Over the past two years, Danny DeJesus, founder of tech training nonprofit Urban Tech Hero, has seen the challenges of formerly incarcerated people like himself in tech. He’s as determined as ever to get them into good-paying jobs.
In a major boost for the Wilmington-based org, Google has recently partnered with Urban Tech Hero to bring Google Career Certificates to the tristate area while offering 100 scholarships to students, making tech education more accessible to low-income people in the local neighborhoods the nonprofit focuses on.
When Technical.ly first met DeJesus in the summer of 2020, it was still relatively early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the United Tech Project team — then known as United Tech Project — was still trying to figure out what resources it needed to accomplish its mission to provide free tech educations. Its target community: those who, due to social circumstance, are under-educated, impoverished and, sometimes, have criminal records that hold them back from starting a better life.
DeJesus, a graduate of IT education program ITWorks and the entrepreneurial LaunchPad, learned how to read while incarcerated at 15 and fought for access to education in adult prison at 18. So he knows firsthand that turnaround is possible, and he believes tech can be a pathway out for those who want it.
United Tech Project was rebranded into Urban Tech Hero to better connect with the community, DeJesus told Technical.ly.
“We were inspired by people like Nipsey Hussle, how he used his culture and the language of the culture to reach the underserved people intertwined with the industry he was in,” he said, referring to the late Los Angeles rapper and entrepreneur.
Urban Tech Hero’s new branding is both gritty and bright, its mission and targeted demographic clear. The professional training is designed by Google and helps students earn a credential in data analytics, IT support, project management, or user experience design, along with the opportunity to connect with top employers that are currently hiring.
For students with a background in the prison system, the challenges are bigger than access to certification, as DeJesus is well aware. One of his former ITWorks classmates, who was from his neighborhood, landed an internship after graduating. Despite positive reviews on his work, the company dropped him when the internship was over, citing his criminal record. He managed to get an IT job at an organization with leadership that was committed to anti-recidivism — then leadership changed, and he was let go.
“I ran into him, and in the parking lot of the Wawa, this dude just broke down,” DeJesus said. “He was like, ‘Maybe I’m gonna die in the streets.’ This is someone who was very excited about being in the classroom. He didn’t know what other steps you could take to stay into this industry, so he resorted back to streets where he believed that was his meal ticket.”
DeJesus says he’s experienced the same feelings, and it’s why he keeps doing what he’s doing. He’s able to relate on a deep personal level to people facing these challenges.
Stories like that of his former classmate are why mentoring is such a central part in Urban Tech Hero’s work. “Tech heroes” even refers to the mentors who support the students.
The Google Career Certificates program uses the virtual Coursera program, allowing students total flexibility, especially for single parents and caregivers who are unable to free up the time for full- or even traditional part-time courses. The flexibility is an advantage of online tech education, but online classes usually lack the mentor support many need to succeed. Urban Tech Heroes, like many full-time, in-person coding programs, provides mentoring throughout the hiring process.
DeJesus envisions that the initial 100 Google scholarships will create a growing community of mentors who came out of difficult situations, helping the next 100 people still trying to get out of difficult situations.
“We are building a workforce in reality to our circumstances, not in some statistical number or invisible criteria that we know is not realistic in our local communities,” he said. “We base it on who that person is and how hard that person is trying to change their situation. That’s what we want to base it on, not those external factors that don’t represent a reality for our community.”
To apply for a scholarship, start by filling out a simple form on urbantechhero.org.