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Young, Geeky And Black In Memphis

Facebook has more than one billion users and hires more than 1,000 people each year in the US. But in 2013, just one of these new employees was a black woman. Fewer than 2% of employees at Google, Twitter and Facebook are black. The tech industry is trying to tackle this diversity problem - but efforts are also being made at the grass-roots level.

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By James Fletcher

BBC News

If you've ever read a profile of a successful US tech company, you've probably read a story like this: white men meet while studying at a prestigious university and start a business out of a garage. HP, Apple, Google, Amazon - all started by white men in garages. It's a story that inspires young tech entrepreneurs to follow in their path.

But in places like Memphis, where two-thirds of the population is African-American, there are few role models to show young black girls that a successful career in tech is possible.

"White guy, Oxford shirt, black slacks," recalls Audrey Jones. "The IBM uniform. That's what I thought a smart person looked like, not like me or anybody else that I knew."

Audrey grew up in South Memphis, one of the city's poor, African-American neighbourhoods. Her mother struggled with drug addiction and died when Audrey was in her teens.

"That's the tragedy of being in this neighbourhood," she says. "You can easily, easily get sucked into the wrong lifestyle, and it's difficult to get out."

Audrey could easily have been trapped in poverty herself. She married young, had a child, got divorced, and ended up working in a call centre.

But then, back when MySpace was in its heyday, she wanted to change the look of her MySpace page.

"I didn't want to pay for those layouts," she recalls. "They were 99 cents, I was a single mom, I didn't want to pay for that."

So she found the code in a book and did it herself. She says she thought nothing of it, until a colleague saw what she'd done and encouraged her to speak with the company's IT guys.

"A light bulb went on," Audrey remembers. She continued to soak up information and teach herself, and eventually landed an IT job with a big company.

"It was crazy because it was night and day," she says. She'd gone from barely getting by to making good money.

Her own journey has inspired Audrey to help other girls from similar backgrounds make it into coding and technology.

She recently co-founded Code Crew, an organisation that runs summer camps and after-school coding classes for children from under-privileged backgrounds.

"I can't change everybody at once," Audrey says. "But if I can work for a girl maybe that will ignite a fire and give her the inspiration to change."

Memphis and its suburbs are the poorest metro area in America, and among the most economically segregated. Two-thirds of the population are black, and poverty affects them disproportionately.

By James Fletcher

BBC News

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