“If you really want to understand the integrity of any organization and their purpose and passion,” Danny DeJesus said, “you have to understand the person behind it.”
The story of United Tech Project’s founder, who was raised in Wilmington in a Puerto Rican family, is one that might be relatable to others who grew up marginalized.
” I didn’t learn how to read until the age of 15. With that came a lot of struggles because I felt that I didn’t have opportunity. I was illiterate so I felt that I was a product of my environment,” DeJesus told Technical.ly. He ultimately learned while incarcerated, thanks to teachers who were “invested in seeing behind all the hardness.
“They didn’t give up on me,” he said. “When I learned education, I found a goal. It felt like my whole perspective and vision on life had changed.”
The possibilities that can come with education seemed endless, he said. But the real turning point in his young life came after that.
“I continued to get in trouble for a little bit, because people don’t change overnight,” he said. “I was locked up in adult prison and I was a special education student, and by law the [Department of Education] has to provide education to anyone that’s under 21. They didn’t do that for me, so they were failing me as a person.”
So DeJesus reached out to an attorney at the Delaware Community Legal Aid Society.
“She took a liking to me and my story, so she fought all the way up to the governor [then Jack Markell] and we won the case against the DOE and Department of Corrections, and they provided me education like a regular student. And so with that — that was my first victory and first time being an advocate for people coming from a disadvantaged society and community.”
DeJesus ultimately got his GED, along with “a newfound courage.”
“Now my opportunities, in my mind, were endless, because I’d won battles,” he said. “I came out and I dedicated my life to serving people that were following the journey that I followed. I wanted to give them the power of what I discovered, and that was education.”
Tech as power
DeJesus started volunteering for every organization he could, including New Castle County-focused Cornerstone West CDC.
“We got approved for a million-dollar grant to help the programs in the community,” he said. “That’s how West Side Grows Together sprung up. I was a part of that behind the scenes, on the advisory committee — who best to understand what we need than someone who came from that community?”
Another major turning point was his introduction to ITWorks, a program with that offers a free coding course to young adults ages 18 to 26 in Wilmington who do not have a college degree.
“When I found technology, I found another power,” he said. “Technology connected me to jobs, people, things that I would never have had access to. The power of giving that to someone that came from a community that don’t have nothing? When they discover a power like that, they can make change. You will find the most innovative people, you’ll find the most talented people, you just have to present them with the opportunity.”
Then-Gov. Markell, who had approved DeJesus’ education while incarcerated, and the late Attorney General Beau Biden, attended his ITWorks graduation. He got his picture taken with both of them.
“The people who gave me the opportunity, they saw the fruits of what can happen when you just listen to this community of Black and Latino people,” he said. “We can be positive role models, we can be good dads, we can be good people in the community, we can empower people through technology. We can do these things.”
Sharing that power
DeJesus, like most ITWorks graduates, interned with different companies, then started doing consulting work for nonprofits.
“You can use your IT skills to actually become your own business, that’s what’s so unique about it,” he said.
That was the path he chose — to start his own organization, a nonprofit that would offer education in technology to young marginalized adults with backgrounds similar to his own. Like ITWorks, it would be free for students, but it would be in a format where students could do the work, remotely, at their own pace, with the full three-part course taking anywhere from a year and nine months to three years. Unlike most other IT programs, his would focus on matching IT talent to local small businesses and nonprofits, many of which are also disadvantaged, tech-wise.
With his desire to create an organization for good, he became one of the first to go through Horn Entrepreneurship’s community outreach-focused LaunchPad program.
“The LaunchPad program led me to my organization,” he said. “I had to invest in myself. If you give that opportunity or chance to someone that’s looking for it, that’s power. If you invest in yourself, your income level is going to change your family. Your income level is going to change your community.”
The United Tech Project (UTP) was founded in 2017. After a brief partnership with NERDiT NOW, UTP rebranded and refocused. Through the professional networking he’d learned to develop, DeJesus built a board of directors and administrative team. The organization also became a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Roadblocks and resiliency
Funding, so far, has been difficult to find.
“There are still roadblocks,” DeJesus said. “But the good thing is that we’re resilient. We have a board of directors that’s committed to finding us money. This was going to be the first year of launching the program, before the pandemic hit. But our model of an online remote training program has proven to be sufficient during this time.”
The organization’s current goal is finding sponsors, bank partners and grant funding. UTP has a location at TKO Suites coworking space in downtown Wilmington, as well as a testing center, where it will eventually administer certification tests.
“Our first year there is going to be so important, because we don’t want [the students] to pay for the education,” DeJesus said. “So the money that we raise, the sponsorships that we get, are going to be so critical. As soon as we open up and have people applying for the training program, demand is going to be so high, because the unemployment rate has skyrocketed. People are going to start shifting from these industries that they got thrown out of. There’s a rush of people finding different paths to employment and they want also to invest in themselves.”
Fighting the system
Aside from being an online program, UTP differs from other similar programs in that there is an awareness that traditional educational programs have consistently failed Black and Latino communities.
“The educational system is outdated and often fails a high percentage of Latinos and African Americans because they don’t adapt to technology in their training,” he said. “We have a very unique program. Of course anyone can pop up and offer IT certification, but we use a very different approach, very hands on and project-based.”
The first part of the training is free with open enrollment. Students complete a project to earn a project tech badge that will qualify them for approval for a scholarship to pay for the next levels, where they ultimately earn their certification. The courses will cover G Suite, to learn the basics of IT and project management; CompTIA IT Fundamentals; and CompTIA Project+.
“When they graduate from us they’re going to be able to manage IT projects for organizations and small businesses,” DeJesus said. “We want to match our grads with members of the community — kill two birds with one stone. We need to help our nonprofits and small businesses.”
Adding to the organization’s financial needs: UTP will provide students with devices for remote learning at no charge, and has plans to provide Wi-Fi hotspots for students who need them. The organization is launching an “aggressive” fundraising campaign based on DeJesus’ story in a few months, and in the meantime, individual tax-deductible donations are accepted via UTP.foundation.
The founder is eager to keep fighting to bring power to young people like him.
“I’ve fought for a program for disadvantaged youth, people with disabilities and incarcerated to get an education,” said DeJesus. “Because if you tell someone in jail they ain’t nothing, what do you think you’re going to create? Why do we have these cops killing our kids? Why we have this stuff is because of how the system is set up.
“I have firsthand experience fighting the two biggest departments here in this state, and I won in front of the government. And they were forced to give me an education,” he said. “That’s so powerful because you have somebody that’s chained, that don’t have a voice — and people often don’t care about the voice of a person that’s crying for help. And I was heard by this lawyer from the Community Legal Aid Society, and they still have that record. They still have that case that we fought and won.”-30-