Showing the way into a tech life

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Kiwoba Allaire is bringing diversity to the tech profession by providing immersive experiences for students

The vision for this series is to surface and share insights of thought-leaders and trailblazers who live at the cutting edge of technology. While the opinions featured may not necessarily represent those of Verizon and its employees, we still believe that we can each learn from experiences and opinions of others, which is why we’ve chosen to feature them here. This dialogue is how we take the first steps towards making innovations that matter.

At first Kiwoba Allaire, the Corporate Social Responsibility lead at the tech firm Rocket Fuel and founder of GIRLSTEMSTARS.ORG, wasn’t sure what to think. Here was a person from Verizon, who traveled down to Redwood City from San Francisco, who wanted to talk about her efforts with students and STEM.

“You came all the way here for me?” She questioned as we met in the lobby of the Rocket Fuel offices. There’s a rocket lodged into the ceiling above us. The top can’t be seen. 

“Absolutely,” I replied, with some verve. “You’re doing great work that I’d like to help amplify.”

“Really,” she said, smiling. “That’s great news, because we can use all the help we can get.”

We take the elevator up one floor. The top of the rocket emerges from the floor on our right. After a short tour of the Rocket Fuel offices, we sat down in her office. All around her desk were testaments to her work. Posters, quotes, and pictures filled her office.

“Well,” she said matter-of-factly. “Here’s a quote that I think best encapsulates what I’m all about…That is why it is imperative to stay informed and educated. Try to keep an open mind and stay outside your shell. Learn as much as you can about other races, languages, and cultures. Knowledge is power, so absorb as many perspectives as possible and carefully consider the bias behind each source - don’t hold it in. Share what you learn with your friends, family, and larger community. Learn to teach, and teach to learn when it comes to diversity in technology!”

“Ok,” I started, considering which of those many points to start with. “Diversity in technology. This may be a leading question, but why is this a problem to solve?” Kiwoba moved from behind her monitor, around her desk and sat in the soft chair catty-corner to my right. She clasped her hands, rested them near her knees, and turned to me with a mix of seriousness and diplomacy…

Kiwoba Allaire

Kiwoba: Because when I walk around tech companies, I don’t see anyone that looks like me on a daily basis. It’s an all-Silicon Valley problem. And it’s not just here - it’s everywhere. And I’m trying to be the catalyst for change there, and be very disruptive, and look at that year 2030 group of kids who are trying to get jobs in the tech industry, and carve that path for them. Diversity in technology means we all need to work together and educate kids from underserved communities with STEM education through our own employees hosting tech events, STEM events, hackathons, hiring interns, hosting mentorship programs for kids from underserved diverse communities and start educating the workers for 2030.

Jason: And how are tech companies working to fix this?

Kiwoba: I would say…writing checks is great, but I challenge tech companies to bring the kids from diverse communities in their doors. The power of bringing a group of 100 kids from a diverse underserved high school or grammar / grade school, or afterschool program… when they come into the doors of a tech company, such as Rocket Fuel, their minds are blown. They are stepping in the door, and the kids are looking around going, “Wow, what do I have to learn to work here?” The parent’s minds are blown and they are saying, “Wow,” continuing the challenge for tech companies to physically bring kids from diverse communities into their campuses. Giving kids the experience of being in a tech environment is very powerful.

Jason: Creating an immersive experience…

Kiwoba: …Bringing them into the tech company; allowing them to feel that electric vibe and to eat and sit next to an engineer. I have kids that can actually sit next to an engineer for three hours and be taught Python or Java. They’re here from 8-5. They get the tour, they eat here and get to go play in the game room, or go outside and go to the gym and enjoy and experience all of it. The community part is where we get the local TV anchor, weather woman to come and speak to the kids about the STEM behind weather and being an anchorperson on TV. Our mayor will come and talk about being a mayor and how STEM helped in the process of becoming a mayor. When I have CEOs and top executives from Intel, UPS, Microsoft and such, coming and speaking to these kids about their journey and how they came to where they are today… also, how their companies help and how they are donating time and dollars to this important cause. It’s getting everybody involved. You know they say “it takes a village?” Well, it takes a village to bring up a bunch of kids in STEM education. And I say bring up so that we’re not just educating them, but we’re bringing them up in the world of STEM. Because STEM is a whole new world for them, and that STEM is behind every single aspect of their world. And they don’t realize that. You know? So from the fruit guy to the mayor, to the anchorperson they see on TV, to the congresswoman, to the rocket scientist. Everybody, even the people who make the cartoons that they watch in the morning - every part of their world.

