After decades of little to no progress addressing institutional racism, Americans are starting to have serious conversations about privilege, income inequality and educational disparities based on race that keep people of color from opportunities they need to help them break the chains of poverty. The Black Lives Matter movement may have been sparked by police brutality, but it has opened the doors to a larger examination of the great racial divide that exists in every aspect of our society. The path out of poverty is education, job training, hiring and advancement, and increasingly, access to technology that can enable success in those areas. I am a product of what that access can bring.
I grew up in Marlin, Texas, where I was the poorest kid I knew. In the refrigerator was cold water, Arm & Hammer baking soda, and — if we were lucky — some sliced bologna. We moved often. My mother would often pay the first month’s rent and then duck the landlord until we got evicted a few months later.
I got water from neighbors in five-gallon buckets. We lived in abandoned houses with no electricity. My mother would get people to illegally turn the electricity on. That would work until the electric company came by to shut it off again. We were also homeless for stretches and would move from a friend’s apartment to a relative’s home to avoid sleeping outside. The only way to ensure I had breakfast and lunch was to go to school — those were the only meals that were guaranteed for me during the week.
I did well in school and took some programming classes in elementary and high school using the school computers. After I saw the movie “WarGames,” I knew I wanted to be a hacker. I was invited to join the so-called “gifted” program, and there I met kids from the other side of town. They had their own Apple IIe computers — worth the equivalent of $5,000 today — ate regular meals and always had electricity at home. That’s how I learned what “privileged” means.
As the late, great Notorious B.I.G. rapped, “Either you're slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” I didn’t want to sell drugs, so basketball was my passion. I had a nice hoop game, but I was too slow and too short for a full-ride scholarship. I had decent grades, so I went to the high school counselor to ask how I could go to college. She tossed me a Pell Grant form and told me to fill it out. Honestly, I would have dropped out of high school if it weren’t for basketball.
My reality was growing up with nothing and praying that I could get a basketball scholarship. Later, I heard that if I joined the military, I’d get money to pay for college, so I signed up. Overnight, my life changed. I qualified for the Navy’s cryptologic program, which is a part of the National Security Agency (NSA). I went from living in abandoned houses with no utilities to bunking in communal barracks, all the food I could eat, and access to all the technology and training that one could want.
In her book “So You Want To Talk About Race,” Ijeoma Oluo encourages people to “check their privilege.” Although I grew up in poverty and faced many challenges, I feel I am privileged now. My privileges are that I was born in the United States; I'm a veteran, which provided me with the opportunity to earn a master's degree in network security for free, no loans or debt; and I worked at the NSA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, amongst other agencies. I learned there are many attributes, including being a male, that are in fact privileges. The first step to addressing inequality and barriers to access is to recognize your privilege and then use it to help others. Beyond that, there is so much that privileged folks, especially in the tech community, can be doing to help others.
Support for underserved communities
My privilege allowed me to raise millions of dollars for my cybersecurity technology startup and then help others in the community who didn’t have the access or privilege I had. You don’t have to be a billionaire to give back; I’ve been working with local high schools and colleges and the tech community to support the advancement of minorities in the industry and in general. I’ve sponsored hackathons and other tech events for students and have given the winners of a hackathon summer internships. I also sponsored Austin’s Mosaic Awards, which recognize successful diversity and inclusion efforts of local companies.
I feel strongly that supporting communities in need creates more opportunities for children and families and helps everyone rise together.
There are many ways entrepreneurs and companies can help underserved students and communities beyond donations and scholarships. Students, schools and nonprofits can all benefit from access to technology and equipment that companies tend to have in excess. Companies in Austin, for instance, have closets full of older laptops and servers that are not being used and that eventually end up in the garbage. Companies should evaluate what technology they have lying around that may not serve their needs anymore, but which could benefit others.
Professionals can also provide access to their expertise and be role models for youth, tutoring them on technology and bringing them into their companies to expose them to careers in tech.
There are several people who served in the intelligence community and even early hacker groups, like W00W00, who have built and sold companies. Some of them are billionaires. Sure, they worked hard, but they also had something that many people still lack — access. How many more millionaires or billionaires could there have been if everyone had access to a computer in the 1980s and 1990s? How many more people would be in promising tech careers?
Early access to technology and tech education
There are great Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiatives out there, but computer literacy, coding, and software engineering are also necessities for technology access and digital careers that still aren’t available to everyone.
The reality is there are far too many kids growing up in situations like I did who won’t get the opportunities I had.
People who have access to education, technology and resources, like I eventually had, have enormous advantages. They are more likely to get good jobs, to have high-paying careers and to be able to provide stepping stones for their children. My son is a lead software engineer for a publicly-traded company — and he didn’t go to college. He was privileged to grow up with a father who could teach him how to code, cybersecurity skills, and help him get an internship at 16 years old.
I call on tech companies to invest more effectively in kids who aren’t privileged.
We won’t have black tech professionals and business leaders if we don’t have black tech students. To get there we need to stop putting so much weight on indicators of privilege like SAT scores and alma maters and instead identify students with interest and talent at an early age and give them the access they need to develop the skills.
Underserved communities are already 40 years behind in technology, and it’s getting worse because of the growing income gap and rising poverty levels. My family is now second-generation internet-enabled, but many inner-city and rural communities don’t have nearly the same resources. For those with no access to technology, the digital divide means less ability to get white-collar jobs — and information and services in general that can help families get out of poverty.
I was lucky to get the opportunities I had to learn cybersecurity. Serving in the military broke my cycle of poverty. How can we help more kids break this cycle?
People with privilege need to use their privilege to lift others up.
We need to remove the barriers of access to education, technology and career advancement that are keeping people of color from the same opportunities and achievements others enjoy. Even helping one kid in this way would be amazing. This would be one of the greatest hacks ever.
Marcus Carey is a veteran who has worked for the NSA and Defense Intelligence Agency and who sold his cybersecurity startup Threatcare last year. He is also author of “Think In Code” and the “Tribe of Hackers” series. Follow him on Twitter @marcusjcarey