SAN FRANCISCO — Shortly after the Trayvon Martin verdict, Van Jones says he was talking about race with his friend, music legend Prince.
"Every time you see a black kid wearing a hoodie, you say: there's a thug. If you see a white kid wearing hoodie, you say: there's Mark Zuckerberg," Jones said. "I said, 'that's because of racism. And Prince said, 'maybe so, or maybe you civil rights guys haven't created enough Mark Zuckerbergs.'"
That challenge inspired Jones to create Yes We Code, an initiative of his Rebuild the Dream organization that aims to teach 100,000 low-income kids to write code. Prince promoted the initiative in July by headlining the Essence Festival in New Orleans where Yes We Code held its first hackathon.
"How do we create a situation that when you see a young black kid in a hoodie, you think, maybe I should go up and ask the kid for a loan or a job as opposed to assuming the kid's a threat," Jones said during an interview in USA TODAY's San Francisco bureau.
Computer science is one of the fastest-growing and best-paying career paths in the USA. Yet most computer science students are white men, and too few African-Americans and Hispanics even consider it.
Yes We Code is helping dozens of organizations around the country that are trying to address high-tech's racial and gender gap from Black Girls Code to Hack the Hood. It connects those groups with the resources they need, Jones said.
"Yes We Code aspires to become the United Negro College Fund equivalent for coding education," Jones said. "Yes We Code exists to find and fund the next Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in communities you would never expect to find them."
Yes We Code counts among its partners Facebook and Google. And for good reason. The tech industry needs these kinds of efforts.
In 2014, leading technology companies released data showing they vastly underemploy African-Americans, Hispanics and women.
Tech companies are mainly staffed by white and Asian men. African-Americans and Hispanics make up 5% of the companies' workforces, compared with 14% nationally.
That means Silicon Valley may be missing out on the next big idea or company because it employs too few women and people of color, Jones said. And young people are missing out on their chance at a better life.
"Aptitude tests show one out of five kids of any color have an inherent aptitude for the kind of problem solving that is required to be a computer programmer. So that means one out of five kids out here in low-income communities, Native American reservations, Appalachia, housing projects, barrios, ghettos could be on the Mark Zuckerberg track," Jones said. "The problem is their mother doesn't know, their father doesn't know, the coach doesn't know, the teacher doesn't know, the preacher doesn't know. So they all want to be LeBron James.
"The math doesn't work. You have a million low-income kids playing basketball this weekend all trying to get into the NBA. The NBA has 450 players and they hire 15 kids a year So you have 1 million mostly black kids trying out for 15 jobs. Meanwhile the technology sector says they are going to be a million workers short in eight years. And if we are not careful, we will have 15 black Urkels trying out for a million jobs." Click here to read more.