Recurse Center (RC) is a three-month, self-directed educational retreat for programmers in New York City. Like a writers’ retreat or an artists’ residency, there are no teachers, no curriculum, no grades, and

Over 50% of the people in RC’s most recent batch were women, trans, or nonbinary. Historically, around 33% of RC alumni have been drawn from those groups. CEO and cofounder Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock says this is in large part due to the $1.5 million in grants that RC has made to people from traditionally underrepresented groups in technology since 2012. You’re eligible for a needs-based grant if you are selected for RC (all applicants are held to the same admissions bar) and identify as a woman, trans, genderqueer, nonbinary, black, Latinx, Native American, or Pacific Islander.

“We don’t want RC to look like the broader technology industry where women and other groups are vastly underrepresented,” says Bergson-Shilcock. “Both the educational and business value of RC comes from the strength and quality and diversity of participants themselves.”

RC is diverse in other ways, too. Only 25% to 40% of attendees have a degree in computer science. “We have had people who are 16 to 60, people who didn’t finish high school to people who have PhDs in computer science, people who have almost never worked with other programmers and are entirely self-taught, to people who have been staff engineers at Google,” says Bergson-Shilcock.

The Fellowship

RC’s team wanted an even more diverse pool of participants and decided to try something new. RC’s grants are needs-based. If you have been accepted to RC but cannot afford to attend, you can apply for a grant for living costs of up to $7,000. The new fellowships of up to $10,000 were targeted at women, trans, and nonbinary people who wanted to work on ambitious, open source programming projects. Selection was purely merit-based rather than needs-based.

The projects pursued by fellows are also diverse. Kathy Jang is improving machine learning algorithms for self-driving cars to facilitate better traffic flow and congestion control. Meredith Finkelstein is building a blockchain for prayer. Isla Jean Carson is working on algorithms for genome assembly, which take a large number of short DNA sequences and put them back together to create a representation of the original chromosomes from which the DNA originated. This is tricky since you don’t know where any of the sequences were originally located in the genome.