Danny Rojas of All Star Code: “Surround yourself with people smarter than you”

Surround yourself with people smarter than you: People who are smarter than you make you elevate your game. Smart people make you smarter. They make you better. They spark interest and introduce you to new concepts, ideas, culture, people. As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the […]

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Surround yourself with people smarter than you: People who are smarter than you make you elevate your game. Smart people make you smarter. They make you better. They spark interest and introduce you to new concepts, ideas, culture, people.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danny Rojas.

Danny Rojas is the Executive Director of All Star Code, the leading nonprofit organization creating economic opportunity for young men of color by developing their entrepreneurial mindset, skills, and networks needed to succeed in a technological world. Danny has over twenty years of professional experience in strategic advising, management capacity building, and technology innovation, with previous leadership roles at General Assembly, Bellwether Education Partners, and Deloitte & Touche, among others. Danny serves on the Board of Trustees for Phi Iota Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and on the Board of Directors of New Immigrant Community Empowerment and the New York Chapter of ALPFA (Association of Latino Professionals for America). He lives in Queens, NY with his wife and son.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thanks for the invitation!

At All Star Code, Telling Your Story is one of our core pillars along with Celebrate Failure and Dare Greatly.

In my role as All Star Code’s Executive Director, I get the opportunity to welcome our incoming class of brilliant students participating in our flagship 6-week Summer Intensive Program, an immersive learning experience in web development and leadership skills for young men of color to thrive in the tech and innovation sectors. In my introduction, I share my background and story — I was born in Lima, Peru, arrived as a child to the U.S. (specifically South Florida), and with the support and influence of my family, nurtured my interest in engineering and creative arts. I remember watching TV to learn English and coming across a show on PBS called NOVA, where I first learned about the profession and careers in biomedical engineering. I was transported by the possibility to solve problems related to our own bodies, health, and biomechanics through the applied use of engineering and technology.

After graduating from Boston University with a degree in biomedical engineering, the experience unlocked a career adventure map of sorts, spanning over 20 years of meaningful and memorable work — from biomedical researcher, data analyst, management consultant, start-up advisor, to executive leadership in nonprofit and education. And in that experience, I became intimately familiar with systemic barriers, expectations, and challenges that exist for students and professionals of color pursuing STEM pathways and economic mobility. It fuels my passion and interest in my role at All Star Code — to increase access to opportunity for young men of color pursuing pathways to unlock their potential, build generational wealth, and create a just and equitable society.

Previously, I worked at General Assembly, a global technology bootcamp and talent platform. I remember one day walking across our main event space located in the Flatiron district of New York City and seeing a group of high school students dynamically engaging in conversation with my colleagues, who happen to be professionals of color. There was an exchange of ideas, of career paths, of the unwritten rules of the game. I was so impressed with the curiosity, confidence, and compassion that these students carried with them. It left a lasting impression that these students were going places.

When I met All Star Code’s visionary founder, Christina Lewis, the daughter of Reginald F. Lewis — an iconic Wall Street power broker and the first Black man to own a billion dollar business — I learned about his extraordinary life, his civil rights bonafides, his journey as a trailblazer, and the legacy connection of the Lewis family to the mission of All Star Code. After a few more conversations with Christina and her team, I joined the team and the movement. With our goal of national expansion and impact, I’m inspired to bring our unique transformative learning experience to as many communities across the nation as possible.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I became Executive Director just three months before a “once in a generation” event — COVID-19 and the global pandemic — would change our entire growth strategy and learning model.

I came into the role with a remit of strategic growth, scaling our in-person Summer Intensive Program across 5 geographies, over the next 5 years, with a goal to serve 5,000 students annually. In 2019, the organization had invested in our first strategic plan, a significant effort to align stakeholders, growth options, projections, etc. Soon after, the pre-implementation stage of our strategic plan transitioned quickly to crisis management.

We quickly recognized how the global pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and Latino communities, exacerbating systemic inequities that have existed long before the pandemic. In March 2020, in response to COVID-19, we moved our entire program and operations to virtual and assessed the needs of our new students — their access to broadband, home learning environments, etc.

In May of 2020, we also witnessed the blatant disregard for the lives of Black Americans by police and others, including those who summon police on Black people engaging in everyday activities. It was a moment for our community to stand together in fighting systemic racism and injustice everywhere, across all sectors and systems, particularly those that have historically treated people of color unfairly. It strengthened our resolve.

