One of the great myths of the startup world is the belief that the recent proliferation of internet technology means that anyone can start a business. While it is true that in recent years the cost of starting a tech-based business has dropped sharply and many of the barriers to entry have disappeared, there are still many people without the opportunity to get in on the “tech revolution”. Don’t worry, this is not another article blasting the technology industry for a lack of diversity. Instead, I want to discuss an idea for a new type of productive philanthropy organization about which I have been thinking for the past few weeks.
So who are the marginalized people to whom I referred in the previous paragraph? I’m talking about teenage students working in low-skill or unskilled jobs. While many students and ‘hackers’ think about learning and building things as hard work, for many people, in the US and around the world, such activities are considered leisure. Many people believe that the advent of Wikipedia, Codecademy, and similar services have made learning free for dedicated students. However such a perspective ignores the time cost of learning, tinkering, hacking, and all of the things that many of us love to do. I know my own interest in programming and computer science arose from hours alone with my computer, reading whatever interested me and applying what I learned. However, I only had the opportunity to do this because I was fortunate enough to have free time to myself. Many of my friends, and millions of teens around the nation, split their time in high school between mandatory schoolwork and low-paying jobs, leaving little time for seemingly frivolous things like tinkering with Java or reading about databases.
It’s important that I remind you, the reader, that I am not trying to condescend. I know that there are many talented programmers and scientists who worked one or many jobs as a student and still went on to incredible careers. I am simply proposing that it would optimal if we could give more students the free time to learn about interesting topics that are not taught in school. This leads me to my proposal, which I will state briefly and then expand: let’s pay motivated students to learn computer science. Now I can imagine many of you are saying “I didn’t need to be paid to learn all of this”, but I ask that you hear me out. What if instead of delivering pizza or bagging groceries, students could make $7-$10/hour for tinkering with programming language and hacking apps together? I don’t think anyone would disagree that such jobs would be more productive for young people in the modern world. That is the basis of the charitable organization which I am proposing; I would like to establish after school programs to teach computer science while paying students by the hour for their work. This would enable students to bring home money that they would otherwise need to earn elsewhere while making them more capable students and hopefully more eligible for rewarding jobs in tech down the road.
I am still working out the specifics for such a plan, and I would love any input from the tech community or those more experienced with philanthropy than I am. In essence, I’d like to create an after school program that runs 10-15 hours a week and pays students wages similar to the local minimum wage. Students would be accepted from any background but in the event that capacity becomes an issue I’d propose a need-based system similar to college admissions. Volunteers with relevant experience would supervise the students and work with them to encourage projects that are both challenging and interesting. In return, the students would only have to apply themselves to their projects (the definition of which would be left up to the supervisors) and keep a relatively consistent attendance record. Ideally such programs would be located in cities with healthy tech communities and be funded by donations (of time, space, or money) from local companies.
I know that many programs attempt to teach STEM subjects after school, but I think that many such programs lack a clear incentive for all but the most dedicated students. Adding the incentive of an hourly wage makes this proposal potentially more interesting to students and their families. So, what do you think? Please continue this discussion on Hacker News, your feedback is much appreciated.