NYC mentorship program puts startup staffers in schools

AP News
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Posted: May 21, 2016 10:34 AM
NYC mentorship program puts startup staffers in schools

NEW YORK (AP) — The budding entrepreneurs wore glasses made of wooden tongue depressors to pitch their idea for glasses with a chip that lets you find them from your phone.

"And they'll have windshield wipers, so when they're dirty or get water on them, you can wipe it up," said Azariah Drungo, a fifth-grader at Public School 307 in Brooklyn.

Azariah and her classmates spent the past week developing product ideas and as part of a mentorship program that sends engineers and designers from New York City's burgeoning tech industry into high-poverty public schools. Backers hope the program, which is expanding to other cities, will inspire kids to consider high-tech careers and can eventually help boost diversity at companies like Google and Facebook.

"As an African-American in the tech industry it can be a very, very small community," said Landon Fears, a software engineer at Brooklyn-based Flocabulary and one of the mentors taking part in the program, called Big Idea Week.

The mentors, from companies including Etsy and the 3D printer manufacturer Makerbot, coached the kids as they broke up into teams of four or five to come up with a product and a PowerPoint presentation to sell it.

The program, which concluded Friday with students pitching their ideas like contestants on a grade-school "Shark Tank," was the brainchild of Alex Rappaport, the co-founder of Flocabulary, which makes educational hip-hop videos.

Rappaport watched as the fifth-graders at P.S. 307 honed their pitches and presented them to their classmates on Thursday.

Aanesha Stewart's team had designed a "laughing emoji" pillow intended to cheer a person up.

"You can hug the emoji pillow and it vibrates," Aanesha said. "It also sends messages like, 'It's OK.'"

Classmates asked questions like what the pillow will cost and what it will be made of.

Other teams had come up with ideas including a "bully alert" sweater that lets students sound the alarm that they're being bullied, and Teddy Tunes, a teddy bear that plays parent-approved music.

P.S. 307, where Rappaport started Big Idea Week in 2014, serves students who are mostly low-income and almost all black and Hispanic. It sits blocks away from the hundreds of startups that have gravitated to the Brooklyn neighborhood known as DUMBO in the last five years.

"You're talking about a five-minute walk, but a different world," said Rappaport, a Tufts University graduate who founded Flocabulary with Blake Harrison in 2004 based on the insight that rap lyrics are easier to memorize than vocabulary words. Flocabulary says that 50,000 schools have used its products.

Rappaport said Big Idea Week has expanded to 20 New York City schools since 2014 and is also running at Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering in Raleigh, North Carolina, this year. He expects additional cities to come on board next year. An Indianapolis program called the InnovatOrrs Project was partially inspired by Big Idea Week, Rappaport said.

The goals include teaching 21st-century skills, putting students on pathways to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and increasing diversity in the tech industry, which remains overwhelmingly male and white or Asian.

"When you look at the stats, despite huge proactive diversity initiatives, diversity remains flat," Rappaport said.

The numbers at prominent companies back that up. According to figures released last year, Facebook's employees are 4 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black. Google's are 3 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black. Few women hold management or technical positions at either company.

Fears graduated from the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University in 2012 as one of a tiny handful of black students in his class.

He said race wasn't much of an issue at Carnegie Mellon because student work spoke for itself, but "once I got out of school I kind of became aware that there's not a lot of people of color in the companies that I'm interviewing for or I'm working for."

Will his zeal inspire students?

"I am hoping," Fears said. "I feel like as an engineer, it's just as creative an industry as music. It's as creative as writing. Because you're building something from scratch. You have to use your mind and your imagination to do that."


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