Ashley Mains had grown frustrated with the reaction she was receiving at recruiting events during her time at Clayton State University. The Tennessee transplant often felt like hiring managers lost interest when they heard she didn’t attend a gold-plated tech school. But once she participated in the university’s Launchpad Academy—a yearlong program through Clayton State’s College of Information and Mathematical Sciences designed to give students real-world training in information technology, cloud computing, and more—she began to get a different reaction.
“It was completely night and day before and after the program,” says Mains, who received a bachelor’s degree in information technology from the Southside university in 2020. She says she was drawn to the field because she wanted to help shape how tech impacted her community and future generations.
Mailchimp, the Atlanta-based email marketing behemoth, teamed up with Clayton State to start the academy in 2018. The company, which now has about 1,200 employees, committed to a three-year partnership and invested $300,000 to give students access to the city’s fast-growing tech industry. According to a 2019 survey by CBRE, Atlanta created nearly 32,000 jobs in the sector from 2013 to 2018—the second-most in the country, trumped only by San Francisco.
“Anything below I-20 is often overlooked in Atlanta. And you could say the same for Clayton State,” Josh Penny, director of corporate citizenship at Mailchimp, says of Mailchimp’s first formal partnership with a university. “But it’s an incredible institution with an incredible faculty. And they serve an incredibly diverse group of students.” Clayton State has a majority-Black student population, and 21 percent of its graduates are often the first people in their families to obtain a degree.
The idea started when Lain Shakespeare, Mailchimp’s senior director of corporate leadership, met Jay Terry, then the university’s dean of computer science, in 2017 at a leadership program sponsored by the Atlanta Regional Commission. Participants had been tasked with creating partnerships that could lead to new, impactful programs. Jillian Morgan, the Clayton State professor who coordinates Launchpad, says that, at first, Mailchimp staff just visited regular classes. By the second year of the program, students began working at the company’s Ponce City Market office every Friday for six weeks to learn directly from Mailchimp employees.
“They learn everything from them,” Morgan says. “We could teach them stuff, but there’s nothing like being taught something by somebody who does it every day.” During the program, Mains gained a better understanding of when to incorporate automated tasks into a software-development life cycle. Penny, who took classes at Clayton State while in high school, says students also learn about data analytics, software development, and software security. To graduate from the program, students complete and present a project based on a business scenario created by faculty and Mailchimp staff. Students such as Mains have gone on to participate in summer internships for Mailchimp after graduating from Launchpad, and others have landed jobs at firms like Uber and fintech company Greenlight.
Chase Moore, Clayton State’s vice president for university advancement and external affairs, says the benefits of programs like Launchpad reach beyond the students and into the larger community. “We are beginning to change this idea that the Southside is [only] about retail, the airport, and logistics,” he says.
Mailchimp and Clayton State are currently deciding how the program should move forward. “Everyone I’ve talked to on the Mailchimp side is so enthusiastic to continue working with Clayton State,” says Penny. “Right now, we’re focused on producing a report and some ideas for what the future of the program could look like.”
It turns out Mains didn’t need to worry so much about impressing recruiters. Before she graduated, Mailchimp turned her internship as a test engineer into a full-time job. “That program proved I’m capable of doing this. The door can be open for me, and I can do just as well as other students,” she says. “It was really life changing.”
This article appears in our June 2021 issue.