To that end, All Star Code will kick off its first six-week Summer Institutein Manhattan this July (enrollment for the pilot program of 20 students ends April 20), combining field trips and exposure to tech leaders with intensive coding programming workshops. If the summer pilot program is successful, in year two, it plans to scale to 100-plus kids; All Star Code hopes to be a national advocate for diversifying the tech industry.
Lewis Halpern asked the question of how her father managed to break into corporate law and then go on to become the first African-American to build a billion-dollar business, TLC Beatrice. The question I pondered: How did she manage to dive into a world she knew almost nothing about — technology — and emerge with a nonprofit that snagged her an invitation to the White House, for the announcement of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative?
The answer: her stellar reporting skills.
Lewis Halpern’s background isn’t in tech; it’s in old-school print journalism — including five years as a business reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Her training ensured that she did her homework when the idea dawned for All Star Code, but it also meant she asked different questions in doing so.
She interviewed 150 people in 150 days, including entrepreneurs, tech professionals, HR executives and other organizations working to diversify tech. And she realized that because boys are overrepresented in computer science and tech overall, no one was looking at them as a group to target. “The idea was pretty radical,” she says.
But it was writing her memoir about her father, Lonely at the Top, that convinced her to found All Star Code. The book jacket shows a girl climbing a precarious stack of books, the title and byline set in an energetic, graphic-novel font that would be at home on a Michael Chabon novel. It takes about an hour to read. Exhilarating in its honesty, it tackles what many people who’ve had a successful parent die young say they feel: that they’re a failure. Weighing on her shoulders was always “the unyielding and unmanageable question: What would my father think of me?”
The memoir also served as a crash course in digital. Instead of going the traditional print route, she decided to publish it as an Amazon e-single. “I went whole hog with [online] marketing and social media,” Lewis Halpern says. “It turned me on to tech.”That’s a question that’s launched a thousand companies, and certainly influenced Lewis Halpern in her decision to switch to the nonprofit world. As a board member of her father’s philanthropic foundation since age 12, she had some experience in the field. As the only child on it, “Mostly I listened and asked questions,” she says. “Once, I found a math error in a pretty dense document. Everyone was pretty impressed.”
And, she in turn, hopes to turn young men of color on to tech, too. The industry needs them, she asserts. If we don’t tap every single demographic group for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs, our supply is going to dry up. “There will be 1.4 million tech jobs by 2020,” says Lewis Halpern, “and the existing pipelines don’t have enough people to fill them. You have to invest in people to fill this need. It’s a national priority.”