‘Power Chica’ camp key in forming pipeline from communities of color to tech industry

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A group of two dozen girls will be at Facebook Austin Tuesday to discuss technology, entrepreneurship and social advocacy with leaders at the company.

Facebook is partnering with the Power Chica Summer Camp, a program by the group Latinitas, which works to empower girls through tech and media. The week-long camp kicked off Monday.

The camp is not focused specifically on the city’s booming tech industry; instead, volunteers and instructors are teaching girls to advocate for themselves and for the causes they believe in. Increasing representation in the companies shaping Austin is a key goal of the nonprofit.

“We’re trying to help put girls that go to our programming into this pipeline,” said Gabryella Desporte, Latinitas’ program coordinator.

Nine-year-old Sophie Ozuna wants to be part of that pipeline. The rising fourth-grader hunted for a list of 17 objects in a sculpture park Monday, a team-building scavenger hunt to help kick off the camp.

“My dad’s a computer programmer here in Austin, and I want to do what he does,” she said. “I’m also very good at coding, and I do it very fast.”

As the tech industry continues to grow in central Texas and around the U.S., groups like Latinitas want girls like Sophie to be prepared to fight for a seat at the table.

“It’s not unusual to be the only person of color in a room,” Desporte said.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce reports the number of tech jobs in the city grew by 4.3% in 2017, comprising 14.1% of all jobs in the city. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Labor expects high-tech companies to add 557,100 new jobs by 2026.

But those jobs, in Austin and across the country, are still mostly held by white men.

“We need to be figuring out how we start throwing down the ropes and helping teach people how to climb,” said Rubén Cantú, executive director of the Office of Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas at Austin.

The east Austin native, who started the job last fall but has been working toward more diversity and inclusion in tech for years, said the number of Hispanic employees in technology jobs has been growing, but not fast enough. The industry-wide percentage is in single digits, researchers like Cantú say.

He’s working with several of Austin’s biggest tech firms to commit to diversifying their staffs to look more like the cities where they work. Austin’s population, for example, is around 35% Hispanic.

Cantú’s 2030 Inclusion Challenge aims to change that by recruiting top CEOs to hire a more diverse workforce.

In his experience, employers give two reasons for not employing more people of color and women. The first is that they don’t stay for long (“If you were told to come to a place and you didn’t feel valued, would you stick around?” Cantú said); the second is that not enough non-white-male candidates are applying.

“This is my challenge to you, Austin tech culture and companies, to help us build the pipeline,” Cantú said. “At our local elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, junior colleges, community colleges — how are we helping drive and cultivate that talent?”

Groups like Latinitas, he said, are helping, but significant change will only come when companies commit themselves to the same goals. “We need a capital investment. There’s no which way around it.”

Desporte said the change can start now if company leaders simply keep in mind who’s applying for open jobs.

“What does your board look like?” she said. “What does your primary staff group look like?”

She hopes the camp, filled with opportunities for girls ages 9-14 to explore their own leadership and develop ideas, helps girls like Sophie find a place in the lucrative tech industry when she’s ready to follow in her dad’s footsteps.

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