This article appears as part of This Week in Milwaukee Rising, a weekly newsletter from Technical.ly highlighting the innovators bringing a more just, equitable and dynamic Milwaukee economy. Subscribe here. The series is underwritten by American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact.
Like many young Latinos living in Milwaukee, Carlos Vasquez’s plan for life after high school was already laid out. Following graduation, he would put up his diploma and follow his family’s footsteps into manufacturing. No questions asked.
“I graduated on a Friday, and by Monday I was working at a factory,” Vasquez told Technical.ly. “I had my life set up. Just like my cousins, uncles, everyone from a Latino family, that’s how it’s set up.”
Vasquez spent more than two years working as a polisher at the countertop factory, passing the time at work on YouTube. While his coworkers listened to music, he was streaming technology podcasts. He became a huge fan of engineer-turned-billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who piqued his early interest in coding.
Vasquez quit his job soon after. But it wasn’t easy to find resources in Milwaukee to fuel his curiosity and turn it into a full-time career. Plus, he said, no one looked like him.
Latinx professionals make up a tiny share of the workforce in the tech sector. A federal Diversity in High Tech Report found Latinx employees hold roughly 8% of jobs in high tech jobs — such as roles in computer science or engineering — a far cry from the 68.5% of white workers in similar fields. There are half as many Black and Latinx pros in tech as there are in the rest of the private sector, overall.
For Vasquez, his dreams of working in tech were feeling more and more futile.
“There were some community resources, but they wouldn’t grant me success,” he said. “It was more like, ‘Here’s a membership and now [go] learn programming.’ And that’s it. They didn’t really help me out or tell me how to get started.”
Kids in our neighborhoods are not given the opportunity or even told they have the opportunity. I want to be there for people so they can get started on that journey.
Eventually, Vasquez landed an internship at i.c. stars Milwaukee, which provides leadership training and a technology-based curriculum to underrepresented young adults to jumpstart their tech careers. That’s where he met his mentor, Ben Juarez, who was working as a technology training manager at the time.
It wasn’t long before the two Latino tech enthusiasts bonded over their unconventional paths into the industry — and griped about the lack of representation in the local scene.
While Juarez transitioned into tech following a successful career in public policy, he stumbled into the same roadblocks as Vasquez when he chose to channel his love of video games into learning code at the age of 30.
“Nobody ever told me that I could do this,” Juarez said of building his technology career. “Kids in our neighborhoods are not given the opportunity or even told they have the opportunity. I want to be there for people so they can get started on that journey.”
Juarez and Vasquez consider themselves among the lucky ones. Today, Juarez works as chief technology officer at Like | Minded, and is a cofounder of Cream City Coders, providing computer science training to central city youth. Vasquez works as a full-stack engineer at Northwestern Mutual. He is also the founder of Habla Code, where he hopes to break down technology barriers by translating English technology resources, such as coding tutorials, for Spanish speakers.
Fostering the next generation of Latinx tech professionals is just one of the reasons why Juarez and Vasquez joined forces to launch Latinos in Tech in 2019. The organization aims to “get Latinos in the field together to support and develop one another” through resource-sharing, special events and professional development workshops. The goal: to help Latinos meet the projected 13% growth of technology occupations by 2030.
But it’s also about providing visibility to Latinos pursuing career tech careers, and for those who never considered tech a viable possibility.
“Everything that LIT has implemented is [based] on experiences that Ben and I’ve encountered in the community,” Vasquez said.
Technical.ly sat down with the cofounders of Latinos in Tech to learn more about the inspiration behind the organization, and how Milwaukee can get better at supporting Latinx tech founders and technologists to improve representation. To hear the full conversation, watch the video recap below:
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