Since Prince’s death, activist and CNN commentator Van Jones has worn a purple tie for his TV appearances and has seen other people do similar things. “We’re just trying to signal we’re still loyal to the throne, even though the throne is empty now,” he says. That’s because the artist left behind what Jones calls an “invisible network and army” of activists and non-musicians whom he worked with and supported.
In the artist’s lifetime, he and Jones collaborated on #YesWeCode, an organization that offers tech education to urban American youth, and Jones notes the artist was behind similar ventures. “You never knew who else he was working with until he told you,” he says. “We’re still piecing it together. How the hell and why did he meet this person? It’s a mystery.”
A couple of months after the artist’s death, Jones met another member of the artist’s secret network, Corey Tollefson, at a Minneapolis concert, and the two hit it off. Tollefson is the senior vice president of retail and fashion at Infor, a company that specializes in cloud-based software. He was born and raised in Minneapolis and worked his way into Prince’s inner circle of close fans in the mid-Nineties. Jones told Tollefson that after Prince’s death, #YesWeCode had reached an impasse and he wasn’t sure how to move it forward. Tollefson said his company might be able to help, so they set up some meetings. It’s an example of how Prince’s activists networks are still finding each other and trying to move the late artist’s philanthropic vision forward.
“Both of us were trying to get through the first couple of meetings without crying,” Jones says. “We were crying about the impact Prince had on our lives and wanting to have that same impact through #YesWeCode now.” Once they dried their eyes, they figured out the organization’s next step.
Their creation was GenOne, a three-month educational program that seeks out people from disadvantaged backgrounds and trains them for careers in the tech industry. The first class of 35 or so “cohorts,” as Infor calls the students, graduated in December and now nearly all of them have found jobs, mostly at Infor but with some working on a new Jazz at Lincoln Center website for Wynton Marsalis.
#YesWeCode was originally born of Prince’s vision to mold “black Mark Zuckerbergs,” to use Jones’ terminology, after the murder of the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. Where other people thought the reason Martin was murdered was racism, Prince looked at the bigger picture. “When you see a black kid wearing a hoodie, everybody says, ‘There goes a thug,'” Jones remembers Prince saying. “But if you see a white kid wearing a hoodie, everybody says, ‘Well, there goes Mark Zuckerberg.'” So Prince’s idea was to create an initiative that would shift people’s perceptions of what black and marginalized people and place them in new careers.
“It was a lightning strike of genius,” Jones says. “There were half a dozen people at Paisley Park at that moment, and he was looking right at me, like, ‘You guys can protest and complain all you want, but why don’t you create the future you want?'”
Jones’ organization the Dream Corps founded #YesWeCode in 2013, and Tollefson became aware of it when they launched it at the Essence Festival the next year. “When I heard that, I thought, ‘Oh my God. I could completely help here, ’cause I have influence in the tech industry,'” he says. “But the timing wasn’t right.” When he finally met Jones, he remembers the CNN commentator saying that #YesWeCode had lost its funding; Jones disagrees on this point and says the initiative simply lost steam because it had been going off the excitement people felt about Prince. Regardless, Tollefson offered Infor as a resource and eventually the company funded GenOne. Once they got it going, they went about recruiting cohorts.
“There’s genius in unexpected places,” Jones says. “Who would have expected a world-class genius to pop up on the edge of the Twin Cities in the 1980s, a time when you had to go to L.A. or New York to be discovered?”
“These kids are all really high on the IQ scale and higher on the EQ scale – meaning they’re smart and have interpersonal skills but for whatever reason they haven’t had access to better schools, whether it was the parents they were born to or the fact they don’t have much money,” Tollefson says. “So we went after these kids hard and had them join our program. It was like finishing school, almost like the Motown Charm School, but of tech.”
Marysol Losada is a 29-year-old Colombian immigrant who grew up in Florida and moved to New York City five years ago. She graduated college with a liberal arts degree in 2018 and discovered GenOne from Facebook. At the time, she was looking for a job in technology but was having trouble breaking into the world. “I would only find contract positions for IT, and it was hard to see a woman [doing those jobs] where I worked,” she says. “You needed years of experience to be even considered for an entry-level position.”
She enrolled in GenOne and after graduating, got a job working on Infor’s IT team. “I really saw the difference between a company that cares about bringing in diversity versus how it’s done everywhere else,” she says. “It’s a great example that should be followed by everybody else.”
Tollefson agrees. He says the program is not proprietary, and he’d like to see other businesses use it. The company hosted the first class in New York, because that’s where Infor is headquartered, but he’d like to see it launched in Minneapolis and Austin and take it to tech companies like Microsoft, Oracle and Salesforce. “It’s really, really important to raise our own within our country and increase meaningful jobs, not McDonald’s jobs,” he says. “It should be jobs that can actually transform people’s lives and their families’ lives.”
“We should be making sure that African-American kids aren’t just thinking about being entertainers, athletes or Barack Obama,” Jones says. “There should be an option in Silicon Valley.” Jones says that he’s already been in contact with other employers that want to work with GenOne, and he hopes to announce who they are later in the year.
In the meantime, Jones is still trying to decode who else were Prince’s activists. “We’re still caught in the mystique, as we’re all decloaking different people,” he says. “Like Tamron Hall, who used to be at MSNBC, is a part of the Prince camp. That’s not something I think a lot of people knew. I knew it, but I didn’t know how deep into it she was. And Esperanza Spalding has crazy stories. But that was the thing. When you’re part of the Prince camp you don’t talk about it. If you go around and say, ‘Well, I know Prince,’ all of a sudden you’re just not invited anymore. So the #YesWeCode connection with Infor is one of many happy Easter eggs that Prince planted for us to run into and discover.”