In the spring of his fifth-grade year, Malik Robinson woke up each morning at the shelter and started out on the same daily journey.
From the Salvation Army’s shelter for women and children in North End, his mother walked with him and his two younger siblings to the city bus stop. She’d ride with them to Hornets Nest Elementary in west Charlotte, then turn around and ride back to her job at a convenience store near the shelter. Each afternoon, she’d be outside the school waiting for them.
This was 2007. Malik was 11. He’d lived until then in New Jersey, before his mom moved the family to Charlotte to be with her husband in the University area. Malik’s memories of that first place are mostly of their fights, and of the day that man locked them out.
There were five of them standing in that yard on a spring morning in 2007 — Malik was the second oldest of four — with no place to go. His mom took them to the shelter.
At that point, Malik’s path was plotted for him. Kids who grow up in poverty in this city don’t often escape it.
But now it’s 13 years later, and when I call Malik on a morning in July, he picks up the phone and he’s laughing about his day. He’s a software engineer, and he rattles on to me about a “back-end project,” and says he’s just “just trying to get testing done” and “get core requests in” and “pushing the code to get the hub” and honestly I have no idea exactly what it is he does, but the point is, he’s creating a new statistic for a kid who grows up poor in Charlotte.
He’s an associate engineer at Red Ventures, computer on his lap, working from home at a comfortable apartment in Piper Glen area of south Charlotte.
He’s a story of individual success, and he’s part of a larger story. He’s part of Charlotte’s new and growing generation of tech-industry professionals who didn’t go through college. Malik’s path was through Road to Hire, a program started by Red Ventures CEO Ric Elias in 2013 to identify young people ages 18 to 25 and pay them to train to work in the tech field. In the program, they learn a range of technical and professional development skills, from coding to public speaking.
Malik graduated in 2017, and he’s one of 297 people to finish the program so far.
Of those, 77 percent are people of color.
“A lot of the people in my cohort thought it was a scam, because it doesn’t sound real to get paid to learn,” Malik says. “But it’s a real opportunity that changed my life.”
In the six years since Charlotte was ranked last in the country in upward mobility, we’ve seen countless programs and studies on how to fix it. But one unexpected gift is that the region’s need for tech professionals soared.
Most of the surge comes from large corporations and other businesses who found themselves in dire need of developers and engineers. The Charlotte region posted more than 52,000 tech jobs in 2019, according to the tech association CompTIA, which ranked the region sixth on its list of Tech Towns last year.
“Companies in Charlotte’s financial sector are redefining what it means to be a tech company,” the report said.
The report shows that the median IT salary in the Charlotte area is more than $91,000, though most entry-level engineer and software jobs, like those the tech academy graduates land, pay closer to $60,000.
Road to Hire and programs like it are where the upward mobility crisis met the jobs demand. It’s an intense six-month program that has taken people from all sorts of fields, made software gurus out of them, then placed them in well-paying careers. Road to Hire now has partnerships with Bank of America, Novant, Atrium, and Lowe’s.
(The next cohort starts August 20, and the deadline to apply is Sunday.)
There is, of course, one catch. The program is extremely difficult. Especially now, with the partnerships with other companies. It does little good, Road to Hire’s leadership says, to send unprepared employees into the workforce.
“Short-term pain equals long-term pleasure,” Elias told this year’s graduating class. “And short-term pleasure equals long-term pain.”
Nobody knows that as well as Malik does.
Living at a shelter can change a boy for the better or worse, or maybe sometimes both. Either way, it becomes part of him.
That summer after his fifth-grade year, Malik’s mom sent her children to live with their respective fathers. Malik’s three siblings’ dad was in New Jersey, and his was in Atlanta. She promised them that when they came back for the fall, she’d have a place for them. She did — an income-qualified townhome off of Spring Street. She had a car, too, to help them get around.
Within a few years, Malik figured it was time for him to help out. As a freshman at Phillip O. Berry, he took a job stocking shelves at a convenience store. Soon he was working the register. As a senior he found a job in the men’s department at Belk at Carolina Place mall. It was a couple of bus rides and a train ride from home, but still he made it, even if he had to miss class. His grades dropped. But some educations don’t come with curricula. Each month Malik was able to help with a bill or two at the house.
