Coders Like Us

Howard Univer­sity fights to join the tech boom By Vauhini Vara Pho­to­graphs by Christo­pher Gre­gory

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Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies all say they want black en­gi­neers. So why don’t they hire them?

In the fall of 2013 a young soft­ware en­gi­neer named Charles Pratt ar­rived on Howard Univer­sity’s cam­pus in Wash­ing­ton. His em­ployer, Google, had sent him there to cul­ti­vate fu­ture Sil­i­con Val­ley pro­gram­mers. It rep­re­sented a warm­ing of the Val­ley’s at­ti­tude to­ward Howard, where more than 8 out of 10 stu­dents are black. The chair of the com­puter sci­ence depart­ment, Le­gand Burge, had spent al­most a decade invit­ing tech com­pa­nies to hire his grad­u­ates, but they’d mostly ig­nored him. Pratt be­gan teach­ing com­puter sci­ence classes, help­ing to re­vamp the depart­ment’s cur­ricu­lum, and pre­par­ing stu­dents for Google’s idio­syn­cratic ap­pli­ca­tion process. It was one of sev­eral ini­tia­tives meant to get the school to churn out large num­bers of en­gi­neers. Two and a half years later, that hasn’t hap­pened. The slow progress re­flects the knot­ti­ness of one of Sil­i­con Val­ley’s most per­sis­tent prob­lems: It’s too white.

Howard, founded in 1867, has long been one of the coun­try’s most em­i­nent his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and univer­si­ties. Thur­good Mar­shall went there, as did Toni Mor­ri­son; the writer Ta-Ne­hisi Coates, who at­tended Howard, called it the Mecca—the place where he re­al­ized the black world “was more than a photo neg­a­tive of that of the peo­ple who be­lieve they’re white.” Still, it’s not among the elite sci­ence-ori­ented univer­si­ties where tech com­pa­nies have fo­cused re­cruit­ment—places like Stan­ford, MIT, and Carnegie Mel­lon. Pratt ar­rived in Wash­ing­ton as tra­di­tional hir­ing prac­tices were be­ing scru­ti­nized.

Pres­sured by em­ploy­ees and the press, com­pa­nies be­gan dis­clos­ing the de­mo­graph­ics of their work­forces. One fig­ure stood out: African Amer­i­cans, about 13 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, made up no more than 1 per­cent of tech­ni­cal em­ploy­ees at Google, Face­book, and other prom­i­nent Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies. This was at least partly be­cause of the way com­pa­nies re­cruited: From 2001 to 2009, more than 20 per­cent of all black com­puter sci­ence grad­u­ates at­tended an his­tor­i­cally black school, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral sta­tis­tics—yet the Val­ley wasn’t look­ing for can­di­dates at th­ese in­sti­tu­tions.

As the com­pa­nies re­vealed their data, Burge says, re­cruiters be­gan to get in touch. Early in 2014, Google’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent for “peo­ple op­er­a­tions” blogged about Pratt’s stint at Howard. That fall, Face­book’s di­rec­tor of di­ver­sity, Max­ine Wil­liams, trav­eled to the school for a pub­lic chat with the univer­sity’s pres­i­dent and a meet­ing with stu­dents. Drop­box made its first re­cruit­ing trip that fall; a year later, Pin­ter­est joined the list.

De­spite the ap­par­ent progress, Burge was cir­cum­spect

when I called in Septem­ber 2015 to ask about the com­pa­nies that had started ap­proach­ing Howard: “‘Started’ could mean many things,” he said. Howard was show­ing up in tech com­pa­nies’ news re­leases, but it wasn’t yet clear how Burge’s stu­dents would ben­e­fit. Face­book, Drop­box, and Pin­ter­est hadn’t yet hired any grad­u­at­ing se­niors for a full-time po­si­tion. In 2015, Google hired just one. This year, out of the 28 se­niors in his depart­ment, Burge knows of only two who’ve lined up a Sil­i­con Val­ley job: one at Google— its se­cond Howard hire—and an­other at Pandora. “There’s a big dis­con­nect,” Burge said.

