Role: CEO and Co-Founder, Code2College
Industry: Social Impact, Education
Matt shares how he married his background in finance and computer science with a commitment to increasing access to STEM career paths for minoritized and low-income high school students, the professional accomplishment he is most proud of, and the leadership values he believes are essential across industries.
Tell us about your career path since graduating from Stern in 2003?
After graduating from Stern, I started my career at Goldman Sachs in Credit Risk Management during an auspicious time in the Derivatives market. I love how much I learned during that time in my life, but made a move to the social impact space joining Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a NY-based nonprofit that places mostly Black and Brown college students into front office roles at bulge-bracket banks. Afterwards I attended Wharton for my MBA and started to develop both my network and familiarity within the social impact space. Over the past decade, I’ve worked in the K-12 Education sector in a variety of roles including Associate Partner at NewSchools Venture Fund, Director of Finance for KIPP Austin Public Schools and even a high school math teacher. All of these experiences were critical to building the domain expertise, credibility, and network to launch Code2College.
Tell us about Code2College, where the idea came from, and what led you to start it?
Code2College is an Austin, TX-based nonprofit that I co-founded with my wife in the fall of 2016 that equips high school students with in-demand technical skills, professional development, and mentorship towards placement into pre-college STEM internships with leading companies. We started with 30 students, but have now served over 1,500 in ten cities nationally, with more expansion coming. Code2College has scaled significantly because we have leveraged a great deal of resources and professionals from the tech ecosystem to deliver our programming.
At Stern, I double-majored in Finance and Information Systems, and realized early that there is a very low barrier to entry to learn how to code–even more so now–but that the economic and professional opportunities once you had that skill set were significant. In fact, I was able to defray a great deal of my college expenses because of the web development and coding jobs I held while at Stern. So, for years, I continued to build my own professional experience towards identifying how to introduce students who lacked access to industry-relevant technical education, STEM industry exposure, and professional opportunities to gain a competitive advantage in this space through an organization that delivers each of these and much more.
Having worked in finance, been a teacher, and then launching your own not-for-profit–seemingly all very different roles– what leadership lessons did you learn along the way that you apply to your work today?
Whether running a project, team, or organization, transparency and humility have been two of my guiding values. If I want or expect anyone, whether with a counterparty, student, or prospective partner, to be open and honest with me, I have to start with the level of transparency that I desire. Transparency begets trust and strong relationships rely on trust. I also am honest with myself that I don’t know everything. I know a lot–but not everything. And if I can’t humble myself and recognize that I can learn from others, it will be a roadblock to progress. One of the other great lessons I learned from one of my former professors, Adam Grant; being relational over transactional in relationships leads to greater understanding, communication, and outcomes.
What barriers are students facing that Code2College helps overcome in terms of exploring STEM-related careers or areas of study?
There are several barriers. One of the primary barriers is based on proximity. Students who live in economically depressed zip codes attend schools that lack resources and access to opportunities relative to their more affluent peers–which amplifies existing inequities. In addition, household socioeconomic and social barriers also play a significant role. Not having anyone in your network who occupies STEM or tech-related roles means that you likely lack awareness of these types of career paths. Third, and this relates to my second point, financial priorities matter. Many of our students start to contribute to household income while in high school because the family needs the additional support.
Code2College intentionally partners with Title-I eligible (i.e. with a significant low-income population) high schools and implements a program model focused on building technical education, STEM industry and career exposure, and pathways to paid internship experiences for the high school students that we serve where they earn a multiple of what they would otherwise make in a retail or service industry role.
At Stern, we talk about embracing change and learning to navigate ambiguity as core values. What approach did you take in needing to adapt to a virtual world brought on by the pandemic?
At Code2College, I’ve engendered a culture around being iterative and having a growth mindset, so we already had a framework in place for when we pivoted to virtual program delivery. We are always evolving and have a tight feedback loop where we evaluate what to stop, start, or continue. Once our team moved to virtual programming, we also moved to daily standups instead of weekly team meetings which helped us to identify challenges and blind spots more readily, while also building more accountability for short- and long-term goals. Our orientation towards a growth mindset also means that where we are today is not where we will be tomorrow. We will always strive to and succeed in being better than we were.
When the pandemic started, our first priority was figuring out what we needed to do to be connected to them, which meant getting everyone a device if they needed it. Then, we built our first virtual curriculum and found a way to test their engagement with us. We did things like Feel Good Fridays where we played games over Zoom or did Instagram live events with volunteers on projects like Design Thinking. Then we analyzed the data and could see that what we were doing was working, and that we could implement a virtual model. We’ve continued to improve it, and also been able to scale it up.
What are you most proud of in your career?
Through Code2College, I created a category that did not exist before–paid, software engineering internships for high school students–and am helping to change the lives, impact the undergraduate experiences, and start the careers of thousands of students nationally. In fact, over the past five years, the majority of these students have been historically excluded in technical fields: Black, Latinx and girls. Last year, I became concerned that inequities amplified by the pandemic would adversely impact this trajectory of serving traditionally underrepresented communities, so I launched Vision 2024 (https://code2college.org/vision-2024).
Vision 2024 is our initiative to support and place 200 Black and Latina girls into STEM roles by the year 2024. Since launching less than a year ago, we’ve already admitted two cohorts of girls and recently hired a program lead to scale our efforts nationally. These Black and Brown high school girls are serving as software engineering interns at leading companies like Atlassian and Indeed, gaining admissions to competitive undergraduate STEM programs, and are just a few years away from securing coveted roles in the technical ecosystem. I love what I do.
What advice do you have for a student who wants to pursue a career in the social impact space?
There is so much need for functional experience in the social impact and non-profit space. Finance, marketing and accounting skills are incredibly valued and often hard to come by in the sector. I’d highly recommend that if you’re interested in ultimately entering the social impact space, you should first spend time building skills and gaining functional experience.
What are your favorite Stern memories?
I loved my time at Stern. But one of my favorite parts was serving on the Student Council. I remember campaigning on Gould Plaza within the first few weeks of Freshman year and securing the W for Freshman Class President. The next year, I ran for E-Board and won the seat for Publicity Chair. We had some incredible events from our annual ski trip to theme parties, and even down to our weekly Student Council meetings, it made an indelible mark on me and my experience. In fact, for years we used the Student Council Office as our clubhouse, study room, and even crashed there during all-nighters.
How have you stayed connected to Stern or your fellow Sternies?
I’ve got a really tight circle of Sternies that I keep in touch with regularly, but I’ve recently reconnected with a lot more after launching Code2College. A number of Sternies have become champions, funders or connectors for our program. I’m still in touch with my best friend and our two eldest kiddos were born only six weeks apart.
What do you like to do during your free time? Have you picked up any new hobbies during the pandemic?
Hanging out with my two kiddos is my favorite pastime. Over the pandemic, I’ve had fun helping them explore new hobbies like fishing, gardening, and hiking. It’s been a great opportunity for me to get to know them better and make memories during an otherwise unusual time.
Favorite shows you are streaming now?
Dark comedies/dramas and apocalyptic movies have always been my go-to. A few that I’ve gotten into on Netflix were Ozark, Breaking Bad, and Black Summer. Alone is a great survival reality TV series, and Below Deck: Mediterranean is another solid reality TV series, but on the trashy end.
Next place you would like to travel for a vacation?
Anywhere with a beach. I’m thinking Costa Rica would be great, or another tropical place that doesn’t have too many mosquitoes.
Matt Stephenson (BS’03) Shares What Led Him to Launch Code2College
Thursday, June 10, 2021