the SVAcademy team
SVAcademy wants to open a door into the tech world for underrepresented people, through education and mentorship PHOTO: SVAcademy

The tech industry suffers from a longstanding misconception that it is a meritocracy, where only hard work and the best ideas are rewarded regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic status. But recent events — the Google engineer memo, anything Uber related and many more examples — serve as a reminder that the opposite is true. 

So what can those looking to break into the industry who belong to one of the many underrepresented groups do? 

According to Joel Scott, COO and co-founder of the San Francisco-based SVAcademy, the answer is education. Specifically, the education that SVAcademy provides. The school goes beyond courses and skills training, although it includes those too, to include business development and mentoring from executives in some of the top tech companies like Salesforce, Google and LinkedIn.

The goal is to develop the skillsets — and more importantly, the contacts — to break through the insular network that typifies Silicon Valley hiring.

Creating The SVAcademy

Scott launched SVAcademy with co-founder Rahim Fazal in August. A week after it launched, the San Francisco-based start up raised $2 million in financing from Bloomberg Beta, Rethink Education, Precursor Ventures and Uprising Ventures, among others.

The founder's experience in the tech world provided the impetus to create the company. Fazal was a college dropout who sold his last company to Oracle, and Scott held high level management positions at Hewlett-Packard and Autonomy. Between the two, they say they have hired hundreds of SaaS sales reps and built sales teams for multiple business units.

SVAcademy, according to the launch announcement, is the first and only outcomes-based vocational school that gives minorities access to the tech industry.

“Over several years we got to know each other and what motivated us and we came to the conclusion that we really wanted to build something together. We really wanted it to be mission driven. We were both from an enterprise software background, both of us are really interested in education, and both of us have seen the challenges of diversity,” Scott told CMSWire in a recent interview.

“We both have software sales and hiring background, and one of the things that we both learned is that if you are on the outside of the tech industry, there is not that many openings to get your foot in the door unless you are a developer, or entry level sales.”

Finding Tech Talent Outside the Usual Suspects

SVAcademy aims to break the cycle of needing experience to get experience by creating a ‘Hyperloop’ between education and employment.

“It is true that you need the talent, but it is not true that you need to go to the same schools to find the talent. If you have people that have gone to Stanford or Harvard there is a reasonably good chance the people you are talking to are hardworking and intelligent and it is those people that are you are going to invite into your recruiting process."

“It is much more difficult to go to your local community college or your state college to identify that talent," continued Scott.

In a statement at the time of the launch, Fazal echoed Scott's argument. “College is not the golden ticket it used to be. Employers expect candidates to have years of experience for entry-level positions and recruiting systems are elitist, looking for qualifications more likely to be found on the resumes of privileged applicants,” he wrote.

“A resume only tells half the story. We’re changing that by providing a diverse cohort of students — already displaying success-predicting traits like resilience, coachability and hustle — with the work experience and connections to land top jobs in tech.”

Tough Application Process, But Good Rewards

Admission into SVAcademy isn't easy. Applicants must first go through a multi-day 30-hour application process. Since the pilot program launch earlier this year, SVAcademy has admitted less than five percent of its nearly 1,000 applicants. 

Of those students in the program, half are first-generation college graduates, 45 percent identify as women, 40 percent are African American or Latino, and all are from lower-income or immigrant families.

“We come from a different direction. We don’t ask GPA you have, we want to know how hard working are you, how resilient are you, how rejection-proof are you, how motivated are you, how competitive are you, and to get a real experience of who the individual is,” said Scott.

The school does this by offering a 15-month training program that is:

  • Open to anyone, with fees paid by sponsor companies in the tech industry
  • Focused on the less-advantaged, with places offered according to a proprietary algorithm developed by the founders' experiences with SaaS sales representatives
  • Developed around a personalized curriculum including mentorship from SaaS executives at Google, Salesforce, Oracle and LinkedIn
  • Designed to offer placements in partner companies with starting salaries of $75,000

Not a Cure-All, But Part of a Larger Tech Diversity Movement

Scott admits things are not going to change overnight, or even this year or next, but sees SVAcademy as one in a number of initiatives beginning to open up the tech industry.

“A lot of companies say they want to increase their diversity and I think they are sincere about it. There is no silver bullet though. I think if you look at the recruiting system that exists in enterprises, they are still very elitist, there is still an unconscious bias,” Scott told CMSWire.

“My sense is that this will continue until we manage to change the elitism in the recruitment process by seeking out, training, qualifying diverse candidates so that when companies come to us they know they are getting the cream of the crop when it comes to talent.”

What SVAcademy Is Up Against

Stories about tech's lack of diversity are dime a dozen, but Facebook is a good example of a company stating it wants to change, but still falling short. 

Facebook came under the spotlight earlier this year when an investigation by financial news service Bloomberg found that Facebook engineers blocked so many "diversity candidates" that many recruiters stopped trying to recruit them.

In the summer of 2014 Facebook released its annual diversity numbers for the first time after it hired Maxine Williams as its global director of diversity in 2013.

It showed Facebook’s staff was 69 percent male and 53 percent white. Despite ongoing efforts to improve this, 2015's numbers showed no material difference.

In a statement about the 2015 figures Williams said:

“Diversity is central to Facebook’s mission of creating a more open and connected world: it’s good for our products and for our business. Cognitive diversity, or diversity of thought, matters because we are building a platform that currently serves 1.4 billion people around the world."

It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know

A final statistic worth noting comes from a report by Martin Kenney, called Understanding Silicon Valley: The Anatomy of an Entrepreneurial Region. It shows that 85 percent of all employees in Silicon Valley were hired from the local market — meaning they were already in the industry.

In short, if you don’t know someone in the industry, you’re chances of getting hired are limited.

“It goes without saying that if you constantly look [for talent] in the same areas you are going to get a lack of diversity. I think the figure runs like 80 percent of all hires are employee referrals and who are you going to refer someone like yourself,” he said.

“If it looks like me, talks like me, same background as me — you get the picture.”