Mentors Are Vital for Minorities in STEM

When it comes to using a high-tech career to escape low-income despair, Lawrence Wagner leads by example.

A featured speaker at the 4Front Conference June 15–16, 2021, Wagner is founder and CEO of Spark Mindset, a Colorado Springs company that offers cybersecurity training camps for low-income middle- and high-school students. The mission is to ignite their interest in high-tech science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. In a recent podcast, he talked about the challenges he faced on the path to an IT career and how he’s trying to make that journey easier for low-income minority kids.

It’s a journey he knows well. He lived in low-income housing in Cleveland until the fourth grade, when his family moved to a better neighborhood with a much better school system. It was a hard transition for an African American kid sharing a home with an alcoholic stepfather and a younger brother who was in and out of jail. Wagner’s decidedly mixed academic experience led to modest grades, so after graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, seeing it as the only way to escape poverty.

“The Army was my way out,” he says. “But a lot of people in those neighborhoods don’t see a way out.” His role in the Army taught him discipline and resilience but few other useful job skills, so after leaving the military he could only find factory work. However, he engineered a better career path when he landed a 90-day IT internship at a hospital in Columbus, Georgia.

The internship transitioned into a full-time job and was the beginning of a successful, 20-year IT career. But it was far from trouble-free, marked by jobs in which Wagner faced abusive managers and racial discrimination. Fortunately, while working at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, he found a strong mentor who encouraged Wagner to keep moving forward. Wagner is grateful for the relationship, but he also wonders what might have happened if he’d met his mentor at age 15 rather than 30.

Early mentors make a difference, according to a recent STEM Education Journal survey of minority students. About 54 percent said that meeting a fellow minority STEM professional would encourage them to pursue STEM, while 56 percent believed that seeing media stories about minority STEM professionals would also be effective encouragement. Another key factor is closer to home: Just 68 percent of respondents said their families support their STEM studies.

Spark Mindset’s mission is to build support systems, and at the 4Front Conference in June, Wagner will give updates about these programs and explore how to better attract minorities to STEM careers.

Listen To Lawrence's Podcast

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