- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Matt Stephenson saw the handwriting on the wall.
Working for the giant financial firm Goldman Sachs Group, in credit derivatives and mortgage-backed securities, he sensed that the market was going to experience an upset.
So in 2007, a year before the financial collapse on Wall Street, he got out.
“I cut it a little close,” recalls Stephenson, 35, who later founded the Austin nonprofit, Code2College, which teaches computer programming to high school kids. “I usually give two reasons: I left for a Ph.D. program, and, yes, I saw what was coming.”
Next, the New York University business school graduate spent a year studying economics at the University of Miami.
“That was not for me,” Stephenson says. “I have a passion for economics, but not enough for a Ph.D.”
Then while teaching SAT prep courses online back in his native New York, he heard about an open position at Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, which ran a sales and trading internship program for students of color to place them at investment banks.
“I instantly fell in love with the work,” he says. “The students that I was working with came from Harvard and Yale, but also from Kennesaw State University, which I had never heard of. We were placing them in front-office roles. And they were getting full-time offers. But these were top 10 percent students and already in college. There were others who didn’t have the opportunity to join our program or weren’t even making it to college.”
In retrospect, however, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity proved to be another seemingly inevitable step on the road to Austin and his current, quickly expanding project, Code2College.
Growth with a plan
Stephenson grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., the son of Leslie Stephenson, an insurance broker, and Norma Stephenson, a retired bookkeeper. Both parents had immigrated to this country from Jamaica.
“I was a serious kid,” he admits. “I started to take myself less seriously in high school, but I continue to take everything else seriously.”
Stephenson took accelerated classes in school. In his household, it was “unspokenly expected.”
He stayed with Sponsors for Educational Opportunity for two years, but he decided to return to business school, this time at the University of Pennsylvania’s revered Wharton School of business, “to figure out how to scale the impact of my passion for education.”
At this point in our interview, this reporter asked a question about a nettlesome but frequently heard term. What exactly did he mean by “scale” in this context?
“Scaling is intentional — growth with a plan,” he says. “Anyone can grow. Scaling is growing in an intentional way. For instance, we launched Code2College a year ago, and very deliberately it is going to hit 120 students next September. That’s exciting. That’s fast growth.”
Back to his story: Stephenson studied for two years at Penn.
“I discovered that it was difficult to break into education if you don’t have the teaching background,” he remembers. “After graduating, I spent nine months looking. I applied to work at a high school as a math teacher and taught there for two years. Once I had taught, I had the background to speak to any school administrator, speak to teachers, and understand at the ground level what students and families needed.”
Stephenson then combined his interests, skills and training at a private nonprofit investment firm called NewSchools Venture Fund, where he became an associate partner.
“We worked with the entire Washington, D.C., system, so that’s traditional and charter schools,” he says. “We were making the system better through scaling, financing, compensation structure and instructional quality. We did it all with philanthropic dollars and logged the social returns by students served and by quality created.”
When the venture capital firm’s Washington arm started to wind down, a headhunter interested him in the job of director of finance for KIPP Austin Public Schools. He and his wife moved here two years ago.
“Four months into that role, my wife and I had a conversation about how to scale the efforts of bringing access to underserved students,” he says. “KIPP Austin has about 5,000 students. But I wanted to drive impact beyond a single district. Also, there are 2,000 tech companies here in Austin. Barriers to entry into coding are so low, yet the need for these technical skills is so high. I did some more research and found there were few programs connecting underserved high school students with access companies and technical careers locally.”
His wife, Kathleen Overly, who was a lawyer and is now senior consultant for a legal firm, supported his efforts.
Code2College started with 30 high school students, 70 percent girls, 80 percent African-American or Hispanic, all going to schools that are majority low socioeconomic status. Stephenson is the nonprofit’s only employee, and all the training is done by volunteers after school.
He is proud of Code2College’s already committed volunteers.
“No volunteer instructor has missed more than two sessions,” he says. “We also hold professional skills workshops at local corporate offices like Facebook and Silicon Labs.”
Code2College started out at Akins High School and the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders.
Armed with the experience, data and rhetorical skills from his background, Stephenson has added Hendrickson, Pflugerville, Weiss, Manor and Manor New Tech high schools.
“Our pitch to schools: Are you interested in your students, particularly your low-income students, girls and students of color entering STEM fields and learning from experts?” he says. “That’s what we are here to do.”