By Lynn Brown
Today’s tech industry continues to grapple with issues of place and diversity. Currently, the majority of tech jobs are located in metropolitan hot spots like the Bay Area and New York City, and the number of women and people of color who hold these positions remains dismally low.
Enter Meka Egwuekwe, the founder of Code Crew—a coding boot camp based in Memphis, Tennessee—who has a two-fold solution: prioritize computer-training programs located in diverse Southern cities.
Code Crew is a Memphis-based nonprofit organization that teaches programming and software development to both children and adults. Egwuekwe founded the organization in 2015, along with two other former volunteers from the California-based Black Girls Code: Petya Grady and Audrey Williams.
However, Egwuekwe is quick to point out that Code Crew is much more than just another tech-training program. “We teach [our students] how to think computationally,” he says, “we prepare them for a computational, algorithmic, 21st-century world.”
“We teach [our students] how to think computationally. We prepare them for a computational, algorithmic, 21st-century world.”
–Meka Egwuekwe, Founder, Code Crew
A Rapid Expansion
Currently, the organization works with approximately 400 students every week and it estimates there are approximately 10,000 more who are taught by graduates of the teacher training program. Code Crew has also been pivotal in ensuring that more students across the state of Tennessee will have access to tech education. Public Chapter No. 454, which passed in 2019, charged the Tennessee Department of Education with developing a plan for K-12 computer science education. Egwuekwe and Code Crew employees were instrumental in getting this law passed and are currently part of the task force that was created to put forth recommendations for how to complete this monumental endeavor. The first step? Seeing to it that every high school in the state offers a computer science class to its students.
For Egwuekwe, this was all part of a larger vision: Children and adults from underrepresented groups should have equal access to tech education. In his view, the Code Crew’s mission is not just about job opportunities but about the unique perspectives and potential innovations that these students can then bring to the field. “It’s what I jokingly call the gospel of computer science education,” he says.
“Children and adults from underrepresented groups should have equal access to tech education. ..Code Crew’s mission is not just about job opportunities but about the unique perspectives and potential innovations that these students can then bring to the field.”
–Meka Egwuekwe, Code Crew
Tech Education for All
Youth programs aren’t the only avenue of education that Code Crew oversees. The organization also offers internships and tuition-based training programs for adults. These programs, which started in 2018, are intended to retrain students from the ground up, preparing them to become entry-level engineers, even if they don’t have a previous background in coding or computer science.
On average, the adults who enter this program have an annual income of approximately $15,000 per year. Once completed, Code Crew works with graduates of the program to help them find positions that pay at least $50,000 per year, a more than three-fold increase. What’s more, Code Crew has been particularly successful at educating and placing women of color in tech positions, a demographic that is particularly lacking in almost all computer science programs across the country.
“We’ve actually had a graduating class with more women than men,” Egwuekwe says proudly, “which is unusual in this field unless you’re Spellman College.”
The adult program partners with several other organizations in the Memphis area, including Southwest Tennessee Community College, which offers graduates college credit for their time with Code Crew, as well as the Workforce Investment Network, where students can earn up to a third off of their tuition if they qualify for assistance. To help with costs, Code Crew takes no money upfront; it’s only after graduates have landed a job that they’re expected to back-pay their tuition. The organization is also working hard to find ways to further reduce the program’s tuition, ideally to zero.
Building Apps and Community
Code Crew’s success is due, in no small part, to the passion of Egwuekwe and the rest of the organization’s team. Along with former students and teachers, the company has taken on a strong familial vibe that not even COVID-19 has dulled. In response to the pandemic, Code Crew moved classes online, allowing for even greater tech education access than before. “We’re able to reach more students, and, as these students graduate, they can pursue more opportunities because so many employers are allowing them to work remotely.”
“We’re able to reach more students, and, as these students graduate, they can pursue more opportunities because so many employers are allowing them to work remotely.”
–Meka Egwuekwe, Code Crew
This abrupt change in teaching style has also sparked ideas of the potential expansion of the program, as students—both young and old—who’ve left the city due to the pandemic have been able to continue taking classes from as far away as California and Philadelphia. As a result, the organization has been contemplating the possibilities of making these online offerings permanent, thus allowing others across the country to participate.
Perhaps it’s this spirit, at once entrepreneurial and community-based, that has managed to keep Code Crew afloat even during difficult times. It’s not uncommon for former adult students to come back as teachers for the youth programs—and corporate giving to the organization has increased, despite donors being affected by the pandemic. Still, Egwuekwe stresses that Code Crew is firmly a nonprofit and can always use some extra help. “There are many ways to get involved,” he says. “Bring your technical skills, bring your non-technical skills, share the word, or open your Rolodex and connect us to your network.”
Egwuekwe also emphasizes the importance of tech companies that are willing to hire entry-level applicants from diverse backgrounds. “If we’re going to have a vibrant tech ecosystem here, it’s going to take all of us playing a part, and some companies actually taking a risk, if you will, on this new channel for talent.”
Photo courtesy of Code Crew