Jason: So STEM education is the way. You’re sure of it?

Kiwoba: Well, I am a big proponent of STEM education, but there is also STEAM, where you do have to throw in the arts. So you have a well-rounded child. Studies show that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who actively participated in the arts tended to score better in science and writing, and were more likely to aspire to college. I believe in teaching these youth science, technology, engineering, and math, but then also taking them to the symphony and allowing them to have that experience as well. And I do believe that creates a well-rounded kid who can go out there and have experiences in art and experiencing a jazz concert, experiencing an opera, experiencing and creating a piece of art or music, as well as coding, creating an app or being able to hack something. I think that building or molding a well-rounded youth is key to their success for a future in this tech environment.

Jason: STEM-ing every part of your world; there’s always STEM behind something...

Kiwoba: Bringing all those community members into one place to educate these kids; to speak about how STEM has changed their life or how STEM has helped them travel and improve their lives. You know, so you look at Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. There’s a lot of STEM behind what he does. You know? And how STEAM can help make people successful whether it’s an engineer, rocket scientist or symphony conductor. And having these community leaders, I’m blessed to just meet all kinds of amazing people. And they get what I’m doing, they believe in the STEM education cause. And they want to jump on board, they’re like, yeah, I’ll come talk to the kids, or I’ll come to your event to help teach, volunteer, or I’ll donate. Rocket scientists that give up a Saturday to come and talk to a bunch of kids. Talk about community:  congresswomen and heavy weight champions of the world come and spend an hour and a half to speak and stick around to take pictures with kids. I mean, that is community, getting involved. It takes a village to raise up a kid in STEM.

Jason: Talk about STEM heroes…the concept of a STEM hero is…

Kiwoba: The concept of a STEM hero is getting new icons in their lives, new heroes in their lives, opposed to a rap star or a social media star. You know, looking at a rocket scientist from NASA that helped discover water on Mars as an icon or STEM hero as opposed to Kim Kardashian. Putting influential and successful people in front of these kids, for them to see how heroic they are. A pediatrician came and spoke to the kids yesterday, and she showed and explained all the tools that she uses, like a stethoscope, reflex hammer and thermometer. And then taught kids how to make their names in binary code using M&M’s, and also how to extract DNA from strawberries! They looked at her like she was the bee’s knees. They’re like, “Wow, she is so cool!” And they wanted to take a picture with her. And that’s what I’m talking about with STEM heroes. These kids can look around in their daily lives and see a pediatrician is a STEM hero, that there are people at NASA who are STEM heroes. That their congresswoman is a STEM hero. That their mayor is a STEM hero. Also, the people like the professors from Stanford who come and talk about curing cancer. “We are curing cancer and this is how we’re doing it. We’re curing breast cancer. Have you heard of breast cancer?” And they talk about it. And these doctors, these professors leave; these kids have their jaws dropped, slack-jawed, and they are like “Wow.” Those are STEM heroes.

Jason: Talk a little bit more about the STEM camp itself…

Kiwoba: The STEM camp is… when you get a kid for more than four hours, you get them for a long period of time. Multiple days. You really have an opportunity to sink into them, deep dive, sink into them information over a longer period of time that will really stick and it will change their lives. I find that a two-hour class is great and every week they are learning, but I see a real change when I have a kid for eight hours or when I have them for multiple days, and multiple weeks. Then you really get to see a change. They are giving up the cartoons in the morning because their butts have to be some place at 8 o’clock in the morning. Their parents are getting involved; they have skin in the game. Their parents have to sign off on this. Their parents have to get involved in a workshop. This is how your kids are learning; this is how they can continue to do this. These are the materials; here is where you can find the free materials and resources. This person is here to talk to you about how to educate your kid. This person is here to give you books on what we’re teaching them. This person is here to give you laptops. So the parent is educated. The kid is educated. All at the same time.

