Jehron Petty ’20 is on a mission to move the needle for diversity and inclusivity in the tech industry. Shortly after graduating Cornell University with a degree in computer science—literally, the day after commencement—Petty launched ColorStack, a nonprofit on a mission to increase the number of Black, Latinx, and Native American college students in computing through community building and career development.
ColorStack, which is being incubated by Triplebyte, has made great strides in its first year—attracting 1000+ members and major corporate sponsorships from the likes of Y Combinator, Jane Street Capital, JP Morgan, Squarespace, and Bloomberg, to name a few.
A proven leader and mentor, Petty began tackling the issue of underrepresentation head-on while completing his undergraduate degree at Cornell. Motivated by his own experience of being one of three Black students in a class of 400, Petty co-founded Black Entrepreneurs in Training (BET) and served as the Co-President of Underrepresented Minorities in Computing (URMC), a club he grew from 15 to 135 members.
“During my first internship, I was the only Black intern at the office where I was employed, on top of being one of the only Black students in my engineering and computer science classes at Cornell, so I realized that underrepresentation was going to be an ongoing theme,” said Petty. “In my sophomore year, I started to actually lose sleep over it, because I was researching and overthinking the problem and just trying to figure out how to make a difference.”
Petty credits eLab, Cornell’s student startup accelerator, for inspiring him to take his interest in addressing underrepresentation to the next level. Initially, he joined the program to work on Wize, a digital financial literacy platform, but left the team to join BLU Media, another eLab team focused on developing a platform to empower students of color, which was more aligned with his interest in addressing diversity and inclusivity on campus.
“When I think about being an entrepreneur, for me, it’s never been about starting a for-profit business versus starting a non-profit. I think it always comes back to problem-solving. There are certain problems in this world that don’t necessarily have a customer, meaning that the end-user—the person who would benefit most from the product or service—isn’t willing or able to pay for it, therefore a non-profit is created,” said Petty.
After making the switch, Petty was encouraged by a friend and mentor, Makinde Adeagbo—founder of /dev/color and now a member of ColorStack’s board of directors—to scale the work he was doing to increase the entrance, retention, and success of students of color in computing at Cornell to the national level. Between the entrepreneurial knowledge and skills obtained in eLab while working on BLU Media and his weekly mentorship calls with Adeagbo, Petty left Cornell with the confidence, connections, and collateral to launch ColorStack.
In the fall of 2020, ColorStack launched its first fellowship. The Sprout Fellowship is a 10-week program, designed to increase the retention of ColorStack members in computer science programs across the country by equipping them with the community, knowledge, and resources to pursue the major with confidence. Each student is paired with a mentor from one of ColorStack’s sponsor companies, and placed in a “squad” of 5-7 other students that meet weekly for support and accountability as they move through the fellowship’s programming together.
“There are tons of students out there, who every year, are deciding not to pursue computer science because they are intimidated, or struggling in their program and considering dropping out. Or more concerning, they are juniors and seniors with no internships, who are pulling C or C+ averages and are going to graduate with no real career direction. That’s where ColorStack wants to move the needle,” said Petty. Under Petty’s leadership, ColorStack is well situated to make a real impact on the computing industry. Students interested in joining the community and companies interested in recruiting or supporting the nonprofit are encouraged to connect with ColorStack at www.colorstack.org.