As a result of our decisions, we emerged from the summer months with accomplishments we were proud of and opened new doors of opportunity for All Star Code to innovate, scale, and reach more students than initially planned. We refreshed our strategic direction for wider impact. All Star Code intends to reach 100,000 students in the next 10 years; informed by our experience delivering virtual programming, discussions with corporate partners, and demand for our work to change the face of tech nationally.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of our core pillars is to Celebrate Failure. We recognize that failing forward, learning and applying the wisdom from these inevitable moments, is a critical path to learning and mastery.

When I first joined the nonprofit, I jumped right into my role of Vice President of Programs. On an intro call with a major tech industry partner, he wished me well and congratulated me for joining the All Star Code team. As I was about to thank him for the love, he informed me that my picture and title on our website read… Danny Rojas, Programs Intern. I didn’t realize how quickly I was demoted! I must have really messed something up.

We quickly fixed the website error, but in that moment, it reminded me of my experiences as an intern — building habits, discovering my tenacity, seeking more responsibility, contributing and being part of a team. It was funny and poignant; reminding me to stay hungry as I started my experience as a senior leader at All Star Code.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

The tech industry is the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. economy, with job growth, higher wages, better benefits, and better resilience to economic downturns than other sectors. However, there is an unacceptable racial divide in the US’s tech industry, which is especially concerning given the tech sectors’ rapid growth and high wages. There are trends and data points that inform this perspective:

  • In 2016, only 5.1% of tech executives were Black or Latino, and only 1% of VC-backed startups had a Black or Latino member on the founding team.
  • As of 2020, top tech companies employed staggeringly low numbers of Black and Latino employees. At Facebook only 3.8% of employees are Black and 6.3% are Latino; at Microsoft only 4.9% are Black and 6.6% are Latino; at Google only 3.7% of employees are Black and 5.9% of employees and contractors are Latino.
  • Research indicates that the average lifetime earning for a computer science major is 1.67M dollars, creating a path for economic mobility.
  • As 2018 research from McKinsey shows, greater diversity in the workforce results in greater profitability and value creation. At the executive level, research has found statistically significant correlation between diverse leadership and better financial performance.

Creating a diverse talent pipeline of future innovators, creators, and leaders is imperative today, particularly as we navigate through a global pandemic and prepare for recovery. While there are many organizations that teach coding skills to young women and girls, few focus on young men of color, specifically Black and Latino boys. Without direct investment into Black and Latino boys and young men, they will miss out on the tremendous opportunity that comes with access, exposure, and careers in the innovation economy.

Few organizations prepare this underserved group for careers in the innovation economy. Since 2013, All Star Code has been helping to increase the pipeline of Black and Latino young men studying computer science in college and getting internships and jobs in technology through our unique holistic summer and after school programs.

To date, over 1,000 young men have graduated from our Summer Intensive. Of our college-aged Scholars, 90% are attending college with 67% majoring or minoring in computer science related subjects. Our Scholars are enrolled in colleges all over the country, from Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Howard University, to Stanford University. Our young men have secured prestigious internships at NASA, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Google, Chevron, Bloomberg, etc. Our Scholars are employed at top tech companies such as LinkedIn, Google, and Facebook, and have created learn-to-code organizations and launched their own web development businesses.

We believe that early exposure and access to the tech sector is vital for our students — to spark a curiosity to pursue a path in tech, to increase their confidence through practice and community, to feel a sense of belonging, and develop their competence as leaders in tech. We are certain that the next big idea, venture, and game-changing solution to the grand challenges we face — will be led by our All-Star Code Scholars.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of our amazing students is Justin Burrell. Justin is a 17-year-old student at the prestigious Horace Mann School in the Bronx. This past summer, Justin completed a 6-week predictive innovation internship at Colgate-Palmolive thanks to All Star Code. His passion for social justice and desire to help change the world starting with his own community, led Justin and his partner to launch KiNECT while attending our Summer Intensive Program. This start-up idea is a platform that was designed to connect companies, schools, and individuals with local community service opportunities.

Justin shares the following quote about his experience with All Star Code — “All Star Code has allowed me to grow as a professional. From career networking to presentations, I have continued to learn how to advertise my brand. Most importantly, All Star Code fosters a community of motivated men of color driven to succeed in the STEM world. As a young Black man, it has often been challenging to expose me to like-minded men. But, at All Star Code, I can join a brotherhood and network of bright young men to forge long-lasting relationships.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

As I reflect on the issues affecting our students today, I would advocate the following three areas to be addressed on a policy front.

First, we have seen the widening of the digital divide, with disproportionate impact to Black and Brown communities, further exacerbated by the pandemic. In our work, we had to respond to challenges related to a lack of broadband access, computing devices for learning, and safe home learning environments. According to a recent study, nearly 17 million children across America are disconnected from online learning because internet access wasn’t available or affordable.

