Startups and Innovation: Organizations work to foster diversity in Milwaukee’s tech sector

Alondra Macias holds up a pitch to form a team at Lift Up MKE’s recent female and nonbinary hackathon.

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 12:02 pm

Jeffrey Patton recently graduated from a Milwaukee program dedicated to teaching him the skills he needed to enter the tech sector.

With assistance from the program, called i.c.stars, Patton landed a job as an IT analyst at von Briesen & Roper in October. The 25-year-old college dropout was working as a machine operator before hearing a commercial for i.c.stars and deciding to make the career change.

“When I came to i.c.stars, that’s when everything started to make sense,” he said. “All through high school, middle school, it was tech-related things but I just never was told by anybody that this can be something that can be made a career out of.”

Chicago nonprofit i.c.stars is one of several organizations that have taken root in Milwaukee in the past year with the aim of promoting diversity and inclusion in the region’s tech community.

By establishing these initiatives at the same time local corporations have been organizing around the mission of making Milwaukee a tech hub, the leaders of these organizations hope to make the movement inclusive from the start.

i.c.stars launched its Milwaukee program in April 2018. The organization trains low-income adults in basic coding, as well as soft skills and career preparation, said Sarah Dollhausen, general manager.

“We’re really focusing on underrepresented demographics,”
Dollhausen said.

The internship program runs from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, for 16 weeks. It has a strict policy: no absences and no tardiness. But i.c.stars also provides wraparound services like career counseling, transportation, child care and housing assistance to students, she said.

Part of the goal of the program is to help overcome some of the barriers that may prevent low-income adults from being successful in the professional workplace.

“Really it’s meant to provide a transformative experience,” Dollhausen said. “Twelve-hour days pulls you away from any and everything that could be going good or going bad in your life.”

i.c.stars holds three training cohorts per year. It typically receives 100 applications, and chooses 20 students from greater Milwaukee through a seven-step process.

Following completion of the internship, alumni are considered i.c.stars residents, with access to its resources, for 20 months. The program has a graduate placement rate of about 80%, with alumni now working at area companies including The Dohmen Co., Briggs & Stratton Corp. and von Briesen & Roper. Students’ salaries increase by an average of 300% upon completion of i.c.stars, Dollhausen said.

Since von Briesen is so involved with i.c.stars, Patton had completed a project for the law firm during his internship. Following the project, the company sought him out to apply for his current role, he said.

“I didn’t think I could get it because the job title just sounded like a lot of involvement in the tech sector, which I didn’t think I had,” Patton said.

Now, he’s gained enough confidence that Patton and an i.c.stars classmate have also been consulting for local companies that need website design and development, he said.

“That internship is way more than just tech-based,” Patton said. “I’ve learned how to write business plans and I’ve learned how to formally sit at the table and present myself.”

Milwaukee’s tech community should reflect the city’s demographics, Dollhausen said. And the companies that hire i.c.stars graduates will benefit from the diversity of its alumni when it comes to global competition.

“It’s important because especially in tech when you’re looking at your business strategies, having a diverse workforce is important to providing different perspectives and helping in problem solving,” Dollhausen said.

This spring, colleagues Jennifer Ketz, Cynthia Smith and Patricia Cabral-Mercado formed a new company called Lift Up Careers LLC (dba Lift Up MKE) to train women re-entering the tech workforce.

The trio aim to help women who have taken time away from tech careers to raise children or take care of aging parents re-skill for leadership roles as they return to a male-dominated industry. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, 26% of the tech workforce is women, and 56% of women leave midway through their careers in science, engineering and technology.

“I think our main goal is really to fill that pipeline,” Cabral-Mercado said. “So as Milwaukee is continuing to grow that Milwaukee tech hub and to be seen as a destination for tech, I think diversity and inclusion have to be included in that.”

Lift Up MKE plans to host three to four cohorts of its training program per year. The six- to eight-week program will be weekend-based, and the first class will start this fall. They plan to open applications in June.

The company hosted Milwaukee’s first all-female and nonbinary hackathon earlier this month at Ward4 in Milwaukee. The turnout was beyond their expectations, with 130 participants, from mentors to hackers.

“(Participants said) this was one of the most diverse events that people have attended in Milwaukee, so that was a huge compliment for us,” Ketz said.

Keeping the hackathon women and nonbinary created a safer, less competitive environment for participants to bring their ideas to the forefront, Cabral-Mercado said.

“Now they’ve met this new network, whether it’s from Madison, Chicago or Milwaukee,” she said.

“A couple of the ideas were very focused around, I would say, more of the woman/female role,” Ketz said.

Among the ideas participants worked on coding during the hackathon was Alerta, a safety tool that allows a woman to press one button – on a smart watch, pendant or phone – to send a text with GPS location to three or four pre-designated contacts.

“One of the things…that I think the hackathon brought forth is the power of diversity of thought. Bringing together people of different backgrounds is powerful,” Ketz said.

Maggie Fernandes runs the Milwaukee chapter of Girl Develop It, a national nonprofit dedicated to training women interested in learning web and software development skills.

Launched in 2014, the chapter has been active in hosting tech meetups and helping women get started in the career track. Fernandes aims to provide a safe and inclusive space for women to meet each other and learn more about a male-dominated field.

But recent GDI controversies at a national level pushed Fernandes and other chapter leaders to recently form a new national nonprofit called We Pivot.

“A lot of the leaders from across the country got together and we’re putting so much energy toward trying to get this organization to go in the right direction and they’re not listening to us, so why don’t we just pivot and create our own? And so that’s exactly what we did,” Fernandes said.

We Pivot is dedicated to providing opportunities, support and education to underserved populations in the tech industry to drive more diversity in the sector. Fernandes plans to host the first Milwaukee chapter We Pivot event in early June.

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Molly Dill
Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.