Technology is one of the fastest-growing job sectors in the U.S. Yet less than 10 percent of New York City high schools offer computer science or technology-related classes. That’s what inspired Jessica Santana ’11 G’13 and Evin Robinson ’12 G’14, a graduate of VPA's Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies (CRS), to create New York On Tech, a nonprofit organization that provides pathways for underrepresented New York City high school students into the field of technology.
Since 2014 the organization has provided opportunities to 60 students from nine high schools. Students enroll as juniors and receive weekly classes from computer science/technology professionals as well as mentorship and other professional opportunities. New York On Tech will accept a new cohort of 60-80 high school juniors for the 2016-17 school year, representing more than 50 high schools in the city.
Although Santana and Robinson had met casually at SU, it wasn’t until they both attended a summer Ernst & Young Leadership Conference that they realized how much they had in common. “I went to take the A train back home to Brooklyn, and she was taking the A train as well,” recalls Robinson. “We started talking on the train about school, life, ambitions, wanting to give back. Turns out we were getting off at the same stop. We had grown up in the same neighborhood, but never knew each other until college.”
A connection was forged. A couple years later, Santana had graduated and come back to campus after starting her career at Deloitte. She met up for coffee with Robinson, who was finishing his graduate degree in information management and technology, and a couple of hours later, they had the concept for what would become New York On Tech sketched out on a pile of Starbucks napkins.
“When you go back to your neighborhood you realize you can really be a catalyst for change in marginalized spaces where companies are not recruiting from, where mentors are not living in,” says Santana. “That was our call to action.”
Although young, both were already accomplished professionals. Santana, who earned her undergraduate degree in accounting from the Martin J. Whitman School of Management and her master’s in information management and technology from the School of Information Studies, had secured prestigious internships while an undergrad and went on to work as a technology consultant at Deloitte and Accenture. Robinson was a seasoned student entrepreneur who’d garnered numerous accolades, including the Goldman Sachs Entrepreneur of the Year and the Kauffman Foundation Entrepreneurship Engagement Fellowship. He earned his undergraduate degree in CRS and his graduate degree from the School of Information Studies.
For a time, both worked as technology consultants at Accenture in Manhattan, growing their nonprofit on the side. Then in 2015, Santana was accepted into the Camelback Ventures Social Innovation Fellowship program, which provided seed funding and other support to grow the enterprise. She left Accenture to focus on the non-profit full time; Robinson remains at Accenture, but is also integrally involved in the overall operation.
New York On Tech is supported by corporate partnerships that provide funding and professionals who teach classes at the corporate sites, as well as a board of 16 seasoned directors and advisors and approximately 40 mentors representing about 27 different companies.
The organization was born from Robinson and Santana’s strong desire to give back. Only two years in, the duo can already see the impact they are making. “The transformation of the students is amazing,” says Robinson. “They’re learning how to do front-end and back-end web development. They’re producing websites and mobile applications and video games.”
And they’re planning for their futures. “We’re all about getting our students to continue on to college, and the majority of them do,” he says. One student from their first year garnered a full, four-year computer science scholarship. Another student was selected to participate in the prestigious Google Computer Science Summer Institute this summer and a few will be doing internships at companies like BNY Mellon and Warby Parker.
“I never would have guessed that I’d be the founder of a nonprofit organization,” says Santana, “but I feel like I’m on this earth to live a life of service. People need to think about the impact they want to have and whether what they’re doing now is going to lead to that legacy. If you follow your heart, success is always going to find you.”