Teens strive to earn long-term tech positions in the Twin Cities

Students at a desk working on course work in their computers.
Participants in the Tech Geeks program work on coding coursework in an old Sunrise bank building. 30,000 Feet has plans to renovate the space with funding from the state.
Aaliyah Demry | MPR News

On a Monday afternoon, young people fill a converted bank building on Arcade Street in St. Paul.

Some of them are students. Some are parents. Some have a criminal record. But while they have different backgrounds, they share something in common: They’re all looking for opportunities to get into the IT field. And the organization 30,000 Feet is helping them climb toward that goal.

Through its Tech Geeks program, 30,000 Feet offers paid training and a pathway to lucrative careers, in particular for young people of color.

“We’re disproportionately left out of tech opportunities and so we want to ensure that young people are equipped with the knowledge. The competitive knowledge,” said Vanessa Young, co-founder of 30,000 Feet.

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Sitting in old chairs and gathered around old desks from the building’s days as a bank, the students — ages 14 to 18 — learn new coding languages each week after school or during the summer. They also build websites, apps and video games — gaining valuable experience and building their resumes along the way. 

Two teen girls sitting in a chair.
Kemaya Roan and Cynthia Criss smile for photo during a class session during Tech Geeks programming.
Aaliyah Demry | MPR News

Tech Geeks are paid $15 or more an hour because of the curriculum's difficulty. After completion of the course, students are awarded a coding certificate and can be placed in an IT internship.

And along with teaching the necessary skills, Tech Geeks aims to show its students that there’s a place for them in the tech world.

When Cynthia Criss, who’s now a 16-year-old attending Harding High School in St. Paul, joined Tech Geeks, she recalled, “I didn't know too much about coding. I'm like, what is this? I just had a stereotype of how I would think a coder would look, and I'm like ... I've never seen a Black girl like me, or somebody my skin tone and a girl, doing coding — like I would picture somebody probably like white."

Kemaya Roan, another Tech Geeks participant who’s on track to earn her certificate, said she appreciates learning from people who look like her.

“I have no Black teachers. No Black principal. No one looks like me — so, like, I even told my friends, it’s like — being in this environment, I like it,” she said. “It’s a lot of Black people up in here. We need to get more kids that look like us to do coding and stuff like that — I like this, this environment is nice.”

girl sitting down working in her computer.
Kemaya Roan, a participant in the Tech Geeks program, is seen working on coding actives at 30,000 Feet building in east St. Paul.
Aaliyah Demry | MPR News

Criss, who completed the program and is now working as an IT web and mobile development intern at HealthPartners, found she enjoyed coding because it fit her personality.

“It’s like a language — like, you're learning a language, but you're talking to computers,” she said. “And I've always been an introverted person. I never was, like, all talkative and stuff like that — so I’m like, shoot, I’d rather learn how to talk to a computer then people any day.”

And just like learning a new language, people in the tech field — like Mike Jackson, founder of Twin Cities-based Black Tech Talent — say it's better to learn at a young age.

“If you can teach the youth early enough, then by the time it's time for them to join the workforce or create their first startup and jump into entrepreneurship — they already have the tools that they need in order to be successful in that field,” Jackson said.

Tayo Daniel, creator of the Minnesota nonprofit Smart North, said programs like Tech Geeks — which increase diversity in the tech space — are crucial so systemic injustices aren't transferred into the digital world.

“So that’s why it's more important now than ever to get people from different backgrounds and different cultures into this tech space,” Daniel said.

A person leans up against a mural
Vanessa Young, a cofounder and director of programs and policy at the nonprofit 30,000 feet, poses outside the organization's building in St. Paul.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Co-founder Vanessa Young said she wants students to know that there’s a place for them in technology, and that it’s important to have their diverse opinions and perspectives heard.

“If everyone thinks alike in a tech company, you're gonna be missing out on critical things in terms of how you serve those people,” Yang said.

The next step for 30,000 Feet is starting an entrepreneurship and business training course. Whatever skills the students learn, Young said her favorite part of the process is sending them back into the community, where they can apply that knowledge. She said the name of the organization — 30,000 Feet — stems from the high expectations Young and her colleagues have for the students.

“If we think about this work as a flight — we’re getting the students ready for takeoff,” Young said. “Once they get to that safe level, that 30,000 feet altitude, it’s safe to move around the cabin. That means they are prepared, they’ve got everything they need, and then they can go and be great up in that 30,000 feet altitude.”