Formerly Incarcerated Individuals Make Inroads in Tech

Image: Thomas Barwick

Michelle Ferguson did not enter the tech world through a traditional path. “I was at a crossroad,” the National Community Initiatives Director of Dream Corps TECH says of the chapter in her life preceding her current role. Today she fittingly shows people, many at a crossroads themselves, that tech isn’t just for the trained professionals who studied coding in college, but also for those looking for a new start.

“At Dream Corps TECH, our mission is to diversify the pipeline of talent through non-traditional pathways,” Ferguson tells EBONY of the organization’s mission. The national program takes individuals without degrees or former tech experience, many of whom are formerly incarcerated or systems impacted, and prepares them for tech jobs. They do so through a cohort training program, partnering with corporations as they take on the role of both trainer and recruiter. 

Participants are given a stipend as they learn their specific tech role and the coding language needed to be successful. Once they hit their metrics and benchmarks during enrollment, they are hired for full-time employment or to a paid internship or apprenticeship. “That is the cornerstone of our programming,” says Ferguson, a certified Scrum Master with more than 14 years in the non-profit world. Under her direction, the ecosystem of talent that comes into the Dream Corps TECH pipeline transitions from training to a full-on career trajectory. She supports them on their journey through upskilling and scholarships, activations and general encouragement. “We’re really about creating generational wealth for our community through tech,” Ferguson insists, “because tech is ruling the world.”

Though technology is a multi-billion dollar industry, Black people make up a small percentage of those reaping the economical rewards. Traditionally tech companies have recruited a certain kind of talent, often seeking these recruits from the Harvard, MIT’s, and Brown’s of the world. “But you have other talent that goes to HBCUs, or they go to technical schools or boot camps,” Ferguson asserts. Only recently these large companies have come to the understanding that they have to find alternative avenues of recruiting. Tapping into the good boys club, Ferguson says, is counterintuitive to creating a diverse industry. 

“We tell the tech industry, ‘we know [our traditional participants] may not have all of the skills required, or they might not have all the certifications, but are you willing to invest in that person?’” says Ferguson. “When you have diversity you build better things. When you build better things you have higher profits. So it’s only detrimental to yourself,” Ferguson adds. 

In addition to training talent for the tech world, Ferguson helps train tech companies for a more diverse workforce. Tired of the excuses tech companies have for why they aren’t able to onboard more Black employees, Ferguson is helping to create an ecosystem where that excuse can no longer hold up.   

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Dream Corps TECH recently launched its first systems impacted cohort for individuals who have been negatively affected by the incarceration of a close relative. For those who participated in the sales cohort made possible by HubSpot, the program served as an opportunity to get their foot in the door in the tech industry. “An entry-level tech position is the hardest to get because most corporations don’t have the infrastructure positions for that,” Ferguson explains. “So they were able to come to our program and leave with a job opportunity.” 

Graduates of these programs have left with job offers that are $40,000 – $60,000 more than their current pay. This includes individuals who have had previous felonies or misdemeanors on their record. “It’s a labor of love,” says Ferguson. “Sometimes what we do is very laborious, but when you see that people’s lives are changed, in the end, it is well worth it.”

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