Tech Doesn't Look Like This Anywhere Except the Bronx

Today on the blog, I interview Jerelyn Rodriguez. Rodriguez founded The Knowledge House, an organization in the Bronx that helps youth to engage in entrepreneurship, through connecting them with technology professionals and innovative ideas from around the world. She grew up in the Bronx and was a student at the first KIPP charter school in New York City. In the first part of our interview, Rodriguez talked about how her experiences as a student shaped her activism and entrepreneurship. In this second and final part, she discusses how to create more opportunities and wealth in low-income communities.

Me: Tell me about the founding of the Knowledge House, where you are now, and what you hope it will be.

Rodriguez: After SFER I was doing organizing. I did parent organizing at Democracy Builders, then I was on a political campaign. That was in my community, and I had to get votes from Bronx Heights. It was hyper local, and I got to know the Bronx landscape like never before. I know everything about this community now. The candidate was Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code. I connected with the tech community in Harlem and the Bronx. There’s not much tech in the Bronx, but there was an incubator, and I loved it. I was introduced to entrepreneurs who were making serious money, even though they didn’t study computer science. Some of them didn’t even have a bachelor's degree, and they were people of color. Tech doesn’t look like this anywhere except the Bronx.

That was powerful. So I thought, wow, this is what I’ve been looking for. When folks think about community leaders in the Bronx, they think about pastors, politicians, and government workers. But here were tech entrepreneurs. I was like, “This is what kids in the Bronx need to see more of. So they understand there is talent at home and a reason to be hopeful at home. How can I leverage the resources in my own community to create more of this?”

I connected with the entrepreneurs at this incubator and started providing tech workshops to youth. We partnered with The Point, a local empowerment group. We started teaching kids how to do web design. It’s still my dream to create a digital platform where young people can advocate for various issues important in their communities, like school reform. The Point was a local group with a lot of credibility, so I thought, “Ok, there’s already a strong activism program here." If I can translate this into an online presence, it would help community concerns gain more traction. If we collected online stories, or video testimonials, of folks who had experiences in schools, we’d create a national platform for folks to share their stories, offer feedback, and participate in democracy.

We just didn’t stop after those workshops, even though I used all of my personal savings to run the pilot. We did a bunch of pilots with different types of young people to figure out where they wanted to be, and understand why they’re not there yet. I always had school reform in my mind. I always asked what schools have and haven’t done to work on career roadmaps. I learned that most schools don’t have computer science, and they don’t have strong career programs, and they’re barely talking about careers. So I thought, "We need to get on this."

I focused on tech, because I was thinking about viral advocacy platforms. There are already so many jobs for this kind of work, they’re going unfilled, and some are going to foreigners. The poorest kid in the neighborhood has a smart phone, though. The kids are consuming technology, why don’t they learn how to produce it? Plus, the fact that half of the jobs don’t require a bachelor’s degree is huge. Young adults without degrees can still get full time jobs. Unfortunately, a lot of this stops at IT jobs, well short of the engineers and developers who make a lot of money. Resources that connect kids to these higher paying careers exist in Brooklyn and Manhattan, why not here?

The kids are consuming technology, why don’t the learn how to produce it?

Me: What do you do to fill that gap between preparation to be an IT professional, versus becoming an engineer or developer?

Rodriguez: Teaching code to young people is not hard. Teaching soft skills is hard. Making sure they come everyday. Making sure they call if they’re running late. But they can code. If they have some tech background, it’s even easier. This summer we served 60 high school students from a New York City CTE (Career and Technical Education) program. They’re usually doing routers and networking. But we were teaching them web development and engineering. So when it came to code, they just got it automatically. For us, it was not hard to teach disconnected young adults. They’re already tech literate.

In our curriculum, there are a few things that help with this. The teachers who provide the content are actual professionals. We bring engineers and entrepreneurs of color, many of whom who are self taught, to teach the kids. They’re very culturally competent. I pushed back on this at KIPP. I didn’t learn enough about what it is to be black. Our work is very connected to that. We look at websites based on any topic that helps to solve a community problem. Our students try to solve issues, like making sure that people don’t have to wait on a line too long at a local restaurant. Stuff that they encounter everyday. It makes it easier for this population. But honestly, lots of people just aren’t trying. There aren’t enough tech programs for disconnected young people.

We work with the sixteen to twenty-four year old demographic. The city already had created the NYC tech talent pipeline, and we partnered with them. They’re recruiting unemployed young people to train them. This last summer was the first cohort of all low-income, disconnected youth that did the program. Prior groups were mostly privileged students, but they said this group was the most talented.

Me: There’s seems to be a bias in tech towards solutions for privileged people. New York Magazine did this insane piece on the marketplace for apps to make laundry easier for rich kids and "tech bros." In the meantime, there are actual problems out there. Why aren’t we trying to solve those?

Rodriguez: I really hope that in education reform someone steps up and starts developing entrepreneurial talent. The ed tech sector is booming. The students of color are the most quipped to solve these kinds of problems, in education and beyond. We are the ones who know what the problems are. That just needs to happen.