Why building community and mentorship can fix diversity in engineering, with ColorStack founder Jehron Petty
Daniel is an editor for Triplebyte's Compiler. He's spent years writing about software and technology and even has a few "Hello, World!" programs under his belt.
Underrepresented minorities make up only 18% of computer science degree graduates in the United States, a figure that’s only budged up 3% in the last 15 years.
These are the kinds of statistics that motivated Jehron Petty to found ColorStack, a non-profit working to improve Black and Latinx participation in software engineering by building mentorship and community at the university level. In August, Triplebyte announced a plan to incubate ColorStack to help the organization scale its student membership and chapters to more institutions across the country.
Below is my conversation with Petty on how he got started with his effort to bring more diversity to software engineering and why he believes ColorStack’s approach is the right one to make an impact.
Tell me about the moment when you realized you wanted to work on the engineering industry’s diversity problem.
It was during my first software engineering internship. I just finished my freshman year and had only a couple of CS classes under my belt, but at the company where I was interning, I wound up being the only Black employee of any kind in an office of over 100-plus. I put this together with the general lack of Black and Latinx representation I saw in my classes and other school events, and that’s when I began thinking, “Ok, is this a bigger problem?”
From there, I started reading more about the hard demographic numbers in software engineering, what was going on at scale in the industry, and of course they pretty much confirmed what I was seeing in my own experience. This caused me to begin actually losing sleep thinking about the long-term implications of an entire group being left out of the digital revolution and what that could mean for all kinds of things well beyond just job market numbers.
So, this motivated you to do something. How did that turn into ColorStack?
I started my sophomore year by just personally mentoring students to help them get through classes, help them get an internship, things like that. I quickly realized that I couldn’t do it all by myself. I eventually joined a group at Cornell called Under-Represented Minorities in Computing (URMC), where I would go on to become co-president and help build its membership from 15 students to over 300 in just two years. The new community and mentorship-focused initiatives I pushed for at URMC, like getting us converted to Slack to keep members connected and holding office hours for real face time, are part of the model that I brought over to form ColorStack after graduating.
By the time I was leaving Cornell, our work had helped triple enrollment at the school for Black and Latinx students in computer and information sciences classes. Now, with ColorStack, we’re bringing that same model to universities across the country.
Among the different ways to attack the software engineering industry's diversity problem, why do you think mentorship and building communities for students show some of the best results?
Lack of support affects your academic performance. I saw at Cornell, and it’s the same at any school you can think of, that students work together on coursework. And that support carries over to things like job applications when we’re talking about, say, sharing take home assessment. So when you’re a Black student who isn’t getting the same type of help and peer-to-peer support on these projects and assessments, it’s harder to do well.
In other words, I've worked with plenty of non-POC students whose success had way less to do with intelligence and more to do with having the opportunity to ask seven peers for help when they’re stumped on a question or part of a project. I believe it’s important that we try to ensure that same kind of support system is available to all students.
Now that you’ve begun expanding beyond your alma mater, where is ColorStack today in terms of student participation?
Yeah, so far we have about 850 students from over 350 schools. And we’re currently working to open about 10 ColorStack chapters on campuses.
While we grow, we’ve made it really simple to join the community remotely, no matter what school you’re at. You sign up on our site and indicate whether you want to be a General Member who just wants to get emails about opportunities and events or a Family Member who wants to fully participate in our peer-to-peer support system. For the latter, we book you an onboarding call with our team, where we walk you through how to maximize our Slack network for getting and giving help.
How did your partnership with Triplebyte come to be, and how is it going to help you grow ColorStack?
When I first set out to do this whole thing, I remember talking with dev/color/ founder Makinde Adeagbo, now a board member at ColorStack. We agreed our org would need a corporate founding partner, as we called it. We envisioned that there would be a company out there that would say, “Hey, this is valuable. This is not only going to be valuable to us as a company, but to the whole tech ecosystem at large. And we can justify paying this founder to build it.”
So we went out and tried to make that happen. We talked to 15 to 20 companies – many of them large companies with big budgets – that we thought would be interested in our mission. In a lot of cases, we would make initial contact only to be referred from a company’s recruiting team to their diversity and inclusion (DNI) team and so forth. Oftentimes the message we got back was that a company needed to find the right internal department that could justify our “price tag.”
Eventually, we decided this corporate founding partner idea might actually be a better fit for a smaller company, one inclined to approach an investment in us more holistically, or as a flagship effort. That's when I connected to Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel, who then introduced me to Triplebyte CEO Ammon Bartram. When I spoke to Ammon, we realized there was real alignment in our central missions as organizations, so the partnership makes a lot of sense. So right now, I’m essentially on Triplebyte’s staff, and my job is to grow ColorStack, my company, to more and more students and schools. It’s a unique partnership, and I don’t think I’d be able to focus on ColorStack full-time without it.
You mentioned that part of the urgency you felt to begin your work with ColorStack had to do with wanting to help create more opportunities for minorities in general. How do you see the generational social impact that increasing access to software jobs could have?
It’s no secret that the engineering industry is full of high-earning positions – and it has been for a long time. I remember for my first internship, one year out of college, my whole family was surprised at how much I was able to make. So, to me, it’s all about simply tapping into this new wave of opportunity for groups who have so far been left out.
And beyond software jobs being able to help increase earning potential and create generational wealth, I also believe that the perspectives and particular needs of underrepresented groups must be part of this very important digital revolution that’s happening in our world today. And there’s no better way to make that happen than ensuring everyone is allowed at the table to work on it.
You’re still just getting started, so how can other companies and organizations who want to contribute to ColorStack’s mission best help?
As we grow, we’ll have two main opportunities for companies to contribute to ColorStack. The most common way would be for recruitment, helping our students get internships and full-time jobs. But what we’d appreciate even more is contributing to the development of our members, the long-term approach. In other words, instead of looking at our organization as a way to receive ROI in 2 months, we really want to work with companies that see the two, five-, and 10-year vision of what we’re building and want to get involved on the ground level. I'm talking resume workshops, technical interview preparation, skill-building workshops, mentorship, and more. That’s what is going to help us move the needle.
The last thing I’d say is to remember that we are a nonprofit organization that still needs to keep the lights on, so contributing to our cause financially is huge, as well.
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