Tech that breaks the cycle of poverty

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Tech that breaks the cycle of poverty

The vision for this series is to surface and share insights of thought-leaders and trailblazers who live at the cutting edge of technology. While the opinions featured may not necessarily represent those of Verizon and its employees, we still believe that we can each learn from experiences and opinions of others, which is why we’ve chosen to feature them here. This dialogue is how we take the first steps towards making innovations that matter.

I first met Michael in Seattle. We were both east-coasters who found ourselves on the farthest northwestern corner of the states. We were working at a PR agency that had recently built-up its digital practice and was recruiting talent from all across the US. For different reasons, we both moved back east within a year or two. I moved back east to work for Verizon. Michael moved back and blazed a new trail; he took the road less taken.

Michael currently leads a coding academy for high-school age students, C/I, mostly from the Bronx, NY. The objective of the program is to break the cycle of poverty by providing these young people with the skills and the direction to build careers where they would earn sometimes four times the amount of their current family income. When Michael was first telling me about his new path a few years back, I was impressed. Here was a rock-star creative professional, at the height of his career, who decided to shift his focus to giving back, to doing something that wasn’t about the money. He couldn’t be happier. When you see him he glows; he exudes positivity.

At one time C/I was located in a small storefront space in the Bronx, on the ground floor of a residential building. Now C/I is currently run from inside a new coworking space in midtown Manhattan. As I exited the elevators I saw Michael and his crew, siting together at shared, community-style white formica tables. Some of the students had arrived early and were tapping away at laptops or huddled together looking at something on their phones. The room was bright and shiny; the people were bright and shiny. There was an aura of confidence in the space. This was a location, a precinct, where good stuff happens.

Michael and I were going to speak in one of the conference rooms. The students peered up at us with curious eyes. Michael asked, “You guys want to sit in on this conversation?” And all at once they bounded up with excitement and nonchalantly paced towards the room. They were a set of characters, all intense about what they do, where they are from, and what their futures held. They were a bright bunch, standouts and high-achievers.

We sat at a round table. One of the students who attends the Cinema school in the Bronx asked to use my camera and took candids of the conversation. Michael sat to my right and although I asked him the questions, he answered them speaking towards the students. He was teaching them through the conversation. I began our talk similarly to how I had been beginning the conversations in this series… “Michael, from your POV, what do you see as the future of mobile…”

Tech that breaks the cycle of poverty

Michael: Opportunity. Mobile proliferation is significant at the moment. The current statistics are that over 90 percent of people use smartphones to solve the problems in their lives. Communication, navigation problems, transportation – all of these things happen on the device and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are going to be more and more problems that can be solved with a variety of mobile functionalities that will be coming out within the next five years.

Jason: Is the increased proliferation of mobile going to cause more problems to solve?

Michael: Maybe, probably an aspect of that. I get to watch students think up really powerful solutions to problems that no one else is trying to solve, but after having access to computer science and technology they design end products that genuinely solve a challenging problem in the world that no would have considered using technology to solve.

Jason: Genuinely solving problems, define that.

Michael: The students from Bronx International High School, those kids built an app that recreates the hyper-local support system inside the villages that they immigrated from in Africa, on a mobile system, simply because they didn’t have that support system for themselves when they made it to the states.

So, these kids recognized they could potentially knock on their neighbors’ door to ask them watch their sister, or to pick them something up when going to the store, like they did back home in their village. They come here though and they don’t have that support system in their buildings, don’t know who to ask and breaking down that barrier is nearly impossible. So they built an app for their building that is a geo-fenced, hyper social network that allows you to raise your hand for support. I need someone to sign for a FedEx package that is coming to my house because I’ll be at work during that time. Raise your hand in the building, someone volunteers to do so and when the whole transaction is done you can review that person, similar to reviewing drivers in a ride-sharing app. These are solutions to problems that are very unique to the instance of these students, but have applications that are much larger. Genuinely solving their unique problems with technology. And, without that access to the mobile infrastructure, this would just not be possible.

