Everyone should have access to digital skills. New grants aim to help

In the spring of 2000, a young man walked into the Inner-City Computer Stars office in Chicago, determined to join this nonprofit’s digital skills training program and build a future for himself in technology. But first he had to prove that he was ready for that journey.

“He was 17 or 18 years old when he applied,” recalls Sandee Kastrul, the CEO and a founder of i.c.stars. Kastrul says she asked him to “go and build a website and come back.” So he did. “And this was back in the day, 20 years ago, so he had all these floppy disks with his code on it to show us what he had built. It was pretty incredible, and we said, ‘All right, we’ve got to have this kid joining the cohort.’”

Today, that young man, Kevin Gates, is a principal cloud solution architect at Microsoft. Gates remembers his first conversation with i.c.stars. He says he heard “HTML” mentioned for the first time. It sparked his curiosity, and learning to build a website was the beginning of a new chapter for Gates:  “i.c.stars helped me stumble on what was a passion of mine, and that passion has led to a career. There is no doubt I would not be where I am without the program. I never would have imagined having the life I have without i.c.stars,” he says.

I.c.stars is a rigorous, tech-focused program that provides young adults from low-income communities with the tools to develop the technical and leadership skills needed for a career in technology, a field that continues to lack diversity and be in high demand.

Programs like this are vital to accelerating the distribution of digital skills. On Wednesday, Microsoft launched a new community skills grant program, part of the company’s commitment to racial equity and digital skills. It will include a $15 million investment over three years for Black- and African American-led nonprofits that are working to increase skill development and economic opportunities. The program includes grants, leadership development and technology enablement.

[December 17, 2020 UPDATE: See the list of community skills program grantees here]

Research shows that companies with diverse leadership are more likely to be profitable. Despite this knowledge, the workplace does not reflect this.

There are several issues with hiring that further lock in inequality, says Byron Auguste, the CEO and co-founder of Opportunity@Work, an organization focused on economic inclusion. Auguste is a member of the advisory board for Microsoft’s community skills program that supports nonprofits in Black and African American communities.

One of the issues is the idea that you need a certain background to do a job. Auguste, however, thinks qualifications are what should matter. “If you can do the job, you should be able to get the job,” he says.

A part of the solution is building access to larger talent pools like i.c.stars does. Auguste says that often employers hire someone great and think that they just got lucky.

“Actually, they’re one of millions, not one in a million,” he says. The only way to get to the millions of talented people who are shut out, he continues, is by enabling not just one individual at a time, but via training programs and talent sources like these.

[READ MORE: Microsoft launches initiative to help 25 million people worldwide acquire the digital skills needed in a COVID-19 economy]

The future of work

Microsoft’s skills initiative, of which this program is a part, hopes to help 25 million people around the world secure digital skills. In June, Microsoft made a public commitment to be more inclusive as an employer and to extend Microsoft’s support and outreach programs in Black and African American communities. As part of this, Microsoft’s community skills program will provide financial grants and tech enablement to community-based nonprofits reaching 5 million unemployed workers who need it most.

Naria Santa Lucia, general manager at Microsoft and lead on the larger skills initiative, explains the thinking behind this program: “It was designed with internal and external voices focused on community at the table. In addition to cash investments, we’re acting as a convener to bring together these organizations to share best practices.”

[READ MORE: Addressing racial injustice]

A part of this community-based skills program includes what Santa Lucia calls “a community of practice.” It offers a space for community leaders to come together and discuss concerns and issues they are having while Microsoft helps navigate solutions including tech enablement. The program aims to build up leadership in these programs but also individual nonprofit’s capabilities to help them further serve their communities.

“There are a lot of programs supporting skills, but this is explicitly supporting a level of capacity building, too,” observes Auguste. “The seeds of success are there, but there’s much more to be done to scale these programs up.”

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Paying it forward

I.c.stars interviews hundreds of potential candidates for each training cycle. Participants complete a two-year program that involves more than 1,000 hours of practical experience and advancing their public speaking skills – because Kastrul believes that technical skills aren’t enough on their own.

“I want people to be great technologists,” she says. “I want them to be able to solve complex problems, build awesome solutions, using systems thinking, but I also want people to be able to connect to what’s important, connect to the larger picture and to figure out, ‘How do I make opportunities for others?’”

That sense of paying it forward within a community runs deep through i.c.stars and organizations like it. It’s why recent alumni such as Ernest Roberts say they devote so much of their spare time to supporting new interns as well as their peers.

“We all help each other,” says Roberts. “It does create this community of those who successfully complete the program and continue on – we’re all together. It’s been two years, and if it wasn’t for quarantine, I’d still be going back almost every day.” He now serves as president of the alumni association.

Roberts believes that i.c.stars changed his life. Before the program, he worked at a distribution center in Mississippi – a state where he said he found limited opportunities to work in technology.

“That was a huge thing for me in Mississippi, because there’s no real technology hub, no technology jobs,” he says. “So now, I started thinking, as I’ve been going through i.c.stars, about how can I bring this into Mississippi, where kids don’t know that they don’t have to be a truck driver? You don’t have to be a farmer. You don’t have to be a warehouse worker. You can actually go and do other things and get paid for your mind instead of your physical body.”

Now working as a developer for a global financial services firm, Roberts says his outlook has been transformed: “I was living check to check,” he says. “Now, I can save up. Now, I can go ahead and start that bank account for my son that I thought about. I can start building for the future, where I was only living in the present.”

Realizing your potential

For another recent alum, i.c.stars has provided confidence. LaTonya Judkins had also worked in shipping and receiving, and since completing the i.c.stars program in 2019, has found a role at a sports data analytics firm – an ideal match for this basketball player who says she has always been tech savvy.

“I thought other people do software engineering, but I didn’t think that I would do it,” she says, “because I don’t have the education, the background, I’m not already into it. I figured that people that do software engineering, you have to have started doing it since you were a kid, and have to know a lot of stuff in order to do it. So, going through i.c.stars, they teach you that you can teach yourself how to do these things that everybody else does, and you can be successful doing it.”

Judkins says she knows she has chosen an industry where both women and people of color are underrepresented – but says the program has helped her to feel accepted.

“In technology, in corporate America – I’m not saying you have to fit in, but you kind of have to find your space, and also be comfortable and see ahead,” she points out. “With i.c.stars, and the program, it explains and it embraces diversity and inclusion – being Black, being a woman.”

diversity in tech graph

[The grant application period is now closed. For resources to support job seekers click HERE ]

The open grant application is how Microsoft Philanthropies says it is exercising its commitment to making access to technology more equitable. The focus is on groups that are based in local communities. Santa Lucia says, “We are looking for those nonprofits with local impact and community-based solutions. We are also looking at nonprofits led by Black and African American members as well as serving the Black and African American communities.”

There are areas across the country that have significant racial disparities in access to education, employment, health care and home ownership. But geography does not mean lack of skill, or lack of ambition, and it is the talent embedded in these neighborhoods that technology companies such as Microsoft hope to find and help flourish.

Gates says, “Microsoft has always been conscious about the impact the employees have in the communities where they live. I believe being able to make an impact in smaller communities is critical.”

For more information on our work to close the digital skills gap, click here . And follow @MSFTIssues on Twitter. 

(Main picture: Alums of the i.c.stars program, from left to right, Ernest Roberts, LaTonya Judkins and Kevin Gates)