By the time she had graduated from Stanford University, Stephanie Brown had already completed internships with Fortune 500 companies Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Deloitte. She was only 21.
No wonder, then, that Microsoft’s human resources department tracked her down, offering her a position she had not even applied for: helping the company’s enterprise customers in the Southeast streamline their IT infrastructure.
Five years into her time at Microsoft, Brown is headed back to school, this time to MIT to complete an MBA degree focused on innovation and technology. She already has one start-up business to her name, a trip-planning site called Xtinerary.com. But she hopes to find new knowledge and possibly a business partner to help take her to the next stage of her working career.
Brown attributes much of her success to an organization that has been quietly helping African-American students succeed going on four decades. Today with chapters in more than 40 cities, the Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA) has been helping middle school and high school students develop interest and acumen in technology fields such as IT in which minorities (and women, for that matter) tend to be under-represented.
Recognizing the importance of BDPA to talented students such as Brown, the Creating IT Futures Foundation — the charitable arm of CompTIA, the IT industry association — recently made a $10,000 gift to the BDPA Education and Technology Foundation (BETF). The dollars were steered toward Bemley Scholarships given to some of this year’s winners of the Annual High School Computer Competition, held on Aug. 6, at the annual BDPA conference in Chicago.
“I am excited about our partnership with Creating IT Futures Foundation on this scholarship,” says BETF executive director Wayne Hicks. “We hope to provide exposure and experience for our students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related careers … and getting a degree emphasizing information technology is one way to get it done.”
“Creating IT Futures is honored to have the opportunity to work with such an active and dedicated foundation having similar goals,” says Charles Eaton, executive director of the Creating IT Futures Foundation. “By collaborating and combining efforts, we’ll help even more young people find paths to IT careers and to sustainable futures.” Eaton expects that the two organizations will be able collaborate in other ways, including talented BDPA students becoming candidates for Creating IT Futures programs.
Brown, who grew up in Maryland, learned about BDPA in the ninth grade from one of her aunts who worked at the University of Maryland in College Park. A technology class sponsored by the BDPA Washington, D.C., Chapter met on Saturdays. Brown’s parents would drive her 30 minutes to the nearest D.C. Metro stop, and Brown would ride for another 45 minutes to get to the class where 10 other students were gathered to learn web programming languages such as HTML and Java.
Much of the teaching was geared toward the annual competition, which in recent years has required team members to collaborate to build working, database-driven websites to solve specific business problems. For Brown, the classes got her thinking in terms of team-building and project management — skills she has since referenced often in her IT-related jobs.
Also part of the students’ instruction was training in professional skills. Recalls Brown: “We had different programs and speakers to teach us general business etiquette like dress code. How to act at a business lunch.” Though hardly technical, such “soft skills” can make the difference between landing a corporate job or not.
Her first national BDPA conference made a huge impression on Brown, who was 14 and languishing a bit in the ninth grade. “Here were all these black IT professionals. I didn’t get that kind of exposure in my home town,” she says. “BDPA really psyched me to go to college, because here I had all these awesome role models. Everyone was very nice, open, and supportive. It was a turning point in my life.” Inspired, Brown began to research the admission requirements of top colleges that offered technology degrees. “I was already taking college-bound classes, but I learned I really needed to start taking AP (Advanced Placement) courses, like calculus, so I took all I could.”
Brown excelled in those college-level classes and was offered scholarships to attend MIT, Duke, Stanford, Columbia, Maryland, and Spellman. She chose Stanford, she said, in part to experience a new part of the country.
At Stanford she saw how the programming students could sometimes disappear for days into the computer lab without emerging to the light of day. Wanting to combine her people skills with her love of technology, Brown majored instead in Management Science and Engineering, a relatively new degree. “The degree was a response to the business world where there weren’t enough tech people with the soft skills and business skills.” The degree also allowed her a course of study in Japan and a semester at Howard University.
She was prepared to stay on for a fifth year and earn her master’s when she received a call on her cellphone from an HR manager at Microsoft. Her resume, which she had filed as a member of the National Society for Black Engineers, had found its way to the Redmond, Wash., company. Would she consider interviewing for a position?
She let the company fly her to Dallas for an interview, then accepted its offer for her to work in Charlotte, N.C., as a technical account manager for 150 enterprise clients. Now was a chance for her to get back to the Eastern Seaboard where most of her family still lived. Furthermore, it was a chance to put all the knowledge she’d learned at college and in her internships to good wage-earning use. Brown would quickly earn two promotions, eventually serving as the main liaison between Microsoft and 20 high-level clients.
Looking way back, Brown sees that she bucked tremendous odds. Her mother worked two jobs when Brown was a child; the family was on welfare for part of Brown’s childhood. However, her mother had also earned a degree at Tuskegee University and drilled her daughter with math flash cards even before kindergarten. Other relatives in her life also encouraged her to do well in school.
Finally, the members of BDPA showed her what it looked like to succeed in a technology field—giving her a goal to aim for and the means to achieve that goal. After business school, she hopes to bring her technology and business skills to an area she has a strong passion for: the travel and tourism industry.
One expects she’ll go very far.
About Creating IT Futures Foundation – Established in 1998 by CompTIA, the IT Industry Association, the Creating IT Futures Foundation helps at-risk individuals and populations under-represented in IT prepare for, secure, and be successful in IT careers. A 501(c)(3) organization, among its clients are military personnel re-entering civilian life and workers displaced from other industries. The Foundation also works to bring greater diversity to the IT workforce, with a particular focus on women, African Americans and Hispanics.
About BDPA Education and Technology Foundation – Founded in 1992, BETF is a 501(c)(3) foundation with a mission to locate the funding necessary to support educational and technology programs for the Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA) and others across the country. BETF works to close the gap of computer and technology literacy in America’s classrooms. The organization helps students from historically disadvantaged communities to learn advanced computer science and community responsibility from any of the BDPA chapters located around the nation.