Plus, that men’s department at Belk is where he learned to tie a tie.
He was working at a Fairfield Inn in 2017 when he learned about Road to Hire. Each applicant has to write a short note about why they think they would be a good fit. Malik opened up a google document and wrote 631 words, mostly about his mother. He still has a copy saved, as a memory of the moment his life pivoted.
“In times of skepticism or doubt,” the letter says, “I look to my mother’s courageousness and resilience to lift myself up.”
The most recent Road to Hire class, which graduated over the weekend on July 31 and August 1, included 58 people. They each had their own stories of survival and perseverance. Each involved pivoting to tech from some other life, one that was six months and forever ago.
Of the 58 graduates, 35 took positions with Bank of America, seven went to Lowe’s, six to Novant, five to Atrium, and five to Red Ventures.
After the initial online application, people who are accepted go to a “Gateway” program training. It’s only on Saturdays, so that the applicants can keep their jobs in the event they don’t make it through. About 50 percent of the people who enter Gateway land in the larger program.
“It’s an extended interview,” says Road to Hire director Caitlin Campbell.
The ones who make it through that interview earned a $350 per week stipend to help pay their bills while they go through the program. About 15 percent of those who begin don’t finish.
Some filter out because they can’t take on the workload, others because of money, others because they can’t grasp the concepts, and others because they just don’t have the people skills.
Yes, in tech in 2020, you need people skills. One skill that was apparent in all of the graduates I met is that they have personalities. Some developed them over the course of the program.
“If you met these young adults six months ago, you would think they’re different people,” Elias told me.
Eight months ago, Ja’Ron Greene was working at a Food Lion in Indian Land. He’d gone from cashier to assistant customer service manager there. He loved the job, loved talking to people, and was hoping for a promotion to the customer service manager.
A 2015 South Mecklenburg High School graduate, Ja’Ron was an athlete. He’d hoped to go to college for rugby. But one day he was playing basketball and started shooting airballs. He couldn’t figure out why he was so off. Then he went to shower and he couldn’t squeeze out the shampoo. A neurologist told him he had myasthenia gravis, a disease that attacks voluntary muscle tissues and weakens them after they’ve been used.
He didn’t feel much like going to college after that. So he went to work.
He’d made conversations with just about everyone in that part of South Carolina at the Food Lion. One man who worked at Red Ventures had come in early last year and mentioned something about a program called Road to Hire. Ja’Ron laughed it off. A too-good-to-be-true program at that company with the giant campus? Surely, he thought, there was a catch. He continued to work toward that promotion at the grocery store. One day in November last year, he learned that another employee got the raise he wanted.
As chance would have it, though, the man who’d come in months earlier to gab about the greatness of Road to Hire came in again. And again he gabbed. This time, Ja’Ron looked it up. This time, he applied.
He was one of 70 people to be accepted into the January 2020 cohort. Over the course of six months, he did about 14 live presentations and learned tech languages he never would’ve known. He built websites. He collaborated.
“It was all a journey,” he says.
I spoke to him one day in late July. I asked him if he knew where he’d be working after that.
“I just found out this morning,” he said, trying to maintain his cool on a zoom call, “I will be going to work for Lowe’s.” And then he broke out into a wide smile.
At the end of the program, each student has to give a final presentation in front of some of the top executives at Red Ventures. Elias himself watches most of the final presentations.
Over the past six years, very few students have flubbed their final project worse than LaShawnda Elder.
“Awful,” the 28-year-old says now, laughing. “I was so nervous.”
LaShawnda came to the program as a single mother and, like Malik Robinson, poured her life story into the essay she wrote in the application. She remembers exactly where she was when she wrote it — standing behind the bar at Ten Park Lanes on Montford Drive, where she was a bartender.
LaShawnda moved to Charlotte from Georgia in 2012 with her boyfriend. She wanted to attend college but decided she’d work and save a little money first. She took the job at Ten Park Lanes in February 2013. The next year she became pregnant. Her son was born on November 28, 2014.
