Lyn Muldrow says she’s always been a “computer nerd.” At 14 years old, she started playing with code, building websites, “trying to create things online.” As an adult, she was good enough to freelance her web design skills, setting up home pages for mom-and-pop stores or creating message boards for community groups. Muldrow wanted to be more involved in programming, but she realized the tech sector didn’t look like her, an African-American female from Baltimore raising her kids as a single mom.
“I almost didn’t pursue tech, because I felt, maybe as a black woman, my opinions would not be validated,” she says. Despite her doubts, she enrolled in an intensive training program from General Assembly, a coding and design school, and received financial support from its Opportunity Fund. Thanks to both, Muldrow was able to switch careers and open her own firm about halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. “I sort of had to start from nothing,” she says.
Tech was — and in some ways, still largely is — a privileged white man’s world. Facebook doubled the number of black workers on staff two years ago, but they still numbered only 81 on a force of 5,470, according to a 2014 filing. It’s a problem that holds true across Silicon Valley. African-American and Hispanic workers together make up more than a quarter of the general labor force, but fill only 13 percent of computer and math jobs. Women are earning only one quarter of the country’s computer science degrees, down from 37 percent in 1983.
With workshops and full-time classes, General Assembly aims to change those numbers to reflect the diversity of those who want to pursue careers in tech. Ultimately, they want to see people doing work they love, says Megan Nesbeth, head of the Opportunity Fund. At its 14 locations on four continents, the school has trained 240,000 students in web development (the course Muldrow enrolled in), user experience design, product management, digital marketing, data science and business — fundamental skills that can be difficult to self-teach but necessary to enter the tech world.
Muldrow recognizes that challenge from experience. “Back then, I didn’t have a frame of reference of what it meant to be a programmer or developer. Especially when I was younger, I thought it was all numbers and math and algorithms, things you had to know and learn and do to create something on the web, to make something functional,” she recalls. Only after years of attempts did she start to realize that web design is fundamentally about languages. She didn’t need to memorize lines of code, only to learn how to speak the right commands to build what she envisioned. Which, she admits, is easier said than done.
Muldrow’s progress started with signing up for General Assembly’s immersion class. With backing from the Opportunity Fund for tuition (which ranges from about $10,000 to $15,000), she enrolled in a 12-week course. To support her kids, she still had to work nights 40 hours a week. After the 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. school day ended, she answered customer service questions from Uber riders and drivers at home for an annual salary of just $28,000. “My body was exhausted and I was running out of money,” Muldrow broke down and confessed to a General Assembly counselor three weeks in. She had spent all her savings to come to San Francisco, and because of her past, a loan seemed out of the question. Muldrow didn’t know if she could handle the stress. “I was really at the point where I wanted to go back home.”
The counselor told Muldrow she admired how hard she was working and promised to find a solution. Two weeks later, the Opportunity Fund helped subsidize those extra costs, so she could focus on her coursework. “I literally broke down when she told me, because you know I’m so used to doing things on my own as a single mom,” Muldrow says. “Honestly I’m just so grateful to them for believing in me.”
General Assembly recognized the huge obstacles to a career change — loans for training and tuition, months without work, a cross-country move — when they set up the Opportunity Fund with CapitalOne and AT&T. A college grad might have savings or be able to take out a loan, but the fund backs low-income individuals who don’t have any other options. “If you think about somebody from a lower-income bracket, with no line of credit, taking money out of savings they need to support their families, those odds are very much against them,” says Nesbeth, who previously worked on increasing diversity in higher education. “These are people who face some type of barrier to access to the tech industry. It takes a lot of different forms, but it’s really about socioeconomics.” Helping them overcome various individual circumstances, the fund has supported 125 fellows, usually awarding $10,000 each.
Muldrow’s story adds one more number to tech’s diversity stats, an almost imperceptible change when looking at the country’s entire labor force. But Muldrow sees herself as a trailblazer and wants to do her part to give back. After General Assembly, she worked as an instructor for Hack the Hood, a web design boot camp for kids in Oakland, and she now leads a chapter of Lesbians Who Tech. “I feel like I have a lot of responsibility to help others to understand that tech is for everyone,” she says. “You don’t have to be a white guy to be a web developer. You can look like yourself and build something amazing. It isn’t all ones and zeroes.”