The exploretech.la we know today is a massive event in which hundreds of high school students from underserved communities across Los Angeles come to UCLA to explore computer science, engineering, and technology through various panels, workshops, and exhibitor booths. While it may seem like well-organized event with a passionate team behind it, it wasn’t always like that. Looking back, the story of the founding of exploretech.la is one of uncertainty, perseverance, and camaraderie and actually starts years before the first iteration of the event in 2018 and my time at UCLA.
In spring of 2015, I was a senior about to graduate from Mills High School in Millbrae, CA, which is smack in the middle between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and was taking my high school’s first offering of a CS class. This class was taught in partnership with the Microsoft Philanthropies TEALS program, in which TEALS sends an industry volunteer to co-teach the class. At the end of the year, they invite students to participate in a field trip to an event called the TEALS Computer Science Fair in San Francisco. Going into the field trip not knowing what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy speaking with engineers from different companies and listening to various speakers talk about their experiences. One speaker I distinctly remember was some guy wearing a cat onesie teaching us about entrepreneurship. In the end, I thought it was a fun field trip and definitely one of the better ones I attended during my time in high school. Fast forward a few months, I graduated from high school and started studying computer science at UCLA.
In spring quarter of 2017, I was fortunate enough to join ACM Hack as a committee officer. When new UCLA ACM officers start their term, we’re frequently asked “what do you want to accomplish as an officer?” I knew I wanted to give back to the community but I didn’t know how to specifically other than through the already-established ACM programs. However, after speaking with several friends and classmates, I realized that kids growing up in the Bay Area had so much more access to resources in CS and tech as opposed to those in other areas such as Los Angeles. As a kid who grew up in the Bay Area, I never thought much about being surrounded by tech; it just seemed normal to me. With this idea in mind and taking inspiration from the TEALS CS Fair, I came up with an idea for an event to expose students from underserved communities in LA to CS, engineering, and tech in ways they might not have had access to. Thus, on May 15th, 2017, a group of ACM officers and I gathered in the second floor lounge of Dykstra Hall to discuss the idea for the first time and the working name we came up with was the Tech Industry Showcase. (In retrospect, it was a terrible name.)
Over the next few months, we continued to have idealistic discussions about the event. We wrote a formal proposal, successfully pitched it to ACM’s general board and UCLA Computer Science Department, and got it added as its own line item in ACM’s 2017–2018 budget. Despite these early successes, there was still a lot of uncertainty during this time since it wasn’t clear which group within ACM would organize the event, how much it was going to cost, and where our attendees would come from. It wasn’t until January 2018 that serious planning for the event began.
Unfortunately, all of the officers from the original group I had met with in May 2017 were no longer available to continue organizing the event so in January of 2018, I put together a new team consisting of ten people across various ACM committees, all of whom were essentially my friends, and began operating under a new name: the Tech@UCLA Showcase. We started making good progress organizing event: we created a structure for our team, booked Ackerman Grand Ballroom as our venue, formed a budget, began inviting various companies and organizations to attend, and started securing funding. Our biggest concern at the time was funding the event. Even though we received funding from a few groups on campus such as the UCLA CS Department and UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, we still didn’t have enough money to meet our goals. Our only hope at the time was to make up the rest of the money from corporate sponsorships. There were times I was afraid that we needed to cancel the event due to the lack of funding. However, everything changed when we came in contact with TEALS.
Through our initial conversations with TEALS, we discovered that they were actually planning on expanding their CS Fairs to several cities across the country, including Los Angeles, in partnership with SRND (the organizers of CodeDay) and offered to combine events with us rather than compete with each other. However, there was one condition for this offer: we would need to rebrand our event to the TEALS Computer Science Fair in exchange for funding the majority of our budget. TEALS wanted to maintain consistent branding across all their CS Fairs and preserve the sanctity of the event’s name. As a TEALS alumnus, I understood their reasoning but it was a difficult decision for us to make because it required us to sacrifice the identity we had started to develop. However, we decided as a team that joining with TEALS and SRND was the best decision to keep the event alive, especially since our mission would still be the same: to serve students from underserved communities. Thus, we became the TEALS Computer Science Fair presented by ACM at UCLA in March 2018.
The three months leading up to the event were most exciting months of planning. We had finally secured all the funding we needed but realized there was still so much left to do. As a result, we decided to roughly double the size of our team to 18 people at the start of spring quarter of 2018. Furthermore, since it was the first time organizing this event, it was exciting yet somewhat scary to start from scratch and be the first ones to carry out certain tasks. As a result, it really felt like a startup. As we continued to organize the event, our team kept getting closer and closer as well. We would stay late after meetings in the ACM Clubhouse in Boelter Hall to try to finish our what seemed like an endless list of tasks, thus forming a sense of camaraderie between us all. The part I loved the most was watching everyone take our original idea and add their own twist to it, whether it was creating an interactive coding workshop, designing new brand assets, or coordinating logistics with local high schools.
