By Courtney Vinopal
On a warm October Tuesday evening in the South Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point, around 15 students sit hunched over their computers at the BXL Bronx Business Incubator, a large co-working space that houses nearly 30 startups.
The students are laughing and joking with each other just like any other college class. During the three-hour web development course, they get up every so often to refill on Doritos or Pepsi. They ask each other questions and offer one another help when they can. Sometimes they tease their teacher, Joe Carreno.
But the language these students are working with — from “dynamic static url” to “python” to “media path” to “Django” — is anything but kid stuff. That’s because these students are part of a program offered by The Knowledge House, a Hunts Point non-profit that provides free classes in computer programming to young people from ages 16 to 24.
The Knowledge House is part of a tight-knit South Bronx tech community seeking not only to bring innovation to the borough, but also to create opportunities for groups that are underrepresented in the tech industry, particularly minorities and women. From teaching students how to code to helping burgeoning startups develop their business models, these Bronx-based organizations — from Per Scholas to the Bronx Academy of Software Engineering (BASE) to Bronx Tech Meetup to Metabronx — hope to give residents of New York’s poorest borough the skills to fill employment gaps in the tech industry.
“We want to make sure that any kid or youth that’s underutilized has access to information,” said Tunisia Mitchell, manager of programs and development at the Knowledge House. The organization sees itself as a starting point for young people seeking to discover opportunities in tech.
Jerelyn Rodriguez, who had previously worked in education and community organizing, and Carrano, who had worked in technology, started the Knowledge House in 2014 in response to reports of high numbers of youth in the Bronx who were unemployed or out of school. Indeed, a study published in 2012 by the Social Science Research Council of America reported that 12.4 percent of Bronx residents from ages 16 to 24 fell under this category.
At the same time, employment in the technology sector nationally is growing at twice the rate of the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because technology has evolved so rapidly, there is an increased need in this sector for employees with IT and related analytical skills, especially computer programmers and developers.
Programs like those offered at the Knowledge House are trying to give students skills that will address this need for skilled tech workers and them competitive in the workforce.
It appears to be working. Mitchell, who has been with the Knowledge House for a year now, said that 20 percent of students that have gone through the program have been placed in the workforce.
“We’re creating a pathway for our students,” said Mitchell. With the skills a young person attains at the Knowledge House, “a student can transform into an amazing professional who knows what next steps to take.”
Sergio Garcia, 22, is a perfect example. Garcia, who was unable to attend college because he couldn’t afford it, had already taught himself to code using a number of different computer languages. At a “hackathon,” which is essentially a collaborative meet-up between computer programmers, he met staff from the Knowledge House and started taking classes. Now, he’s making even more progress in computer programming, he says..
“The more I learn, the better I feel. It keeps my self-esteem up,” he said.
The Knowledge House does not work alone, however. It is supported by a network of other organizations that are also seeking to address some of the tech industry’s most deeply ingrained problems, including a lack of diversity and a significant gender gap.
In 2014, 57 percent of employees at leading Silicon Valley tech firms were white and 36 percent were Asian American, while only 1.6 percent were Hispanic and less than 1 percent were African American, according to data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). There is a significant gender gap as well — the EEOC reported that women represented only 30 percent of the workforce at these Silicon Valley firms.
Metabronx, a technology accelerator that works closely with Knowledge House, specifically is seeking to close those gaps by supporting female and minority entrepreneurs in the next stage of their careers. Miguel Sanchez, CEO of creative technology agency Mass Ideation, and Philip Shearer, a founder of digital media and technology company, “scenyc,” created Metabronx last year. As a member of Metabronx,technology startups receive support and advice on everything from writing a business plan to contacting investors.
Sarah Poyet, a member of Metabronx who has worked at scenyc along with Shearer for a number of years, is also the founder of The Glass Files, a media management company that she started after receiving seed funding for the project. A number of developers from scenyc, including Shearer, now work on The Glass Files, which allows users to organize family photos and videos, and was officially launched this past week. Poyet is excited about the support that organizations such as The Knowledge House and Metabronx provide for entrepreneurs such as herself, but she also believes it goes beyond just this — these organizations are working to revitalize the economy in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States.
“If we can build a tech community, there are going to be a lot of jobs created,” said Poyet. But it’s going to be a tough haul, she admits.
“The bias is deep, despite recent activity toward inclusion,” he said. “There is no way for the United States to remain competitive unless the entire population is involved in the innovation process.”
Shearer’s business partner Sanchez, who grew up in the Bronx and is Puerto Rican, believes the biggest challenge that minorities and women face in entering the technology sector is simply that no one gives them the chance.
“These kids…they’re just as good as anybody else,” he said. “The problem is they don’t get the opportunity.”