Burge teaches mar­tial arts in his spare time, which is fit­ting. He has the dry, re­served de­meanor of a techie but runs the com­puter sci­ence depart­ment like a de­voted coach. “When there are com­pa­nies com­ing to re­cruit, he’ll be like, ‘Go get in there! Go meet so-and-so!’ ” says Lena Al­ston, who grad­u­ated in De­cem­ber. Some of his stu­dents have nick­named him Un­cle Burge. In 2005, a year be­fore he be­came depart­ment chair, Google in­vited him to in­ter­view for an en­gi­neer­ing po­si­tion. He wasn’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in work­ing there, but he saw a dif­fer­ent open­ing: Maybe he’d meet some peo­ple who’d help his stu­dents. It paid off, even­tu­ally. Eight years later, the com­pany cre­ated the Google in Res­i­dence pro­gram. Pratt had some teach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, from his col­lege years at Carnegie Mel­lon, and he was dis­en­chanted with his pro­gram­ming po­si­tion at the time; plus, as a black en­gi­neer, he’d long been trou­bled by Sil­i­con Val­ley’s lack of di­ver­sity. He packed his bags.

Sil­i­con Val­ley is rife with Stan­ford and MIT grad­u­ates who started cod­ing dur­ing child­hood, won pro­gram­ming com­pe­ti­tions in their spare time, and spent their sum­mers in­tern­ing at star­tups. At Howard, few of Pratt’s stu­dents fit that pro­file. They’d be­gun study­ing com­puter sci­ence in col­lege, and many had never vis­ited the Bay Area. One se­nior, Sarah Jones, says she’d as­sumed for years that Sil­i­con Val­ley was the name of a city. When she fi­nally vis­ited dur­ing col­lege, it struck her as a star­tlingly ho­mo­ge­neous cul­ture, made up of white and Asian peo­ple who “like Star Wars and stuff like Poké­mon.” When com­pa­nies be­gan to visit Howard, they’d boast about hav­ing on-site play­ground equip­ment and vol­ley­ball courts—not the kind of thing Jones or her friends got ex­cited about. “Slides are not re­ally ap­peal­ing,” she says. “There are not a lot of peo­ple of color in the Val­ley—and that, by it­self, makes it kind of un­wel­com­ing.”

In 2013, when Pratt ar­rived, he got to know the stu­dents by

stay­ing on cam­pus late into the evening, talk­ing with them. When it came to Sil­i­con Val­ley, “ev­ery­one had a war story,” he says. “They ei­ther had a per­sonal story or a story some­one had told them that had com­pletely turned them off.” He was par­tic­u­larly taken with a sopho­more named Vic­tor Fore­man, a smart, scrappy Texan who was com­pelled by big chal­lenges but didn’t like fol­low­ing rules. Fore­man had ma­jored in com­puter sci­ence be­cause its prac­ti­tion­ers were con­stantly push­ing the bound­aries of hu­man knowl­edge. “I wanted to be at the edge of some field,” he says.

Pratt had come to re­al­ize that his stu­dents’ pre­vi­ous cour­ses had ex­posed them to com­puter sci­ence the­ory, but not to enough of the prac­ti­cal skills that mat­ter to Sil­i­con Val­ley. None had pro­grammed be­fore col­lege. Fore­man had started col­lege in Texas, then dropped out and worked man­ual jobs. The la­bor had been painful, and there’d al­ways been more work­ers than jobs, so af­ter de­cid­ing to re­turn to school, this time at Howard, he’d cho­sen com­puter sci­ence. Some other stu­dents im­pressed Pratt, too. Rem­ing­ton Holt had picked com­puter sci­ence af­ter tag­ging along with a friend to an in­for­ma­tion ses­sion and lik­ing Burge. Al­ston and Hal­lie Lo­max had taken com­puter sci­ence classes on a whim and fallen in love with the sub­ject.

