Per Scholas hosts Bronx tech pioneers
The South Bronx is an underrated place to launch a tech initiative, because residents are hungry for jobs and eager to learn new skills, agreed the panelists at a Feb. 25 forum on opportunities for growth in the industry.
Some 100 entrepreneurs, job seekers and city officials gathered at Per Scholas, the IT job training institute on East 138th Street, to discuss recent advancements in the high-tech industry and ways in which this industrial corner of New York City is pushing the envelope.
Panelists representing four Bronx technology start-ups recounted the thrills and spills of launching a new business, as part of the Five-Borough Tour, a series of pubic conversations organized by Digital. NYC, which calls itself “a comprehensive hub for the city’s tech ecosystem.”
“We’re sitting on a goldmine,” said Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones, a new software testing startup scheduled to open next to Per Scholas in March. The nonprofit will train 150 testers, both Per Scholas grads and others, in a 90,000-square-foot space. Testing jobs are often outsourced overseas, Klain said, which led him to conclude when he was running the Global Test Center at Barclays, “man, if I could teach these people how to use technology, I wouldn’t have to travel to India half my life.”
Kathryn Finney, who founded and heads tech entrepreneur consulting group Digital Undivided, said that contrary to conventional businesses in which “the creators have the money, the beauty of tech is you don’t have to do that,” which translates to opportunities for South Bronx residents.
“A startup business should reflect the community it’s based in,” she said.
But infrastructure is more than just establishing jobs, said Majora Carter, whose Hunts Point-based StartUp Box provides on the job training in quality assurance for the software industry. There’s also “soft infrastructure,” said Carter, such as “a place to get a good cup of coffee.” That quality of living component that goes beyond just jobs, she said, is part of a broader community development strategy she and the others hoped will stem from the new, higher paying tech industry jobs they are bringing to the area.
When an audience member described himself as an “internet skeptic,” and complained that tech companies stay small while “a couple of billionaires exchange some coins,” Mayor de Blasio’s digital director, Jessie Singleton, responded that tech companies are more diverse than that.
“Finance and fashion and food” industries are all being transformed by advances in technology, while helping to boost the economy by “giving jobs to real people,” she said.
“It’s not just about the internet,” she said, pointing out that “there’s so much going in the city it’s hard to organize” but that the administration is intent on matching supply with demand in the industry.
Many of the positions the new startups are training job seekers for are not fancy, the panelists agreed, but they pay well and can lead to other opportunities.
“We’re trying to target the decidedly unsexy,” said Klain.
Damon Thornton, a Soundview resident, who works as a network specialist and supervisor in Westchester for the schools department, said that although there have been promises of progress in Hunts Point, “we haven’t quite seen that yet. How do you help the mom and pop businesses to understand technology isn’t just something for big businesses?”
Singleton responded that “digital literacy for small businesses” is a key part of the city’s economic strategy, and “when we talk about supporting small businesses there is a digital component.” She pointed out that the new business incubator in the BankNote Building in Hunts Point is a sign of progress.
Despite their optimism, however, the panelists worried about where future investment will come from.
“You need to have evangelists who can get people to come,” Finney said.
The forum drew not only those in the know but those wanting to know more. After the crowd had dispersed, Hunts Point resident Mouhamed Kaba, 26, approached Per Scholas’ executive director, Angie Kamath, to ask about enrollment in the institute. Kaba,who is from the Ivory Coast and works as a teacher’s assistant at a Baychester middle school, said he was looking for ways to engage African youth he works with every day.
As an African cultural norm, “our parents don’t push the kids to do more,” Kaba said. Parents from the Bronx’s many West African communities are content to see their children settle for low-paying jobs, rather than encouraging them to start their own enterprises, he said, adding that the emergence of small, cutting edge businesses in their own backyard could help break that cycle.
“I want to create something that’s going to help,” he said.