Diversity & Inclusion
Education / Funding / Nonprofits / Philanthropy / Women in tech

The Last Mile Education Fund is helping low-income women complete tech degrees

The fund offers support in the face of life obstacles that can be the difference between finishing degrees and not. It's fiscally sponsored by Baltimore's Digital Harbor Foundation.

Last Mile Education Fund cofounder Rian Walker. (Image via Zoom/DHF)
A car breaking down. Trouble making rent. Losing second (and third) jobs. Needing a laptop.

Those are just a few of the hurdles to complete software engineering degrees that a group of women talked about at a virtual event Wednesday. These weren’t challenges of coding, or even grades. But for many students from low-income backgrounds, overcoming these struggles are often the difference between finishing a degree and not. As tech inclusion advocate Ruthe Farmer pointed out, just 11% of students in the lowest income group graduate college within six years of starting. And without a degree, it’s tougher to get a job in the field.

So in considering how to bring more diversity to technology fields, it’s clear that alongside increasing skills, these life circumstances must be addressed to get those learning to the finish line.

The Last Mile Education Fund is aiming to do that by providing funding for women who are within four semesters of completing an undergraduate degree in tech and engineering. This can come through funding that’s distributed quickly for car repairs, or a scholarship that covers tuition for remaining credits.

Farmer, who is a cofounder of the fund, said that instead of a “scarcity” mindset often taken by scholarships to award a few high achievers at the top based on measures like grades, the fund takes an approach of “abundance.” The focus is on untapped potential and persistence in work to complete a degree. In fact, the fund doesn’t consider GPA.

“We believe that if you’ve made it this far in a computer science or engineering major, you’re worth our investment,” Farmer said.

Farmer, University of Southern Miss computer science professor Dr. Sarah Lee and data security analyst Rian Walker are launching with $3 million focused on supporting women in computing fields. It aims to raise a total of $15 million in philanthropic capital. The leaders expect that to be matched by an additional $25 million in investment by individuals and companies, which they say would enable investment in 38,000 students by 2030.

“When you invest in women, they invest in their families and in their communities,” Farmer said. “I can’t think of any better way to bring women out of poverty and do something about the significant diversity and inclusion issues in technology than to invest in striving women like these.”

Current investors include Melinda Gates’ investment firm Pivotal Ventures, former Pinterest executive Françoise Brougher, ReBoot Representation, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Murphy Family Fund, Cognizant FoundationAnitaB.org, Hopper-Dean Foundation, Capital One, Schmidt Futures, Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation and Snap Philanthropy.

The fund started work in 2019. In 2020, it distributed $300,000 in COVID-19 emergency grants to 350 students around the country, from Baltimore to Chicago to the Navajo Nation to the Texas border. This funding covered tuition, housing, car repairs, and even the basics like internet and groceries.

Ruthe Farmer.

Ruthe Farmer. (Courtesy photo)

Going forward, it’s providing three types of support: emergency funding of $599 that can be disbursed in three to five days, bridge funding grants of up to $3,000 for catastrophic expenses or support to help get to an internship, and funding for tuition and expenses to help complete a degree.

And this support is coming from a Baltimore address: The nonprofit is fiscally sponsored by Baltimore’s Digital Harbor Foundation (DHF), which is also providing back office and accelerator-like support.

DHF Executive Director Andrew Coy met Farmer through national work on tech access. The idea for the fund resonated with Coy, as granting scholarships to students from diverse groups dates to some of DHF’s earliest work back in 2011. Coy said he also sees a role in being a champion for new organizations led by women and people of color.

“Fiscally sponsored projects represent a really meaningful way to be supportive and take all the things we’ve built up here and put them in service to another generation or a new mix of individuals doing really meaningful work,” he said.

The Last Mile Education Fund founding team shows how experience can lead to new models. Cofounder Walker talked about how she struggled with challenges like financial insecurity and car issues. At one point, she lacked a computer.

“As a computer science major, not having a laptop is a pretty big issue,” she said.

The two other cofounders, Farmer and Dr. Lee, mentored and helped her as she worked to complete a degree. They were once again a key support when Walker got an internship in North Carolina, but faced struggles with the rent money required upfront and not having a car.

“Free opportunities, or even paid opportunities, are not free to low-income students,” Farmer said.

In creating the fund, they’re hoping to help many others.

Companies: Digital Harbor Foundation

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