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A LaunchCode graduate makes it her mission to diversify the tech industry

LaShana Lewis tells her story at a live taping of The Story Collider podcast in Oct. 2018.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
LaShana Lewis, one of the first students to graduate from LaunchCode, consults tech companies on hiring more women and people of color. She shared her story of how she became a computer programmer at a recent live taping of The Story Collider podcast.

As a gay black woman with working-class roots, LaShana Lewis doesn’t look like a typical computer programmer.

Lewis spent the better part of two decades trying to achieve her dreams of working with computers. And she did, after being one of the first students to graduate from LaunchCode, a St. Louis nonprofit that trains and places people without a traditional computer-science background in the tech sector.

But only a couple years after she scored a systems engineer job at Mastercard, she quit to start her own consulting business. She draws on her experiences as a minority in her field to help companies hire and retain women and people of color.

“Minorities like myself are so focused on trying to make sure that they make this big splash in the world of tech to say, ‘Hey, look how serious I am,’ that they don’t think about doing anything else,” Lewis said. “And I said the same thing to myself. I was like, ‘Don’t I have to overwhelmingly prove myself in tech before anyone takes me seriously anywhere else?’”

Lewis endured a long, difficult path to becoming a coder. After high school, she attended Michigan Technological University to study computer science. But she was surrounded by white male peers who made discouraging remarks. Some said she did not belong in the field because in high school, she did not have access to a home computer. Others said she should consider changing her major. One even said that he assumed any black person working in computer programming was hired because of affirmative action.

Eventually, she was forced to drop out because her family could not afford to drive her back and forth between northern Michigan and St. Louis. She spent several years working odd jobs, including bus driving, before she found her way to LaunchCode. Mastercard recruited her, an accomplishment that former President Barack Obama highlighted in a speech he delivered in 2015.

“I loved doing all the things I learned at Mastercard,” Lewis said. “It was just that I got to a point where I wanted to do something more community-focused.”

Lewis wants to change the culture of tech companies to be more inclusive. While diversity among computer science majors has improved somewhat in the last 20 years, there are major tech companies in Silicon Valley that don’t employ black workers or have female executives. Multiple studies link diverse workforces with improved performance in scientific research and business.

Businesses need to listen to the minorities they employ in order to hire and keep them, Lewis said.

“A lot of times, people of color are struggling with different things internally, and it takes a lot for them to come up and say there’s a problem,” she said. “If they’ve come to you, know that they’ve gone through a really hard road before they’ve gotten to that point.”

LaShana Lewis works as the chief technology officer at MultiPass, which provides coworking spaces for traveling workers, and as the director of aerospace IT at Astral AR, a drone-tech company based in Austin, Texas.

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.