Entrepreneur

A tech Cinderella story: How Silicon Valley helped a homeless teen go to college

Ashana and Felicia on a trip to Disney World.

Above: Ashana and Felicia on a trip to Disney World.

Image Credit: Felicia Curcuru

Nine months ago, Ashana Davenport dropped out of high school and didn’t have a home. If you told her that she would have a career in tech, she wouldn’t have believed you.

Now Davenport is majoring in computer science at the University of San Francisco, and is raising an Indiegogo campaign to help with the costs. In less than a year, she has earned her high school diploma, gotten into college, learned how to code, interned at a venture capital firm, helped organize tech events, and hung out at some of Silicon Valley’s hottest companies. She has her sights set on a job at Google.

People like Davenport — African American and female — are a rarity in Silicon Valley’s engineering-centric world. Through a combination of “off the charts smarts,” fierce determination, and generous, well-connected friends, she has opportunities that most kids from West Philly will never have.

West Philadelphia born and raised

Davenport is from West Philadelphia, a place where homicides and drug busts are commonand less than 50 percent of students graduate from high school. She was the daughter of a single mother, and her family moved around constantly. At times, she spent two hours commuting on buses to get to school.

“We moved around 15 times, and I went to five different high schools,” Davenport told me at a coffee shop near her USF dorm. “Philly public schools are pretty bad. There were cops outside the schools, not for the kids to get protected, but for the neighborhood to be protected from the kids.”

Davenport started working when she was 14 years old. For years she juggled school and clocked 40 hours a week at Taco Bell, where she earned the minimum wage, $7.25 an hour.

“Working less was never an option,” she said. “I had to leave school early to go to work, and eventually I transferred to an online school. Then my mom put me out. Where I am from, it’s normal to get in a fight with your mom and get kicked out. But I refused to go to a [homeless] shelter.”

Her mom had kicked her out a few times before, and she always went back once the dust settled. This time was different. Davenport wanted to get her nose pierced, and in the process of procuring her birth certificate, she found out that she was adopted. The ensuing fight was the final straw.

Davenport ended up staying on friend’s couches while she figured out what to do, and she was forced to drop out of her school because no one had a computer where she could take her classes.

A few weeks later, she landed in San Francisco.

Her ‘Big Sister’

Ten years ago, Davenport participated in the Big Brothers Big Sisters sister program in Philadelphia, which paired her with Felicia Curcuru, a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Curcuru worked for elite consulting firm McKinsey for a few years after college and then became the first employee of FundersClub, a startup that pioneered a model for online venture capital. She moved to San Francisco last year after FundersClub got accepted into the elite accelerator program Y Combinator.

The two kept in touch over the years. When Curcuru heard that Davenport was homeless and no longer in school, she immediately flew her to San Francisco for a three-week visit.

“Ashana comes from a background where there isn’t much exposure to opportunities or role models,” Curcuru said. ” But she is off-the-charts smart. I always thought she could do anything if she had the right resources, and when I heard she dropped out of high school, I knew I needed to step in.”

Curcuru quickly began introducing her to as many people in the tech community as she could. They visited companies such as Google, Twitter, Uber, and Dropbox and had dinner with Curcuru’s friends almost every night. Within a week, Davenport decided she wanted to stay.

“I had no idea about the entire tech world until I moved out here,” Davenport said. “As soon as I got off the plane, I met all these people and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, you people are amazing,’ It’s not about who you are or where you come from here. You are measured by your creativity and what you build and how it helps others.”

Strawberry cream cheese

Davenport was excited by many of the things she saw and people she met, but it was a trip to Google that ultimately inspired her to hunker down and aim high. Google pays their employees well, and Davenport said most of the people she met were smart and seemed happy. Plus Google offers their employees a lot of perks, like free gourmet food, transportation, onsite laundry, and even haircuts, and Davenport began to dream of a lifestyle she never had.

“People there were complaining about how they ran out of strawberry cream cheese,” she said. “I thought, ‘I want to be a spoiled employee!’ But Google won’t take you unless you have a degree. What degree you get affects your salary. I don’t want to waste this opportunity.”

So Curcuru and Davenport struck a deal. Davenport could stay with her as long as she was on track to go to college. Curcuru moved out of her current house, which she shared with four roommates, and into a one-bedroom apartment for the two of them. They sat down and outlined an aggressive plan that involved Davenport finishing her GED, earning her high school diploma, taking her SATs, and applying to colleges — all within the course of a few months.

