One of the first things Selam Zecharias did as a new intern at Seattle’s Facebook office was draw graffiti in the hallway.
A play off the social-networking site’s virtual “wall,” some of the physical walls in the downtown office are devoted to employee musings and Zecharias — originally from Eritrea — knew exactly what she had to add.
Between Seahawks worship and cartoon doodles she wrote in orange marker: “My name is Selam and I am the first Habesha at Facebook.” (“Habesha” is a slang term for people from the Eritrea or Ethiopia).
Nationally the tech industry has received increasing criticism for its overwhelmingly white, male workforce.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, similar diversity concerns are compounded by the worry that booming local companies often look outside of Seattle for new hires.
“Microsoft has 4,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs available right now,” says Lisa Chin, executive director for Year Up, the job-training program that helped place Zecharias in her internship. “In Seattle we’re just unable to find the STEM talent we need.”
Year Up hopes to help fill positions like those through an intensive yearlong program of job training, mentoring and internships for young adults from underserved backgrounds.
“These students don’t have the economic means, networks or technical training they need to go to college [and] enter these jobs,” explains Chin, who says most of their students or young people of color come from low-income backgrounds. “They don’t have the support system to succeed.”
But even in this program, Zecharias’ story of hardship stands out.
Zecharias is one of six children. Her father was killed for his political beliefs when she was 13 years old, so her mother, fearing further violence, moved the family to a refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia.
“We had to struggle there for a long time; sleeping with animals like snakes and scorpions,” says Zecharias, remembering the scarce resources and harsh conditions that characterized the camps. “It wasn’t a good thing.”
After two years, Zecharias’ family was resettled by the United Nations to Ohio, where Zecharias, then 15 and with little English, says she was bullied by classmates in an almost all-white school.
In response, Zecharias’ mom reached out to relatives in Seattle’s large Eritrean community, and the family moved again to North Seattle, where Zecharias attended Ingraham High School and became the first in her family to graduate.
Having worked to help support her siblings all through school, Zecharias had plenty of job experience, mostly at fast-food restaurants and in hotels, but she says she wanted a career.
“I wanted to learn something. I wanted a change,” says Zecharias, who found out about Year Up through a flier at the library. “I had a big family to take care of, I had two or three jobs at the same time, but I decided that I needed to do something.”
That decision turned into six months of intensive career and technical training and mentoring all while earning college credit (Zecharias is enrolled at North Seattle College) and a $10,000 stipend.
She’s now in the second half of the program — the internship — and works providing tech support for Facebook employees.
This highly disciplined program is not for the faint of heart.
“There’s a behavioral contract. If they’re one second late it’s $15 off their stipend,” says Chin, who adds that there’s a dress code and cellphones aren’t allowed in classes. “The behavioral expectations for our students are made very, very clear.”
But Zecharias says it’s all worth it. Going from a refugee camp where there was never enough to eat or a safe place to sleep, to a hyper-hip office featuring conference rooms named after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a free gourmet cafeteria and — no joke — a nap pod, is a vast distance to travel in this world.
Zecharias hopes this internship turns into a job offer (not uncommon in the Year Up program), but either way, she says she’s learned the most important thing — her own value.
“There are a lot of smart people out there that deserve great things,” she says as she looks out on a panoramic view of downtown Seattle, “(And now) I know I’m one of them.”