Ja'keh Clark, a software developer at Best Buy, is a key contributor to Minnesota's emerging diversity efforts in technology.
Clark, 31, has an academic background in art and design and worked with juvenile offenders after college. Clark also liked technology and tinkering with software.
Today, Clark is a two-year digital engineer, integrating Internet of Things applications into Best Buy's website and on mobile devices. A favorite software application Clark developed allows customers to check the website to determine how busy a store is before deciding to visit.
"I'm in the right place," Clark said. "I really enjoy the work. And we're involved in the People of Color Career Fair and Blacks in Technology. That's important."
Employers broadly "can do better on diversity," Clark said. "A lot of women and minorities are not considered for tech-related jobs. They don't have the specified academic qualifications.
"A lot of times companies will be apprehensive about hiring those with nontraditional backgrounds. And you could train them, such as me, in a few months through a boot-camp program. I've heard those frustrations."
Best Buy, as part of its diversity commitment, has committed that 30% of the 1,000-plus tech-team hires it plans over the next couple years will be Black, Latino, Indigenous and female.
Clark is proof that, if you have aptitude and desire, you don't need a four-year degree in computer science to be successful in IT. And even in the COVID-19 recession, tech jobs go unfilled.
Last month, the Minnesota Technology Association, or MnTech, recognized Clark as a "rising star" at its annual Tekne Awards that spotlights innovations and accomplishment.
"In many ways, 'Key' Clark represents the face of Minnesota's future tech workforce, one that is more diverse, digitally fluent and the beneficiary of a nontraditional learning journey," said Jeff Tollefson, a former venture capitalist who heads MnTech.
"At a time when tech-enabled companies are struggling to fill IT roles, companies are forced to rethink historical approaches … to access high-potential talent."
Tollefson previously ran the local chapter of Genesys Works, a yearlong training and business internship program for disadvantaged high school seniors. He knows something about the future and the transition of the tech workforce from mostly white men.
"This means helping to develop new tech talent pipelines, advocating for workforce policy changes, sharing best practices, and facilitating connections between job seekers and employers as we cultivate the skilled, inclusive technology workforce Minnesota companies need for continued success," Tollefson wrote to MnTech members recently.
"With baby boomers leaving the tech workforce in large numbers, we need to … engage historically overlooked and untapped sources of talent," he added.
Minorities made up only 22% of workers in the 2 million job, 16-county Twin Cities metropolitan area in 2019, according to a recent analysis by labor economist Tim O'Neill of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. And minority employment grew 25% in 2015-19, or 89,485 new jobs, while the overall job market grew only 6%.
The region's economic growth increasingly depends on working-age minorities, including immigrants.
Their ranks are growing at twice-or-more the pace of the overall job market in fields such as management, business and financial operations, health care, technology and construction trades.
Clark, who was raised by a grandmother in Oklahoma, has been on Clark's own since high school.
Clark moved, first to Wisconsin, to attend college near an older friend who was a mentor. Clark financed college, including a few software classes, with work and debt.
Clark's interest in software led in 2018 to Minneapolis-based Prime Digital Academy, an industry-backed boot camp that trains adults for IT jobs. Clark covered the $15,000 tuition mostly with a Minneapolis Tech Hire grant funded by government and industry.
"The month I graduated, I had only $130 to live on after I paid my rent," Clark recalled.
Clark has made the most of the opportunity, representing Best Buy in Blacks in Technology, engaging in conferences and volunteering in Clark's neighborhood, as well as mentoring students.
"Leadership is … what you choose to do with your time and how you engage people," said the frugal Clark, who still lives in the same studio apartment in the Phillips neighborhood.
"I see poverty. Homelessness. I'm privileged and committed to the neighborhood.
"I also work with students from [nearby] Augsburg University and Prime Digital. Some from this neighborhood. They need support, portfolio reviews and help with soft-skill development. I try to introduce them to people in industry.''
Scott Schmidt, a digital supervisor, praised Clark as a good teammate, curious and helpful.
Those important attributes aren't requisites for a computer science degree.