“I feel like she is family and I felt responsible for her because I knew no one else was,” Curcuru said. “But it was definitely challenging. I was spending at least 20 hours a week helping her with all these things, and I took a week off before the SATs to tutor her since she had such little time to prepare. I am not her mother, but I definitely played a parental role, and so many people in the tech community stepped up and offered their time to her as well.”

Black girls can code, too

Davenport describes herself as an 18 year old with a 30-year-old brain. While holding a full-time job and helping put food on the table, she also helped raise her godsister’s baby and taught herself most of the material she was supposed to be learning in school.

Many of the people Davenport met encouraged her to learn at least the basics of computer science. No stranger to self-education, she “wiped the  dust off” programming books Curcuru had around the house and started taking Code Academy classes.

“I love that I would sit there and code what was in my brain and see things happen on the screen,” Davenport said. “Philly is dominated by minorities, and there aren’t a lot of good opportunities. If I could expose them to tech and say, ‘This is what you could learn, you have the chance to change the world, and I am here to help,’ that would be amazing.”

Davenport took an internship with Black Girls Code, an organization that introduces girls of color and ages 7-17 to programming and technology. Davenport loves working with kids and helped BGC put on events and workshops.

Black Girls Code’s founder Kimberly Bryant said that less than 3 percent of African American women are receiving degrees in computer science and that number is less for Latin American and Native American women.

“This is the most underrepresented group of women in technology,” Bryant said in an interview. “One out of four jobs in the next 20 years will have a STEM component. It’s where jobs are currently and where jobs will be in the future. We want to teach girls of color the skills they need and create a diversity of voices into the tech community. It’s important that everyone has equal access to these opportunities.”

Bryant grew up in inner-city Memphis and said that, like Ashana, she did not have access to role models or many opportunities to engage with technology. Once she began studying engineering, she felt isolated from her classmates because they came from different backgrounds.

‘1 in 14′

Just one in 14 tech employees in Silicon Valley is black or Latino. The percentage is even lower in venture capital firms, an industry known for being dominated by “old white dudes.”

Michael Staton is a partner at Learn Capital, a venture firm that focuses on funding education startups. Staton and Curcuru knew each other through the startup scene. She told him about Davenport over lunch one day, and he wanted to get involved.

“It is rare for there to be an African American women in the venture world, especially one that hadn’t finished high school,” he said. “Given that our mandate is to invest in a way that creates more opportunities to learn, I wanted to have someone with her background in the office, and expose her to what we do.”

Davenport interned at Learn Capital for about two months. She spent most of her time helping them create charts and occasionally sat in on pitch meetings with startups.

“It was interesting to see her connect or not connect with a product or idea,” Staton said. “It is easy for us to get excited about geeky innovations around learning, but it takes discipline to remember that there is a significant population that don’t have education opportunities or to the extend that they do, struggle to effectively engage with them.”

This aligns with what Bryant said about representing a diversity of perspectives in the tech community. The experience at Learn Capital also drove home for Davenport the impact that continuing her education could have on her future. She worked on charts that showed the correlation between salary and education and that software engineers are in high demand.

These practical skills are important, but Staton said that her character will also lead her into a bright future.

“There has been research which shows that resilience and grit are more determinant of your success than other types of intellectual skill or degrees, Staton said. “Ashana is an example where resilience and persistence will pay off in the long run despite coming from a situation where the odds were against her.”

The first in her family

After a tremendous amount of studying, stressful nights spent cramming, test-taking, essay-writing, and dozens of phone calls to college admission offices (to see if they were still taking applications), Davenport got into the University of San Francisco, a prestigious Jesuit university.

The university gave her its largest grant package of $35,000 a year, but it is an expensive school. And even with the financial aid, she still needed around $78,000 more to pay for housing, meal plans, textbooks, and other costs.

To make up part of the difference, Curcuru and Davenport set up an Indiegogo campaign, which is closing in on $10,000. They plan to figure out how to come up with the rest along the way.

“This is a pretty expensive school, and I’ve never even had a college fund,” Davenport said. “I’ve never even had a solid set of parents. But I know that to be the first person in my family to attend college, I have to work hard. My moms are so proud, and my little brother said he wants to get a diploma like me.”

Davenport only recently learned that she had a  brother after she tracked down her biological mother. She has high hopes for him as well. He really likes video games, and Davenport wants to teach him how to make basic computer games when she goes back to Philadelphia for Christmas. She is also planning on doing a work-study program, applying for more scholarships and loans, and studying as hard as she can.

“The way you get through life is by not stressing or tripping over the little things,” she said. “I don’t really have a plan, I just don’t want to waste this opportunity when there are so many people depending on me.”