Monthly Archives: March 2016

Hip-Hop Hacks Two-Day Hackathon

Hip Hop Hackathon (1)

Do you know of someone who would be interested in a hackathon? Hip-Hop Hacks is a two-day hackathon for high school students to explore technology’s role in hip-hop and how the most popular genre in the world inspires technological innovation.

This event which is powered by Young Hackers (a hackathon organization founded by All Star Code alumni, Mamadou Diallo and Austin Carvey) and the Mixtape Museum will take place Saturday, April 2nd from 12pm to 8pm and Sunday, April 3rd from 11am to 6pm at Spotify headquarters in NYC, 45 West 18th Street.

Click here to register

Bring your laptops! Food will be provided!

The Story of the Man Who Was the Most Successful African-American Entrepreneur, and Why It Matters Today

 

A version of this essay was given as a talk at the Rethink Education Summit on February 24th, 2016, at Blue Hill Stone Barns, Tarrytown, NY.

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 I am the daughter of an icon. Reginald F. Lewis, the first African-American to build a billion-dollar business. He was the first person of color to break into the elite boys’ club of Wall Street boardrooms.

In 1987 he engillion-dollar offshore leveraged buyout to purchase TLC Beatrice International, a sprawling global conglomerate of food companies and brands ranging from an ice cream company in Spain, La Menorquina, a potato chip company in Ireland, Tayto, supermarkets in France, Franprix and Leaderprice, and others. His company was the largest African American-owned business by far, according to Black Enterprise magazine-fourteen times largest by revenues than its closest competitor, Johnson Publishing Company.

It’s hard to convey how key a figure he was and is in the black community. He was the single largest donor to Jesse Jackson both early in his career and in Jesse’s historic campaign for the Presidency. He was perhaps the 1st African-American listed on the Forbes 400, a generous philanthropist, donating millions to Howard University and Harvard Law School. His life arc was and is a shining example for people of color of what had work can achieve, proof that there is hope.

We need hope. And we also need to keep fighting. Schools are more segregated today than they were thirty years ago. African-Americans are underrepresented in Congress, among professional workers, among Oscar nominees. The wealth gap between blacks and whites is frighteningly wide: $11,000 for a black household and nearly $142,000 for a white household. The gap among Latinos is nearly as wide.

Wow. Right? I mean, wow.

My father died when I was 12, in 1993. Losing a parent so young is always hard. The full extent of my loss and grief would only become clear to me as an adult. But what his death did is it sent me searching for a sense of the man that he was. He had become a towering, even godlike figure to my child mind. Who was he really as a person and what made him so special? His life is one of the greatest rags to riches stories in America. But what lies beneath? What was the back-story?

My father was born in 1942 in segregated Baltimore. His mother was 17 years old. He grew up in his grandparents’ house, on an unpaved alley in East Baltimore. Many homes had outhouses in their backyards. He attended segregated schools through college. He played in a segregated little league. He had to sit in the balcony at movie theaters (not that they went to the movies). At his Catholic elementary school, one of the nuns told him he should become a carpenter, to stop dreaming of becoming a lawyer.

These beginnings have some of the tropes of black family dysfunction, and all the force of the American Dream mythology of the self-made man, but don’t be fooled: my great-grandparents had 8 children who doted on my father as their new youngest sibling, and my great-grandfather, Sam, worked as a waiter at fancy hotels and country clubs. The neighborhood was rough. The times were unjust. But, my father had a family and a community. His mother re-married, giving my father five siblings.

Outside of family, he found other angels who saw his potential and helped him rise to help him rise. A few years ago, I began researching for a memoir I wanted to write called Lonely at the Top—a personal journey to understand the legacy I had inherited. As part of this research I met Frank Sander, an 85-year-old retired Harvard Law School professor, also a Holocaust survivor who clerked on the Supreme Court when they decided Brown v Board.   He was the driving force behind the creation of a summer program to try to diversify Harvard.  It was through this program that my father was able to gain admittance in 1965 to the law school, giving him the credentials he needed to access the private sector.

My father had always told me that his time at Harvard Law School opened the world to him. He had always wanted to be a lawyer. It was not only the first white school he had attended, it also exposed him to an elite network, educated him, and gave him a credential, a stamp that members of society in 1968 took seriously. Graduating from there is how HE could be taken seriously.

After graduating from law school he became a first year associate at a white-shoe law firm in New York and from there he began his climb into Wall Street’s inner circle. His world once all black, was now all white.