“Those four were some of my fa­vorite stu­dents—and, in my opin­ion, all of them su­per­bril­liant,” Pratt says. He be­gan as­sign­ing projects to them, and other fresh­men and sopho­mores, that re­quired writ­ing code in­stead of just talk­ing about it. “I was pretty lucky we got to have a Google pro­fes­sor, but he re­ally let us know how be­hind we were,” Fore­man says. Pratt also no­ticed that many ad­vanced classes at Howard and other black col­leges weren’t as rig­or­ous or up-to­date as they were at Carnegie Mel­lon or Stan­ford. By se­nior year, stu­dents risked fall­ing be­hind their peers from other in­sti­tu­tions. “I’d ask fac­ulty mem­bers, ‘Why are you teach­ing this course that way?’ ” he re­calls. “And they’d say, ‘Well, I’ve been teach­ing the course for 25 years.’ ”

That year, Pratt urged Fore­man, Al­ston, Lo­max, and Holt to ap­ply for paid sum­mer in­tern­ships at Google. He coached them through the process, par­tic­u­larly the com­pany’s idio­syn­cratic in­ter­views, which in­clude tough pro­gram­ming chal­lenges. After­ward, Lo­max says, “I was sit­ting in a Star­bucks, and some­one called me and was like, ‘Let me talk to you about your of­fer.’ And I was like, ‘Is this a joke?’ ” Holt, who’d tried for a Google in­tern­ship the pre­vi­ous year and failed, also re­ceived an of­fer, which he at­tributes to Pratt’s help. Al­ston got an in­tern­ship. So did eight oth­ers.

Fore­man did not. His class­mates de­scribe him as an ex­cel­lent pro­gram­mer—but un­like, say, Holt, a soft-spo­ken type known for get­ting along with ev­ery­one, Fore­man is strong-willed, which some­times gets him in trou­ble. “I just chalked it up to soft skills, I guess,” he says, ex­plain­ing that he and his in­ter­viewer had clashed. Pratt says he’d been “fu­ri­ous” to learn that Fore­man had been passed over. Other com­pa­nies said no, too. Fore­man got fed up. He wasn’t go­ing to waste his time ap­ply­ing

for in­tern­ships in Sil­i­con Val­ley if they were go­ing to keep clos­ing the door. Burge and Pratt rec­og­nized in Fore­man’s ex­pe­ri­ence a fa­mil­iar predica­ment, in which peo­ple from un­der­rep­re­sented back­grounds worry about con­firm­ing neg­a­tive stereo­types about their group, lose con­fi­dence, and get dis­cour­aged; the phe­nom­e­non, “stereo­type threat,” is get­ting more at­ten­tion in the Val­ley, and com­pa­nies have be­gun train­ing em­ploy­ees to be aware of it. “I spent a de­cent amount of time try­ing to en­cour­age Vic­tor, who was also one of my bet­ter stu­dents, to keep go­ing,” Pratt says. “But it was ob­vi­ous he felt a lit­tle re­jected.”

When Lo­max, Al­ston, and Holt ar­rived at Google, all three

ex­pe­ri­enced vary­ing de­grees of cul­ture shock. “When I was at Google, one thing that I heard over and over again was, ‘I learned to code when I was 7.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I didn’t,’ ” Lo­max says. But the Val­ley’s off­beat cul­ture in­vig­o­rated her. She’d al­ways felt like a bit of an od­dball at Howard; here, for the first time, the peo­ple she met re­minded her of her­self. Al­ston, who’d felt right at home at col­lege, had a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. She could see Google wanted to foster a di­verse cul­ture, but, as the only African Amer­i­can on her team, she didn’t feel she had much in com­mon with her col­leagues. “When I went out to lunch or some­thing with my team, it was sort of like, ‘Soooo, what are you guys talk­ing about?’ ” she says. “It could be some­thing as sim­ple as, like, what they watch on TV or what kind of books they like to read. And those are just not TV shows that I watch or books that I read.”

“Back in the civil rights pe­riod, it used to be that lighter-skinned peo­ple were able to pass and be more ac­cept­able, so they were able to get into or­ga­ni­za­tions or get into com­pa­nies,” Burge says. “Now it’s a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. It’s about cul­tural fit. Do you laugh at the same jokes? Do you Rollerblade or what­ever?” He says some of Howard’s first in­terns at Google—be­fore Pratt’s ar­rival—did well dur­ing the sum­mer but didn’t get of­fers be­cause, as a con­tact at the com­pany told him, they hadn’t been “Goog­ley enough.” (A spokes­woman said the com­pany doesn’t com­ment on hir­ing de­ci­sions. She noted that the head of peo­ple op­er­a­tions, Las­zlo Bock, has writ­ten that Goog­ley­ness in­volves be­ing fun-lov­ing, hum­ble, and con­sci­en­tious.)