After countless hours of planning, meetings, stuffing swag bags, and dealing with printing issues, the event date of Monday, May 21st, 2018 finally came. Our team was super excited but little did we know what the day had in store for us. The first incident that didn’t go as planned was the arrival of high schools. We had a start time of 10 AM and asked schools to arrive starting at 9 AM. As we waited outside at 9 AM, no one came. It wasn’t until after 9:30 AM that schools started arriving. Since schools continued to arrive after 10 AM, we made the last minute decision to alter our whole day-of schedule and push our start time back by about half an hour. Luckily, our team was able to quickly adapt and our wonderful opening speakers were willing to be flexible. Once all the schools arrived, we began the opening ceremony by hearing amazing motivational speeches from Hacker Fund President & CEO Justin Brezhnev (who is actually the guy in the cat onesie from the CS Fair I attended in high school), UCLA CS Professor and Chronicle Chief Scientist Carey Nachenberg, and UCLA Engineering Dean Jayathi Murthy. After, students were released into the exhibition hall and panels and workshops began.
As the day went on, the event was running relatively smoothly. We did, however, run into a few more complications, such as high school students trying to leave the venue (which they’re not supposed to do) and low attendance in some panels/workshops, but our team was able to quickly identify and address them. One of the most notable issues that I had to handle was a uninvited class of elementary school students walking into the event. I was walking around making sure things were running smoothly but then I was shocked to see a group of very young children roaming around the exhibition hall. I approached the kids and asked them how they got in and they pointed at their teacher, who was taking swag from one of our tables. When I (somewhat angrily) approached their teacher, she refused to talk to me and ran away with her back hunched over saying that she was leaving. I was so confused and shocked because the event was invite-only for high school students and this teacher uninvitedly brought her own students into our event and took our stuff. I’m still shocked to this day. However, Tyler Menezes from SRND later told me that “even though you may think things are falling apart, no one else knows so don’t stress yourself out about it.” So the event went on.
As the event was coming to its end, one final bump in the road we encountered was schools leaving before the closing ceremony even began. By the time the closing ceremony started, only about a third of our total attendees were still there, which was somewhat disheartening. Unable to do anything about it, we gave our closing remarks, left the remaining attendees with a hopeful message for the future, and officially brought the event to an end. And with that, from coming up with initial idea in May 2017 to successfully hosting the event in May 2018, a year’s worth of hard work was done.
In fall of 2018, a new team with a new set of leaders was formed to assume the responsibilities from our founding team. And after further discussion with TEALS, they dropped their branding condition with us due to shifting of internal priorities within TEALS and we rebranded to a new identity we could call our own: exploretech.la. We would continue to grow our team, separate from ACM, and become recognized as an official engineering student organization by the UCLA CS Department and the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering.
Reflecting on the whole experience, I’m in awe of how far the event and team has come. Having worked with several great teams before, I will admit that our founding team was hands down the best team I’ve ever worked with in college. Without each and every one of our team members, the event would have never happened. Until this event, I had never led and organized anything of this scale. Thus, this experience taught me so much and allowed me to grow as a leader and individual. My proudest achievement from this was the impact we had. Not only did we create this event from scratch, inspire hundreds of high school students, and possibly alter how these students were going to pursue their academic and professional dreams, we made new friends and connections through this team. I’ve watched people who first met through this team become close friends after and it blows my mind that if it wasn’t for this event, some of these friendships may not have existed. But thinking about the bigger picture, I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished for ourselves, the UCLA community, and the Greater Los Angeles community and can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future of exploretech.la.
To our partners at ACM, TEALS, and all the student, departmental, and professional organizations at UCLA that worked with us for the first iteration of this event, thank you for all your support. Without it, our event would not have been successful as it was and this organization may not have continued to exist and grow. Great things happen when people come together for a common goal and this event is evidence of that.
To our founding team, thank you for being the best team ever. None of this would have happened if weren’t for all of you so thank you so much for all your dedication and passion for this team. And thank you for taking a risk on me and this event. Many of you could have chosen to pursue opportunities with already-established student organizations or taken time to enjoy the rest of college before graduation for you former seniors, but instead you decided to join me and try something drastically new. I’ll miss working with you all.
To future teams, I have three pieces of advice: do it for the mission, start early, and don’t forget to have fun. Every decision our founding team made was made with one consistent goal in mind: do it for the kids we’re serving. Our mission is to inspire high school students from underserved communities to explore computer science, engineering, and technology. As long as we continue to uphold that mission, I believe we’ll continue to be successful no matter what happens. Next, start early, seriously. It will save everyone a lot of stress and uncertainty and allow more time for creativity and innovation. Finally, don’t forget to have fun. At the end of the day, we’re a student organization. Our event is put on for students by students. A major part of our college education is through our extracurricular activities and the lessons you learn and friendships you make through these activities are the ones you’re going to most fondly remember after college. So enjoy it, take it all in, and have fun! I believe that our best work is done when we actually enjoy what we’re doing. And if we enjoy what we’re doing, is it actually work? Best of luck with the future and I sincerely hope the exploretech.la team will still be going strong years after all the members of the founding team and I are gone.