Tomorrow’s Qualified Candidates: Blue1647 Has a Plan to Solve Tech’s Diversity Problem

02 Jun 2016 | Alexis Stephens
Tomorrow’s Qualified Candidates: Blue1647 Has a Plan to Solve Tech’s Diversity Problem
Above: Courtesy of Blue1647

When the brick industrial building located at 1647 South Blue Island Avenue was constructed in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood in 1925, it was a truck depot for Fuhrman and Forster, a meatpacking and sausage company. In those days, meatpacking established Chicago as an economic and social gateway for a generation of European immigrants to the United States.

That truck depot is now home to Blue1647, an entrepreneurship and technology innovation center named after the address of the 10,000-square-foot space, which opened in August 2013. “We looked at “blue” in so many interesting ways,” said Founder and CEO Emile Cambry Jr., “thinking of ourselves as the blueprint of community economic development in the 21st century.”

The organization’s mission is to serve as a career gateway for the local Black and Latino youth who flock daily to the site to take part in its classes, workshops, apprenticeships, and internships. In addition to its educational and workforce development programming, the site is also a coworking space and a business accelerator, and it houses programs such as the Code Blue USA Hackathon Series, 1919: Women in Technology, and Latina Girls Code.

As a former investment banker, academic, and community activist, Cambry saw how tech start-ups and the innovation economy were catalyzing Chicago’s economy, but observed that the opportunities for career advancement and wealth creation were inequitable. He sees Blue1647 as a corrective force, a way to change the narrative about what youth of color can achieve, and a business model with tremendous growth potential.

In addition to the original Pilsen site, Blue1647 has opened four more locations: another in Chicago, two in St. Louis, Missouri, and one in Compton, California. Two more are on the way in Indiana. Cambry’s ultimate goal: to impact a million students every year. In 2013–2014, 11,420 students participated in STEM classes or workshops at Blue1647. Ninety-six percent of students who participated in the center’s summer 2014 workforce development trainings are currently either in high school or college, or employed in tech.

The organization’s membership model helped to support its growth. Memberships to private offices and collaborative workspaces range from $25 to $450 per month. Blue1647 also accepts donations and is planning to raise money for equipment through a "community-based digital currency" called Blue Coin.

“I see it as economic justice on a high level,” said Cambry. “We have to make sure that we’re planting the seeds for today’s students to be successful. As the economy becomes more digital and more jobs are concentrated in the tech sector, we have to make sure that doesn’t create another crisis for communities of color.”

Serving the deepest need in St. Louis

In August 2015, Blue1647 opened its first non-Chicago site, located in the Al Chapelle Community Center at the Clinton-Peabody housing development in St. Louis, Missouri. The program is part of an employment training initiative coordinated by a partnership between the St. Louis Housing Authority  and the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE) and funded by two federal grants.

Clinton-Peabody is one of the lowest-income, highest-need communities in the city, with an average median income of $7,200. Only about 30 percent of families have a working family member and more than 90 percent of households are headed by single mothers. Blue1647’s tech hub there provides basic computer skills for adults as well as entrepreneurship and coding curriculum for youth.

“I wanted to improve my typing skills since I haven’t typed since high school,” said Velva Danner, 51, who graduated from a Blue1647 class in February, “so when I do go out and look for a job, it’s going to help in the long run.” She had previously worked in food service and customer service, but was interested in taking the class so that she could develop her administrative skills. In addition to her training at Blue1647, Danner will be graduating from a separate financial literacy class being held on site this month.

“We have so many opportunities in information technology in this region,” said Stacey Fowler, the adult services and special projects manager at SLATE, “but the people with the skill sets to fill them are not here. We can’t grow our labor force until we start building opportunities and training. The center provides a fun, up-close introduction to IT.”

“For the adults, we want to make sure that we tackle the immediate computer needs and then slowly progress to the more advanced programs,” added Cambry, commenting on the St. Louis effort. “That doesn’t mean they won’t ever have digital skills, like coding, but it really gives us a chance to test where they are and prepare them for their immediate work environment and work needs.”

Change doesn’t happen overnight

For youth, who are more likely to be digital natives, lessons involve app development, 3D printing, and graphic design. Cambry mentioned that the students started writing a newsletter about what they are learning in their classes, and it’s being circulated throughout the housing development. “We talk about changing the narrative. Now we have a distribution platform for that,” he said.

“All of this support and this micro-targeting is really starting to yield a lot of benefits,” he continued. “I’ve learned throughout this process that patience is important, but consistent programming with patience is even better.”

Since Blue1647’s headquarters opened in Chicago, Cambry has learned many lessons that are helping to shape the structure and the curriculum of the sites that he is continuing to open. Among them is that in each location he tries to employ as many instructors of color as possible. “It’s important for the students to see representation of themselves,” he said. “They need to see that. They have expressed that it’s important to them.”

And despite current statistics that show racial disparities in the innovation economy closing at a glacial pace—Ursula Burns stepping down as CEO of Xerox leaves no Black woman CEOs on the S&P 500, for example—Cambry sees his work as a process with long-term rewards: “The biggest thing we try to tell everyone is that it’s not magic. It’s not something that changes overnight. You can’t change 60 years of the cycle of poverty overnight. But I’m very optimistic. It’s a slow process that eventually builds upon itself. That’s how you start to change the narrative.”

Check out the rest of the June 2, 2016 America's Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.