Even the Google in Res­i­dence pro­gram, Pratt says, faced “lots of hur­dles.” Among them, Google didn’t give en­gi­neers in­cen­tives to teach at Howard—tak­ing the gig was li­able to hurt an en­gi­neer, pulling him out of the eval­u­a­tion and pro­mo­tion cy­cle. Pratt en­cour­aged oth­ers to step up, but the in­ter­est was muted.

That fall, when Face­book’s Wil­liams came to cam­pus with col­leagues, the visit didn’t go over well. In a meet­ing with stu­dents, one Face­book em­ployee brought up di­ver­sity so of­ten that stu­dents say they felt un­com­fort­able—as if she wanted to talk only about the color of their skin and not pro­gram­ming. The event had been ad­ver­tised as fo­cused on di­ver­sity, but stu­dents had been ea­ger to talk about jobs. A spokes­woman de­clined to make Wil­liams or other re­cruiters avail­able to be in­ter­viewed, be­cause, she says, Face­book is “still build­ing our re­la­tion­ship with Howard.” Drop­box also made its re­cruit­ing trip to Howard that fall but didn’t hire any­one full time.

Re­turn­ing to cam­pus for ju­nior year, Fore­man, Lo­max, Al­ston, and Holt found that Burge’s vi­sion for his depart­ment was chang­ing. He’d come to feel that Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies cared lit­tle about com­puter sci­ence the­o­ries. Re­cruiters wanted ef­fi­cient, cre­ative, ex­pe­ri­enced work­ers. So Burge de­vel­oped new cour­ses on cre­at­ing apps and launch­ing star­tups, while also as­sign­ing more cod­ing projects and mak­ing his stu­dents more aware of hackathons and other ex­tracur­ric­u­lar op­por­tu­ni­ties. It was “a cul­tural trans­for­ma­tion of our depart­ment,” he says.

Burge adapted his ap­proach for each stu­dent. Fore­man had to work out­side school, at one point as a valet, and his grades suf­fered. Burge en­cour­aged him to take on paid cod­ing projects for com­pa­nies in­stead of wast­ing his time with non­pro­gram­ming jobs. Lo­max, Al­ston, and Holt, mean­while, re­mained on a more tra­di­tional path. The sum­mer af­ter ju­nior year, Lo­max took a paid in­tern­ship at a soft­ware startup called Opower, and Al­ston and Holt re­turned to Google. At the end of that sum­mer, Al­ston and Holt un­der­went what’s known as the con­ver­sion process—one or more in­ter­views to help Google de­cide whether to bring an in­tern on full time. Al­ston got an of­fer. She didn’t want to move to Cal­i­for­nia—there was that cul­tural dis­con­nect, and she’d have missed her fam­ily and friends back East—and was re­lieved to learn that the job, as a pro­gram­mer, was in New York. She ac­cepted. Holt, though, was told to sit tight; Google hadn’t made up its mind about him.

Lo­max had be­come en­thralled by Sil­i­con Val­ley and started to think she’d learn more on the job than in col­lege. This fall, she dropped a bomb­shell on Burge: She was leav­ing school and head­ing west, though she hoped to fin­ish her de­gree at some point. In Novem­ber, Lo­max ar­rived in San Fran­cisco. She’d ap­plied for dozens of jobs in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber and kept a spread­sheet track­ing her progress. But af­ter a cou­ple of weeks in town, she still had no for­mal of­fers. Google, Twit­ter, Red­dit, and oth­ers had re­jected her; some com­pa­nies hadn’t even re­sponded to her ap­pli­ca­tion or to re­fer­rals from friends. Some promis­ing leads re­mained—she was still

in the run­ning with Face­book and LinkedIn—but all the in­ter­view­ing, Lo­max says, left her “kind of over­whelmed.”

