The line stretched around the block Thursday as more than 1,000 people showed up to a startup job fair at NextSpace Berkeley, across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco.
The event, put on by Localwise and the city of Berkeley, is one of several efforts to boost the less-than-stellar diversity within the Bay Area’s tech scene. On Saturday, 130 people graduated from Year Up Bay Area, the local arm of a program that gives tech training to at-risk young adults and then places them in internships at companies including Yelp, Google, Salesforce, eBay and Facebook.
Andre Quijada, who worked at GE Software, talked at Saturday’s graduation about being born on the wrong side of the opportunity divide, and said taking part in Year Up was part of his effort to cross a chasm that separates jobs and money from “those who would do anything to prove themselves.”
Before joining the program, Quijada said, he was “gasping for air in the deep end” as he worked the graveyard and opening shifts at restaurant jobs and still found himself having to choose at the end of the month whether to pay the rent or utility bills at his modest apartment in a tough part of West Oakland, where he had been assaulted and robbed several times. Year Up, he said, not only helped him learn computer skills, but more importantly how to navigate the unfamiliar corporate culture.
Where else, he said, could someone like him learn how to lead a meeting or even talk the jargon needed to participate in business meetings. Year Up, he said, helped him learn the notion of an elevator pitch, so when the president of his company walked in he would have something better to say than “Mondays, huh?”
Still, Quijada said, he found himself close to dropping out on several occasions and considered returning to the difficult but familiar life of restaurant jobs. He turned to the community of mentors and advisers who help Year Up participants through the ups and downs.
“What I really needed was help, and that was hardest to admit,” Quijada said. Another student told of being homeless during the program and how he made it through thanks to support from Larkin Street Youth Services, a San Francisco organization that provides transitional housing and other services.
The commencement speaker at the Oakland event was Kaiser Foundation Hospitals CIO Richard Daniels, who told his own story of working nights to get his degree. Kaiser, he said, has hosted 133 Year Up interns and hired 66 of them.
“We see this as a great source of talent,” he said. “I like to deal with people who are hungry for success and don’t mind putting in the work.”
As for the Berkeley job fair, some 30 startups were represented, including venture-backed companies such as Massdrop, Captricity and Turo, along with earlier stage companies such as Vyrill, Civil Maps and Dray Technologies. Nonprofits, including Black Girls Code, Code 2040, Kapor Center for Social Impact and Lesbians Who Tech were on hand as well. Also in attendance were two coding bootcamps: Telegraph Academy (a bootcamp for people of color) and Code Berkeley (the first state-funded bootcamp in California).
Even with an influx of new talent, the tech industry has some serious work to do. Women make up less than 30 percent of workers at a sampling of tech companies that have released their diversity statistics and 18 percent of leadership, as compared to nearly half of the U.S. workforce. Ethnic minorities at the companies made up only 20 percent of the workforce, less than half of their representation in the population as a whole.
“While many forums address the lack of diversity in tech through discussion, the job fair hit the heart of the issues: Jobs,” said Maya Tobias, co-founder of Localwise.
“We’ll find out in a few weeks how many people actually get hired through the event,” She said. “If at least one person who is underrepresented in tech (i.e. women and minorities) gets a job that they otherwise might not have gotten, I’ll feel good. Of course, I hope the number is much higher than one.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.