Wired for Impact

Microsoft’s Sid Espinosa links underserved communities to tomorrow’s workforce through technology education

Sid Espinosa, Director of Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, Microsoft (Photo by Joanne H. Lee)

Philanthropy leader, community builder, and former mayor of Palo Alto, California, Sid Espinosa has advocated for those without a voice throughout his entire career. That theme carries through to his work as director of civic engagement and philanthropy for Microsoft, where his team works in cities across the United States to provide vital exposure to technology to those who need it most.

“Our company’s mission is about empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more,” Espinosa says. “Our philanthropy and corporate social responsibility is built into Microsoft’s DNA, tracing back to the history of Bill Gates and his incredible legacy around the world.”

For Espinosa—whose Mexican-born father surpassed language and cultural barriers to become a successful engineer in the United States and whose mother, of Norwegian and Scottish ancestry, was a teacher—giving the gift of knowledge to underrepresented communities is a higher calling.

Espinosa grew up in the farm town of Gilroy, California. He earned a master’s degree in government affairs from Harvard, worked in the public liaison office in the White House during the Clinton administration, and went on to lead the philanthropy efforts for tech giant Hewlett Packard before serving in local office. From 2008 to 2012, Espinosa progressed from city councilman to vice mayor to become the first Hispanic mayor of Palo Alto, California.

“My mom said to me early on, ‘People find joys through work in different ways,’” Espinosa says. “‘Some want to build things. Some want to work on big, visionary projects. I think your passion is going to be found in giving people a voice who don’t have one, and you are going to find great meaning in doing that.’”

“We know that the skills gap will not be solved just through after-school programs or training teachers. We need to have policy change at the federal and state level.”

With more $1.4 billion invested in nonprofits and social initiatives in 2017 alone, Microsoft is one of the leading corporate philanthropy players. Much of its US agenda centers on fostering opportunities for young people to develop technology skills.

“Technology is transforming the way we live, and we need to ensure all communities have access to the opportunities created by technology,” he says. “Digital skills and education are a big part of that.”

Microsoft’s efforts are meeting a real need: a national talent deficit in tech. In New York alone, Code.org cited more than 31,000 open computing jobs in 2017, though there were only about 3,800 computer science graduates.

“Even with talent migrations from other global regions, we’re not equipped to meet our needs nationally,” Espinosa says. “It’s a crisis that Microsoft faces every day, and the company is investing heavily to counteract it.”

Microsoft deploys local programs that touch lives, one at a time, while also investing in larger issues, like access to technology education.

“We are focused on having a substantive engagement, tackling the major problems that these communities are facing, and looking at the value we can add,” he says. “It’s not so much about handing over a big check but about authentic local engagement.”

TEALS: Educating Educators

One of the primary barriers to technology education is the lack of qualified technology educators at the high school level.

“In most states, technology doesn’t count toward state college requirements, so high schools don’t teach it,” Espinosa says. “When teacher training programs are offered, the teachers sometimes then join a private tech company, so we see an exodus of folks leaving education.”

To train and retrain teaching talent, Microsoft Philanthropies launched a nonprofit initiative called TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) in 2009. Active in twenty-nine states and Washington, DC, TEALS pairs computer science (CS) professionals with high school teachers to teach introductory and advanced placement computer science curriculum.

Teachers work directly with industry professionals to increase CS teaching capacity and build the programs at their schools. Eventually, teachers require less volunteer support, and the majority end up with the ability to successfully teach on their own.

“We’re looking at sustainability on projects like these and asking ourselves, ‘How do we really get teachers prepared to teach the subject on their own?’” Espinosa says.

TEALS is up against the odds in places like Arizona, where nearly half (44 percent) of all high school students are Latino, yet they represent less than 14 percent of advanced placement test takers in computer science, according to the College Board. This disparity leads to low workforce representation. Nationally, only 6 percent of professionals working in computing are Latino, according to Code.org.

Through TEALS, however, Microsoft has recruited volunteers from hundreds of companies—including Amazon, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Chase—to the cause, serving more than thirty-seven thousand students to date.

Code.org: A National Agenda

In addition to helping students and teachers individually, Microsoft works at the state and federal level to fight for top-down policies. As a founding member and the largest corporate sponsor of Code.org, the company tackles issues such as access to computer science in school systems.

Microsoft rallies Code.org government affairs teams in every state to work on the panoply of policies that need to be fixed, Espinosa says.

Code.org has been successful in ensuring computer science courses count toward high school graduation in thirty-five states, which helps to shore up the talent shortage.  “We know that the skills gap will not be solved just through after-school programs or training teachers,” Espinosa says. “We need to have policy change at the federal and state level.”

City Year: Impacting Students

In high-poverty, urban schools nationwide, Microsoft helps kids who finish high school get career-ready through its support of City Year, a nonprofit dedicated to helping students and schools succeed. An after-school program for elementary through high school kids, codeveloped and funded by Microsoft, has served nearly twenty thousand disadvantaged youth. By late 2018, the program is slated to complete a three-year, twelve-city pilot in digital skills training, scaling to City Year’s national network of more than three hundred schools and twenty-eight cities.

In San Jose, California, Microsoft supports City Year AmeriCorps service teams, who are helping these kids not fall through the cracks, with activities like tutoring, in-class help, and walking them to school. It takes a hands-on approach in districts like these, whose dropout rates sore at 50 percent.

“These days, you can’t decide when you enter college that you want to suddenly become a computer science major,” Espinosa says. “If you’re that one Latina student in CS 101, you’re probably with a whole bunch who have been taking apart computers for several years. So, when you enter that classroom, you better be ready for success. That’s what we’re ensuring that Latino kids in San Jose are prepared for.”