My father was at the vanguard of this nationwide struggle to integrate the American private sector. History teaches us about the fight to integrate schools and the military.  But, there’s an untold history that is still going on and that is the integration of corporate America. And my father, before he died, believed that the next phase of the civil rights movement was economic. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. It was, after all, called a March on Washington for JOBS and Freedom.

And here was the idea.

I began to wonder, is there some new frontier? Is there some new part of the economy that has not yet integrated? Is there an area where a talented young man like my father would not be able to succeed because it was still closed? The answer came immediately: Tech. Tech today is like Wall Street in the 1960s: an insider-y, clubby world built through an informal network of people we know, people who have the right credentials. Jobs aren’t advertised and the people who drive the industry don’t consider themselves exclusionary, but rather holders of a proud, respected tradition.

And so, I realized there are youth out there now who are not being tapped. There are youth out there who are so unbelievably talented but startup founders won’t hire them, venture capitalists won’t invest in them, because they don’t have the right credentials.

And, you know, I’m a doer. My father didn’t raise me to sit on the sidelines. To paraphrase the bible, those to whom much is given, much is expected. Four years ago, I was a professional journalist, working entirely in the realm of ideas–a professional observer. Yet, this problem–the lack of diversity in tech–felt so urgent to me. But I didn’t do anything about it; I just watched. And saw programs starting for girls, but none for boys. And as the months passed I thought, well, maybe I should work on this. Maybe if I don’t do it, no one else will. Or at least, not as well.

So we’ve built a program that would find and help young men like my father.

The fight had to be passed on. Hope has to be met with an effort to create the conditions to fulfill that hope. The arc of the moral universe doesn’t bend toward justice without people trying to guide its curve. My great-grandparents tried to bend it just a little bit, for my grandmother, and she in turn for my father, and he for everyone he could. Professor Sander at Harvard bent it for him and for other young black students. What we’ve built at All Star Code bends it. And we believe that the young men we’ve met are well on their way to realizing that hope, and creating more. That they are the next step in the arc.

The core tenet of our program, All Star Code, is that we aren’t just teaching computer science. We are setting students up with the skills, networks, and system know-how they need to be successful in the tech industry and overall workforce. Throughout our programming, All Star Code students improve soft skills, develop personal narratives, and learn the principles of entrepreneurship. All Star Code is a powerful intervention that opens our students’ minds to what is possible.

Speaking of students… check out Djassi’s recent speech from the ReThink Education Summit.

Christina Lewis Halpern, Founder and Executive Director of All Star Code, delivered the above speech to a group of tech entrepreneurs at the ReThink Education Summit on February 24th, 2016.

 

 

Flipping the Script

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I spent a lot of my childhood with my Grandma. I still spend a lot of time with my Grandma, but back when I was in elementary school I was with her every weekend. When I got to her house, I was always greeted with a hot meal and a seat in her lap. We talked about everything. She asked me about how school was going, what Spongebob’s latest antic was, if I was respecting my parents, everything. No matter what we ended up talking about, at some point she would say, “Dja, one day you’re gonna shine so so so bright. I can’t wait.” She was always in my corner, always fighting for me, always loving me. I’m so grateful I had the support of my family growing up, because as I got older I realized that not everyone saw the same potential in me that my grandma saw.

I went to PS 180, a small school in Harlem, for elementary and middle school. I loved it there, it was like another family. All my friends at school were from the neighborhood too so we got to hang out all the time. My school fought for us so hard, but it was difficult for our little Harlem school to get funding, so resources were limited. When it came time to apply to high schools, our assistant principal, Ms. Marren, told us about the specialized high school test, the entrance exam for the top 7 schools in the city. Ms. Marren worked so hard with us for the next few months to prepare us for the test. My parents both work in education, so they signed me up for a prep class for the specialized high school test as well. It was a tutorial program for young black students. My instructor told us that students studied for years in preparation for this test, so we had to work extra hard to make sure that we had a chance. I studied really, really hard. It upset me that some students had the advantage of years of practice. I was upset that no one thought to look at me and my friends to see if we had potential. I knew that we could blow people away, we just never had the chance to. I used that anger to push me, to motivate me to score above everyone on the test. I ended up doing pretty well on the SHSAT, at least well enough to get into my school, the High School for Math Science and Engineering.