Second, elevating the importance of embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion into K-12 computer science education. The fields of software, computing, and computer science are plagued by stark underrepresentation by gender, race, ethnicity, geography, and family income. In U.S. high schools, the Advanced Placement exam in Computer Science has historically (since the beginning of the century) had only 13 percent participation by students from marginalized racial and ethnic groups. We recognize that the problem extends to higher education and the tech workforce — from bias in hiring, promotion, retention, and opportunity.

Finally, encouraging broad sector public-private partnerships to address racial equity and justice in technology & entrepreneurship. We need more investment in these partnerships to make research and innovation policy more responsive to the changing nature of innovation and to social and global challenges. We recognize that changing the face of tech will require a collaborative, systems-based approach to reimagine the education to entrepreneurship / employment pipeline for communities of color.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is simply about being brave. Harnessing power to create change. Having the courage to be a voice for a community. Working toward the world I want to see — a just and equitable society.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Buck stops with you: In the moments that matter, the responsibility and weight of decision-making rests with the leader. This leadership mantra came into full focus in our response to COVID-19. I was responsible for making informed decisions across all aspects of our operations — from program models, budget modifications, remote workforce, partnership work, etc. — and absorbing the impact of these decisions.
  2. Surround yourself with people smarter than you: People who are smarter than you make you elevate your game. Smart people make you smarter. They make you better. They spark interest and introduce you to new concepts, ideas, culture, people.
  3. Always believe in abundance: Having an abundance mindset allows leaders to think big, leading forward with vision and possibility, understanding that change is an inevitable constant in the pursuit of a mission. I have found that an abundance mindset helps me focus on what is working and invest in what is possible.
  4. Practice excellence: when you start your career, there are likely going to be tasks and activities that will be time-consuming, tedious, and likely without context. Whatever that task is, take it as an opportunity to be excellent. Practice this approach to problem-solving and you will build these muscles. As an early career analyst, I was asked to fetch coffee for the team one morning, and I remember thinking to myself “I’m such a rookie, look at what they asked me to do.” In the evening, I called my dad to share this situation and he said, “if you are asked to do something, no matter the size or scope, do it to the best of your ability. Then make it even better. Make your mark, mi hijo.” It turns out that my assignment in coffee procurement had a much richer meaning than I originally thought.
  5. Fail forward: We cannot grow unless we fail unless we face our mistakes, fears, reservations, and expectations. Failure is part of the learning process. At All-Star Code, celebrating failure is a core pillar embedded in everything that we do. Computer science, algorithm, and software development never work perfectly the first time around; we iterate, test and learn, and get closer to a better result. In one of our Summer Intensive Program cohorts, a student kept failing, becoming frustrated in attempting new code, with no success. But he kept persisting until he stood up and shouted out.. “I have failed” with the class embracing his declaration, clapping and supporting their fellow brother, and soon after, getting his code to work properly. The word fail can be defined as the “First Attempt In Learning”.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Invest in All Star Code!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Semper Parati Semper Juncti. Always Prepared, Always Together.

As an engineering major at Boston University and student leader representing Latinos on campus, I was inducted into Phi Iota Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated. Founded in 1931, our fraternity’s roots extend from the late 19th century to the first Latino fraternity and the first Latino student organization in the United States. Our brotherhood is composed of university and professional men committed to the empowerment of the Latin American community. We do this by providing social, cultural programs and activities geared towards the appreciation, promotion, and preservation of Latin American culture.

And now, as a distinguished Brother and Board of Trustees of Phi Iota Alpha Fraternity, this fraternal motto has been a constant reminder in my personal and professional life. Responsibility for individual impact and to collective work together. A responsibility to be prepared for the moment and responsibility to stand with our teams, communities, and each other in our shared pursuit towards justice and opportunity.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’m such a huge fan of the National Basketball Association and the sport (and drama) of professional basketball. I would welcome a breakfast, lunch, coffee, snack, you name it, with Dwayne Wade from the Miami Heat. I have followed his incredible career and accomplishments on the court, and I’m inspired by the work he is leading off the court.

He recently launched The Social Change Fund United (founded alongside Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul), established to invest in and support organizations focused on empowering communities of color and advocating for the human rights of all Black lives through the lens of policy solutions, community representation and narrative change. His advocacy for LGTBQ youth, shaped through his own experience as a father to a trans child, is inspirational and unapologetic.

I’d love the opportunity to share more about All Star Code and our mission with Dwayne Wade. If you can make the plug happen, please let me know!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow us at @allstarcode on all social media platforms. You can follow me @tumi_one on Instagram and @DannyR0jas on Twitter.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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