Computer scientist and community builder

When Charlie Helms decided to major in computer science more than three years ago, he was excited for the possibilities ahead of him.

It seemed like the perfect major to combine his interests in science, math and business. It would even let him tap into his creative side.

Three years later, Helms knows he made the right choice. He’s interned with Cisco, networked with executives at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, and in January, he’ll start a full-time job as a program manager at Microsoft.

Helms will graduate from Carolina in December, completing his degree a semester early.

“I feel like in the past three years, I’ve done so much that I feel like I’ve gotten everything out of Carolina that I possibly could have,” said Helms, a native of Spring Lake, North Carolina. “From research, doing internships, to having really amazing friendships, to traveling abroad.”

Initially, though, he struggled to find his place on campus.

After being accepted to Carolina as a Chancellor’s Science Scholar in 2017 and participating in the program’s Summer EXCELerator, Helms eagerly jumped into computer science classes during his first semester at Carolina. But as he looked around his classrooms, sometimes filled with hundreds of fellow Tar Heels, he felt alone.

“Going into Carolina, I just felt so behind my peers because a lot of people had computer science classes at their high school, or their family members were in the computer science field,” Helms said. “I didn’t feel like I was able to compete with people. I just felt like there wasn’t a place for me. I had never even met a Black computer scientist.”

He knew there had to be more Black students in the computer science department and around campus who felt like he did, and he was determined to bring them together.

Helms partnered with his friend and fellow computer science major Olivia McPaul and together they launched Black in Technology, a student organization dedicated to increasing Black and minority representation in computer science — both on campus and industry-wide.

The organization offers opportunities for Black students to learn more about careers in technology and network with company executives while also learning from each other’s experiences and creating a supportive network.

“We’ve had people in the organization get full-time job offers from the efforts that we’ve done, get internships and even get involved with research positions,” Helms said. “To see that the organization is really allowing people to thrive has made me feel like I’ve had an impact on Carolina.”

Helms and the Black in Technology team expanded their efforts beyond Carolina this spring by hosting AfroPix, an inclusive symposium and case competition to celebrate people of color in technology. It was open to college students from around the state.

Helms and his team worked on the event for more than two years, securing sponsorships from major technology companies, such as LinkedIn and Google. While the event was forced to go virtual because of the pandemic, it proved to Helms the powerful impact the support had on his peers.

“After the event, it was really amazing because people were messaging me on LinkedIn saying they really loved it, and how they had never seen anything like that before and how it really inspired them to go into tech,” Helms said. “So, although it wasn’t the same event that we had pictured to be in person, we were able to still have a strong virtual event that still served our mission of getting more people involved with tech and feeling like they belong in the industry.”

Helms also participated in the Adams Apprenticeship Program, which allowed him to hone his entrepreneurial skills for AfroPix and other endeavors.

As he prepares to start his new journey as a Carolina alumnus, Helms is confident that he is leaving the future of Black in Technology in good hands.

“The organization is being taken over by a very motivated group of students that are doing all of the work to help it continue, and it’s just been really amazing to see,” Helms said.

And although the pandemic made his last semester at Carolina different than he might have imagined, Helms knows that he made the most of his time as a Tar Heel.

“Carolina showed me a career that was specifically what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Helms said. “It showed me how to navigate a lot of real-world experiences and taught me that even though things might not go the way I want them to, I can still always pick myself back up.”

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