Today, I’m the co-founder of a tech company. I see the talent crunch everyday – the lack of engineers, product managers, designers and the like. To fill this talent crunch, we need to show our students that they can be a part of this ecosystem so that they can make informed choices as they attend college.
Profession: Co-Founder & President, ROKO Labs
Volunteer Leadership: Chair of the Board of Directors, MOUSE
Location: New York, New York
What’s your first memory of philanthropy?:
My parents were never wealthy, but they were incredibly active in their church and community center. They gave time, as well as dollars. When I went to college, I was active in a number of programs. I volunteered with the Mission Hills After-School Program near Harvard in Roxbury, Massachusetts, which is the largest student-run after-school program in Boston. The Phillips Brook House Association needed one-on-one assistance with children in elementary and middle school. Our focus was tutoring, and even more on social connections. I took kids to games on campus. We’d expose them to opportunities that they wouldn’t typically have access to. It was important to me to show them things that I had never imagined growing up and believed in the opportunity to change the trajectory of kids who needed it.
Who and what inspire you to give?:
My family gave me a commitment to community and encouraged me. From personal experience, I know that I am where I am because of people and programs that changed my trajectory and future. I was a good student at a public high school. I didn’t have the college counseling that told me to pursue an Ivy League education. An influential volunteer who met with me said that I should try – it gave me the spark that I needed to explore beyond the boundaries that I was in. In college, I realized that I needed to get a killer summer internship to succeed, but I didn’t have the network or background. A career-focused program helped to get me there. Realizing that I have benefited so much from others, I feel a moral obligation to give back and give other promising students the opportunity to have experiences that may not be within their reach.
As the new Chair of MOUSE, tell us what inspired you to take on this leadership role and become further involved?
I had been considering different ways to manifest my desire to give back. MOUSE embodies the trifecta of my passions – kids, technology and education. It is a program that leverages technology to inspire students to change from users to makers of technology and to create new technologies that solve real-world problems. The need for highly talented employees in and around technology (whether it is in programming, product management, graphic design or social media marketing) is only going to increase. MOUSE students are well-poised to jump into this technology ecosystem, so I felt that it was imperative to be an advocate and evangelist for it.
What’s one powerful story about MOUSE’s impact? One story:
This is the story of a young woman, Zainab Oni, from a socially and economically challenging background in the foster system. She was generally angry at the world. At 12-years-old, she had come to the U.S. from Nigeria. Her principal put her into the MOUSE program to focus her energy into something positive. Because of her participation, she was able to design and create prototypes of real-world projects.
Her first project was the Dining Band: a wristband with a temperature and distance sensor to help the visually impaired to locate food on their plates. This project took her to the White House Science Fair, and she was featured in The Huffington Post in April 2013. She also presented the Dining Band at the N.Y. Tech Meetup. This experience allowed her to blossom and become a leader among her peers. It inspired her to pursue technology and engineering. Presently, Zainab is a freshman at the University of Virginia, thanks to scholarships from QuestBridge. MOUSE has the opportunity to change someone’s path. Zainab had those elements, and MOUSE provided that platform.
What’s your biggest priority as a leader for MOUSE?
MOUSE has involved more than 27,000 youth across the country. I think about how we can create a bigger platform to have more impact. Because we focus on technology, it changes every single day. Drones and 3-D printing didn’t exist until it existed. We need to invest in R&D to bring these things to our students. We have the economic platform. It’s a challenge for us to believe that schools across the U.S. can have the same expertise to implement, and I would love to take this program to more locations across the U.S.
What advice do you have for others to be philanthropic?
Unless it’s authentic, you aren’t going to be as engaged. If you do have the ability to provide funding and dollars, you should. It starts from the individual. You must be able and prepared to give, both your time and your dollars. Figure out the type of program that you want to support – whether it’s for youth or adults, technology or horseback riding – and look for something that inspires you so that it comes much more naturally. Choose a program where you can see yourself being an advocate for the organization and where you can’t stop talking about it at every meeting, cocktail party and dinner – and you’ll be a great asset to the non-profit!
Why is STEM a priority for you?
Today, I’m the co-founder of a tech company. I see the talent crunch everyday – the lack of engineers, product managers, designers and the like. To fill this talent crunch, we need to show our students that they can be a part of this ecosystem so that they can make informed choices as they attend college. I know that talent is out there, and just as we need organizations that focus on coding and programming, we need programs like MOUSE to give a broader introduction to participants to the maker movement so that we can look forward to a generation that’s involved in the technology ecosystem.
Featured above: Students participating in MOUSE funded programs.