Tufts, Northeastern students aim to increase diversity in technology through startup TechSpark

Timi Doye-Kayode (left) and Kingsley Udoyi (right), co-founders of TechSpark Connect, pose for a photo in the Science and Engineering Complex on Nov 2. (Ben Kim / The Tufts Daily)

Sophomores Kingsley Udoyi and Timi Dayo-Kayode are not your average computer science students. In just three semesters, the two have launched, pitched and gained funding for their business called TechSpark. This multi-branch startup aims to reduce bias impacting marginalized students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields both at Tufts and beyond.

The pair — in partnership with Disha Rajdev, a junior at Northeastern University — decided to start the venture after noticing a lack of diversity in STEM classes at Tufts.

“We realized that there aren’t that many people of color in our tech classes,” Udoyi said, who switched into the school of engineering his second semester. “We struggled a lot in class, especially me, being that I had no experience with computer science prior to college.”

At Tufts, where 59.8 percent of students in the School of Engineering are white, according to Tufts’ diversity data, both students said they felt there could be more support for people of color in STEM fields.

“As a computer science major at Tufts, I had seen a lot of the issues facing people of color [and] minorities in the tech sector, personally and by other peoples’ accounts,” Dayo-Kayode said. “I just wanted to help do something.”

Udoyi said that if he had had more of a support network in computer science, he would have felt more comfortable seeking out help when taking Introduction to Computer Science (Comp 11).

“I was kind of scared to approach [my TA] and ask for help, but I realized that if I had that exposure to comp sci early on, maybe I would have been more interested and do better in class,” he said.

While Udoyi went on to succeed in Comp 11, even after switching his major to computer engineering, he said that he wants to provide support for other students who may initially struggle with the material.

The main branch of TechSpark aims to provide students from disadvantaged areas with the opportunity to try coding through an eight week summer boot camp, according to Udoyi.

“We reach out to high schoolers in underdeveloped communities and we expose them to computer science, teach them how to code and just show them that this is a path that they can take,” Udoyi said.

He explained that after a summer of learning web development, HTML and CSS, the students in TechSpark’s boot camp are placed into companies where they can test their new skills.

“After the boot camp, we give them the opportunity to work with a nonprofit that is local to Boston, where they get to practice what they’ve learned,” Udoyi said. “The following summer they get placed into an internship in an actual tech company.”

The pair has already started travelling to local high schools to pitch the idea to parents, administrators and potential students.

“[Dayo-Kayode] has been going into schools and speaking to principals and students,” Udoyi said. “I have been reaching out into nonprofits in the area to see if they could partner with us and be willing to take these students under their wing after the boot camp.”

The group also hopes to address a lack of diversity in technology with a new sub-branch of the organization called TechSpark Connect, spearheaded by Dayo-Kayode.

TechSpark Connect is a diversity recruiting software that helps companies recruit technical minorities for jobs and internships,” Dayo-Kayode said.

With this branch of the company, the pair aims to match students already involved in STEM with technology companies, simultaneously helping students find job opportunities and encouraging companies to diversify.

“It tries to eliminate the unconscious bias in campus recruiting,” Udoyi said. “It’s a diversity recruiting platform that takes in résumés from college students and sends [them] out to companies that pay us to post jobs.”

Through a website built entirely by Dayo-Kayode, he described how the program automatically pairs résumés submitted by students with jobs posted by companies that partner with TechSpark Connect.

“A company says, we want to fill this job posting,” he said. “So we send that job posting to everyone in our database and they can pick whether or not they’re interested.”

Dayo-Kayode then explained how the website also fully anonymizes résumés to prevent the automatic bias that often occurs when recruiters see the names of candidates from marginalized communities.

“For everyone who selects that they’re interested … we anonymize résumés, we give them a ranking, and this ranking places them in some sort of array,” Dayo-Kayode said. “So every week we then send the top five in that array to the companies.”

While none of the students have previously worked at a startup, Dayo-Kayode is confident that each brings distinct experience in the fields of computer science, business and finance. Dayo-Kayode, a computer science major, has been coding since his senior year of high school. He said he was inspired after watching a movie in which someone hacked a computer.

“I started looking into it, learning stuff online, basic programming,” he said. “I got super into it. I would skip school to go to hackathons in high school… It just became something I really enjoyed.”

Conversely, Udoyi had never tried coding before college, even originally intending to pursue a pre-med track. But after taking Comp 11, he decided to switch his major to computer engineering.

“I like the reward of it after, I like the hands-on part of it, I like the creativity, I like the problem-solving,” Udoyi said. “I was like, I want to do something like this.”

Over the summer, Udoyi interned at Bloomberg, where he learned to use the coding language Python as part of an assignment in the Bloomberg engineering department.

“I taught myself Python and was able to put together a Python boot camp tutorial for high schoolers,” he said. “So if high schoolers came into Bloomberg and wanted to learn how to code, they would learn how to code in Python …  using my program from now on.”

Udoyi also brings business experience to the venture, which he gained after summers at Bloomberg, JetBlue and through an intensive high school career-readiness program he participated in called Pencil.

“They put me through two years of intensive training of career readiness, and they also gave me internships,” Udoyi said of Pencil. “After going through this intensive training, they helped us build our résumés and practice our interview skills — just being more sociable and personable and more confident in interviews.”

In partnership with Rajdev, a junior majoring in economics at Northeastern, the three plan to have both ventures launched and ready for students to enroll in by next summer.

“The original idea was to start up a tutoring program for high school kids,” Rajdev, who met Dayo-Kayode at a student innovation night last fall, said. “Then I met [Dayo-Kayode]… and we kind of talked and pivoted to what it is now.”

She expressed that while starting a business has been challenging at times, she finds a lot of meaning in their work.

“The whole experience has been kind of rewarding because it teaches you so much doing it, the way you take things in your own hands and try to actually do it for once,” she said.

Radjev, who manages the marketing and finance aspects of the business, said her passion for the business’s mission motivated her to get involved.

“Diversity matters,” she said. “It’s a really pressing issue right now.”