(This post was originally run on the HuffPost on May 30, 2017.)
In the discussions around the dismal state of Diversity and Inclusion in Silicon Valley’s workplaces, one often forgets about the many non-profits that are working incredibly hard to prepare, support and nurture the same underserved students that could some day literally change the face, and thus the numbers and the story, in tech and beyond. One such organization, SquashDrive, which was founded by Lauren Patrizio Xaba in 2010, approaches this work in a unique way. With a three-pronged approach, the organization’s mission is to “promote academic, athletic, and personal growth in underserved Oakland youth through an integrated program of academic tutoring, squash instruction, and character building.” With a recent grant from the Fund II Foundation focused on STEM enrichment, SquashDrive is delivering over eight hours per week of programming to 4th through 10th graders and providing students with the confidence, skills and abilities to compete on an otherwise unlevel playing field.
As Fernanda Padilla Colin, an 8th grade student in attendance at SquashDrive’s annual fundraising event on Thursday, May 11th, stated, “We are students from Oakland, so we are automatically” labeled as students “without hope, but SquashDrive gives us the hope and belief that we can do and be anything with hard work.” In the fall, Fernanda will be attending a private boarding school in Palo Alto and informed me that without SquashDrive, this dream would not have become a reality. Fernanda also attributed her desire to give back to the community and her long-term goal of being an immigration lawyer to not only the SquashDrive staff and their strong focus on academics, but also their focus on community and confidence building through the game of squash.
As it turns out, SquashDrive is just one of nineteen programs around the country doing similar work under the umbrella of the National Urban Squash and Education Association (NUSEA). As a squash player herself, Lauren began this work with just twelve 5th grade students and a budget of under $100k. Today, SquashDrive has a dedicated Board of Directors, seventy-two students, from 4th through the 10th grade, and a $600k budget, over half of which they raised at this year’s fundraiser; an amazing accomplishment for an organization only seven years young. In my conversation with Lauren, I had to ask the question as to why the sport of squash, versus any other sport. While she pointed to her experience with squash as one contributing factor, she also informed me that squash’s tight knit community provided accessibility for students to various alumni across the country in prestigious colleges. In addition, as opposed to other sports, squash has been attributed to teaching life skills such as integrity, independence and leadership. In fact, according to SquashDrive’s Annual Report, 83% of its students agree that the organization makes them “feel better prepared and more confident in school.” The data supports this notion with a 13% increase in the passing rate of Math classes for students during the 2015-2016 school year. While SquashDrive does not yet have the data to correlate its program to college acceptance rates, it believes that it will only follow in NUSEA’s footsteps, which has a 97% college acceptance rate.
The fundraising event, held at the pre-eminent University Club of San Francisco was well attended and offered attendees a viewing of two different squash tournaments, dinner and a silent auction, throughout which SquashDrive students and the Principal of Berkeley Maynard Academy, one of the organization’s main partner schools, stood up and spoke about SquashDrive’s impact. From poems to cheers, the message was very clear: SquashDrive provided these students with the skills, confidence and tools to follow their dreams. As Makayla Jones eloquently stated at the end of her poem, The Sparkle in Me, “Thanks to SquashDrive, I can see what the future holds for me.”
At the end of the evening, I had the opportunity to sit down with Raji Davenport, a SquashDrive alumnus who brought the crowd to tears with his closing remarks. One of Lauren’s first students, Raji began with SquashDrive in the 4th grade and is now a proud 9th grader at Lick-Wilmerding High School. Raji clearly stated that, amongst other skills, SquashDrive helped him to become a leader, pushing him to reflect on how he presents himself in public through the game of squash. It also provided him the support and the guidance to navigate through the very confusing application process to private high schools, resulting in his current enrollment at Lick-Wilmerding. He also stated that SquashDrive is truly focused on “equality”, in providing support systems such as one-on-one tutors for every student, and “kindness” and “sincerity.” Raji went on to explain that every player, no matter his or her skill level or ability, has the opportunity to play in tournaments, which provides students exposure to travel across the country to places like Pennsylvania, where Raji saw snow for the first time. Raji, who wants to pursue a career as a doctor, explained that SquashDrive helped him to believe that he “actually can be a doctor” by providing access to and support in his current enrollment in private school. All in all, it was very clear that Raji, and the many other students I had the honor of meeting, would not be in their current academic settings without the dedication and commitment of SquashDrive, its supporters and its passionate staff.
So, while Silicon Valley is struggling to solve its diversity and inclusion dilemma, organizations such as SquashDrive are working behind the scenes to provide the pipeline needed to work towards a solution. While SquashDrive is just one of many organizations doing this work, it proves that this work must begin early on, be consistent and be high touch enough to have the impact needed to level the playing field through access to the same elite academic institutions from which many of these companies recruit. This is the power of the work of organizations such as SquashDrive, which live off donations and grants, and one of the truest silver bullets to today’s diversity dilemma in tech and beyond.
The author would like to thank Lauren Patrizio Xaba, her Staff, the Board of Directors, the students and Mark Mills, Consultant to the Fund II Foundation, for their hospitality and for making this story possible.