She sus­pected that her drop­ping out of col­lege con­cerned some in­ter­view­ers. “The mo­ment you say, ‘I’m not fin­ish­ing this for­mal education,’ things start to carry a lit­tle bit more weight,” she says. “Like, if your al­go­rithm isn’t in­cred­i­bly ef­fi­cient in one of your in­ter­views, they’ll take that as a sign that you didn’t get the full im­pact of that in school.” Drop­ping out of Har­vard to launch a startup is one thing; leav­ing Howard to get a tra­di­tional po­si­tion, it seems, is an­other. In mid-Novem­ber, Lo­max ac­cepted an in­tern­ship at Pin­ter­est. The com­pany had pre­vi­ously re­jected her for a full-time job, but she felt she could con­vince them of her chops if she could spend a cou­ple of months there.

Holt, too, was leav­ing school early—but still get­ting his de­gree. He’d earned enough cred­its to grad­u­ate in De­cem­ber. Boe­ing had of­fered him a po­si­tion, but it didn’t ex­cite him. Mi­crosoft had re­jected him. Pin­ter­est had flown him out to San Fran­cisco for in­ter­views but ul­ti­mately of­fered him the same deal it gave Lo­max: an in­tern­ship rather than a full-time gig. Holt says he was told that the com­pany had been im­pressed with his per­son­al­ity and skills but felt that be­cause he was grad­u­at­ing early, he might not be pre­pared for full-time em­ploy­ment. Holt heard from Google, too—again, a re­jec­tion. He’d done well dur­ing his se­cond in­tern­ship, he says he was told, but not in his con­ver­sion in­ter­view. “I have no idea what went wrong,” he texted me. A Google spokes­woman wouldn’t com­ment on Holt’s sit­u­a­tion, but says in­terns most com­monly don’t get hired be­cause of “tech­ni­cal abil­ity.” For some time, Holt had been con­sid­er­ing grad­u­ate school, and now he de­cided to fo­cus on that, though be­fore classes started, he would in­tern at Pin­ter­est. Bre Che­ung, a Pin­ter­est re­cruiter, says the com­pany gave Holt and Lo­max in­tern­ships partly be­cause they’re still pur­su­ing de­grees.

By then, Fore­man was al­ready work­ing as a cor­po­rate con­sul­tant, but he came up with an­other scheme to get to Sil­i­con Val­ley. Some time ear­lier, he’d told Burge about his idea for a mu­sic app called SoundCrowd. Burge en­cour­aged him to launch it as part of a new startup de­vel­op­ment course he planned to co-teach in the fall with an­other en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor. He told Fore­man that an in­vestor named Michael Seibel was help­ing de­sign and run the class. Seibel would also do­nate $1,000 to each team of startup founders—to buy equip­ment, find cus­tomers, and so on. He was a part­ner at Y Com­bi­na­tor, a high-pow­ered Val­ley firm that in­vests in and men­tors promis­ing star­tups. Fore­man knew that join­ing Y Com­bi­na­tor could make an en­tre­pre­neur’s ca­reer. Maybe, he thought, he could per­suade Seibel to in­vest in SoundCrowd. It could hap­pen, Burge told him.

Peo­ple tend to dis­cuss Sil­i­con Val­ley’s di­ver­sity prob­lem

in bi­nary terms. One camp says com­pa­nies are bi­ased against un­der­rep­re­sented mi­nori­ties, or at least aren’t try­ing hard enough to at­tract them. The other says there aren’t enough peo­ple from th­ese back­grounds who are qual­i­fied for po­si­tions— or at least who are good enough to beat those Stan­ford grads with all the pro­gram­ming tro­phies and in­tern­ship ex­pe­ri­ence and Mozart-like child­hoods. The re­al­ity is, both are true.

