i.c.stars; the future is bright in the Milky Way

i.c.stars is an immersive technology workforce training and placement program for promising young adults. i.c.stars opened their first office in Chicago in 1999, and opened an affiliate in Columbus, Ohio in 2016. In 2018, i.c.stars opened in Milwaukee after receiving a generous commitment from The Dohmen Company. The sponsorship gives i.c.stars the funding, staff, and location needed to train and put promising adults to work in business & technology roles within Milwaukee companies. Located in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, i.c.stars shares space with Dohmen’s healthcare technology company, Red Arrow Labs. Nationally, the organization has trained hundreds of people to date with a placement rate of 80% for industry-ready graduates.

Leia Ferrari

Leia Ferrari, talent placement manager at i.c.stars, started her career in tech at a coding boot camp in the Bay Area where she learned a lot about skills-based education and the experiential learning space. After working at the coding boot camp for a couple years, Ferrari moved back to Milwaukee in June 2017. She took some time off to travel, and just as she was debating between moving to Colorado, moving back to California, or staying in Wisconsin, the stars aligned and she joined the founding team for i.c.stars Milwaukee.

Ferrari’s passion is related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the professional workforce. Her goal is to make the professional workforce in Milwaukee more accurately represent the population here. She’s living her why by working with the people going through the program, and seeing their dedication and accomplishments. Ferrari is an intrapreneur within i.c.stars, working with interns to prepare them professionally, working with companies to hire graduates, running a staffing augmentation, and working with sponsors and partners.

Ferrari credits both her individual success and i.c.stars’ success to their village of supporters. They’ve been able to get this far through the support of individuals who have started to collaborate and form coalitions within their organizations, and help to break down the barriers for i.c.stars within those organizations. i.c.stars has formed a valuable partnership with Northwestern Mutual, they’ve become a hiring partner, which is the ultimate investment—giving someone a future in the the tech industry locally. 

“I would love to see more companies or organizations follow Northwestern Mutual’s lead and get involved with us. The reason that we have such a healthy relationship is because they have a level of sponsorship, where they give us employee time to mentor our interns. Those mentors, in turn, come to realize these people are so ready to work, and can see them working at their company, on their team,” said Ferrari.

Ferrari is incredibly proud of the program’s graduates. “They are everything in terms of why we’re doing what we’re doing. They are putting themselves through so much, and also putting themselves out there in terms of vulnerability and giving up a lot to be able to do our program,” she said. The program is 12 hours a day, five days a week for four months. The students have to be dedicated to the program, because it’s incredibly challenging to have another job at night, or on weekends, especially with homework. It takes a lot of sacrifice and commitment—they’re usually giving up sleep, or time with their family, so they have to rely on their own villages and support system.

“We know that they have so much potential, that they already have the talent, and the resilience and the capabilities, all that they’ve been lacking is the opportunity. So we’re putting this opportunity in front of them, they can make of it what they will, and when they decide to take it on and fulfill their potential, nothing makes me happier,” said Ferrari.

Ferrari is also incredibly proud of the i.c.stars team who teaches the students to code, teaches them about business, and how to conduct themselves in a professional workspace. 

“It’s a really beautiful cycle of we’re giving to you; you’re going to give back to other people. It’s a community. It’s a family.”

—Leia Ferrari, talent placement manager, i.c.stars

As of July 2019, 47 individuals have completed the i.c.stars program in Milwaukee, of which 43% are female, 57% are male, and 96% identify as people of color. There are typically 200+ inquiries, 100+ completed applications, and it all comes down to 20 individuals who are admitted per cycle. Once students are accepted into the program, there’s a team week where they focus on team building, self discovery exercises for them to better understand who they are, how they work in teams, how they lead management styles, and an emotional intelligence workshop. After team week, students get into coding and work with a client, which is a key differentiator of the program. During first three months of the program they work with a client to respond to an RFP. Each week, the coding instructor is teaching them the things that they are going to start building, giving the building blocks one row at a time to deliver an MVP at the end of the third month. 

“We really help them push past what they think they’re capable of doing. It’s nothing short of inspiring.”

—Leia Ferrari, talent placement manager, i.c.stars

Some of the organizations that have hired i.c.stars grads are Northwestern Mutual, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Briggs & Stratton, Cargill, CBRE | ESI, Dohmen, von Briesen & Roper, Dental Associates, Footlocker, Kenall, Crescendo Collective, Cream City Coders, and SHARP Literacy. Graduates have gone into roles like Software Developer, QA Analyst, Application Developer, Service Desk Specialist, IT Specialist, Front End Developer, and Dev Ops Engineer to name a few. 

i.c.stars believes in the spirit of collaboration over competition to move the community forward. “The Tech Hub movement is a perfect example—seeing Northwestern Mutual and Aurora, who are both large employers in the Milwaukee Area, come together to partner on that. I personally hope to see other enterprise level companies do the same in the near future,” said Ferrari. She also believes that we need more voices in Milwaukee. “When I bring our interns from i.c. stars to an event with me, I still don’t see enough diversity in those rooms. That’s not the fault of diverse communities. That’s the work of majority communities, when it comes to inclusion, so actively inviting, engaging, and persisting to reach out to communities that they may not be familiar in order to ensure that all different kinds of voices are represented,” Ferrari said. Conversations are often centered on racial and gender issues, but we also need to include LGBTQIA, disability, and neurodiversity in the conversation. 

“It’s our duty to speak up when we see bias in action, to interrupt it.”

—Leia Ferrari, talent placement manager, i.c.stars

To learn more about applying for the program, or to become a sponsor, client, or volunteer, visit milwaukee.icstars.org or connect with Leia Ferrari on LinkedIn.

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