Some startups recognize there is untapped workforce potential in Sacramento’s underserved communities and have made it their mission to empower them. But to serve the underrepresented populations they seek to support, these startups need some assistance themselves. Recognizing the need to champion community-based initiatives, the City of Sacramento created the Rapid Acceleration, Innovation and Leadership Sacramento grant program, which focuses on preparing communities for the evolving, increasingly STEM-based career landscape.
RAILS launched in 2016, and it granted $900,000 in July 2018 to 14 organizations serving neighborhoods including Del Paso Heights, Lemon Hill, Meadowview, Old North Sacramento, South Hagginwood, South Oak Park and Twin Rivers, with initiatives like girls youth mentoring and hands-on robotics training. Although each organization has its own purpose and vision, they share the goal of creating a competitive future workforce. RAILS program manager Aubree J. Taylor says, “We wanted training programs to be focused on [science, technology, engineering and math] and entrepreneurship being able to give people the tools to find or create jobs that are going to be more technical or higher-paying jobs.”
“We’re sowing the seed that, ‘Hey, you don’t have to go too far to get a really high-paying job right here in Sacramento.’” Navneet Grewal, CEO, Yellow Circle
Two-time RAILS recipient Yellow Circle received $49,920 in 2018 for its cyber security boot camps for youth ages 12-17. The nonprofit is a virtual classroom that provides students with hands-on experience in building web servers, cloud computing and developing practical IT skills, and CEO Navneet Grewal says it has served more than 100,000 students globally since its founding four years ago.
Early on, Yellow Circle benefited from sponsorships from Google and Microsoft, but Grewal quickly recognized the need to localize its efforts and hone in on Sacramento students who needed IT education. With its RAILS grant, Yellow Circle is intent on preparing Sacramento’s underserved youth for careers in technology. “We are mostly focused on workforce development, new technologies like ride-sharing, and very focused on cyber security,” Grewal says.
The cyber-security focus hinges on a gap in the marketplace. “There’s a void that’s being created because we don’t have enough talent to fill all the tech jobs that are going to come up,” Grewal says. To fill that need, Yellow Circle’s end-of-2019 goal is to reach 1,000 kids to spark an interest in cyber security and ultimately see them enroll in technology programs at Sacramento State or UC Davis.
Exposing students to clear career paths in growing industries is almost as important as teaching the skills themselves. “The barrier to entry isn’t as high as people think it is for cyber security, which is definitely a growing industry,” Taylor says. “But [cyber security] is not something that everyone’s exposed to or thinking about as a career. If everyone knew how accessible it was, they’d be out making six figures with all these cyber security professionals.”
The key to connecting with their scholars is being relatable, says Nicholas Haystings, executive director of Square Root Academy, an organization that provides STEM-based experiences and education to youth in underserved areas of Sacramento. Square Root received $150,000 from RAILS in 2018. “Because I’m from the community [of Meadowview], I understand that population, and culturally, we reflect one another,” he says. “[The RAILS grant] is allowing people to be taught from the community by the community.”
Kate Hazarian, vice principal of Greer Elementary and a partner of Square Root Academy, agrees. “Our scholars get to see young adults, all [either] in college or college graduates, who look like them and are pursuing careers in science,” she says. “We have students who give up playing during lunch recess on Wednesdays just so they can go to Square Root for the science experiments.”
Location is also crucial to students’ comfort level and participation, Grewal says. Yellow Circle takes its boot camps to where the youth are. “We’re hosting the camps where it’s almost home to them,” he says. “We’re going to each community and doing a camp in their neighborhood, where they’re comfortable to come out.”
So where can these budding scientists, technologists and engineers land in the long run? Part of the goal for the STEM-focused RAILS programs is to familiarize kids with the career opportunities available in Sacramento. “We’re sowing the seed that, ‘Hey, you don’t have to go too far to get a really high-paying job right here in Sacramento,’” Grewal says. Organizations like Intel, UC Davis and the State of California have an increasing need for coders, researchers and technicians. “To be able to encourage people building their own companies and their own tech [with] those STEM skill sets, we want to keep those people and jobs in Sacramento,” Taylor says.
Haystings adds that large companies with the potential to move to Sacramento require a workforce with the proper skills. “In order for Sacramento to attract the huge companies,” he says, “it needs to start now with educating and investing in our youth so they have the skills to matriculate into these companies.”
Vanessa Labi is a freelance contributor to Comstock’s magazine. She earned her B.S. in English at UCLA. Vanessa specializes in culture, arts, lifestyle and personal essays.