Many Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies now have ex­ec­u­tives—in many cases, en­tire teams—re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing their ranks more di­verse; Google, Drop­box, Face­book, and Pin­ter­est are among them. Sev­eral peo­ple work­ing in th­ese roles ac­knowl­edge that bi­ases against peo­ple of color— of­ten un­con­scious—have kept the Val­ley from be­ing more di­verse; in re­sponse, com­pa­nies have in­sti­tuted train­ing on such sub­tle dis­crim­i­na­tion. Com­pa­nies also de­scribed fac­ing an­other chal­lenge, though.

When they started in­ter­view­ing se­niors, com­pa­nies found—as Pratt did at Howard—that many were un­der­pre­pared. They hadn’t been ex­posed to pro­gram­ming be­fore col­lege and had gaps in their col­lege classes. The com­pa­nies were com­ing into the process too late. So many of them have cre­ated pro­grams geared to­ward fresh­men and sopho­mores. “Early in­di­ca­tions show prom­ise,” says Roya Soleimani, a spokes­woman from Google, “but we know that mean­ing­ful change is go­ing to take time.”

Makinde Adeagbo, an en­gi­neer­ing pro­grams man­ager at Pin­ter­est, notes it’ll be a cou­ple of years be­fore th­ese in­terns grad­u­ate from col­lege. Pin­ter­est has vis­ited the cam­pus only once, but Che­ung says the first year of re­cruit­ing at any cam­pus is less about mak­ing job of­fers and more about mak­ing stu­dents aware of them as po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers. When Justin Bethune, a di­ver­sity pro­gram man­ager at Drop­box, vis­ited Howard, he met a lot of stu­dents who even­tu­ally took po­si­tions at well-known East Coast com­pa­nies; for stu­dents raised in the South or East, mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia is a big com­mit­ment. He re­al­ized it’s im­por­tant to “in­vest in and build trust and aware­ness among stu­dents” and “not just at­tend one job fair.” A Drop­box spokes­woman says the com­pany plans to re­turn to Howard next month. Af­ter Face­book’s ini­tial awk­ward­ness at Howard, em­ploy­ees went back last fall and held more tech­ni­cal and re­cruit­ing-ori­ented events, which im­pressed stu­dents. The com­pany re­cently of­fered a full-time po­si­tion to a Howard stu­dent.

Pratt points out that Howard, best known as a lib­eral arts in­sti­tu­tion, still isn’t pro­duc­ing many com­puter sci­ence stu­dents— fewer than 30 grad­u­at­ing se­niors, com­pared with an av­er­age of more than 100 for U.S. univer­si­ties with com­puter sci­ence de­part­ments that grant Ph.D.s (as Howard’s does)—and says it’ll take years for Burge’s pro­gram to start train­ing stu­dents at the level of Sil­i­con Val­ley’s top feeder schools. At the same time, he says, that com­pa­nies haven’t snapped up Lo­max, Holt, and Fore­man—all great can­di­dates, in his mind—amounts to “an ab­ject fail­ure.” He won­ders if com­pa­nies were let­ting some of his for­mer stu­dents slip through the cracks partly be­cause of un­con­scious racial bi­ases. “Some­one like Hal­lie show­ing up in Sil­i­con Val­ley ex­pect­ing the re­cep­tion that some­one like Mark Zucker­berg would get—it doesn’t sur­prise me that she wasn’t met with open arms,” he says. “She doesn’t fit the pro­file of what peo­ple think of when they think of en­gi­neers. Even though peo­ple think of Sil­i­con Val­ley as a big mer­i­toc­racy, I don’t think that’s how it works.”

Google has ex­panded its Google in Res­i­dence pro­gram to other black univer­si­ties and more than dou­bled the num­ber of sum­mer in­terns it hires from them. Still, Pratt says, the pro­gram “is prob­a­bly im­pact­ing Google’s im­age more than it’s im­pact­ing Google as a place.” Last year, he left the com­pany to pur­sue an MBA at Stan­ford; he wants to be­come a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist and in­vest in di­verse startup founders. His time at Howard made him pas­sion­ate about mak­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley less ho­mo­ge­neous, he says, but he lost faith that he could achieve that within Google.

