Grand Circus’ office space in the Broderick Towner in downtown Detroit is buzzing with activity. In a conference room with large windows that overlook the People Mover elevated train, a group of students is learning the basics of coding.
On another floor, entrepreneurs are huddled around laptops in the firm’s sprawling co-working space, while others congregate in a communal pantry, stocking up on caffeine and snacks.
Grand Circus launched in 2013 to capitalize on the city’s growing tech scene, and the company offers classes to the public, rents co-working space and hosts events.
This is where you’ll usually find entrepreneurs like Javier Evelyn, whose early-stage med-tech firm, Alerje, uses technology to address food allergies common in communities of color. The issue is one close to Evelyn’s heart; the Afro-Latino suffers from allergies to cashews, cheese, pistachios and fish.
“Five years ago, I didn’t think this would be possible,” says Evelyn, 34, a former insurance salesman turned software developer.
That this sort of energy is taking shape in Detroit – a city whose population is about 80 percent African-American – is no mistake. By 2020, there will be 1 million unfilled computer programming jobs in the United States, according to the Department of Labor, yet fewer than 10 percent of the country’s software engineers are African-American. Firms like Grand Circus are working with the city of Detroit to change that outcome.
The firm runs four 10-week-long boot camps per quarter that prepare participants for entry-level careers in software engineering and back-end development, says Jennifer Cline, a senior marketing manager at Grand Circus.
Tuition for each boot camp is $8,500, but through a partnership with the city’s TechHire program, Detroiters can apply for a limited number of scholarships. The four-year local talent initiative was announced late last year to provide workforce development training and apprenticeships in IT careers.
“This investment comes at a time when Detroit is experiencing significant growth as an IT hub” said Jeff Donofrio, director of workforce development for Mayor Mike Duggan, in a December news release about the launch of TechHire. The program is managed by the city of Detroit workforce agency Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation.
Between January 2015 and March 2016, 111 of 113 people who were enrolled in Grand Circus boot camps graduated, and 93 percent of participants found full-time employment in entry-level developer positions, according to Grand Circus. An estimated 37 percent of participants were identified as non-white, and income averaged $48,000.
Grand Circus also partners with Code 2040, a nonprofit named for the year when minorities will make up the majority of the U.S. population that creates educational, professional and entrepreneurial pathways for black and Latinx entrepreneurs.
Among the offerings: an entrepreneur-in-residence program that connects black and Latinx-run startups like Evelyn’s Alerje with the resources needed to take their startups to the next level, including $40,000 in seed capital, a co-working space and access to mentors through the Google for Entrepreneurs global network.
The push for increasing the number of Detroiters into careers in tech comes as the city continues to evolve from its industrial roots and climb out of high unemployment; currently, 8.4 percent of Detroiters are unemployed.
Similar to the jobs in manufacturing that historically offered Detroiters with a high-school diploma a middle-class income, entry level careers in technology can provide similar financial security.
While boot camps like those offered at Grand Circus are geared toward working adults in career transition, most in the industry would agree that one of the biggest barriers to entry for people of color is exposure to the field.
That’s where nonprofits like JOURNi come in.
Founded in 2016 by two millennial Detroiters, Brian McKinney and Richard Grundy, and New Yorker Quiessence Phillips, the trio wanted to give Detroit middle-schoolers and high-schoolers their first experiences with the field.
Phillips has done hackathons through the San Francisco-based Black Girls Code program, which gives African-American girls a three-day crash course in app development. But JOURNi provides a curriculum spread out over the course of a summer or several weeks during the school year.
At the start of each JOURNi session, students are assessed to determine their familiarity with technology, and then receive lessons online and offline to get a handle on programming language like HTML and CSS, before they are tasked with developing a website for a local business. Students are also introduced to black and Latino professionals so they can see that a career in tech is within their reach.
“People of color tend to feel like they don’t fit in,” Phillips says. “I don’t know if that is an internal thing and something we need to get over, but it does need to be addressed.”
So far, the JOURNi approach has resonated with students.
“Some of the students were basically dragged there by their parents, but by the end they see so much benefit from it,” Phillips says. “It’s so important that we are creators and not just consumers. If you gain enough knowledge you will have a seat at the table.”
Up until about four years ago, Evelyn had only dabbled in coding when he was offered a gig designing a website for an insurance company. He failed miserably, but he decided the only way to succeed was if he dove into learning code full-time. Every day after he got home from his job in insurance sales, he embarked on his second “9 to 5,” taking self-guided classes through the night in what he calls YouTube University.
Meanwhile, he saved his earnings to raise the $8,000 needed to enroll in coding boot camp.
“To call it a boot camp is an understatement,” says Evelyn of the intense eight-week course. “I had a migraine after the first week.”
While he lacked exposure to others like him in the technology industry, he says he comes from a family of entrepreneurs, and that gave him the confidence he needed to make the transition.
Now that he’s well on his way to realizing success with Alerje, Evelyn hopes he will be able to help demystify the industry.
“The primary thing is exposure, it comes down to normalizing it, so more people can see that regular guys and gals can be involved,” Evelyn says.