In August 2009, President Barack Obama pledged to help maintain the nation's global leadership by committing to the field that will drive our future economy. The President said, "The United States led the world's economies in the 20th century," he said, "because we led the world in innovation. Today, the competition is keener; the challenge is tougher; and that is why innovation is more important than ever."
His words reinforced the dramatic shift that marks the transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, with technology the driving force of our times. According to TechServe Alliance, a collaboration of IT services firms, clients, consultants and suppliers, as of November 2010, IT employment was at 3,906,200 jobs. The demand for workers who are skilled as software developers and web architects seems to be outpacing the supply. This is especially true when it comes to African Americans.
Michael Beasley might be an exception. He's not only a rare breed in his field; he's a rock star in innovation and technology.
Beasley is an advisor to and former Chairman of Rocket Software. He's also a venture partner with Nobska Ventures, a company that invests in early-stage technology companies that focus on a variety of interests including advanced Information and Communication technology. Nobska along with Beasley jointly formed Legenta, Inc., a private equity backed software company acquisition vehicle that acquired as well as managed enterprise software products that are considered non-core by their owners. Beasley began his impressive professional career with IBM in the 1970s and under the company umbrella formed Icing Software that enabled it to earn billions.
When Beasley, now 62, first became aware of the fields of innovation and technology, and computers specifically, it was not the field of choice in the Black community. As a youth, Beasley lived in Ogden, Utah in an African American community that thrived because the city was a railroad hub. "Nobody in my neighborhood was talking about computers and data processing," Beasley said. "The best jobs in the 50s and 60s, if you were Black, were on the train. … So what was that community thinking about? Getting a good job, just surviving."
But, as an impressionable teen, Beasley was introduced to computers, in a world on the other side of the tracks. A friend took him to a meeting at a nearby University. The conversation surrounded data processing and computers in general. Beasley was instantly smitten. He said, "I got excited about it. It's just one of those things it's like, no different than when you meet a person that excites you. Something happens, something sparked your interest. Computers, programming computer was one of the most exciting things I had ever heard."
He pursued the computer field earning his B.S. in data processing from Weber State University in 1971. That same year he started his career at IBM. He later earned a Masters from the Sloan School of Management at MIT.
During his career, Beasley not only made a name for himself, but he also tried to spark the interest of young people, African Americans in particular. He was chairman of the board for MESA, the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement program for students of color. But, he continues to understand the importance of education and affirms the importance of MESA and like programs. Yet, he asserts that African- Americans students are ill-prepared to face a future that will undoubtedly be focused on innovation and technology. "There are a number of programs like MESA that can help you catch up." He added, "What you don't have are the programs that go out and get those that aren't looking to catch up."
The students that are left behind in the subjects of math and science are representative of a bigger problem in this country. Dr. Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University, has worked with programs like MESA and written about the problems kids of color face in their educational preparation in books like The Trouble With Black Boys and Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education and the forthcoming Understanding and Responding to the Disenfranchisement of Latino Males: Invisible No More. He believes that many current educational policies are a hindrance to the success of all students, especially those who need the most help, when it comes to achievement.
Dr. Noguera said, "I keep reminding people," Noguera said, "we've been doing 'No child left behind' for the last nine years now and we've fallen further behind. Clearly that approach is not working for us and the problem is our policy makers don't seem to understand that. …" He continued, "I keep saying that the policies of the Obama administration are almost identical to the Bush administration, so they clearly don't understand that a different approach is needed."
In order to fulfill the President's commitment to a future that thrives in the areas of innovation and technology, Dr. Noguera believes the flaws in policy issues must be resolved. Children and teens must be nurtured in their learning environments. If not, students will continue to fall behind.
According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), American 15 year-olds rank 25th out of 34 nations. When it came to science, those same U.S. students were stuck in the middle of the pack. African-American students are in worse shape: the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that only 14 percent of African-American eighth graders were proficient in math.
Minority students that do excel and go on to pursue math and science degrees in higher education do so in small numbers. According to the National Science Foundation, Blacks comprise just eight percent of those who earned a Bachelor's in science and engineering in 2005, compared to 65 percent for White graduates. Those American undergraduates who leave science and engineering majors for other pursuits are often highly qualified, and they are disproportionately women and students of color. These students do graduate, but not as engineers. And, given the small numbers entering STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields to begin with, the loss is debilitating.
MESA is one of the programs trying to increase those numbers, and preserve the best and brightest in the Black community for STEM fields. Another is the Dr. Frank Greene Scholars program based in Santa Clara County, California, home of Silicon Valley. Of the 8,000 African American students K-12 in that county, approximately 300 are Greene scholars. Gloria Whitaker-Daniels, program director, knows first-hand how difficult it is to stay committed to the STEM, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics track.
Like Pedro Noguera, she favors a holistic approach in educating African-American students, especially those interested in fields where there are few Blacks. "It's very important for us to give our children a safe environment to explore their interest, and to fail. You learn more from your failure then you learn from your successes."
She added that educators and parents need to broaden students' horizons by exposing them to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-related careers, and show them how they relate to other fields as well. "When I hear a child say, 'I want to be a musician or a rapper,' I ask, 'What about the audio engineer, what about all these other skills and occupations?' Once you start opening this world to them about the other opportunities that surround that [entertainer], they can still honor their passion and still do something that will contribute to the 21st century," she said.
The Greene Scholars program has been working to open the world of innovation and technology to students for the past decade. MESA has been at it since the late 1960s. During his 40 year career, former MESA board chairman Beasley has seen more minorities come into his field, but it's far from satisfied. "I've seen an improvement," he said. "My father is as smart or smarter than me. He wanted to go into electronics. He worked in an electronics place packing boxes. And in the evenings, he fixed people's TVs, radios and things like that, because he couldn't get into the industry. That was in the 1940s," Beasley said. "In the 1960s, I was able to get in. I wasn't smarter than him, but I got an opportunity. There's a huge improvement in terms of seeing people like me in places like IBM and HP and Microsoft. But, [our progress has come] from a base of nothing. Compared to where we need to be, there's a big problem."
Beasley believes in educational programs to help African Americans get over the hump. But, the effort can't stop there. He knows Black community as a whole must come together to help young people not only prepare for tomorrow's careers, but face today's challenges.
"We need to have more Blacks and minorities in these technology fields and be more representative, show that we're there. That's all great. But, we need to focus on the crisis. We need to show that the majority of Blacks have jobs, and the majority of them have graduated from high school, and the majority is going to college. We can't have our society be a dysfunctional society. That's a crisis we need to fix."
Tarice L.S. Gray is a freelance writer and blogger with GrayCurrent.com.