In early Novem­ber, I meet with Burge in a con­fer­ence room in the en­gi­neer­ing build­ing. The walls are hung with posters dis­play­ing his stu­dents’ re­search, and on a white­board some­one has scrib­bled a math prob­lem. It’s Veter­ans Day, a rare day off, and Burge shows up in an Adidas track­suit. He talks about what he’s do­ing to im­prove his stu­dents’ job prospects. To ad­dress the lack of pro­gram­ming knowl­edge many had when they ar­rived at Howard, Burge has be­gun pi­lot­ing a train­ing pro­gram for in­com­ing com­puter sci­ence fresh­men. The stu­dents could com­plete the pro­gram on­line, over the sum­mer, af­ter which they’d be el­i­gi­ble for schol­ar­ships. And he’s still re­vamp­ing classes to be more pro­ject-based and less the­o­ret­i­cal. The cur­ricu­lum re­mains be­hind that of the top tech feeder schools, though, largely be­cause the depart­ment sim­ply has fewer re­sources. Burge is en­cour­ag­ing the univer­sity to let him hire more pro­fes­sors who could ad­dress the gaps. But what­ever im­prove­ments he makes at Howard, he says, “the com­pa­nies’ cul­tures have to change, too.”

Even some of Burge’s clos­est part­ners have some­times dis­ap­pointed him. For the startup course, he had hoped Seibel, the in­vestor, would visit cam­pus at least twice. But as class was to be­gin, Seibel said he was get­ting mar­ried and would be tied up with a long bach­e­lor party in Europe, then the wed­ding. In­stead of vis­it­ing Howard, he of­fered to meet with stu­dents and at­tend the fi­nal pre­sen­ta­tion of their star­tups over Skype. “He’s a busy man,” Burge says. He’s care­ful not to crit­i­cize Seibel, but his tone sounds vexed. It re­minds me of some­thing Burge had once told me in a mo­ment of frus­tra­tion about Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies: “They want to do th­ese things, but no­body is mak­ing the solid com­mit­ments.”

In late Novem­ber, Burge’s startup class is wind­ing down,

and Fore­man and his co-founders have had their first vir­tual ses­sion with Seibel. Fore­man still hopes Seibel will bring him into Y Com­bi­na­tor. “I don’t think he’d take time out un­less he was try­ing to find a com­pany,” he says. Seibel has of­fered a hint of en­cour­age­ment: “He said if we build this and peo­ple use it, he’d be the first cus­tomer.”

Soon af­ter, I speak with Seibel. He has big am­bi­tions for the class, which he hopes to ex­pand to other cam­puses, and en­vi­sions a fu­ture in which his­tor­i­cally black col­leges are full of kids who know how to start com­pa­nies. “I think there are two chal­lenges— and one chal­lenge is how to di­ver­sify the work­force in the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try, and the other chal­lenge is how to di­ver­sify the peo­ple who are start­ing com­pa­nies,” says Seibel, who is black. “At Y Com­bi­na­tor, we’re fo­cus­ing on the se­cond one more than the first.”

This seems to bode well for Fore­man, and I ask Seibel what he re­mem­bers of his con­ver­sa­tion with the SoundCrowd team. “To me, they sounded ex­actly like smart, tech­ni­cal col­lege kids,” he says. “I was con­fi­dent they had the abil­ity to build what­ever they wanted to build.” But he stresses that the goal of the class isn’t for him to find in­vest­ments. Startup founders—in­clud­ing th­ese—should fo­cus on their cus­tomers, not on fund­ing, he says. Seibel says he wasn’t too in­volved in the class only partly be­cause he was busy. He also wants pro­fes­sors to take own­er­ship of the course.

The fol­low­ing day, Seibel at­tends the fi­nal pre­sen­ta­tions via Skype. He pep­pers the groups with ques­tions: How many cus­tomers do they have? How much do they think they could charge for their prod­uct? At the end of the class, Burge asks Seibel if he has any fi­nal words. He con­grat­u­lates the stu­dents on their projects, which he says have im­pressed him. “I know it took a lot of hard work,” he says. Then he hangs up, leav­ing Burge and his stu­dents to fig­ure out their next move. <BW>

Rem­ing­ton Holt, 21

Lena Al­ston, 23

Vic­tor Fore­man, 26

Hal­lie Lo­max, 23

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