Creating a Diverse Tech Workforce; with Jerelyn Rodriguez

Cassi Lowe
Sep 23, 2019 · 5 min read
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Every company in the future is a tech company.”

Jerelyn Rodriguez explains how The Knowledge House is building a diverse tech workforce. The pool of young tech talent is growing, and now is the best time to get involved.

Read the interview below to learn more about how to engage young talent, and Jerelyn’s advice for Social Entrepreneurs on how to handle being told ‘no.’

Tell me about your organization and the work that you do.

The Knowledge House is a non-profit that is turning five this year. Our mission is to empower and sustain a talent pipeline of technologists and digital leaders that will uplift their communities out of poverty. We provide technology education, primarily to young people from low income communities, and prepare them for the tech innovation economy. We’re located in the South Bronx.

How did you come up with the idea to start this?

My co-founder and I started this five years ago. He was a self-taught programmer and I was an educator and were both frustrated with the fact that education stakeholders were only pushing low income folks to go to college. Not only low income folks, anyone really. There was such an emphasis on college enrollment and college completion. I just know from my experience that college worked for me; college did not work for a lot of my friends, especially growing up in the Bronx. So, I grew a passion for alternate pathways and trying to identify non-traditional pathways into the tech sector, specifically because there are economic opportunities available for folks that don’t have a college background.

What was your background originally?

I had various roles in education. After college, I was doing student organizing to raise awareness about educational equity issues and pro-reform policies at this non-profit called Students for Education Reform. Then, I worked at this non-profit called Democracy Builders, primarily doing parent organizing. So, student organizing, parent organizing, raising awareness about educational issues and school reform policies, and I did teach fifth grade writing for a year.

So far, through your career, and through starting your organization, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

My biggest lesson as an entrepreneur is that you’re going to have so many people tell you ‘no’ in the beginning, whether it’s funders, potential partners, even people that you want to hire. Very often, you’ll get a lot of no’s, but I’ve just learned that that’s a part of the process. I think people are naturally risk averse. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have a good product. It doesn’t mean that you are not a good entrepreneur. You’ll get a yes eventually. You just have to keep pitching, you have to keep pitching.

What advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs?

I would encourage all entrepreneurs to keep perfecting their pitch. For example, very early on, I would get so discouraged when some funders would say no to funding The Knowledge House. I would say, “Oh, well you’re funding this other organization that’s kind of similar to Knowledge House, why wouldn’t you fund us?” Then, I would start to take it personally and I just learned to not. I learned that maybe my pitch was not compelling enough for that one person. It’s not about people specifically not liking your idea or not wanting to help. It’s about whether or not your pitch successfully provided pain relief, or provided something that the person you’re pitching to wants.

I recognize that the data has shown that female black entrepreneurs, specifically, get a lot less investments than other entrepreneurs. I’m not trying to say that the funding community is not biased. They are. What I am saying is that you cannot let other people’s biases discourage you or stop you because at the end of the day, one person alone cannot help another person be less biased or racist. The best you can do is find out what that person’s pain points are and how to adjust your pitch so that that person says yes. It’s all about the pitch.

What’s your vision for the future, either for your organization, or for the world, or for both?

For The Knowledge House, we are working on our five year strategic plan that will launch in January. The plan focuses on going deeper with students, we are pivoting our program and making it longer, so that we achieve better results. Also, we are expanding nationally. In the next few years, we’ll be providing our services in two to three regions in the country.

As for the world, I think I’m really happy to see a lot more VC firms focus on investing in minority and women entrepreneurs. I would also like to see a lot more focus on young entrepreneurs because I think the young entrepreneurs of color are getting left behind. We have a lot of alumni at The Knowledge House that, beyond having successful careers in tech, they go on and start their own businesses. We don’t have the capacity to support those ventures, but we also don’t find that other people are focusing on young entrepreneurs of color. These entrepreneurs need a lot more support. I hope to see the field pay more attention to young ideas and young innovations.

What action would you want readers to take?

I would love readers to really engage with young talent. The number one way that people get jobs today is through referrals. Even though there is an increase in STEM training programs, technology available, and workforce development offerings, the tech industry still is not hiring a diverse workforce with urgency. Instead of hiring nontraditional talent, they keep partnering with the ivy leagues and MIT. So, we need all hands on deck for this.

I encourage them to volunteer at The Knowledge House or any other non-profit that is providing tech job training to low income folks. Get to know this young talent. Learn how to develop this talent. Bring these folks to your place of work, push them, provide mock interviews, et cetera. Then, refer them to work at your job.

We can’t just wait for big tech executives to want to disrupt their hiring practices. We want to leverage the referral programs these employers have, because they are underutilized. To diversify tech we can work with current professionals and work from the bottom up. Employees, within their affinity groups, can be the ones to volunteer at our organization, help us develop this talent, and then bring them to their employers. Let’s do that.

Find Jerelyn Online

The Knowledge House: https://www.theknowledgehouse.org

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jerelynr

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