Hamptons Scene: Goldman’s Carlotti Helps Boost Black Teen Coders

Jul 16, 2014 7:24 am ET

July 16 (Bloomberg) -- Moustafa Ndiaye, a rising sophomore at Connecticut College, stood in front of one of those crazy- high, perfectly manicured hedges so familiar in the Hamptons.

We were in the backyard of an oceanfront estate attending a $750-a-ticket fundraiser for All Star Code, a nonprofit that prepares young men of color for careers in technology.

Ndiaye, a New Yorker who spent part of his childhood in Senegal, is a teaching fellow at All Star Code’s first Summer Intensive for high school juniors and seniors. He took to coding in high school, when he discovered Codecademy. Now he’s majoring in astrophysics and computer science.

“I am the only black kid in my comp sci class,” Ndiaye said. “I use it as a push to do better, because in the next classes, there might not be any black kids or any Latino kids. It’s not Asians only who can code.”

Ndiaye and other fellows before the party had spent a week working with 20 students, using a curriculum developed by professional hackers and educators, to create, among other things, a phone application and a robotic soccer game.

It was set up at the benefit under a tent, on a ping pong- sized table, with blue duct tape marking the penalty boxes and sidelines. Guests wore wired-up gloves to control their teams (one robot each), who vied to “kick” a whiffle ball.

“Of course I made myself the Italian team,” said Valentino Carlotti, the head of Goldman Sachs’s institutional client group and a co-chairman of the event, to which he’d brought a crew of co-workers. (He’s half-Italian, half African- American.)

Heavyweight Computing

Carlotti isn’t a hacker, yet he has had some memorable computers, like the 60-pounder he carried around Harvard Business School and the “huge” one he learned Basic and C++ on at Bronx High School of Science, a machine that took up a whole desk.

“You get trained in these kinds of things, and the skill set is fungible,” Carlotti said. “That’s why I wanted to support these guys. It helps you think, it helps you solve problems. It’s a little bit like learning Latin. It’s so transferable to whatever you do.”

Carlotti became involved in All Star Code through his friendship with its founder and president, Christina Lewis Halpern, a daughter of Reginald Lewis, the businessman and lawyer who orchestrated the leveraged buyout of Beatrice International Foods. He died in 1993, when Halpern was 12.

Tech Inspiration

Now 34, with a 2½-year-old son and a daughter on the way, Halpern had the first inkling of her nonprofit four years ago at a tech conference on social change. She’d recently left the Wall Street Journal, where she was a real-estate reporter.

“It was my first experience with the startup world,” Halpern said. “I saw it was a world with tons of opportunity, and I saw that there were very few black people successful in it.”

These were all traits that brought her father to mind. “He wanted to be where the most opportunity was because he was an entrepreneur and a pioneer,” Halpern said. “That’s how I know tech is where he would want to be.”

Halpern is one of about 10 full-time employees. She’s seeking funding of $2.5 million to reach 1,000 male youth of color in 2015, she said.

Minting tech entrepreneurs is part of her vision. Less than 1 percent of tech start-up founders are black, according to CB Insights, a data firm tracking high-growth private companies.

All Star Maze

All Star Code provides training in soft skills and exposure to the real world of tech, such as a group visit to the offices of Spotify.

Gathered at the party, which took place at the property of Lewis’s widow, Loida Nicolas Lewis, in East Hampton were Hank Williams, the chief executive of Kloudco; former New York Mayor David Dinkins, who said, “These young people here today have convinced me that even I can learn”; Troy Carter, Lady Gaga’s former manager, who advised students to “start with a suit that fits”; Josh Mailman, a social entrepreneur, and Jessica Betts, who helped organize the event and works at Chelsea Piers, where the students come for physical activity.

Before the buffet catered by Harlem’s Red Rooster opened, teenage students Djassi Julien and Zavier Jenkins introduced their game, All Star Maze, which they developed using the programming language Scratch -- after a week of coding class.

“I actually was not interested at all in computers” a year ago, said Julien, a junior at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College. Now, though, he’d like to “find a way to tie together” chemistry and coding. “Tech used to feel like something only white people did. It’s very clear to me there are some successful black people in the tech world.”

The chance to visit a Hamptons spread had also made an impression.

“I keep looking over there and seeing the ocean. Earlier, we walked into the mansion. Wow, this is ridiculous.”