Vivek Wadhwa
Vivek Wadhwa
Columnist

Smashing Silicon Valley’s biases

This column has been updated.

In 2003, Freada and Mitch Kapor attended a fundraiser at the Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, for (MS)2, a program that brought 100 disadvantaged African American, Latino, and Native American students from select public schools across the U.S. to the highly elite prep school for the summer. The program, which had changed the lives of hundreds of children, showed the students what they could achieve if they worked hard. Given the program’s results, the Kapors didn’t hesitate to make a generous donation.

Vivek Wadhwa

Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Harvard, Duke and Emory Universities as well as the University of California Berkeley.

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But when Freada asked how many of the children were from California, she was disappointed, but not surprised, by the answer.

“After a bit of shuffling and staring at shoes,” she told me during a visit to the Stanford campus in July, “I was told ‘none’ with an explanation that they had longstanding relationships with several high schools but none west of Chicago or Texas.”

California isn’t considered a priority given the popular myth that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy – a phenomenon I’ve previously highlighted. Blacks and Hispanics constitute only 1.5 percent and 4.7 percent respectively of the Valley’s computer workers—even lower than the national averages of 7.1 percent and 5.3 percent.

The Silicon Valley elite—like the children at prep schools such as Phillips, at least based on what the Kapors experienced during their visit, rarely get to interact with minorities, so stereotypes get propagated, which only serves to make the problem worse. Phillips head of school, John Palfrey says, however, that the school has come a long way in terms of increasing diversity. Venture capitalists invest in people who fit the “patterns” of successful entrepreneurs that they know, and hiring managers bring in more of the same types of people they have seen achieve success — in other words: people like them.

Indeed, during the July visit, the Kapors recalled an encounter between Mitch and one of his young Latino colleagues a few years ago. He asked if Mitch invented Lotus 1-2-3 (Lotus Software was acquired by IBM for $3.5 billion in 1995). Mitch said he was puzzled as to how someone in their 20s might know of a software program that was a blockbuster in the 1980s. He explained that his mother cleaned office buildings at night in Sacramento and would sometimes take him to work and let him play on the computer while she cleaned toilets and emptied corporate employees’ trash cans. For him, he said, this was the symbol of another life — of being successful. The interaction left Mitch in tears.

“How many Silicon Valley elites have ever had a conversation with the people who clean their offices,” he asked me, “do they see their kids as having the potential to be top talent in any field”?

This motivated the Kapors to establish a program called SMASH—the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy at UC Berkeley. They established SMASH through an organization they had founded in 2001 called Level Playing Field Institute. While inspired by the (MS) 2 program, SMASH is not a replica of it. Instead, SMASH focused on providing project-based learning and integrating science and math into contemporary issues rather than an intensive curriculum oriented towards standardized tests.

SMASH provides full funding for high-achieving, low-income high school students of color to spend time on campus for five weeks during the summers after their 9th, 10th and 11th grade years. They are immersed in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), conduct experiments and participate in group discussions. They are taught by leading scholars and provided access to the most advanced research equipment. Then they are provided with year-round academic support including SAT prep, college counseling, and other support to ensure their academic success.

The results speak for themselves: 100 percent of SMASH graduates have been accepted to competitive four-year colleges, and the overwhelming majority persist as STEM majors, according to Freada. Kids from under-performing public schools who are eligible for free lunches have often never heard of MIT or Middlebury or Morehouse, but those are campuses now populated with SMASH alumni.

SMASH has grown since 2004 from one site at UC Berkeley to four sites throughout the state. Another site is opening at the University of Chicago in 2013, and the program’s organizers are in discussions with 18 other campuses to expand nationally. The goal? Twenty-five sites by 2020.

The biggest limiting factor is funding. The program is expensive and the universities—even those with large endowments, such as Stanford—still charge the start-up non-profit full price for room and board. It’s the single, greatest line item in the SMASH budget.

SMASH has a rigorous and evolving curriculum, experiments with blended learning, including MySciHigh, which won first place at a recent Startup Weekend. The program also has a detailed operations manual for launching new sites. A STEM teacher training academy is also in its sights as the program explores how to scale its success.

When I visited SMASH at Stanford in July and talked to many of the participating students. They called the program “life-changing” and talked about how it made them determined to become and engineer or scientist.

Maria Castillo, a senior from Richmond High in California said the program inspired her to become an engineer so she could help solve the energy crisis. SMASH, she said, “inspired me to speak my opinions no matter what other people think.”

Hi Vo, a senior at Delmar High school in San Jose, gushed about how excited he had become about learning math and science because of the great scientists he met at Stanford. Daryle Alums, a student at KIPP King Collegiate in San Lorenzo, CA, said SMASH got him interested in computer science and that he had started a company with his friends.

I have little doubt that these students’ excitement and the sense of hope they developed is infectious. We just need thousands more like them returning to schools around the country to inspire the others.

The author is a Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance fellow at Stanford University.

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