One year ago, 49-year-old Sharon Worthyboyd was unemployed. After more than 15 years in the banking industry she lost her job, and her home. To top it all off her car was stolen. At the time, she had been out of work for a little over a year, making her story not much different than the millions of other Black women in the United States who are out of work.
For months, the unemployment rate for Black women has remained stagnant at 10.6 percent, while unemployment numbers decreased for other groups. However, one morning, as Worthyboyd lay in bed watching a news program, she caught wind of a life changing opportunity. The reporter was telling viewers about a program, called Step IT Up America, in town interviewing minority women to potentially train them for jobs in the IT field.
“When I saw that and I heard they were having interviews on that same day, I immediately got up and went down to the event. I had the interview and I did really well. I took the assessment a couple of weeks later, and after the assessment I was told I was accepted in the program,” Worthyboyd explained to MadameNoire in a phone interview. She was selected from a competitive group of 1,000 applicants and placed in a class of 100 women.
After 90 days of intensive training in UST Global’s Step IT Up America program, she is now employed by UST Global with AAA as a quality control analyst for the user testing area, dealing specifically with apps.
“A lot of people are really grateful for this opportunity. It opened doors, new doors, new careers for people. I’m very appreciative of it,” Worthyboyd expressed.
She also shared a special message for Black women currently struggling to find opportunities: “I wanted to share my story because I would hope that I could affect someone else’s life… know you can get through pretty much anything. You just have to decide what’s important in your life, make a plan and be positive and never give up.”
The CEO of UST Global, the company that runs and funds this program, Sajan Pillai, knows the importance of empowering women like Worthyboyd.
“When you help a woman find a decent job, you’re not helping just the woman but you’re helping the children, the neighbors the friends, it’s a network effect,” explained Pillai, who witnessed this first hand as a child growing up in Kerala, India. (The southernmost state is matriarchal and has the highest literacy rate in the country.) “It doesn’t mean that men don’t do it, but there’s a big difference between the two.”
Launched in November 2013, the goal of Step IT Up America is to recruit, train and employ 5,000 women in 10 cities to work in the IT field by the end of 2020. So far, the program has successfully launched in six cities: Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Each session trains 100 women and after the training program, graduates are guaranteed placement in entry-level positions with salaries beginning at $30k to 45k salary per year.
“Talent is distributed equally in the world, but opportunities aren’t,” explained Pillai when we asked him what motivated him to launch a program like this.
“[In] the technology sector, everybody is looking for talent. It’s a war for talent. People are looking for talent all over the world. There’s a great pool of talent here but no one has taken the effort to go out to seek and train them to be hirable for these jobs. It’s not magic, it’s not rocket science. I also don’t want anybody to think this is philanthropy, it’s not. It’s not a hand out. It’s a helping hand.”
There’s no doubt, the need to increase the number of minorities in technology is an urgent matter. With high starting salaries and increasing demand, tech is a major driver of economic growth. Meanwhile, among the major technology companies that released their diversity numbers, Black people make up on average just about two percent of their workforce. The excuse is often that there aren’t any qualified candidates. However, data shows 4.5 percent of recent graduates received degrees in computer science and computer engineering.
On top of it all, more companies are creating initiatives in an attempt to close the gap and connect minorities to opportunities in tech. There’s Tristan Walker’s Code2040, Google launched an initiative specifically for women to learn how to code just to name a couple. There’s even outcry from civil rights leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson for an increase in minority employment in the tech industry.
“They have talent, but many of them haven’t had opportunity,” explained Pillai when reflecting on the progress of the women who graduate from Step IT Up’s training program.
“Sometimes they’re beaten down by life. They really haven’t had a fair shake. A lot of them are not confident. They haven’t had any experience working in a corporate environment. They’re hesitant. They don’t even know how good they are,” he added.
But this program gives them the chance to see how good they are, and Pillai affectionately adds these women have the “attitude and the aptitude but just haven’t had the opportunity.”
For Worthyboyd, while she faced many personal obstacles, nothing kept her from taking advantage of this program.
“I was catching three buses to get there. I made it happen. I’m grateful that I had the strength to get through it,”she said.
The New York site is the newest addition and students begin training in January. Future launches are coming to Newark, DC, Oakland, and Jacksonville. If you’re interested, you can apply to Step It Up’s program on their website.