Jason: Those students created something that was hyper local, but could be used globally. So, how do you scale those things? Is it possible?

Michael: The idea creation is absolutely scalable. So we have a problem in the states where we have 90 percent of the American population who self-identify using mobile technology to solve their problems. Of those, less than 17 percent of those engineers out there writing code to solve the problem are African American or female. So, we have a diversity problem. A monoculture of people creating the solutions at the moment that creates a mono-solution. In that there is a unique type of individual that is getting access to the education, equity, capital and all the things necessary to create these products. Inherent in that monoculture is the idea that the solution is going to be very vanilla and the sooner we can begin to push the content downward to ensure that more diverse populations of people are getting access to this sort of content, I think that its only a matter of time before we see a boom of all sorts of technology solutions that aren’t being thought of by the monoculture.

Jason: A couple of the folks that I have been speaking with identify a similar problem. One who is in Philly (Nancy Santiago Negron, you can read our conversation here) works for the Opportunity Finance Network. They secure capital for women and men of color in order to start businesses. Most of them can’t go to the valley to get money. She talks about community being the biggest problem that there is no centralized, accessible place for these people to go. You just referred to a need to push down the content, but she is saying there isn’t any community there because it just doesn’t exist yet. Do you see similar issues, and community as a solution?

Michael: Yeah, we absolutely create community. You see a number of individuals in the city wearing this t-shirt because we are creating a community of kids that care about diversity in tech, who care about access to computer science, who care about making something under their own volition, solving their own problems with the skills they are learning. We create this community by hosting these hackathons and going on these summits. Having students go hangout in the office after school. Half of the students in the room go to school with the same students….

Jason: You have to build community before you can do anything…

Michael: Our approach, access to an equitable quality computer science education. We approach it very much like a language. When learning the romance languages in school - it’s one thing to learn how it is written, grammar, etc. You still have to know how to read it and construct in that language, but if you stop there you will never become fluent. You have to be able to digest that information in the most elegant forms. Need to consume it and construct conversations in that language. We approach computer science in the very same way.

“Learn. Build. Collaborate.” Students learn how to code. We then host these hackathons and they build what they think...practice that code and language. Then they go and collaborate together. They use their personal project experience to work on these group projects. That is where the community lies and to not have everyone speak the same language it’s hard to have that community. It creates an experience where you take what you have learned to the community and then tale what you’ve learned from the community experience back to your personal projects.

Jason: Some of the terms that I’ve been hearing a lot beyond scale is access and immersive experience. The folks that I’ve talked to have discussed those in terms of creating a digital environment… you’re mentoring the people that create digital environments. What is the right ingredient to create an immersive experience, would you say its community? What makes it all work?

Michael: For 10 years, tech-oriented community organizations existed to bridge the digital divide. In 2001-02, we understood that there were people that had access to the internet and there were people who didn’t have access, and we thought it was our responsibility to provide an environment that was literally in a community center where they could be provided with access to the internet. A place where a bunch of computers were set up and you could come and work on your reports or research, homework. But at the same time, we were teaching kids to be good online stewards and how to participate in the internet. What kind of content you should be putting out there and what you shouldn’t be putting out there. In 2010, we realized that we had been leapfrogged. Every kid had a phone in their pocket and had access to the internet. They didn’t need us for that. They had access to WiFi and cellular data. So it’s now become our responsibility to make sure they aren’t stopping at just getting access to the internet, we need to provide the with access to become a technology creator.

Jason: And, you think the trend for what is being created is civic, community-minded?

Michael: Yes, I think there is a social impact to it. The apps that have true staying power are the ones that are genuinely solving a problem. Something that actually needs to be solved.

Jason: So that is a great example. What about the current roster of popular apps? Like what Snapchat is doing with filters.

Michael: The older I get it kind of creeps me out. When you take that factor out of the content, I think its interesting to see how a product can get so addictive to a certain generation that they are willing to overlook the fact that its breaking some boundaries, creating a digital profile of your life.

Jason: Privacy and personalization. If I give some privacy up, I get personalization. Do you see a balance? Does it go one way or another?

