Minority Student Day Provides Hands-On Experience with Technology

| MSNE Staff

In our journey to make Microsoft a diverse and inclusive  space, we’re honored to work with groups on-site that help make Microsoft — and our surrounding communities — a better place. BAM (Blacks and Africans at Microsoft) is one such employee resource group (ERG) for employees at Microsoft who identify as black or African. BAM provides year-round programming, resources, and opportunities for allyship and growth to advance Microsoft’s diversity and inclusion vision.

Each year, BAM hosts Minority Student Day, an opportunity for local high school students from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds to learn about the tools, resources, and career opportunities that are available to them in information technology. We were excited to have our local chapter of BAM bring in students from Cambridge and Boston-area schools this month in an exciting day filled with hands-on technology labs, information sessions, networking and more.

Marlin Kann, educator at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, attended with his students to get them excited about computer science (CS), as the school is expanding its CS program. “Days like today humanize the tech industry a bit more,” he explained. “It also makes people feel it is accessible, instead of some kind of daunting abstract professional world.”

We kicked off the day with opening remarks from software engineer Nana Yaa Fordjour, who is also the talent acquisition co-chair for BAM New England, and Keane Johnson, HR Leader here at Microsoft New England R&D (NERD). Fordjour and Johnson both explored the necessity of opportunity and inclusion at NERD and throughout Microsoft, before transitioning our students over to a thrilling panel discussion.

Our panel was a highlight of the day, featuring Microsoft employees from diverse backgrounds who shared their journeys into technology. Panelists included:

  • Moderator: Terrell Cox, General Manager, NERD
  • Nini Ikhena, Program Manager
  • Olivier Beya, Software Engineer
  • Jamar Brooks, Software Engineer
  • Shannon Bell, Modern Desktop Technical Specialist
  • Tarikh Campbell, Workplace Inclusion Program Manager

Students heard firsthand how these employees were exposed to technology, what led them to their careers, and how companies like Microsoft are working to promote a culture of inclusion and diversity.

The real fun began when our audience was brought into the brand new Garage at NERD for two workshops. In our Paint 3D workshop, students combined STEM and creativity as they used the Paint 3D app to build their own 3D robot and view it in augmented reality using Mixed Reality Viewer. In the Garage hub, students got to work hands-on to create a puzzle using the micro:bit microcontroller. Together, they used their creativity and problem-solving skills to design a puzzle and challenge their friends to solve it, highlighting their computational thinking, and focusing on basic programming paradigms like inputs and outputs.

Melissa James, Founder and CEO of The Tech Connection

We were also excited to bring two incredible keynote speakers to Minority Student Day: Deolinda Branch, Assistant Dean at MIT’s Office of Minority Education, and Melissa James, Founder and CEO of The Tech Connection. Branch explored the importance of on-campus inclusion and advocacy, revealing the plentiful resources that are available to minority students at universities. She told our audience that the most important part of her job is to provide a holistic network of support for students of color. James took us through her journey as a technologist and eventual business owner, with a focus on passion, grit, and determination.

“If something sparks your curiosity, don’t just let it go,” James advised students looking for growth in their academic and professional career. “Constantly ask yourself: What don’t I know? How can this job help me to learn more?”

To wrap up the day, we were thrilled to give our students a tour of the Garage at NERD’s maker space. There, students saw how work and play can combine, with hands-on demos of the Microsoft HoloLens, our t-shirt press and pin maker, social robot Jibo, and 3-D printing. The excitement was palpable as students moved from room to room, experiencing technology that was readily available to them and learning what they can build themselves.

“In a tech company, it’s hard to find people who look like me, so today it was great to see that representation of people of color and especially women,” said Kateri Gerald-Burns, a sophomore at New Mission High School. “Some people need that inspiration. It’s all about inspiring people to do what they love.”