Jason: This type of STEM education will change these kids’ lives…

Kiwoba: Look, it is by the grace of God that I am where I am today. Truly by the grace of God. I’m not an engineer, you know? But I lead a very rich life, and in that rich life I don’t see many people who look like me. Like when I go paragliding with my husband, I don’t see many Black people or Latin people. When I go to the symphony, there’s very few of them. When I got to the opera or when I go to a few jazz clubs in San Francisco, the Black people are on stage! And some of them, it’s predominantly a Caucasian audience that is watching. Golf, I don’t see a lot of Black golfers. Scuba diving, there aren’t any! You know, so I’m trying to get them to realize. When I go to a TED conference and I see very, very few women like myself, and it’s such a rich environment to learn. I learn so much. At a lot of these conferences I go to, I feel frustrated and sad that I don’t see anybody who looks like me. I see a gap - a huge gap, a huge emptiness, a huge void of people who look like me. And it’s in pretty much everything that I do. When I go to a conference, or when I go to a concert, when I do a sport. I don’t see very many people who look like me. And that’s what I am trying to change - when I go do Tai Chi in the morning, I don’t see very many people who look like me. When I go to yoga class at lunch time, there is nobody who looks like me. There are no Blacks and there are no Latinos, and yoga is such a rich thing for you. And I’m looking around and I’m like, “Damn, I wish I could see my brothers and sisters here.”

Jason: Ok, so this gap and the lack of people of color in the rhythm of your life, and specifically around tech…is this due to racism, prejudice?

Kiwoba: I think it’s awareness - I don’t think it’s a prejudice anymore. I think it’s an awareness issue…I’m here at Rocket Fuel in tech and I’m well received and everybody loves me. It’s also that there are  not enough people of color getting educated enough to do these jobs. They’re just not qualified, you know? I know a lot of Black people, but they are just not qualified enough to come work here doing Artificial Intelligence. I try to get them jobs here, but they’re not qualified. It starts with the education. And the education has to start young. I want them to live the life that I am living or better! I’m trying to carve a path! Because if you don’t get them and say, come on! If I don’t bus those kids over here, how are they going to be able to come out and see what’s here in this cool tech world? Literally, like I said, when I do these events, where it’s like 100 kids and their parents come. And they’re like, “Whoa, I didn’t know there was anything like this that existed.” They need the access! They need us! These long arms and these tech companies need to reach out into the community, go get these kids, bring them in and show them what’s available. And then show them how to access it.

Jason: We should tell the tech firms to put their checks away and be more directly proactive in these kids’ lives…

Kiwoba: I would say use your money physically - as example, where you pay for the dang bus to get these kids to your offices. You hire a coding teacher. You provide the laptops. You provide the field trips to the symphony, to Tesla, to Disneyland, to Pixar, to see the STEM in everything in their life that they think is so cool. You bring in Will.I.Am. to come and talk to them about how STEM education is in every aspect of his music. This is what you do. You pay for the food for them to sit in the cafeteria to eat with all the employees, sit in there with the engineers for them to be able to have that experience. And then you engage your local college to get interns for kids to come and teach them, and then you bring on these kids that you’re teaching as interns. And then you hire them.

Jason: That’s awesome.

Kiwoba: It’s about stepping out and doing. Just pick up the phone, go call your local school district, call your city council, your local library, your local homeless shelter-children’s shelter; ask about their needs. It was interesting - like I said, I bussed girls here for the STEM class and reached out to our local after school programs as well, and I told the kids, “We’re donating some clothes and books to the children’s homeless shelter in San Mateo.” And one of the girls raised her hand. And I said, “Yes, sweetie?” She said, “I just want to say thank you,” and she stood up and she said, “because I live at that shelter.” And I’m like (clap). “See what I’m talking about? See what I’m talking about?”

Jason: So I’ll ask one more question. Can the cycle of poverty ever end?

Kiwoba: If every person looks at it that they are part of that village, and they have to step out and physically do something and lift their hand out and lift somebody else up, then yes, but if we all continue to just write a check and keep on going, then no. But if everyone put out their hand and physically lift up at least one other person, make a project of one person, we can.


Kiwoba then turns to me and asks if I’m hungry. She notes that Rocket Fuel has a fabulous cafeteria with fresh ingredients from the great state of California. We head down to the cafeteria and everyone we pass has a wide, warm smile and a joyful greeting for Kiwoba.

“I’m going to hang out with you,” I say, remarking on the level of engagement she’s gaining from her peers. As we sit down with our trays of salads and grilled vegetables she replies, “That’s right you are! That’s the plan. What are we going to do together for these kids?”

Read more conversations from this series:

Jason Moriber is a creative communicator with a background in social and digital for CSR, tech and start-ups. He’s working within the Communications team at Verizon, charged with developing a new model for corporate and brand communications. Connect with him on Twitter @jasonmoriber or on Instagram @designinginnovation

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