This piece originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s editorial hub.
As an African American male and the son of a widowed teacher from East Orange, NJ, I was statistically more likely to end up in prison than to graduate from college. Less than 17 percent of East Orange residents age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree – a figure I just Googled from my desk at a venture-backed New York City startup.
I don’t say that to toot my own horn. I’m not here to brag. I say it now, as the CTO of Jopwell — a platform that aims to make America’s leading workforces more racially diverse — because I realize that becoming a software engineer was never very likely for me. Even less probable was participating in Y Combinator last summer, gaining support from Silicon Valley leaders including Freada and Mitch Kapor, Jessica Livingston, Michael Seibel, Andreessen Horowitz, and Omidyar Network, along with moguls like Earvin Magic Johnson and Joe Montana. My path is largely a result of a series of serendipitous events that are all too hard to replicate, and we need to correct for that. We need to make opportunities accessible to and natural for others who grew up in the racial and socioeconomic brackets we don’t see represented in today’s leading workforces. For people who grew up where I did.
Looking back, I can see there were several ingredients, including a large dose of dumb luck, that contributed to my deviation from the statistical norm.
We’ll start where I started: with my mom, Ginger, a now-retired art teacher in East Orange’s elementary and middle school. She has always been a “hacker” in the non-technical sense, signing me and my older brother up for scores of after-school activities and programs that she thought would help qualify us for scholarships she’d read about. Her ingenuity paid off. With the support of The Wight Foundation, my brother and I landed full rides to a prestigious middle school. We went on to an equally elite boarding school on the other side of New Jersey, where we were among a small percentage of Black students. While I didn’t spend spring breaks on exotic trips across the world like some of my friends from wealthy families did, I felt at home in my new environment — one that fostered learning, growth, and problem-solving. I found that financial status rarely came up. It was taboo to talk about what you did or didn’t have.
Less taboo, thankfully, was to be nerdy. When my middle school math teacher, Mrs. Ito, taught our class how to make an origami crane, I skipped recess for weeks, pouring through books to learn how to construct other complex animals and structures from single sheets of paper. A few years later, my calculus teacher taught our class how to solve a Rubik’s cube using a combination of moves called an “algorithm.” He gave us a two-page cheat sheet. ‘How flipping cool,’ I thought as I worked through a few algorithms of my own. By the end of the school year, I’d come up with enough new solutions to fill a third page.
Still, it never occurred to me that my quirky interests might indicate that I’d be suited for a career in tech. I’d heard intriguing stories of tech giants like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos. But they operated in worlds that, even with my educational opportunity, seemed completely foreign and inaccessible to me. I’d never actually met a programmer, and every successful Black person I knew who wasn’t an athlete or entertainer was either a doctor, a lawyer, or a banker. I imagine that’s why I always assumed I’d follow in my brother’s footsteps and work on Wall Street one day.
When it came time to apply to colleges, the thought of studying engineering hadn’t ever crossed my mind until my guidance counselor suggested that I apply as an engineering major. She thought that my math and science scores made me a good candidate, as did the fact that I was an African American male — something which we all know the engineering world is lacking.
The strategy worked. I was accepted to Princeton University as an engineer and, for a fleeting moment, felt excited at the prospect of studying a challenging new field. But both my advisors and my family promptly suggested I switch over to Princeton’s liberal arts program. Economics we knew about. Computers, not so much. I listened.
During freshman orientation, I met Allen Krulwich, a classmate who became a good friend. One day, when we were walking across the quad, he made a recommendation:
“Yo,” he said, “You’ve got to read Paul Graham.”
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“He’s a famous programmer and venture capitalist who writes a lot about startups. I’m working at one this summer, and I think you’d like learning about them, too.”
It all sounded cool, but I didn’t realize how cool until I caught up with Allen after his internship. He was geeking out about the tech world and told me for what was probably the hundredth time, “Dude, read Paul Graham, learn to code, and go work at a startup.”
So finally, I went to Graham’s website. And I stayed there until there was nothing left to read but a section called “RAQs,” or “rarely asked questions.” The very last one was (and still is):
Of all the wisdom I poured through on Graham’s site, it was this buried four-sentence passage that proved to be a game-changer.
I remember sitting outside of my chemistry lab pondering Graham’s words about what learning to code could mean. Here was this hyperintelligent guy telling me in a perfectly straightforward and pragmatic way that I could create things, solve hard problems, and maybe even make a living off of it. For the first time, programming felt interesting and accessible to me.
From there, I skipped econ recitations and Chinese club to practice writing hacky little programs, each one slightly more complex than the last. Coding became an all-consuming journey. It was a challenging and creative craft with foundations built by some of mankind’s greatest thinkers. The tangible impact intrigued me. I was a beginner in the most literal sense, but the concepts underlying my hacky little programs were part of the link in the chain of tradition that sent man to the moon, built multi-billion dollar empires, and connected more than three billion people through the internet. I realized that, through coding, I too could build something potentially valuable for fun, human good, and, incidentally, for profit.
Unfortunately, many people never get the chance to discover a subject they might love or to gain exposure to a field to which they can contribute. Opportunities shouldn’t solely come to us because of luck, happenstance, or zealous classmates. We like to reinforce the idea that in order to be great at something, you have to practice it. But we rarely talk about how you need the privilege or luck of being in the right place at the right time to even find the thing you want to practice in the first place.
We’re not doing enough to educate people about what’s out there. We can no longer leave this sort of discovery to the off chance that a kid from East Orange gets a scholarship to a school where he meets the “right” people. We can’t count on him Googling the name “Paul Graham.”
None of this is to say that everyone who discovers software engineering will love it or that the future Wall Street analysts of America are all actually better suited to work at startups. But we absolutely need to do a better job of connecting people with a more diverse range of opportunities and, just as importantly, instilling in them the confidence necessary to pursue them.
I feel ridiculously privileged to be able to put on headphones at my desk and immerse myself in a world of building. I happen to love coding and its real-world applications. But I also need to acknowledge that knowing how to code isn’t the be-all and end-all. It’s bigger than that. It’s about exposure, opportunity, and giving chances at scale – and that’s where we need to start making real progress.
The Well is the editorial hub of Jopwell, the diversity recruitment platform that connects Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American professionals and students with leading jobs and internships. Article cross posted on Jopwell.com.