Michael: I’m a massive advocate for the awareness of what that exchange is and what it means. To date, it does remain a bit hidden. We don’t know what we’re giving up to get what we are getting. I’m an advocate for more transparency in that transaction as well as an advocate for the control of it.

When I did my grad work, we agreed on four general stereotypes of the current population and communication. There was the anything, anytime, anywhere – no matter what it took to get mobility. Then there was the human being who was just producing content. There were those consumers who wanted to consume everything, to have the most followers, etc. And, there was the person who wanted nothing to do with tech. Regardless of who you are, I think that everyone should have the ability to determine what level of transaction you’re going to have with their privacy and what they are getting in return. You should not have to give up your privacy to an ecosystem that you are not genuinely invested in.

Jason: We seem to be talking about two kinds of people here. The apps like Snapchat that everyone wants to invest their money in and what you’re doing that is all about community and solving problems, but you’re not about the money. Where does the money come from?

Michael: I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. We have the responsibility at every one of our hackathons to determine our monetization strategy. At the end of the day access to quality computer science education for students growing up in under-served communities is evolving beyond anything else and that is empowering in a variety of ways, but one the most important is the ability to make money. The current statistic says that those that graduate from college with a computer science degree make 40x more than the average college graduate. The earning potential is one of the major motivators both for us in order to provide access to students that we serve and all of these students getting to work on a project.

At our hackathon we ask our students to come up with a monetization strategy in addition to creating an app that has a social-good component to it. Sometimes that is advertising, pay-to-play, downloading purchases…

This is an incredibly unique opportunity to make money while also solving social problems. We have fallen short on a ton of potential when it comes to monetizing people’s personal interest. There are a ton of people out there willing to give up their consumption habits and privacy to get things for free. There are also people willing to pay for it. I think if you give people the opportunity to decide that is the best way to do it. Like Spotify, do you want the free service where you are bombarded with ads or are you willing to pay for less interruptions and more personalization?

There is an uneven distribution of venture capital. Some people have more access to those individuals with wealth compared to others. Then there is the problem that if you are building something based on you community experience and you run into a venture capitalist that won’t fund, it’s probably just because they don’t understand it personally. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea - they just come from different life experience and don’t see the value. So until you develop a better VC community, with venture capitalists that have come up through the same ranks that these students have, it’s going to be tough –not impossible, but tough.

Jason: That’s what C/I is building. If you could dream and be a futurist, what would you see 10 years from now?

Michael: Not sure about flying cars, but there will be self-driving cars. Best thing about living in NY is you have a train system. Excited for cars to work in the same fashion, where you can work while the car gets you to where you need to be. We as a society are so addicted to consumption and production that we can’t stop working or browsing for the twenty minutes or you’ll end up getting into an accident.

Non-disclosure - I have a bunch of app ideas that I would love to see come to life. As wearable technology could become more prolific, not just absorb my data, but present it to me. Also really excited for voice recognition and dictation to become a lot better and for artificial intelligence to be able to simplify my life. I want a piece of technology to passively observe me and I want to order my groceries. For instance, I’m cooking spaghetti and realize we are almost out of pasta. I want something to capture that information add it to a list and I just receive it in the mail.

Generally, there are a lot of pessimistic views of the future out there, but I will say as someone who gets to work with the youth every day of my life, I can tell you that the future is bright. We are in a better position as a global society, as a national society, than we have ever been. The future is bright because of these kids. They are amazing. They come up with brilliant ideas every time we challenge them. They’re excited about the future and they see things in really unique ways. Hold on to your butts because the world is about to get epic.


After my discussion with Michael, the students wanted to share their vision too. I’m rounding up all of the permission forms and once we have those I’ll post the conversation I had with them.

Read more conversations from this series:

Jason Moriber is a creative communicator with a background in social and digital for CSR, tech and start-ups. He’s working within the Communications team at Verizon, charged with developing a new model for corporate and brand communications. Connect with him on Twitter @jasonmoriber or on Instagram @designinginnovation

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