Time for more American dreaming

Happily, President Obama talked about opportunity in the State of the Union speech last night. Since the economy tanked in 2008, leaders naturally began erecting barriers against fierce economic headwinds and knitting together a tighter safety net to catch those who were thrown off their financial perches in the maelstrom.  Now it is time for Washington to get back to helping Americans dream again; then put concrete plans in motion to help us achieve those dreams.  

I grew up in Detroit during the de-industrialization of America in the 1970s and 80s. Despite our collective idealization of the old days of manufacturing when men like my grandfather could raise a family of six on his blue collar auto plant wages, that world is not coming back.

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Instead we must prepare our children for the jobs of the future that will require more skills and a willingness to keep adapting throughout their careers. Consumers spent over $2 trillion dollars on IT products and services in 2013, and one study reported that Apple paid app developers $5 billion dollars, Google $900 million and Microsoft $100 million. Yet despite our increasing diversity, another study found 83 percent of tech startups’ founding teams are all-white; 5 percent Asian and 1 percent African American. Only 10 percent of startup founders are women. Allowing those trends to continue is bad for the tech industry, bad for the people being left out and bad for the economic prospects of the United States. Much like the gene pool of families that intermarry over generations, our country’s innovative DNA will deteriorate without diversifying beyond the narrow band of elites now setting the pace in the tech industry.

Non-profits like #YesWeCode, Girls Who Code and LOFT (Latinos on the Fast Track) are taking on the challenge of teaching kids to code with the help of many corporate funders. Schools like Howard Middle School in Washington D.C. are trying to do their part by teaching students how to build their own apps to fit the needs of their communities.

The Howard Middle School students at the MMTC broadband summit recently presented apps to fight obesity, smartly provide for more efficient garbage pickup and, tragically, find missing girls of color because the news media doesn’t pay as much attention to their disappearances. One of these kids could be their generation’s Mark Zuckerberg or Nigerian-born Chinedu Echerou whose HopStop app to find mass transit directions was recently sold to Apple for a reputed $1 billion.

Other groups are opening doors of opportunity in Silicon Valley for minority workers and entrepreneurs. Laura Weidman Powers recently attended an event the Internet Innovation Alliance hosted in San Francisco with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and representatives of academia and the investment community. Powers co-founded Code2040, which provides mentorship, internships, leadership training, and network development for minority talent by connecting them with growing tech companies.

The federal government can do its part by making sure all schools, regardless of income or geography, are equipped with high speed, high capacity broadband and well-trained teachers. The president’s ConnectED proposal to modernize the 1996 E-Rate law and get educational software into the classroom is a great place to start.

Once kids go home, they need the same access there that they have in school. Companies are focusing on enhancing high-speed broadband network deployment and low cost equipment options. In the interim, low-cost handheld devices like PDA’s and tablets are standing in.  These devices require bandwidth and speeds that the private sector can provide. The Obama administration should continue working with companies to promote high speed broadband network deployment that will mean tens of billions of dollars in investment each year and more services for families and students at home.

Government can’t fix all of our problems alone.  Like the non-profits above, it needs to partner with the private sector. That’s how we built the electric grid and nation’s railroads. As companies invest they will create opportunities for small and minority-owned businesses, and we know those companies tend to hire more women and minorities, which could make an even bigger dent in the unemployment rate.

Simmons, former adviser to President Clinton and press secretary for the presidential campaigns of former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Gen. Wesley Clark, is a co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance.