In eighth grade, Steven Kwan didn’t know if he wanted a career in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM), but he knew that he wanted a $1,000 scholarship for college.
Kwan’s parents, first-generation immigrants from China, had always stressed the importance of education, so when the Seattleite reached the eighth grade he understood that he’d have to start saving for college.
When Kwan learned that Seattle’s Technology Access Foundation (TAF) was offering $1,000 scholarships for successful completion of each year of its Technical Teens Internship Program (TTIP), a high school STEM program, he applied — even though he didn’t know much about TAF.
The scholarship and organization would go on to shape his entire career.
TAF is dedicated to making futures in STEM possible for people of color and other underrepresented students in Washington State. Through education and building connections, TAF is helping to create the tech leaders of tomorrow and bridge the gap in representation in the technology sector.
Kwan was part of TAF’s original venture into education as a member of TTIP, an after-school program. While most kids were using computers to play around with instant messaging, Kwan was spending six hours a week learning about programming, software engineering and professional development skills like interviewing and collaborating with others on the job.
“The goal of that was to help us develop these technical skills so that, come summertime, they would help us find internships within the Seattle area to make use of those skills,” says Kwan.
Two things happened later that year: Kwan learned that $1,000 wasn’t enough money to go to college, and he decided he wanted to pursue a career in tech.
So he spent the next four summers interning in the tech field, even working two summers with Microsoft, where he got hands-on experience in software development and engineering using the skills he gained from TTIP.
“[TAF] really helped me understand what it was I really wanted to do when I got older,” he says. “It helped me explore software engineering more than just sitting in front of a computer and tapping away code. It was an opportunity to be very creative and to build things that could help people.”
TAF made Kwan confident about what he wanted to do next. It also gave him the skills he needed to thrive in a field where people like him are underrepresented.
Even now that he’s 29, Kwan says his mentors at TAF are like family. They pushed him to be successful by providing the tools necessary for him to stand on his own. They helped him find and apply for scholarships, wrote him letters of recommendation and helped him craft his personal statements — which, as anyone knows, is one of the hardest parts of applying to college.
“What that really translated to was I got into three schools,” Kwan says. “I got a direct admission into the computer science department at the University of Washington.”
He was also the recipient of the prestigious Gates Millennium scholarship.
Once at the University of Washington, Kwan worked hard academically and made a conscious effort to help the community. He worked with social justice groups, mentored high school students applying for institutions of higher education and took on a leadership position coordinating other mentors at a local high school.
Today, thanks to all he learned at TAF and in college, he’s a senior software engineer at a major tech company where he’s worked for more than seven years. But one of the most important things that TAF taught Kwan is how much representation matters. It helped him recognize that he has a voice that deserves to be heard.
“I recognize that because of [how long I’ve been at my job], I also now have the power to be an advocate for other people. TAF really helped to shape my lens on what diversity and inclusion looked like in tech and what equality and belonging look like.”
According to a 2018 PEW research report, the vast majority of people with careers in STEM are white and male. Kwan and TAF are working to change those numbers.
At his job, Kwan has made promoting diversity a major part of his career. For example, he’s been an instrumental part of setting up his company’s pride network — a place of inclusion for LGBT+ employees.
“TAF has given me skills to be a very good advocate for myself,” says Kwan. “I’ve realized that as a part of that it means I also have to advocate for other people as well if I want to see changes happen.”
Kwan recently became a member of TAF’s Board of Directors. And the organization, which he joined when it was in its early stages, has grown right along with him.
While TAF has transitioned out of after-school programming, the organization has brought all of the most important components of its previous program — including hands-on experience, job shadowing and resume building — to a school, TAF@Saghalie, that the nonprofit co-manages in partnership through the Federal Way School district. TAF’s program still caters to underrepresented kids and has been so popular, it’s grown from 300 students to over 700 in two years.
Because of TAF’s hands-on approach, the kids who attend the school are becoming more knowledgeable and confident than even their biggest supporters might have expected.
“The way we have the students collaborate in a project-based learning environment, they start being accountable, responsible for each other’s success,” says Tyrone Cunningham, a Development Officer for Corporqate Relations with TAF.
TAF also gives its students a chance to volunteer and use their skills to work on solving real-life problems — such as homelessness — in order to stoke their passion for working within the community. This leads to more and more kids giving back as adults, just like Steven Kwan.
And one of the main reasons that TAF has been able to help so many kids succeed is thanks to partnerships with and investments from companies like Capital One.
“Capital One has been so amazing to our kids in a variety of ways, from getting their employees to volunteer with [the students] to hosting job shadowing and internships,” says Sherry Williams, TAF’s Executive Director of Development. Capital One has also invested significantly in TAF, even helping the organization build out a robotics and engineering lab for the school.
But Capital One’s contributions go way past the monetary:
“They have given an endless amount of time,” Williams goes on. “What makes Capital One different from other corporate partners is the investment. Corporations can write a check [and] walk away. [Capital One] can direct that money towards a certain program and feel great about it. And it is great.”
“The difference with Capital One [and its local employees] is they have really taken a holistic approach with TAF and really wrapped their arms around our organization and our students. If we send out something and say, ‘Hey we need volunteers for our STEM expo’ [or] ‘come judge our kids’ projects in March,’ they’re gonna show up.”
This kind of support means more kids and educators will become part of a strong community that’s expanding STEM’s reach.
“We alums understand what it means to be a part of a collective whole,” says Kwan. “I think one of the greatest things is that we recognize that we’re all still needed to continue the work so the people coming up behind us don’t have to face some of those struggles that some of us had to face with being the only person of color [at work].”
As the organization grows, Kwan hopes that the conversation evolves beyond just creating space for minority groups in STEM fields to what changes must be made to retain those same groups in this industry. And, while he’s on the board, he hopes he can help shift the narrative of what it means to be a professional and give people like him even more access to STEM than when he was a kid.
One thing’s for certain — with TAF getting bigger and people like Kwan at its helm, the future of STEM is only getting brighter.