Straight Out of Compton

Published on Sunday, May 25, 2014 - 22:56
Xavier, TXTer, on his laptop at The Cube.

Southern California startups raised over $3 billion in funding last year. But few if any of those dollars went to businesses in the massive urban sprawl of South Central Los Angeles—a trend that may soon be changing. Teens Exploring Technology, or TxT, is a non-profit that teaches coding and design skills to inner-city kids. In January, the program opened a hackerspace, and launched the first teen tech company incubated in South Central L.A.

“We’re creating a movement,” explained Oscar Menjivar, the 36 year-old Watts native who founded the program to build a tech corridor in the city’s most economically neglected heart. “The Cube is helping us bring people together from all over South Central Los Angeles.”

“The Cube” is a 750-square-foot walk up at 1481 West Adams Boulevard, an inconspicuous haven for kids hungry to learn. Computer programming, business development, and public speaking: This is the lesson plan. The goal is to arm local entrepreneurs with the skills needed to win in the tech-heavy job market.

Catering exclusively to 12 to 17 year-old black and Latino boys, the feel here is summer camp meets clubhouse, with a definite digital bent—and Menjivar dishing out motivation as a tough-love mentor.

Everyone here is on an iPhone, intently typing on a laptop, or experimenting on a white board. This is innovation at an evolutionary level. And TxT’s track record is a testament to that: 100% of its students have graduated from high school, 95% have enrolled in college, with 75% majoring in STEM courses. The program has a 100% retention rate compared to neighboring LAUSD schools, where one in two students drop out on average—numbers that have built generations without job skills and sent incarceration rates to the sky. Fighting against this tide is a giant bout, but the work here isn’t for naught.

“Coding is a tool that empowers, connects, and ignites at-risk kids with a new imagination to become the creators, employers, and leaders of tomorrow,” Menjviar said. “I feel empowered when I see a kid from South L.A. or Compton go to Stanford or Berkeley and then decides to come back to the ‘hood’ as an engineer to make a difference.”

While gang graffiti and poverty are still prevalent on these streets, roses are shooting out of the cracks, and hope is blooming in an area better known for negativity. Tending potential like a patient big brother is Menjivar, who’s dedicated the last five years scraping by on grants and a whole lot of out-of-pocket spending. But after years on the brink, and a lot of sacrifice, he’s starting to see some real change. Namely challenging perceptions of what an entrepreneur looks like, and giving hope to a generation of marginalized youths.

Because Menjivar grew up like the boys he instructs, he knows just how important it is to get on a positive track during adolescence. Menjivar escaped his own troubled youth through tech, and the aid of strong mentors, drive, and instruction that helped him create the life of his own choosing. A degree in Computer Science from Cal Poly Pomona and a master’s in EdTech from Pepperdine rounded his education. A decade in IT consulting built enough experience and savings for him to gamble on bigger issues.

In 2008, after visiting his alma mater Jordan High School and discovering they hadn’t updated their tech curriculum since he graduated, Menjivar decided to break the cycle and launch his own program.

Since then, he’s spent more than $45,000 of his own money to help prop up TxT. But the last few years have been trying. He’s operating on miniscule budgets, and before opening the Cube, TxT was forced to meet in a local Starbucks, a church, and in annexed offices at USC. Now, after winning grants from Verizon, Google, and Yahoo, and gaining some media buzz, things are starting to look up—but Menjivar knows it’s a full-time push to keep the initiative afloat. That’s why he spends his days reaching out to hundreds of local students, and hits the phones to fund-raise.

“Our goal is to raise $500,000 in the next year and serve over 1,000 kids in the next two years,” he said.

Last August, after completing a 15-week long coding academy, TxT held their first demo day, a competition between 37 ambitious young men vying for $1,000 in capital. Groups pitched a panel of judges and an audience of local politicos, entrepreneurs, and family and friends. The winner was Bond, a Yelp-like service that lists and rates safe hangout spots, the first time a teen startup from South Central L.A. received seed funding. Now that app’s winners: Jonathan Casasola, Diego Arrenquin, Layquawn Windley, and Kevin Herrera, are planning to push the service live, and hope to be featured in the App Store.

“The biggest thing Teens Exploring Technology brings to the table is access,” said Juan Vasquez, who spent 6 months working as TxT’s communications coach before taking an online evangelist position at the political startup NationBuilder. “Many of the kids feel very limited. The skills they learn here burst that bubble and expose them to technology and entrepreneurship, which can get them real jobs.”

Vasquez says he still keeps in touch with a handful of TxT students. One student in particular is Jesus Vargas. Last summer, Vasquez helped Vargas apply for an internship with NationBuilder. Vargas got the role and didn’t disappoint.

“Everyone thought he was a college students because of his level of maturity,” Vasquez said.

Vargas’ confidence and skill set is indicative of the TxT program. The young man is now a freshman, studying IT at Syracuse University in New York.

“He’s still working with us remotely. He’s seen the path he can take, which means less student loans and more job opportunities in the future.”