Before President Barack Obama touted her as an example of America's future tech workforce, LaShana Lewis was a college dropout from East St. Louis, Illinois, driving buses to make ends meet.
"I came back home [from college] with all of this computer knowledge but not a degree, and there was nothing for me to do," Lewis told Daily RFT in January. "Most people were looking for secretaries, not for a black girl from East St. Louis to do coding."
Lewis left East St. Louis to study software coding at Michigan Technological University, where she was the only black woman in her program, until her money ran out. When she returned home without a bachelor's degree, employers told her she wasn't qualified to work in coding.
Until, that is, she found LaunchCode, the St. Louis nonprofit that matches people like Lewis with coding internships at local employers, including MasterCard, Lockerdome and Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and LaunchCode's all-women coding meetup, CoderGirl.
On Monday, Obama singled Lewis out as a model of how his ambitious new program, TechHire, which will train and employ workers in the rapidly expanding tech market where average salaries are more than one and a half times higher than the average private-sector job. The program includes a $100 million grant program for new training programs, such as the apprenticeship that helped Lewis.
"Because [Lewis] didn't have a college degree, she couldn't get an interview," Obama said Monday. Just a week before she started at MasterCard, a recruiter had turned her down for a similar job because she didn't complete her college studies. "LaunchCode went to bat for her."
Founded by Square co-founder and St. Louis native Jim McKelvey, LaunchCode works with people who don't have a computer-sciences degree and documented years of experience but are still talented, trained and motivated enough to do computer programing work. Apprentices get $15 an hour (compared to the $80,000 median salary for programmers) and partner with an experienced programmer.
In its first three months, LaunchCode matched 42 people with apprenticeships, and seven of those apprentices, like Lewis, were promoted to full-time jobs.
Update, 2:40 p.m.: To date, LaunchCode has placed 155 apprentices with a 90 percent conversion rate to full time hires, according to program director Alex Miller.
"[LaunchCode] got me through the door," Lewis says. "I would never have been able to walk through the door of MasterCard without them."
In his announcement about TechHire, Obama also highlighted St. Louis as one of the forward-thinking communities, along with New York, LA and Memphis, dedicated to recruiting and placing applicants in tech jobs based on their skills, not their resumes.
"We're a route for people who may not have traditional credentials to get good jobs," Brendan Lind, LaunchCode co-founder and executive director, told Daily RFT after the program's launch in January 2014.
Lind traveled to Washington, D.C., with co-founder McKelvey as a guest of the White House for Obama's announcement. "We can spend a ton of money trying to recruit Boeing to come to town, but if we just increased the talent pool in St. Louis, there are jobs waiting for people," he said.
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