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Silicon Valley investors offer $10M to boost diversity in tech

Aiming to bring more women and people of color into engineering jobs, Learners Guild launches a unique training program -- and some investors are sold on it.

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Learners Guild's goal is to bring more diversity to tech.

Learners Guild

At a time when Silicon Valley is on the receiving end of criticism for lack of diversity and a tech-bro culture, one coalition of investors is putting its money where its mouth is.

Learn Capital, Obvious Ventures, Acumen and Kapor Capital are investing $10 million in an engineer training program -- hosted by Oakland-based career accelerator Learners Guild -- that aims to bring more diversity to the tech industry.

"The companies in Silicon Valley think of themselves as meritocracies," said Mitch Kapor, founder of Kapor Capital. But they're "mirror-tocracies, where people tend to hire people who look like themselves."

The $10 million investment comes amid a larger debate in the tech industry about some of the top tech companies -- from Apple to Facebook and Microsoft to Twitter -- showing their US workforces are about 70 percent male and almost 65 percent white. Some companies say they want to do more to diversify their staffs by hiring more females and people of color. And that's where Learners Guild steps in.

"Learners Guild has removed many of the traditional barriers to acquiring the skills one needs to become a developer at a technology company," said Kapor. "And in so doing, creates opportunity for people of all backgrounds."

Learners Guild was started by Shereef Bishay, who is known for his bootcamps to train engineers. Rather than being a costly bootcamp or university program, however, Bishay's goal with Learners Guild is to provide training for anyone who wants to become a professional software developer regardless of their financial background.

Last year, Learners Guild launched a program that provides an intensive 10-month software engineer training to people who can't afford college. The students don't have to pay back Learners Guild until they secure a job earning at least $50,000 a year. Students can also receive a living stipend of $1,500 per month while they're in the program.

"We really wanted to remove the barrier for folks," said Ian Inaba, president of Learners Guild. "The common thread for people enrolling in the program is that the current on-ramp into technology hasn't worked for them."

Since Learners Guild opened this program, nearly 100 people have enrolled from socially and economically diverse backgrounds. Among these students is a Princeton graduate, a mom and a handful of 20-somethings who haven't graduated from high school. The first group is expected to graduate within the next two months.

"If students aren't trained to take on the jobs of today and develop adaptable skills for the jobs of tomorrow, these graduates and our businesses -- as well as civil society more broadly -- will all suffer," said Vishal Vasishth of Obvious Ventures. The Learners Guild helps people take "advantage of the unmet demand for over 1.4 million software engineering jobs that are being created in the next four years."

Correction, March 2 at 9:52 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Shereef Bishay's name.

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