Tom Walsh| Detroit Free Press

Getting young women into tech jobs

■ The goal of Step IT Up America, which rolls out in Detroit next week and in 10 large U.S. cities, is to create 5,000 jobs for inner-city American women and girls to enter information technology careers by 2020.
■ A kickoff event is set for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Westin Book Cadillac in Detroit. The plan begins by providing 100 local minority women with free IT training that will lead to guaranteed jobs at participating companies, with salaries starting at $28,000 a year.
For information on Step IT Up America:


The goal is an audacious one: to create 5,000 jobs for inner-city U.S. women and girls to enter information technology careers by 2020. And yes, Detroit is one of the target markets for this program, dubbed Step IT Up America.

Detroit is the third of 10 large American cities where the program is being rolled out to train 1,000 women in the first phase, working with local community colleges and other partners. The first two cities to launch the program were Atlanta in November and Philadelphia in January.

It’s all part of a global initiative started by a fast-growing California-based IT firm of 15,000 employees called UST Global, run by India-born CEO Sajan Pillai but also affiliated with several executives well-known in Detroit and Michigan business circles:

■ Carlos Gutierrez, former CEO of Battle Creek cereal giant Kellogg and later U.S. Secretary of Commerce

■ Ralph Szygenda, group vice president and chief information officer of General Motors in 2000-09

■ Gary Cowger, also a former GM group vice president and onetime head of GM’s Mexico operations

“He sees the same problem a lot of us do,” Cowger said of UST’s Pillai, “that the kids in inner cities are not getting opportunities in technology — and young female minorities are particularly underrepresented. We’re missing out on a hell of a lot of talent.”

In a telephone interview Feb. 28, Pillai put it this way: “Information technology is the largest job creator, by far, in the world today and we have completely excluded a significant demographic. If you look at the participation of minority women in IT, it’s abysmal.”

That goes for the U.S., Detroit and the rest of the world. Women make up 50% of the U.S. workforce, but hold only 28% the IT jobs, according to the National Science Foundation. And Hispanics and African Americans are significantly underrepresented in cybersecurity jobs, a Homeland Security Department report says.

There are reasons for these disparities, of course — limited money for schooling, “so they never aspire to that and it’s a vicious cycle,” Pillai said.

But when UST Global expanded into Mexico a few years ago, the firm helped develop a business model to rapidly create a knowledge base for young trainees in 90-120 days, and launched a program to train 30,000 Mexican IT engineers and eventually hire 10,000 of them.

Gutierrez, who will participate in the Detroit kickoff program next week, first connected with UST in Mexico via former Mexico President Vicente Fox.

Fox had partnered with UST on Centro Fox — that nation’s first presidential library and learning center. Pillai also took his IT training crusade to Spain, Rwanda and other nations, and talked with Gutierrez about adapting the initiative for the U.S. market.

UST Global is headquartered in Aliso Viejo, Calif., and serves many of the world’s largest multinational companies in retail, manufacturing, health care and other industries. Of its 15,000 employees worldwide, more than 2,000 are in the U.S., about 7,000 in India, 2,000 in Mexico and smaller numbers elsewhere, Pillai said.

For the Step IT Up America initiative, the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm that Gutierrez co-chairs with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, is helping to recruit corporate partners to employ the IT trainees.

“Sajan is very big into social responsibility,” said Szygenda, who is a strategy adviser and partner, “and he’s been very concerned about creating a capable workforce around the world.”

Gutierrez said Pillai is showing “enlightened self-interest. Part of the idea is to bring IT jobs back from India to this hemisphere, starting with Mexico and now the U.S.”

As Pillai himself stressed: “This is not a handout. I’m not a big believer in checkbook philanthropy.”


Contact Tom Walsh: 313-223-4430 or

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