In middle school I was surrounded by people who looked like me, talked like me, and did things the way I did things. High school was a huge culture shock. To be honest, the biggest change was all the white people. That was new, but I also noticed that I got treated a lot differently. In middle school I got asked stuff like, “Did you watch the game last night?” or “What’s gonna be on the Math test later?” In high school I got asked stuff like, “Can I touch your hair?” and “Do you live in the Bronx or Brooklyn?” No one took me seriously. There are 14 black kids in my whole grade, and I was basically the funny one that’s always dancing. All my white friends recounted their experiences interning at publishing companies and courthouses, and I was a little bitter that I had never been afforded those opportunities. It took me my first two years of high school to realize that I didn’t have access to these opportunities because I was black. I felt disrespected, excluded, but above all else I felt ready to flip the script.

At the end of my sophomore year I started looking for summer programs beyond the usual park cleanup job. A couple of days later my mom told me about this new program called All Star Code that taught young black boys how to code.  She said that All Star Code was holding a workshop that weekend and that I should go. I realllyyyy did not wanna spend my Saturday hacking away on my laptop in some dark room, and I fought against my mom’s wishes, but she was not having it. Guess who won. I woke up early that Saturday and took the train down to General Assembly for All Star Code’s second “Design a Startup in a Day” workshop. Honestly one of the best Saturdays of my life. When All Star Code launched their application, I filled it out as fast as I could.

When we started new topics in All Star Code, we didn’t get long boring lectures. We got cheat-sheets for the syntax of a new skill and we just jumped in. We learned by doing, which I think was a lot more effective than watching our instructors, Jonathan and Paul type a bunch of loops into their laptops. It was so weird because learning at ASC was so much fun and way different than school. Jonathan and Paul looked at us and saw beyond what society expected us to become. They didn’t see future garbagemen and criminals. They saw CEOs and innovators. They believed that each and every one of us had the potential to change the world, and they worked hard so that we have the tools that we needed to do so.

I want you guys to close your eyes and picture something for me. Imagine what the workforce would need to look like for All Star Code to not have to exist anymore. Keep your eyes closed. If all of you worked in tech, I think that about 25% of this room should be black. That means that 1 in every 4 people that you look at should be black for All Star Code to not be necessary. Open your eyes. That’s why ASC needs to exist and that’s why we need more ASC’s.

I left All Star Code more confident and optimistic than I had ever been my whole life. I kept coding outside of class and I started attending hackathons at colleges across the country. At first I was really intimidated by all these elite college students, but hackathons are super inclusive and collaborative, so I fit right in. We call this the hacker ethos. I honed my skills all year and by the time summer came again I was pretty proud of how far I came. I was starting to see my own potential.

When ASC announced that they were looking for ASC alum to be teaching fellows for the next cohort, I signed up right away. All Star Code did so much for me, and I wanted to give back and help out in any way I could.

This fall I filled out another application, this time for Stanford University. Stanford is right in the heart of Silicon Valley, and it’s a place where I can get a solid tech education without sacrificing my other interests. Two years ago, I never would’ve even considered applying to Stanford, because I wouldn’t have believed in myself enough to think that I could get it. Now, I won’t jinx it, but I think my chances are pretty good. All Star Code gave me the confidence to look inside myself and realize that I’m capable of doing whatever I put my mind to. No other learning environment has taught me as much as ASC did, which is why we need more programs like it. If I had classes at school that were taught ASC style, we’d be pumping out Bill Gates-es nonstop! We have to rethink the way we educate kids in America, because when kids like me discover their potential, that’s when we realize that we can change the world.

My First Month With All Star Code!

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Swag Table
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Since early February, I have been happily interning twice a week as All Star Code’s Marketing and Development Intern and I love it! It is just what I wanted. So far, I have contributed to the monthly newsletter, blog posts, creating images that are being posted on ASC’s social media channels, donation acknowledgements and so much more.

A little over a week ago, I worked my first ASC event. I was in charge of the swag table. We gave away t-shirts, Google cardboards, several Chromebooks and a MacBook Air. It was an info session for future Summer Intensive participants. During the event their were exciting demos by Microsoft and Google. I had the opportunity to meet brilliant alumni, which sparked my imagination. The alumni are driven, creative and extremely mature. In addition, I was impressed when I met future ASC SI participants. They were so bright and had a passion for coding and technology that I’ve never seen before. I can’t imagine five years ago having such passion for Marketing.

After the event that night, I was inspired by them, the young men. I am so happy to be interning for such a brilliant non-profit, which has such a strong and powerful message.

The team has been very friendly and has welcomed me with open arms. I am looking forward to helping the ASC team organize a successful Summer Intensive as well as the Summer Benefit in 2016.