I started out my career as a school teacher and diversity and curriculum consultant for school corporations. The big hypothesis for me in working with predominantly inner-city kids was that the more adversity kids had faced, the more resilient they were. Through the experience of working with school kids and teachers across the Midwest — in rural, suburban and urban communities — the idea kept resurfacing: kids who face adversity develop resiliency.
This was a profound learning experience because the narrative in education was that certain kids couldn’t learn or they weren’t ready for school or they certainly couldn’t do higher math. To that I said, “I’ll show you.”
I became very focused on teaching math and science from the perspective of meeting my students where they were and opening up opportunities by developing the skills that are in their resiliency “tool kits.” And by skills, I mean critical thinking, creativity, reciprocity, chutzpah and stick-to-it-ness — and not out of a luxury like “Oh, are these nice skills to have?” but out of necessity.
Though I continued to see successful outcomes in the classroom, it was when I bumped into a brilliant former student who was working as a hotel housekeeper for minimum wage that I decided to dedicate my life to creating opportunities. I wanted to make sure that underprivileged kids were able to meet their fullest potential, I wanted to do something for people who were very talented but lacked career opportunities because of their socioeconomic background.
This was the late ’90s when i.c.stars was founded and if you remember, there were dotcoms everywhere. The world had been declared flat again and there was an incredible amount of opportunity for folks in this field because there was a shortage of technology workers. I knew from my teaching career that kids from low-income communities generally had great critical thinking skills developed by overcoming adversity. In other words, they were able to solve the math and science formulas presented to them fairly easily — and I knew the IT industry needed these kinds of problem solvers.
What I love about technology is that it is creative. It doesn’t matter what you look like — or at least it shouldn’t. And the process methodology that is embedded in technology makes for a beautiful blueprint for solving community problems.
At the end of the day, technology and IT work is about either solving problems or building solutions. Though i.c.stars was teaching people to work, add value, solve problems and build solutions in companies, I thought: what if we also used that same model in our communities to solve problems and build solutions?
i.c.stars became a leadership and technology training program. We were the first of its kind, and sometimes we’re called the original IT boot camp in Chicago. We’ve been doing it since 2000, and our unique angle is that we are teaching both leadership and technology in the same frame. i.c.stars brings together the larger business community in Chicago and hosts a series of thought leadership events in which CIOs speak. These CIOs and business leaders host roundtables and become part of the fabric of our organization.
We also have many technology service providers that sponsor the organization because they believe in our mission. They want to hire our talent and it’s good for their business, and they’re able to continue to build the relationships with their buyers.
There’s a notion at i.c.stars that everybody wins. It’s not all focused on, “let’s help the kids from our underserved communities.” It’s about “how do we all plug in, business and community, to make opportunities for each other?”
Technology really is the ultimate enabler. It means that by learning systems thinking, by learning technology and by building solutions, we shift from being a consumer of technology to being a maker. And when we shift from consumer to maker, that’s power and that’s how technology can be such an enabler. We can do it from anywhere. We can leverage technology to enact our vision, and we can use technology to solve intractable problems in our community.
We, all of us, have a problem. The problem is at the nucleus and it is the lack of opportunity in our communities. When there is a lack opportunity — whether that is to find jobs, to engage in higher degrees, to become business owners, to participate in STEM — our ambition goes down. Charles Kettering once said: “Our imagination is the only limit to what we can hope to have in the future.”
We can’t even begin to dream it, if we cannot see it. I mean, how can you aspire to be something that you can’t see?
And problems are further exacerbated by bad policies that are made for our community instead of by our community and create this vicious cycle of oppression. So at i.c.stars when we talk about community leadership, what we’re really saying is we want to change this vicious cycle into a virtuous one by developing a thousand community leaders.
When we launched, we trained our first IT students in a rigorous 12-week program that included business leadership, career readiness skills and job shadowing opportunities. We also worked to build a network of technology and startup leaders through public relations and strategic partnerships.
We have an entrepreneurial program where our alums are working in corporate America or building businesses, both non-profit and for profit, to solve problems, to create opportunities for the community and to do technology consulting.
Our alums are also doing service leadership, mentoring, hosting and teaching in the communities that we come from— and they’re making geeky cool! To address that idea of if I can’t see it, how can I be it? these amazing alums can be seen doing powerful stuff using technology and teaching and inspiring others.
Another way we address these issues is through our policy leaders. We have alums who are looking to attack this vicious cycle from a systems level by addressing the bad policies and identifying good policies that should be enacted to benefit our communities. So they’re serving on boards. They’re participating in associations. They’re part of that solution.
Here’s how we are fulfilling our mission and vision of i.c.stars:
We have a 90% placement rate.