She took only six weeks off before returning to work. She and her son’s father eventually split up. She remembers nights during the early months just thinking about everything that could go wrong. She read a story about a mother who’d rolled over and suffocated her child, so no matter how often she dozed off, she made sure to put him in the crib.
That night at the bowling alley, she let it all out in her essay. Told her whole story. But when she hit submit, the screen refreshed and the text disappeared. She had to write it in again, one tap on the phone at a time. This time she copied her text just to be safe.
Sure enough, the submit button just refreshed the page again.
So she pasted it back in. It worked on the third try.
She joined the 2015 cohort. Back then, the students earned a stipend, but one that was much lower than the one today. She kept her job as a bartender at the bowling alley.
She’ll never forget what he said, and how it echoes Elias’s words about short-term pleasure.
“This is a temporary feeling,” her father told her.
Her dad took in her son for the remainder of the program. LaShawnda made it through the coursework.
But then, that final project. Right before she entered the room, someone told her the names of the power people who were inside, including Elias.
“I was like, ‘Oh, God,’” she says. “You could’ve asked me what my last name was, and I couldn’t tell you.”
She stumbled. Her instructor asked her what was wrong. She finished her presentation, mercifully, then left. She figured she’d wasted all that time.
She was at the bowling alley that evening when her phone rang. It was the program’s director, who said, “You know you f-ed up today right?”
She said she did.
“The good news,” he said, “is that we saw how hard you worked during the program. You came early and stayed late. Be here Monday ready to work.”
She ran around in circles in the bowling-alley parking lot, telling anyone who’d listen to her that she got the job.
One more. A woman who, if the 2020 Road to Hire class had superlatives, would contend for most likely to succeed.
She graduated early from Vance High School in 2014, not because she wanted a head start on college, but because she wanted to be done with school.
Vanessa Baker wanted to work.
Her mother was a high school dropout who’s now in a vice president position at Wells Fargo. When Vanessa was a girl, she watched her mom get up each day and head off to a housecleaning business she ran called Dust Bunnies. Vanessa still remembers when her mom took a job at the bank answering phones, and still marvels at how she climbed.
When Vanessa graduated from Vance, she went straight to work. Last year at this time she was a 23-year-old with two jobs. She spent her days working at a call center at Spectrum, listening to people’s troubles with their internet or television. And at night she’d head Uptown to her job as a server at a sports pub, where she heard all sorts of other troubles.
Then one of her former teachers from Vance told her about the program. Vanessa had heard of it in high school, but like most people, was skeptical: Tech workers have to go to college, she thought.
But she liked what it promised — a no-fuss, work-work-work training program with none of the extra nonsense of school. And if she completed the program, it guaranteed a job. She applied.
And now here it is, at the end of July, and she’s a few days away from graduation.
The past six months have been harrowing. She nearly had too many late-arrivals in January, so she quit the night job at the bar and devoted her attention — and her savings — to this. Then, in February, her father passed away. Her teachers offered her time to grieve, but Vanessa kept going. Then came the coronavirus and, well, everything with that. But she kept going.
“It’s a rare opportunity,” the 24-year-old says, “and for those who don’t take it serious and don’t see the gem, I’m definitely sorry for them.”
Because of the virus, Road to Hire switched up the graduation this year. They held an all-virtual ceremony with speeches on Friday night, then a drive-through ceremony for diploma pickups on Saturday, August 1. At the start of the virtual portion, they ran a five-minute run through of the graduates by randomly turning on their cameras to show them to everyone else. Music played over the live montage of shots, all with a blue Road to Hire backdrop behind them.
The graduates pumped their firsts on video and waved, some dabbed. Several wore ties and dresses. They clapped for themselves. One rubbed his fingers together as if it were pinching dollar bills. Another’s sisters came into the camera through the background. One bowed.
On Saturday, Vanessa Baker pulled into the Indian Land campus to get her diploma. She was one of the 35 graduates who accepted a position at Bank of America. She’ll be a software developer there.
During our conversation, I make the mistake of asking Vanessa — this young woman who graduated high school early just to go to work, who watched her mother go from a high school dropout to a vice president at a bank — when she plans start her job following the Saturday graduation ceremony.
“Monday!” she says, as if there’s any reason to delay the future.