Florida is rich with unique geography, history, and culture. It has a large population of minorities and like many other states in the U.S., struggles with ongoing disparities in education and job opportunities. Against the backdrop of these disparities, CEO Chris Flakus and CIO Melissa Fulmore-Hardwick of CSI Companies, located in Jacksonville, Florida, are working to provide job opportunities and career development support in the tech industry for college and high school students who are relatively disadvantaged in the region. Here's an introduction to CSI Connect, an initiative launched in 2021, while leveraging their expertise in human resource development cultivated as a staffing company.
Following your dreams: the pursuit of something bigger
Today, the internet feels ubiquitous. With internet access, a person can work from their computer, quickly look up information, stream videos, and connect virtually with friends and family. But, in reality, not everyone has this luxury. According to a survey by USA Fact, 25-30% of Black and Hispanic families with children do not have a computer at home, and about 20% do not have internet access at home. According to Chris, some of the local youth basketball team players in Jacksonville, Florida have shared that they do not have computers at home and watch TV exclusively.
“Many of these students dream of becoming an NBA player," Chris said. “ Youths are influenced by what’s around them, so if they’re watching music shows or sports on TV, they’ll likely be influenced to become a famous musician or athlete. It is aspiring and exciting —and we’ve all once had similar dreams. Of course, only so many of us achieve these aspirational dreams. That’s why it’s important for students to build strong baseline skills and have awareness of other career paths that complement their interests.”
People at CSI Companies and the students they support
Jacksonville has become a tech hub in recent years. The tech industry is a seller's market in Jacksonville, making it easy for people with basic IT knowledge to find work in the area. However, due to lack of exposure and representation, many underserved youths will not realize these opportunities.
“Many of these youths don’t have internet access nor do they see the adults that are close to them maintaining professional careers.” Melissa said.
Structural and systemic problems also persist. Because of academic and financial difficulties, some students are unable to attend state colleges and universities with good IT programs and facilities. Many black students choose to attend HBCUs*. However, according to a report, many HBCUs had been underfunded for decades—which contributes to the disparity of black students having exposure to IT degrees and careers.
* Historically Black College and University. These are colleges and universities that were established before and after the American Civil War to primarily serve Black individuals. During the period of segregation in the U.S. (prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964), most higher education institutions disqualified or limited African-American enrollment, and HBCUs were almost the only choice for them.
Empowering students to pursue careers in the tech industry
CSI Connect is currently providing two types of support for students in Jacksonville. The first program brings in five interns each year from two partnered local colleges. CSI Companies’ interns are provided a laptop and the opportunity to work in the CSI Companies' Jacksonville office alongside the employees.
“We want our interns to experience working on a team and get a feel for the tech industry,” said Chris. “It’s our hope that through this experience they’ll feel empowered and motivated to work in an environment like this after graduation."
Interns who do particularly well during the program are encouraged to apply for a full-time career at CSI Companies or one of our clients after graduation. At the time of publishing this article, two students have already been hired full-time.
The second program is for high school students and started in January 2022. CSI Companies has partnered with a local high school to open the CSI Tech Lab in the school’s renovated media center. CSI Companies has offered to provide IT education and career support to five students interested in IT.
“We call the students the 'Jackson 5' named after their school, Andrew Jackson High School. The details of the program are still being worked out, but we plan to provide long-term support so that all five students can attend college and then continue their careers in the IT industry," said Melissa.
Chris and Melissa, with the students they’re supporting
Supporting children in becoming future leaders and role models
Chris and Melissa are both intrinsically motivated to help youths find value in their talents and explore their interests.
“I've always been intrigued by the different circumstances of students on the youth basketball team," said Chris. “They are all so talented and driven—but I think some kids simply lack the information, opportunities, and adults to talk to in order to broaden the possibilities of their future. CSI Companies wants to be a resource for today’s youth, and provide them with opportunities and confidence needed to succeed in any professional setting.”
Melissa, who is now an influential leader in the IT space, reflects on her journey and shares her hopes for tomorrow’s generation.
“The tech industry is still a male-dominated industry. As a woman and a person of color, I’ve often felt alone at the table. But that's why I want to be a role model for others. I want to tell them, ‘You can do it too.’ When they grow up and look back, I couldn't be happier if they said. ‘I’m here now thanks to CSI, Chris, and Melissa'”
“CSI Connect has the potential to change the economic gap, celebrate diversity and inclusion, and influence new ways of working,” said Chris. “I'm sometimes tempted to rush for results, but I believe that our commitment and consistency with this program will yield success in the years to come. Twenty years from now, we are hoping the students we are currently helping will become role models for the next generation.”
CEO at CSI Companies
Chris is directly responsible for all operations at CSI Companies. As CEO, he works with the executive team on M&A activity and the strategic direction of the company. Chris brings over 20 years of responsibility in the staffing industry, including branch level recruiting and sales, executive search, on site management, branch office management, regional management and executive management. He has been with CSI Companies since 2003.
CIO at CSI Companies
Melissa has dedicated her 20+ year career to merging innovative technology solutions with collaboration-based leadership. Melissa developed a deep respect for standardized processes while serving in the U.S. Army as a Commissioned Officer before becoming an accountant. Recognizing how technology can drive business solutions and change the world around us, Melissa then shifted to IT and moved up the ranks as an Oracle consultant, a change management leader, and a business applications director, while also leading motivated on-site and remote teams. Today, Melissa continues her passion for technology as CIO for CSI Companies.