This is How You Build a Leader in the South Bronx
Succeeding in the 21st century economy requires programs that focus on college and career.
Originally published by OZY on March 15, 2018.
When Jerelyn Rodriguez was accepted into a new, groundbreaking charter school for low-income students in the South Bronx at age 10, she knew she was lucky. Most of her peers would continue on in the Bronx’s struggling public schools and miss out on educational opportunities. Many would drop out and had no vocational skills to fall back on.
According to the U.S. Census, 36 percent of 16-24 year olds in the South Bronx are not working or enrolled in school.
After graduating from Columbia University and working in city politics and education reform for a few years, Rodriguez had a realization. Education organizations typically focused solely on college access, but in doing so, they left many kids behind. There were few alternative pathways for kids who had dropped out or needed to work immediately after graduation. What’s more, the focus on college or bust provided little practical information on the world of work- both for kids with college dreams and otherwise. “Knowing the disparities, and knowing the opportunities my white high school friends had outside of the classroom compared to my friends back home, I started thinking of nonprofit ideas where I could give back,” she said. This led her to launch The Knowledge House in 2014, a nonprofit that trains low-income minority students and young adults in the Bronx for jobs in the tech sector.
She focused on technology in particular because most kids she knew in the Bronx had access to it. Nearly 90 percent of the population she serves has a mobile phone and are connected to social media. “There was an opportunity to leverage that interest and passion for tech and convert young people into producers of technology, and not only consumers of technology,” she says. In addition, she saw a demand for tech workers and discovered that 44 percent of the open tech jobs didn’t require a bachelor’s degree.
Launching a nonprofit at age 25, however, wasn’t easy. She and her co-founder, Joe Carrano, struggled to secure funding at first. “I’m not a traditional CEO,” says Rodriguez. “When I fundraise, I’m the only black person in the room, I’m the only woman in the room, and I’m usually the youngest person there. I have to pitch in a way that distracts the people in the room from only seeing that I’m different.”
More recently, she launched the Bronx Digital Pipeline (BxDP) with funding from JPMorgan Chase’s $250 million New Skills at Work initiative, to better connect high schools, colleges, and employers. Students were at the highest risk of falling behind during transitions from high school to college or when transitioning to the workplace. “We realized that there needs to be stronger coordination or else our students fall through the cracks,” she says. The BxDP now tracks students as they move through the system and helps them adjust during the transition periods.
Today, The Knowledge House has served more than 1,000 students and is expanding rapidly, growing from a staff of four in 2016 to 20 in 2017. Approximately 75 percent of their graduates have either full time jobs, internships, or gig economy jobs in tech. Stephon Nixon, who was in one of the first cohorts at The Knowledge House, was placed as a data analyst at Viacom. “[The Knowledge House] feels like family,” he told The Duro Blog. “It wasn’t like a regular class setting. There was serious camaraderie. I’m normally a shy person, but the first day I found myself talking to so many people. They also helped with personal development and job readiness.”
In 2016, Rodriguez appeared on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Education list. “It feels good to hear dozens and dozens of students say ‘thank you,’” she says. “We get about five students a week telling us how appreciative they are and how much we’ve changed their lives.”