The average earning increase for our graduates is over 400%.
Our retention rate in the technology industry is over 80%.
Over half of our alums are pursuing higher education.
But one of the big questions that we ask ourselves when we talk about leadership and technology is what is the true measure of success? Is it getting great jobs? How do we measure leadership success?
And what if we flip the paradigm from success not being equated to getting out of the hood, but success being when we invest back into the hood?
So we measure homeowners at i.c.stars. With over 350 alums, we have 38 homeowners and they’re buying homes in their communities — even if they’re commuting for two hours to work out in the suburbs — to be visible, to say, “I am still here.”
We measure community engagement. We measure volunteerism. We measure the social capital that folks are developing over the years. This is powerful because we really believe that it’s not just the financial capital where you’re earning 400% more or even that you’re investing this much, it’s about how often you give back, how powerful financial capital is the day that we write a check to the non-profit that we went through every day school in grade school. We shift from being a participant in a program to being a benefactor of a program.
We’re working here in Chicago with residents from the Westside and the Southside of Chicago from underserved communities. The average age is between 18 and 27. But what everyone has in common at i.c.stars is this resiliency and the passion to make a difference in both the corporate sector and in our community.
We use social media to get the word out and we get a lot of referrals from word of mouth. What I like to say is that the “Mamas’ Network” of mothers of i.c.stars graduates are talking about the great strides that their sons have made, the awesome jobs that they have and the way their entire outlooks have changed — and that goes viral.
But interestingly enough, when we talk about diversity, we don’t have the same advocacy for our daughters. So while there’s a whole Mamas’ Network referring their sons to i.c.stars and making sure that their sons show up on time and are supported through the intensive 16-week 12-hour day internship, the daughters — our daughters — are not getting that same support.
i.c.stars is very strict. If you’re late or absent, you’re fired. You’re grinding, building apps for Fortune 500 clients. It’s arduous. It’s strenuous. And one day we had a young woman who came late because her boyfriend had unplugged her alarm clock and she knew that this was it, this was the end. She came in, and I had the very difficult and awful job of letting her go. My whole staff was like, “You were some kind of monster. How could you do such a thing? She’s never been late before. Let her stay.” I knew that this was very unpopular decision, but it was what I had to do.
Two years later, I got a call from her. She said, “Sandee, I didn’t have a chance to thank you.” And I said, “Oh my gosh for what?” And she said, “Because you fired me, and I’m currently a business analyst at a very large company and I wouldn’t be here without that moment. Because had you not fired me, I would have stayed with my boyfriend and thought it would have been okay. But that moment defined for me what I wanted in my life, what kind of support I needed in my life, and what support I wasn’t getting. So I broke up with him, and I hustled and I got this job and I worked really hard and I just want to thank you for that.”
That’s huge. The support that our students need is necessary and important because it means that someone “sees” them through this transformation.
When it comes to recruitment, we use some very creative strategies. Our former COO thought a great store for us to advertise in would be natural hair website for African-American women. The funny thing about the story is that he’s actually a Caucasian man who’s “follicly challenged,” let’s just say. And that’s funny but I think it kind of embodies the spirit of i.c.stars where we look at diversity as something that means we have to step outside of our self and understand people who are different than us and everyone has to do that. So what that means in our context is you can have a bald white man really thinking about how to reach African-American women. Where are they? What do they care about? What’s the profile? And what are they fighting for?
And it’s when we can really step inside somebody else’s shoes by emphasizing and identifying what it is that they are fighting for that we can really stand with them.
While our success metrics are important, I should say that the other thing that’s important is how we stand by each other, how we support each other. I think the reason why i.c.stars has been able to make it through two recessions, 9/11 and all the changes that have happened in technology over the last 17 years is that we’ve always made space to stand with and stand for each other.
That might look like:
A CIO showing up at an event and standing up for a new technology, a new thought, a new idea, a new strategy to impact the next generation of technology and community leaders
Being a mentor who coaches or helps in the form of an internship for people who are just entering this field
Our interns and alums standing by the communities that they came from even though they are moving in a direction where their earnings have increased, their social capital has increased, and their responsibilities have increased
All this change can feel alienating because the world of home and the world of work are so different. And yet, we still continue to stand with our community, to say, “I see you” and “you are not alone.” There are so many opportunities to teach, support and stand by participants as they enter the first door of this journey. And it’s a powerful thing to be able to stand and see stars, even when you’re in the city and the sky is clouded with all the fog and lights.
About Sandee Kastrul
Sandee Kastrul is president and co-founder of i.c.stars, an innovative workforce development nonprofit that trains young adults for technology careers and community leadership.