Nowhere in San Francisco is wealth disparity more prevalent than the Tenderloin.
In one of the grittiest downtown neighbourhoods, homeless people sleep outside the offices of Uber, Microsoft, Twitter, Square, and other high-powered tech companies. Needles, garbage, and faeces are found in concentrations comparable to some of the world’s poorest slums. Drug dealers conduct business on the same blocks where tech workers buy venture-backed coffee.
It’s clear that not everyone has benefitted from the economic gains of the tech boom.
In 2015, a formerly homeless man launched Code Tenderloin, a non-profit that provides job readiness training and basic coding skills to the city’s homeless, formerly incarcerated, and disenfranchised populations – with the goal of putting them to work in the tech industry.
About half of the 300 people that Code Tenderloin has accepted into the program reported finding employment after graduation. An elite few have landed six-figure salaries as software engineers and customer service technicians at companies including Microsoft and LinkedIn.
I recently shadowed a cohort of Code Tenderloin participants. Here’s what I learned.
Every morning, tech workers carrying laptop bags, slugging meal-replacement shakes, and riding electric scooters glide down the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderoin neighbourhood.
For some, the way to work passes through an enclave for the city’s chronically homeless.
The tech industry has added some 10,000 jobs to the Tenderloin and the surrounding area over the last decade. But those jobs typically don’t go to people who live on the streets.
Victoria Westbrook, director of programs and operations at Code Tenderloin, said it’s especially hard for locals to snap up those roles when they have a criminal record or can’t afford permanent housing.
Westbrook knows the struggle first-hand. She used methamphetamine almost daily for 20 years. She was indicted on federal drug charges and was released from prison in 2016.
After her release, Westbrook entered a halfway house in San Francisco. Residents weren’t allowed to leave without permission.
Each day, she read books and sat in her room until her next shift as a food-runner at Joe’s Crab Shack. When a friend who was also formerly incarcerated recommended she apply to Code Tenderloin, Westbrook jumped at the opportunity to be out of the house several days a week.
“I thought it sounded like bullshit,” Westbrook said. “But you would do anything to get out.”
At Code Tenderloin, she reduced her four-page resume to one, brushed up on networking skills, and spent hours in conversation with founder Del Seymour and members of her cohort. She said she learned, “my past shapes me but it doesn’t define me unless I let it.”
Today, Code Tenderloin runs programs throughout the year. Participants come from across San Francisco. Some live in shelters or the halfway house where Westbrook once stayed.
“The only reason we will turn somebody away is if they’re an active addict, or they have mental or behavioural health issues that aren’t managed,” Westbrook said.
Code Tenderloin will then help those applicants locate the resources they need to get better.
The class meets three to four times a week for several hours. In a recent meeting of the 18-to-24-year-old cohort, participants worked on their “elevator pitches” — a quick sales pitch about themselves for when they come face-to-face with a professional in their industry.
A student who goes by “Zen” sat across from a volunteer, Sanjna, who works as a product marketing manager at Salesforce. Zen launched into his elevator pitch by rattling off a list of interests: marketing, advertising, and AI. He said he wants to work at Salesforce someday.
The pitch was vague because, as Zen put it, he has “too many interests.” Sanjna suggested he reach out to people in tech and ask them to share what excites them about their work, so that Zen might be able to cobble together a clearer picture of his own career aspirations.
Not everyone who enters Code Tenderloin wants to find a job in tech.
Kenya, one of the youngest members of her cohort, wants to be a physical therapist. A Salesforce employee encouraged her to liven up her elevator pitch with personality.
Code Tenderloin tells tech companies that if they want to do something for the community, they can hire a graduate. Former participants work in security, customer service, maintenance, and other entry-level positions.
Later in the program, tech companies welcome the cohort into their offices for advanced coaching. Salesforce, GitHub, and Twitter employees lead the sessions.
At Twitter, a group of software engineers shared how they came to be at the company. Their stories showed that there are many paths to employment in tech.
When it comes time for applying for jobs, “our people aren’t going to come through the front door,” Westbrook said. Their backgrounds would be frowned upon in most hiring settings.
Westbrook said one former graduate of Code Tenderloin was offered a job at a major Silicon Valley company, until the company learned of her criminal record and rescinded the offer.
California has laws that regulate how employers use arrest and conviction records in making employment decisions. The woman went to local labour advocates and forced the company to reconsider her application. She started as a product service advisor making $US17.50 an hour with full benefits in 2017. Within two months, she was named a most valuable player on her team.
Code Tenderloin provides an alternative pathway into organisations that might otherwise pass over their resumes, Westbrook said. The non-profit reaches into its network of business partners to recommend candidates.
Tech companies like Twitter and Dolby also provide a bulk of the funding for Code Tenderloin’s programming, though its largest donor to-date is Baltimore-based developer War Horse Cities.
Since 2015, Code Tenderloin has placed over 100 people at jobs. Of those newly employed, 35% remained in the same job 12 months after graduating from Code Tenderloin.
A select few have gone on to land high-paying jobs at elite tech companies.
Preston Phan was homeless when he began Code Tenderloin in January 2017. When the cohort visited LinkedIn, Phan connected with an employee who encouraged him to apply for an apprenticeship at the company. By April, he was working full-time as an apprentice software engineer with a $US115,000 salary and corporate housing near LinkedIn’s Sunnyvale campus.
Westbrook wants to see their metrics improve. With more funding, she hopes to create an alumni program in which mentors provide ongoing support long after graduation.
The visit to Twitter’s NeighborNest, a community center located in the Tenderloin, ended with a game that challenged participants to use coding principles to complete a maze.
For some, it was their first time coding. It could be a stepping stone on the way to careers.
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