Code for San Francisco, the city’s local chapter of Code for America, recently announced the launch of their first fellowship program this year. The Fellowship is in partnership with dev/Mission, with support from Microsoft.
When the Code for San Francisco Brigade organizers began drafting their priorities for this year, increasing the diversity of the communities that participate in their weekly hack night was high on the list. The team also thought they could make a contribution to the movement to bring tech training to underserved communities, contributing to tech equity by tapping into their large pool of volunteer knowledge and skill. This desire to increase the impact of the Brigade’s work in San Francisco’s underserved communities led them to dev/Mission, an organization its CEO Leo Sosa describes as “a nonprofit organization that aims to train untapped young adults for careers in tech who can bring prosperity to underserved communities”.
Sebastian Meyer, a Marin County high school student, interviewed Sosa at the National Day of Civic Hacking, the Brigade’s yearly civic tech event, at which the Fellowship was featured. Leo delivered the keynote for the day.
SM: Tell me more about your mission.
LS: Connect as many young adults as possible to the tech industry - not only at the education level, because there is a huge gap in the education system around teaching stem opportunity primarily in terms of technology and engineering. Young people need to be exposed to employment pathways. My personal mission is to make sure that every young person I meet, including yourself, should be exposed to that environment and be empowered to choose their technology career path.
SM: How did dev/Mission come to be?
LS: I started thinking about the idea of launching my own nonprofit many years ago. I was scared - I didn’t know what to do. I had this idea 5 years ago to launch a nonprofit, and some of the folks that were involved with me at the time kept encouraging me, like, “Let’s do something, let’s figure something out.” So I brought in a team of technologists that wanted to give back to the community, wanted to make sure underrepresented young people from non-traditional backgrounds were exposed to some type of opportunity. That’s how dev/Mission got started.
I saw disparities around diversity in the tech industry, and going back to what I mentioned about the education system, we felt it was an opportunity for us. I felt this urgency to create this organization so young people can have an opportunity to choose that path. I resigned from my job - my wife thought i was crazy, my boys said, “Ok, hopefully it will work” - and a year later I’m at this beautiful event for National Day of Civic Hacking in partnership with Code for SF. That’s our first step. We need to continue to get folks out there to hear more about what this organization is: our mission, our values. I brought young people [the Fellows] today, so people now see that we have this available that needs to get exposed.
SM: How has your own experience influenced your goals?
LS: When I was 16, it was a really hard time for me. I thought I was king of the world. I thought I knew it all. I came to this country, and it was really hard for me to adjust to the culture, huge clash. I was trying to do my own thing. And for almost 10 years it was really hard for me to understand that technology was a vehicle for me to improve my life. I came really late in the game - I was 24 years old when I really felt like I needed to take a computer class. But as soon as I did, it opened up my eyes to a whole new world. back, I think “If I was 16 years old, and not already exposed to tech I would already be behind,” so I made that commitment to connect as many young people to those opportunities as possible. So, dev/Mission is very personal, very sentimental, because if I don’t see young people coding, building computers, interacting with each other, it makes me sad. It’s very dear to my heart, and I know there’s still more that I can do, and that this organization can do to close that gap.
SM: What kinds of positive experiences have you had through this work?
LS: Every day is a positive experience. But, seeing the behavior of young people where as they get exposed to technology, they get passionate, they become aware of the type of skills they bring to the table. Just recently I met some of the young people that have graduated from our program and came back and told me, “Leo, I got an internship at SalesForce.” Or, “Leo, I got a job at Jones IP”, “Leo, I got a job at Techleap,” “Leo, I’m going back to school for a CS major.” You count those on your fingers, but at the same time you know that young person is going to inspire others by sharing their story.
On the bigger note, I think there is a positive impact of these young people coming together from different economic backgrounds, different communities all over the Bay Area - not just San Francisco because we have young people coming from Richmond, Oakland, the East Bay. s they come together working in teams, working on projects creates that synergy that a lot of young people are not being exposed to. Aside from that, I think the biggest story for this organization is that our board members are half minorities, and I think that is critical for our success.
SM: How have you seen dev/Mission impact your community?
LS: We are in three communities right now. We saw a community like Hunters Point West, which is completely isolated, [with] a lot of crime. And now we have a computer lab, we’re about to launch a STEM hub to bring K-12 kids in to tech. That’s going to be announced next week, at our backpack giveaway. We’re also working in the Western Edition, primarily working in affordable housing. All of our programs run in affordable housing.Last week I was in Yakima [in Washington], where we launched our first chapter program in partnership with OIC and Youthbuild. If you believe San Francisco has so many opportunities, imagine a city like Yakima, that has really nothing out there. These young people that graduated from the program came in not knowing how to write a line of code, and now they are like, “Wow, is there a career for me?” There is! You just drive to Seattle, 2 hours away, maybe you move to Seattle. But those five young people that graduated from the program were exposed to that opportunity. Now it’s up to them. I don’t tell young people I’m going to get them a job. I don’t tell young people they’re going to go to boot camp. You would make that choice. I will connect you to those opportunities, but you need to take ownership over what you want to do with that. So I think at a bigger level, the impact we’re making in the community is huge, because now we’re creating a vehicle for kids and youth and young adults to use technology to improve their lives.
SM: What kind of plans for the future do you have for dev/Mission?
LS: I want every community in San Francisco to have a program like dev/Mission. I want every city in the Bay Area or California to have a program like dev/Mission. It’s very ambitious. But if you pay attention to all the young people that live in those communities,there are no programs like that. Every time new people join our program, we ask why they’re here, and I hear over and over, “There’s no program like this where I live.” These are young people that are hungry for a program like dev/Mission. I also believe that funding is critical. So being exposed to those opportunities help us get to that point.
By Sebastian Meyer
Following this interview, I got the privilege to meet one of the alumni of the program, Mellany, who said that dev/mission empowered her to make her own path in the tech world in a way that had not been done before. Tech was not something she had had access to in her schooling, but something she had always been interested in and wanted to pursue:
“Before dev/Mission, I had barely gotten into coding. I was trying to pursue nursing in college but didn’t like chemistry, so I took a coding class, which got me super interested in coding, and not long after I met Leo and learned about dev/mission and what they were doing… I never really had any opportunities in tech before [dev/mission], and had never really had any support, with my family always working, who are first generation immigrants, so they can’t really do much regarding my education…I didn’t really know much about the tech industry.”
This interview really inspired me. Leo had told me earlier that his growing network of computer labs and teaching facilities had recently expanded to Hunters Point, a relatively isolated community with high crime rates. With dev/mission on the ground floor training young people to seek out their dreams in technology, I think it’s reasonable to expect a shift in the racial disparity within the Bay Area tech scene, especially as dev/Missions network continues to grow. With whole new demographics of people within the industry, imagine what kind of progress can be made.