“Systemic” is just buzzwordy enough to become meaningless without context. But Sylvester Mobley can offer one stark example of the real-world effects of a systemic issue hindering Philly young people’s futures.
After launching the Innovation League, a competition-driven tech skills development initiative, this year, he kept hearing from parents that they didn’t feel comfortable about their kids traveling home from its programming by themselves amid a gun violence epidemic that has given Philly its highest number of annual homicides on record. That means the Black and brown students he’s most trying to reach are doubly at risk: of violence, and of not developing the tools they need for more promising professional futures.
To address the challenges at each level, he believes a holistic approach is needed.
With 1Philadelphia, the Coded By Kids founder is connecting partners across corporate, nonprofit and government sectors in an effort to create opportunities for communities of color within technology and innovation. The initiative plans to counter what its partners — and Mobley — see as the city’s current focus on short-term solutions to racial inequity by instead implementing a citywide tech education effort that will create a pipeline for high-level tech talent and leadership. And it’s not just about kids, but also adults who could be launching companies to build their own wealth, and in turn hire others from underrepresented groups.
Facets of the program include the Innovation League, a forthcoming software development apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship for those who might not be interested in attending a four-year college to learn computer skills, and a partnership with PACT’s Mentor Connect to bring mentorship to BIPOC entrepreneurs.
It builds on work that tech education nonprofit Coded by Kids has done over the last eight years. More than $1 million in support from funders such as Comcast NBCUniversal, Bank of America, The Lenfest Foundation and the City of Philadelphia can accelerate that work, while recognition from Philly icons like Julius “Dr. J” Irving brings further visibility to the issue.
Overall, it’s about looking at the “systemic drivers” of inequity, Mobley said.
Before 1Philadelphia, Mobley — a technologist himself who was recently named to Forbes’ inaugural 50 Champions List — found that funders often lost interest beyond providing short-term workforce development opportunities for Black and brown youth, and stopped short of reimagining the system to empower future engineers and entrepreneurs.
“Black and brown people are often treated like a problem to solve, not people who have a meaningful contribution to society they can bring,” he told Technical.ly via Zoom. “When you listen to the language people use, it’s, ‘We need to get them jobs so they’re not creating problems. If we get them jobs, they won’t be unemployed or need public assistance.’ It’s not, ‘Let’s remove the inequity that’s been created so those people can go as far as possible and not be limited.'”
So he set out to establish a multi-pronged approach that could also help underrepresented people learn how to succeed in tech — and why they might want to.
“A lot of our early work has been around outreach and awareness,” he said. “We found that there is a ton of opportunity in the tech and startup space, but when you talk to people in underrepresented communities, they don’t understand what the opportunity is or how they can get engaged. If we want people to take advantage of opportunities, we have to get them to the point where they have enough of a context on where they fit in.”
"We want to be able to point to an increase in startup founders in Philly that are raising capital because of what we've built."
There aren’t easy metrics to track for “awareness,” and he gives credit to the initiative funders for supporting an unproven effort. A decade down the line, Mobley said, he’ll count success if 1Philadelphia can point to a clear connection between its infrastructure-level changes and increases in tech participation.
That goes for not just entry-level roles, but senior technologists and those running tech companies. So 1Philadelphia is also creating a venture development studio — separate from, but related to, Mobley’s work as managing partner of new venture fund Plain Sight Capital.
“A lot of times when we talk about entrepreneurship with Black and brown people, it’s in the context of small business, not sustainable, scalable startups,” he said. “We want to be able to point to an increase in startup founders in Philly that are raising capital because of what we’ve built.”
Noting the disparities between the funding Black founders receive relative to their white counterparts, Mobley said he hopes to see more capital being directed to founders rather than just educational opportunities. Accordingly, he hopes 1Philadelphia can use its resources to succeed where likeminded efforts have failed in influencing “transformative change or equity for people.” It all starts with a safe walk home.
“At some point,” he said, “we have to try something different.”
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. -30-