Hometown woman brings tech program to students of color in Twin Cities

Shonnah Hughes Courtesy Shonnah Hughes

The STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) industry is one of the fastest growing industries worldwide; it is also one of the least diverse. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, Black and Hispanic workers are underrepresented in the STEM workforce populations. Blacks comprise 11 percent of the total U.S. workforce, but only 9 percent of the STEM workforce; Hispanics comprise 16 percent of the U.S. workforce and only 7 percent of the STEM workforce.

That is why Minneapolis native Shonnah Hughes teamed with Selina Suarez, Rebe de la Paz, and Stephanie Herrera to launch PepUp Tech in 2016. The New York-based nonprofit works to bridge the technical divide by introducing to and training young people in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) industries.

PepUp’s primary goal is to ensure students of color are prepared and available for career opportunities in a specialized field that might not otherwise be available to them.

“Technology is a gateway to creating unlimited earning potential and building generational wealth,” said Hughes. “Companies are looking for diversity of thought to push innovation forward and our unique experiences are exactly what they need.”

The organization operates three programs – Summer Explorers, PepSTARS and Salesforce Bootcamp – using familiar tools and resources to teach students — from grade school to college grads – about computer science and technology.

PepUp Tech students with co-founders Photo courtesy of Shonnah Hughes

Summer Explorers, in partnership with existing community centers, provides youth, ages 4-11, with hands-on education and field trips that emphasize technology and its role in the world around them. Junior high and high school students can participate in Pep STARS to learn technology and business development, while Salesforce Boot Camp teaches how to use the cloud-based software.

Hughes said the “platform that has its own proprietary coding language and system structure, [It] is the number one in demand software skill in the tech market today.”

PepUp Tech also teaches students about careers in technology partnering with colleges and universities. It highlights talent for existing potential, with courses taught by tech professionals from a variety of fields.

Hughes said the organization also looks to serve as pipeline for companies to hire talented graduates of color she described as “diamonds in the rough.”

“We want to provide them the opportunity to have a voice in this space,” she said. “Essentially, what we are providing is a diverse pipeline and very inspiring youth to break through the system.”

Since launching, the program has graduated more than 50 alumni and has a current cohort of 90 students. Hughes has also expanded PepUp’s reach with new programming in the Twin Cities. The nonprofit partnered with Microsoft this summer to host its PepSTARS program at the tech retailer’s Mall of America location. Hughes also said she plans to create partnerships with other organizations to implement more programs, including one in the works with Sisters in Technology at North High school.

“Most of our inner city schools don’t have tech programming and the students have a hard time relating because they don’t see people who look like them,” she said. “I would like to change their perception of what people in technology look like and introduce them to the endless opportunities that are available to them that they have yet to discover.”