I spend a lot of time in meetings about poverty, economic opportunity, and workforce development. At some point in those conversations, someone will inevitably say, “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel.” The idea of not building something completely new when there may already be an existing solution or system makes sense. However, the push to not reinvent the wheel assumes the wheel was designed the right way from the beginning and works for everyone. What happens when the wheel’s design was deeply flawed?
Data released by McKinsey show that 42% of Black workers currently hold jobs that could be subject to automation by 2030. It is hard to look at the data on education, employment, entrepreneurship, and poverty for Black people in Philadelphia and say our wheels are working. But the structures we rely on to address our city’s socioeconomic issues weren’t designed to be equitable, transform a person’s socioeconomic status, or address the roots of poverty. We’ve taken systems that were designed to lock in and reinforce deep inequity, tried to produce positive outcomes with them, and then wondered why inequity persists.
So what do you do when the design of the wheel is deeply flawed? You redesign it.
Since 2014, I have run a nonprofit called Coded by Kids, which prepares underrepresented young people to succeed as tech and innovation leaders through project-based learning and mentorship. Our students learn about software development, digital design, computer science, and tech start-up-focused entrepreneurship programs. When individuals from underrepresented groups become tech leaders and innovators, we increase equity in our communities and throughout our city.
We’re not interested in poorly designed wheels. To build systems, programs, initiatives, and institutions that produce equitable outcomes, we must move away from the things we’ve historically poured time, money, and resources into.
That’s why, in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and Bank of America, Coded by Kids launched 1Philadelphia in October to help address systemic inequality facing our city’s youth. These partners and others are working to build a pipeline that will place students in digital design, computer science, and tech start-up-focused entrepreneurship programs. The focus will be not just tech literacy, but job readiness and placement, with training and mentorship opportunities to ensure program grads can access sustainable, high-growth jobs in tech and innovation.
1Philadelphia takes a new strategy to ensure career pathways for budding tech talent. First, we’re building an integrated tech education, skill development, and project-based experience that targets high-growth-opportunity careers that won’t fall victim to automation. This is not just about giving kids tech skills; it’s framing a mindset that assumes ambitious career achievement, and making explicit the connections from elementary and middle school to high school and college to careers.
Further, building a successful pipeline requires a commitment from the tech community at large. Tech education will only take you so far if you don’t know how to apply your knowledge in a work setting like Google or Facebook, so we’re intent on ensuring that students can receive these skill sets in a thoughtful, coordinated way, and tracking what they know so that their education can develop iteratively and in real time.
And perhaps most importantly, if you change the way Philadelphians look at tech and innovation, you change the culture of the city, which is what we’re trying to do with our new Innovation League. While the city’s tech start-ups have flourished, communities of color have not shared equally in that success, leading to a racial wealth gap that persists across generations. Most reasons for this are rooted in unequal access to and resources for effective, forward-thinking educational opportunities.
Partners like Bank of America and Comcast have shown their willingness to invest in new ways of thinking by funding initiatives like 1Philadelphia, which sits squarely outside of what has always been done. But for our city to become the city that we all believe in, it will take far more. We need a focused effort from all of our city’s stakeholders, from funders to government agencies, to believe in what the city can be — not what it has been — and invest in a new direction.
Then our wheels will really start turning.
Sylvester Mobley is the chief executive officer of Coded by Kids.