Los Altos Hills resident Marissa Yanez is on a mission to empower the low-income communities of Silicon Valley, home to the largest income gap in the United States.
Yanez is founder and CEO of the nonprofit Empoder, an organization focused on exposing underserved students to engineering and computer science. Motivated by the wealth disparity in the Bay Area, Yanez characterized the tech industry as the “greatest creation of wealth” in the nation.
“We have a greater wealth disparity than the country of Rwanda,” she said.
To address the problem, Yanez created Empower Girls through Code, a summer program at Los Altos High School that teaches middle and high school girls from low-income families in Mountain View coding and computer science.
Yanez set her sights on Mountain View after noting the large gap between low-income residents and high-tech employees in the city. Mountain View is home to tech powerhouses like Google Inc. and LinkedIn Corp. – and just a mile or so away is Theuerkauf Elementary School, where 60 percent of students qualify for free lunch, meaning that a family of four makes less than $23,800 a year.
“The low-income population is not benefiting from the wealth generated by the tech industry,” Yanez said. “In fact, it’s just the opposite.”
Because many local low-income residents lack the skills and education to secure employment in the tech industry, jobs go to educated “techies” from outside the area – continuing to drive up the cost of living in Mountain View.
Yanez pointed to the lack of diversity in the tech sector, noting that the future doesn’t look much brighter. Among the younger generation, of students enrolled in engineering and computer science classes at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, only 27 percent are female, 3.7 percent Hispanic or African-American and 3.7 percent low income.
“Diversity in tech is not improving and likely will not improve in the next five to 10 years,” she said.
According to Yanez, supplementary computer science programs in the area are expensive and thus out of reach for low-income students. She created Empower Girls through Code to fill the need.
“We actively partner with leading engineers, developers and educators to develop highly engaging curriculum targeted toward the low-income, underrepresented minority students,” she said.
The Empower Girls through Code program teaches students fundamental skills for future employment in the tech industry in an engaging way.
The program serves two sets of students – low-income girls in grades 6-9 from Mountain View and East Palo Alto and the high school volunteers who teach at the four-week camp, which kicked off last week. Two weeks prior to the camp, Empoder trained local high school students, including some from Los Altos High’s AVID – Advancement Via Individual Determination – program to teach at the camps.
The Empower Girls through Code program is free and inclusive. All students who applied to the program – 78 low-income middle and high school students – were accepted.
Yanez said the program teaches Web, mobile app and product development. Engineers, educators and developers from Google, Apple Inc., MIT App Inventor and the wearable tech company Arduino are slated to participate.
The program doesn’t just stop at technology education – approximately 20 percent of instruction each day is dedicated to health and wellness topics such as yoga, stress management and nutrition.
Yanez said active parent engagement is key to the program’s success. The camp invites students’ parents to volunteer and includes a Keynote Speaker Series for students and parents.
Simge Yildiz, an incoming junior at Los Altos High, said she learned how to code in two weeks and now enjoys teaching the skills to middle school students.
Yildiz used her skills to create a website about one of her own passions – dance. She is also using her newfound talent to build a website to teach Latino parents how to use the Internet.
“We are finding that not all parents know how to use the Internet – and if that is the case, then they cannot help their students with homework and what they need,” Yildiz said.
Program instructor Michael Frier, a Mountain View High alumnus who attends UC Berkeley, said that by their second day at camp, students were designing websites.
“We are creating a place for them to become empowered, but they are going to have to empower themselves,” he said. “They are going to find what is valuable to them in this society that is technically charged.”
Yanez wants Empoder’s impact to stretch well beyond the summer program at Los Altos High and continue to connect the tech industry with the local community and nonprofit groups.
She received the Google Rise Award this year, which helped get Empoder up and running, and hopes to raise $500,000 by the end of the year.
This summer, though, she is targeting her fundraising to smaller amounts that will go toward feeding students in program.
“We have noticed our students coming to the program with little to no food or with junk food,” she said. “This greatly inhibits their performance.”
Yanez is currently supplementing the food venture out-of-pocket and seeks healthful food donations for lunch and snacks for the summer program.