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Oakland non-profit honors teens’ excellence in technology, entrepreneurship

on October 2, 2015

Nineteen African American young men were celebrated for their entrepreneurial achievements during The Hidden Genius Project’s End of Summer Bash last Thursday. The event was held at Oakland’s Kaiser Center, where cheerful parents, aunts, uncles and siblings filed through the doors to listen to aspiring business professionals present the devices they’ve developed through the mentoring program. “Our kids come from all walks of life. There’s only one anchor—they’re black men,” said Rebecca Wilson, the group’s development director.

Founded in 2012, The Hidden Genius Project, or HGP, is a non-profit organization that teaches technical, entrepreneurial and leadership skills to African-American male teenagers in Oakland. Participating students build their own products from conception to creation. “By the time they’re 16 years old, they would have built something they can take to market,” said executive director Brandon Nicholson.

At last week’s celebration, students between the ages of 14 and 18 proudly pitched their ventures to a large and rambunctious crowd. This year’s projects included the “When Should I Ask?” app, developed by high school sophomore Zebreon Wallace, which calculates the best time for teens to ask permission from their parents to do something; an app that locates nearby cuisine for “on the go people” envisioned by college freshman Aiga Zulu; and the online platform “California College Match-up,” which helps students find colleges based on grades, standardized test scores, and other preferences created by college freshman Matthew Jones.

Nicholson describes the launch of the program as a “labor of love.” It began when five technology entrepreneurs and two high school principals realized that Oakland’s technical ecosystem lacked opportunities for young African American men. They came to Oakland to build Mindblown Labs, a for-profit edtech company that develops mobile games to teach teens and young adults about personal finance. While in the process of building their company in Oakland, they had difficultly hiring men of color. “Black men were disengaged,” said Nicholson.

Mindblown Labs hasn’t been the only company lacking a diverse pool of technically skilled applicants. Earlier this year, Twitter revealed in their Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) report that only 1.7 percent of their US staff is African American, while 93 percent are white and Asian. In total, there are only 49 African Americans working for Twitter. Last year, Facebook reported in their EEO report that the company only employs 81 African Americans, making up 2 percent of their workforce.

The Hidden Genius founders are working to equip the young black men of Generation Z with the expertise needed to become a more prominent culture within the technology sector. With the help of mentors from the high-tech world, they started to invite minority students from high schools to participate in seven- to eight-week intensive programming courses. “Our budget was lunch meat, pizza and whatever computers cost,” said Nicholson.

The Hidden Genius Project operated on volunteer power for the first three years, and hadn’t established a staff until this spring. Now that the program has harnessed enough manpower to advance business development, further student outreach, and conduct programming classes, an intensive immersion component has been added to the curriculum, requiring students to commit for two years. Students engage for 300 hours during the summer and 20 hours a week during the school year. “Let’s say they commit for one and a half years. That’s like 10 percent of their lifespan,” said Nicholson, which he believes is a huge commitment for young men in high school.

Students are brought in as rising freshman through juniors, and range between the ages of 13 and 18. The program is free of charge, and students not only walk away with a life-long network of mentors and friends in Oakland’s tech ecosystem, but also receive extensive training in coding, design, user interface and business development. “You acquire all these skills that people are going to college for, and paying money for, but you’re getting it for free here,” said 14-year-old participant Devon Nutting.

Devon and his twin brother Donovan applied when they were in middle school. Devon recalled the day his 8th grade vice principal recommended the program; he had heard the boys were interested in entering the video game industry, so he gave the brothers application forms and HGP’s website to look over. “I went home that night and told my parents and immediately we applied. … A few weeks later we went to the interview. I was nervous, but I felt like I did an OK job. A few more weeks after that, my mom called me on my phone while I was in school yelling, ‘You guys got in!’” Devon recalled. “I was super excited. I didn’t realize how much this would change my life.”

The project’s application process is nontraditional, compared to other scholarly programs. Applicants aren’t required to submit a GPA, resume or list of accomplishments. Once they apply online, expressing their passion for technology, they are invited to partake in a four-hour admissions interview and written test. The assessment is conducted to help understand what motivates the applicant, and how they will use the HGP training to better Oakland’s community. “I was not ready for the logistics test. I was antsy, and not doing too well. I thought I wasn’t going to get in, but I did get in, and I was pretty juiced about that,” said Donovan. “The interview part was pretty nerve-wracking for me.”

The program scouts for students in Oakland Unified School District high schools and manhood development programs, which are overseen by the African American Achievement Office. According to Nicholson, The Hidden Genius Project focuses on what he refers to as “the chunky middle,” which are students who don’t necessarily score the highest on tests, but also aren’t remedial. “They are just going along, and that can be dangerous. They can end up falling to the wayside later in life,” said Nicholson.

Zebreon said he’d become a better student since joining HGP. “Last year we did a program called ‘The Straight A+,’ and I feel like it made me do more of my homework and save time.”

When asked if the program will expand their services to other genders and ethnicities, Nicholson said that HGP wasn’t established to become a “farming system for the Bay Area tech sector.” The project aims to create black entrepreneurs who can develop, lead and influence Oakland’s African American community. “The reason we created The Hidden Genius Project for black male youth in particular was because it wasn’t just this awesome technology program. If that was the case, it would make perfect sense for us to welcome one and all,” said Nicholson. “Our founders wanted to create something that helped our young men become better young men, and feel empowered in their community, so they can push back on all the barriers and challenges they may face.”

The End of the Summer Bash brought a small percentage of Oakland’s tech community together, as the next generation of “genius” pitched their businesses for the first time. Though there were more proud parents in the crowd than interested investors, each student was able to flex their public speaking muscles in front of a supportive crowd.

When students were asked how The Hidden Genius Project changed their lives, Zulu said, “One change I saw in myself was public speaking. When I first joined the program I was really shy. That has changed.”

Devon Nutting added, “It’s just opened an unbelievable amount of opportunities, especially for a young black man at my age.”

“It takes you far,” said Wallace. “You learn a lot, and it’s coming into a tech world, so you might as well get started now.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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