On Thursday, Google announced a new program partnered with Howard University in an effort to recruit more young minds from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Howard has opened a campus at the Googleplex, called Howard West, “a physical space on campus where Howard students and Googlers can grow together,” and hopefully will encourage diversity in a field that sorely needs it.
In a press release, Howard University President Dr. Wayne Frederick said:
Howard West will produce hundreds of industry-ready Black computer science graduates, future leaders with the power to transform the global technology space into a stronger, more accurate reflection of the world around us. We envisioned this program with bold outcomes in mind — to advance a strategy that leverages Howard’s high quality faculty and Google’s expertise, while also rallying the tech industry and other thought leaders around the importance of diversity in business and the communities they serve.
The move comes as Google and other tech industry giants are still working to find ways to bring diversity to Silicon Valley in an industry where diversity in hiring has not been the norm. Bonita Stewart, Google’s Vice President of Global Partnerships says “students can expect an immersive academic and cultural experience at one of the most iconic companies in the world. Academically, they’ll acquire the skills necessary to excel on real-world projects, taught by the engineers who work on Google products and services every day.
The Howard graduate added, “Culturally, they’ll have a chance to experience daily life in Silicon Valley. On the flip side, we cannot wait to learn from our Howard West students and are excited to see the fresh creativity and innovation they bring to the table.”
Google hopes to expand the program to other HBCUs.
When Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green receives invitations to be a guest speaker for professional groups, schools and nonprofit organizations, she almost never turns them down.
“Usually if there is an invitation to speak at a forum like that, I accept it because I feel like it’s a responsibility,” she said. “There are so few of us (black women in STEM fields) I don’t feel like I have the luxury to say I’m too busy.”
By many measures, Green has been extremely busy. One of fewer than 100 black female physicists in the country, she recently won a $1.1 million grant to further develop her patent-pending technology for using laser-activated nanoparticles to treat cancer.
Green earned her master’s and Ph.D degrees at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and is now is an assistant professor in the physics department at Tuskegee University.
Green’s personal history with cancer fuels her drive to find a way to treat it. She grew up in St. Louis and – after the death of her mother and father – was raised by her aunt and uncle, General Lee Smith and his wife, Ora Lee.
When Ora Lee was diagnosed with cancer, “She refused the treatment because she didn’t want to experience the side effects,” said Green. “It was heartbreaking, but I could appreciate she wanted to die on her own terms. “Three months later, my uncle was diagnosed with cancer.”
Green took time off from school to help him through chemotherapy and radiation treatments. “I saw first-hand how devastating it was, and I could understand why my aunt didn’t want to go through that.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics with a concentration in fiberoptics, and then a full scholarship to UAB. She got the idea to use lasers to treat cancer without the side effects of chemo and radiation.
A physicist’s cancer treatment
A few months ago, Green was awarded a $1.1 million grant to work on a technology that targets, images and treats cancer. “I was completely overwhelmed with joy, with thanksgiving, humbled at the opportunity that a group of my peers thought that my work was worthy for such a grant,” she said. “This is a huge door opening. It outlines a path to take this treatment to clinical trial.”
As tech companies continue to share diversity statistics with the public, it’s clear there is still a lot of work to do to boost inclusion in tech. Yet, people of color are working at some of the largest companies in technology even though their numbers are few.
Google’s latest diversity stats from January 2015 show that 2% of its workforce is black. Meet three successful Google engineers:
Clennita Justice is a Social Engineering program manager. She’s been at Google more than half a decade.
She was hired to launch Google e-books, which became Google Play Books. Now, she does user research and Product Excellence—a focus on making the right product for the right user—part of Google’s shift in culture from launching to adopting. Justice’s particular area of focus is infrastructure.
Originally from Los Angeles, Justice has a Master’s degree in Computer Science from Howard University. She pursued a degree in Computer Science before the Internet was ubiquitous and before the big push to get women and girls interested in STEM, and despite the insistence of her uncle (who worked for IBM) that she study business.
A pivotal moment in her life was when someone in the Computer Science department at her university said he didn’t think she would stay in Computer Science. Not only did she stay and complete her degree, but she received the best job offer of anyone in her class.
Justice is a strong believer in self-educating. She also advises, “Anyone who gets into tech has to be a constant learner. That’s how you stay relevant.”
Aggrey Jacobs is a software engineer for Google Play; specifically, he works on Google Play Books for iPhone and iPad applications. His typical day is spent mostly coding, although he also engages in general problem solving for iOS at Google and also helps bring more users on board.
Prior to Google, Jacobs worked as an iOS developer at Western Digital. How the 28-year-old ended up working for two of the most prestigious technology companies is interesting. Jacobs says he never really knew what he wanted to do, and that his father was the one who suggested he study computer engineering. Jacobs’ father’s own computer experience is limited to playing Solitaire on the computer, according to Jacobs, who says, “Who knows?” how his father had the knowledge to direct him to that career.
During his first semester in school, Jacobs learned Java programming. He ended up double-majoring in both computer and electrical engineering.
The Brooklyn native says a pivotal point in his life was when he was contemplating graduate school. He went, but dropped out, because he was “trying to figure out what to do.”
Jacobs relocated to California to search for a job. It was there that Google reached out to him and he was hired, although he didn’t see himself getting through the interview process.
He now encourages other people of color to apply at Google. He says lack of exposure and intimidation can prevent some from applying at the company. By the way, he still speaks often with his father.
Travis McPhail is a software engineer and tech lead who works with Google Maps.
He is currently leading an effort to create one library that performs all of Google’s renderings across Maps, Google Earth, and Google Street View data.
McPhail believes the future of Google is through geospatial rendering applications that will allow people to be informed of the world around them.
He credits his career in software engineering to being “a bad kid” who “used to break a lot of things at home.” Fortunately, instead of “strangling him,” his father bought him a Commodore 64 computer when he was just five years old.
He had a natural affinity for technology from the start. His father challenged him to learn to use the computer, and McPhail says he started to “bang away on it.”