By Joel P. Engardio
Tech start-ups valued at $1 billion are called unicorns because they’re rare. Other rarities in Silicon Valley include women and people of color working as software engineers.
If Iris Bonilla gets hired, she’ll be one of the Latina women who hold just one percent of computing jobs. Yet it would be wrong to call her a unicorn.
Bonilla might be the only Latina in her computer science classes at Santa Clara University, but she didn’t get there by magic. It took some direction by a very real program called SEO Scholars that has been academically pushing Bonilla since high school.
It also took hard work on Bonilla’s part. At 20, she’s made it to junior year of college — despite some setbacks. It’s not easy being graded against classmates who had more advantages growing up.
“I always wanted to know what makes a computer tick. But I didn’t get the chance to use one until middle school,” Bonilla said. “Most kids my age had computers as toddlers. I was delayed.”
SEO — which stands for Sponsors for Educational Opportunity — aims to fill the academic gaps that can keep underserved public school students like Bonilla from earning a college degree and escaping a cycle of poverty.
Bonilla was born in San Francisco to a single mother from El Salvador who still scrapes by as a self-employed house cleaner.
“My mom said she doesn’t want me to inherit the houses she cleans,” said Bonilla, who was 14 when she became her mother’s co-worker. “I’m interested in tech and coding. But no one told me how I could make it a career until I got into SEO. I didn’t know about AP classes or financial aid. My mom didn’t either.”
SEO offers an eight-year college prep and mentoring program that starts the first year of high school and continues through college graduation. The only cost to students is time and effort.
In addition to completing the regular coursework at their public high school, SEO participants must commit to Saturday classes in math, critical thinking and writing. They also attend academic boot camps in the summer. The goal is to prepare SEO students well beyond the minimum standard of a high school diploma so they can survive the rigors of college.
“Just getting kids into college is not our ultimate goal,” said Rachel Bordoli, executive director of SEO in San Francisco. “Even with all the additional academic preparation, they still need a lot of ongoing support. That’s why we stay with them until college graduation.”
Bonilla had a rough start to her freshman year of college. She failed her calculus midterm test.
“I was really upset. I was feeling all these emotions, questioning if was ready and if I belonged,” Bonilla said. “The normal Santa Clara student is a sorority girl with blonde hair, from the suburbs of Seattle or Wisconsin. I’m an urban girl wearing dark clothes and Giants gear.”
Adam Karr said he knows how Bonilla feels. SEO helped him as an African American and first-generation college student at Northwestern University and Harvard Business School.
“When I arrived, I didn’t think I was good enough,” said Karr, who was raised by a single mom who lived on public assistance at times. “I was intimidated by what the other students talked about and did. Then I found my people at SEO. We were going through the same journey and that made all the difference.”
Now Karr is the managing director of a multi-billion-dollar investment fund. He founded SEO in San Francisco. Initially, the non-profit only served students in New York City. The San Francisco organization currently has 58 students in high school and 56 in college. A new class of 9th graders is being recruited this fall. The average family income of an SEO student in San Francisco is $32,000.
SEO focuses on kids Karr calls the “missed middle.” They aren’t academically strong enough to win scholarships to private high schools. Yet they’re not on the verge of failing or dropping out, which would give them extra attention in a public school. They have a desire to learn but need a boost their families can’t provide.
“Some of our kids are dealing with parents in addiction or gang-related activity,” Karr said. “One of our students was injured in a school shooting incident last year. Now she’s thriving. We teach our kids how to recover from life’s set-backs and keep learning.”
Kamiah Brown, 16, said SEO helps her stay focused on her dream of becoming a surgeon.
“High school is dramatic,” said Brown. “At first, I hung out with the wrong crowd and I didn’t like it. They were loud, obnoxious and acting out. The vibe was bad, so I got out. I just hung by myself because I didn’t know where I fit.”
At SEO, Brown found other motivated students who didn’t mind the extra classwork on weekends.
“My old group pressured me to skip school. They didn’t take it seriously,” Brown said. “But the SEO students encourage each other to study more. I’m learning a lot. I’m also learning to love myself and be conscious of my actions.”
Adhering to SEO requires a lot of internal motivation, which is why Karr reports a 15 to 20 percent dropout rate.
“A boy who chooses to study instead of playing basketball with his friends on a Saturday isn’t going to look cool,” Karr said. “The kids we take have to want to do it. We can’t take everybody and not everyone makes it.”
For David Ruiz, 15, SEO isn’t a sacrifice.
“I’m not into sports. Reading is one of my favorite things and I can be myself at SEO,” said Ruiz, who wants to be an immigration lawyer. “Being different is what makes you unique. I like being around other kids with different stories and struggles. I feel connected to them because we get to struggle and laugh together.”
Bonilla credits strong connections with her SEO classmates and advisors for surviving a bumpy freshman year of college. Pep talks and a new study strategy helped Bonilla turn the “F” on her calculus midterm into an “A” on the final exam.
Yet she still feels the pressure of being the only Latina in the room — in her computer classes at school and on the engineering floor of the tech company where she interned last summer.
“Having to represent an entire community is a lot to put on one pair of shoulders,” Bonilla told a recent gathering of SEO supporters and alumni. “It’s been nerve-wracking to prove that I can do it. But I think that I have so far.”