When Ernest Holmes learned that Google would be donating $1 million to his non-profit organization CodeHouse to aid in his mission to better prepare underrepresented students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) for careers in STEM, it was a full circle moment.
Just three years earlier, Holmes was an upcoming college graduate at an HBCU himself and had accepted an offer from Google as a software engineer. At the time, he and his colleagues were in the early stages of creating CodeHouse, which focuses on closing the diversity gap in the technology industry.
“We created CodeHouse because we saw the potential on Morehouse's campus to give back to students following in our footsteps and prove that there’s a seat at the table for them in tech,” Ernest Holmes, now the President and co-founder of CodeHouse, said. “The same way my mentors helped improve my technical skills and taught me how to prepare for interviews, we want our scholars to be confident and follow their dreams – all while improving representation in the tech industry in the process."
Today, CodeHouse has been able to raise over $3 million, which it allocates to mentoring, preparing and investing in Black, Latinx and Native American students for careers in the tech industry. With Ernest Holmes sitting as President and Co-Founder, the CodeHouse team is a mission-driven group of fifteen family and friends, many of whom are also HBCU alumni, and is supported by founding corporate partner: PayPal. However, leading CodeHouse is not all Holmes does. Holmes is still a full-time employee at Google, where he recently made the transition out of engineering and into technical program management on Google’s education equity team, which works to create programs that help marginalized groups land positions at Google.
Why representation in tech matters
For Holmes, being able to impact the lives of students of color daily means the world because his own passion for technology began in high school under similar circumstances. Holmes grew up in a predominantly white town, and in high school he was one of the few Black students in his AP and honors classes.
“My first ever Black teacher was actually my computer science teacher, which is a cool wrap-around story. I just fell in love with the amount of creativity and impact we could have with writing code and the fact that I could create anything at my fingertips,” Holmes recalled. “Once I took those courses I knew that that was what I wanted to study.”
Holmes made the decision to attend Morehouse University, an HBCU in Atlanta, not only for its incredible culture and history but also for the career opportunities it offered with some of the world’s largest tech companies. At the time, attracting diverse talent was a far less popular initiative and while other tech companies were slow to send their recruiters to HBCUs, Google, Microsoft, PayPal and Twitter had representatives on Morehouse’s campus every day looking for potential engineering interns. After a lot of hardwork and dedication, Ernest scored a Google internship his freshman year.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about going to an HBCU, being that you are in a predominantly Black space, is that you’re not prepared to work in the ‘real world,’” Holmes told The Org. But in actuality, “Morehouse taught me how to make sure I worked twice as strong, twice as smart and twice as fast going into these spaces because when you are the only Black man in a room you need to make sure you’re on your A game. You never know who is not looking at you in your best light or who is waiting for your downfall.”
The experience, guidance and preparation that Holmes received at Morehouse is what helped him secure his second and third internships at Google and eventually be offered a full-time position at the company. Similarly, Holmes’ experiences at Google and his exposure to the tech industry is what encouraged his own passion for diversity in tech. He saw that there was so much opportunity for impact within the technology industry, and if more students of color were equipped with the right tools to successfully pursue careers in tech, it could change the lives of people of color around the world for generations to come.
“When you think about the wealth gap between a Black family in America versus a white family in America and then realize that if an HBCU student gets an offer from Google that this is a total compensation package of $250k plus with salary stock and bonus, that is game changing for not only that individual but also their family,” Holmes said. The Black-white wealth gap in the U.S. is staggering: The net worth of Black families is nearly 10 times less than that of white families. However, if more Black students are making the competitive six-figure compensation packages that many of these technical careers offer, it will significantly increase the median salary of Black family households and consequently minimize that disparity in wealth inequality.
The history of CodeHouse
During Holmes’ four years at Morehouse alone, he says he saw 80% of his Black peers drop out of the computer science program, so he could only imagine how people of color with access to far fewer resources may struggle to break into tech. To help alleviate this challenge, Holmes and his friends at Morehouse came up with a plan to show middle and high schools students in the Atlanta area what people who looked like them were accomplishing in the tech industry. This is how Holmes and his co-founder Tavis Thompson, formed CodeHouse.
In April 2019, during Holmes and his classmates’ senior year, CodeHouse launched its first event. Thanks to the connections Holmes and his peer had made at internships within the field, CodeHouse was able to partner with diverse representatives from nine different tech organizations, such as Google, Microsoft and Paypal and offer live demonstrations, interactive workshops, Q&As and gift free swag to an audience of over 150 students. From there, CodeHouse skyrocketed. To say the least, its first event was a success.
CodeHouse hosted its second event on the Morehouse campus later that year, and in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, it launched its third event virtually and had more than 2,000 students tune in. To Holmes, CodeHouse’s rapid growth proved that any lack of diversity in the tech industry was not due to a lack of interest but rather to a lack of support given to communities of color. CodeHouse decided to further its efforts in uplifting minority communities and launched the Codehouse Scholars Initiative. This initiative provides scholars with the exposure and support they need to better understand the many careers and pathways one could have in the technology industry and provide them with ample resources to get there. CodeHouse offers summer programs to help build technical and leadership skills, mentorship from participating HBCUs and industry professionals, and up to $20,000 in academic scholarship.
CodeHouse ensures that its initiatives are not only targeted at university students but also towards people of color from grades K-12. To Holmes and others at CodeHouse, it’s important to provide exposure to the tech field at an early age, and convey the impact that people of color can have within the industry. To visualize that impact, consider a massive tech conglomerate like Google, which has seven products that each bring in more than one billion users. This means that with every line of code an engineer writes or font adjustment that a UX designer makes, their ideas and decisions are impacting billions of people. When the impact of technology is conceptualized in this way, it becomes clear how crucial it actually is for people of color to have people who look like them creating and improving the products that influence the world. Without proper representation in tech, we may never have the technology that we use on a daily basis truly be beneficial to us.
“At Google they talk a lot about the ‘next billion users,’ people who aren't currently using our products, and a lot of that comes out of Africa and India,” Holmes said. “So if you don't have people reflecting those societies and those cultures at the organization, how will we best tailor these products for the next billion?”
Many organizations preach the importance of diversity in tech, but few talk about the value making space for people of color in the tech industry really has on these communities. When disadvantaged groups of people are given ample support in the form of a strengthened curriculum, university scholarships, mentorship and job opportunities, it levels the playing field and enables them to pursue careers that can not only foster generational wealth but innovate technology that is more equitable and inclusive.
Although CodeHouse has already achieved so much and impacted the lives of many, Holmes recognizes that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in this space and so his team has many more plans for growth. CodeHouse recently began expanding its Scholars Initiative to HBCU students in Washington, D.C. and North Carolina, are executing on more initiatives for high school students and has just been approved for its first in-person Summer Academy where they will fly students into the Morehouse campus and house them for the entire summer.
“While we’re proud of the impact CodeHouse has had thus far, we recognize that this is truly just the beginning,” said Holmes. “We’re thrilled to expand our initiatives across the country in the years to come, starting with the talented students at Howard University and North Carolina A&T State University this summer. To our rising tech innovators and leaders, we can’t wait to meet you and get to work.”
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