by Eric Berkman

Chicago Non-Profit i.c.stars Works to Bridge Digital Divide, Harvest New IT Talent

Mar 01, 20022 mins
IT Leadership

A Chicago nonprofit is working to bridge the digital divide and provide the IT world with some new talent in the process. I.c.stars, launched in the summer of 2000 by social worker Leslie Beller and alternative educator Sandee Kastrul, is an innovative training laboratory that prepares inner-city young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 for high-status IT careers.

Forget the classroom setting?these students work 80-hour weeks on a project simulation. For example, they might be told to develop a functional auction site, then learn the skills necessary to complete the project on time and on budget for their “client.” Through this hands-on experience, students also learn corporate survival and leadership skills?everything from how to act at a meeting with top executives to how to handle a manager who tries to steal credit.

According to Beller, the program’s executive director, i.c.stars?funded largely through support from companies like Intrinsic, Lante and Verizon Wireless?is already a success. After three 90-day courses of 10 students each, 40 percent of the graduates have been hired by companies such as Arthur Andersen, CNA Insurance, Microsoft and Spirian Technologies. Beller adds that these grads are all doing high-level consulting and development work, not internal IS. Other graduates have gone on to college.

Some graduates are getting the best of both worlds. After weighing two other job offers, 20-year-old Kevin Gates now works as a technology specialist for Microsoft, helping build the infrastructure in its new Chicago technology center. Meanwhile, he will start attending college at night next year. “I.c.stars gave me a very direct route to Microsoft and the right tools to get there and be successful,” he says. “Honestly, if it wasn’t for i.c.stars, Microsoft would be 20 years away.”