In 2012, Susan Mernit was discussing with a group of colleagues what they could do to help with “the issue that people in Oakland needed jobs and money,” she recalls. Over the next year, that idea blossomed into Hack the Hood, a non-profit that provides technical training for youth aged 16 to 24 in designing and building websites. The program builds websites for free for Oakland small businesses that need more online visibility.
Startup Program Gets a Google Grant
In 2013, Mernit, along with co-founders Zakiya Harris and Mary Fuller, ran a Hack the Hood workshop through the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth with 18 students, which built websites for 75 local small businesses. The following year, the program won a $250,000 grant from Google.
“I don’t think any one of us recognized the magnitude of what we were doing our first pilot year,” says Harris, the group’s Chief Education Officer. “When we ended up winning the Google [Impact] Challenge after only doing the program one time with 18 kids for six weeks, we were really blown away.”
Mernit attributes this success to the fact that Hack the Hood fills an important need by bringing technology skills to underserved populations. The program trains youth not only in graphics, SEO, and how to build a site on the Weebly platform, it also builds their resumes. Each student creates a personal portfolio page and a LinkedIn profile and gets to meet with tech professionals and mentors. “The lack of access that people in Oakland have to this kind of education and these kind of networks is profound,” she says. And, Harris notes, “there is no career trajectory that doesn’t involve technology.”
Sharing Success with Local Businesses
Small business owners are winners too. “Most of the businesses we work with don’t have websites or don’t have viable websites,” says Mernit. “Having Hack the Hood build a free website for them is pretty exciting.”
Small business owners connect with someone they can call in their community to ask questions and to help them update their site. “To see them sit down with a young person and hit the publish button on that website” is a moving moment, according to Harris.
An Education in Entrepreneurship
The program trains young people not just for future employment in technology related fields, but also for entrepreneurship. “We spend a lot of energy teaching young people to be entrepreneurs because the average young person is going to have 35 jobs in their life,” Mernit says. The focus on entrepreneurship is also about realism. “A lot of these tech companies aren’t going to hire our youth,” Harris notes. “For most of them, entrepreneurship is going to be their future, and they’re really excited about that.”
Some of the graduates of the program have found paid work building websites. One group of students took entrepreneurship even further. “There’s a group of young people who were in our cohort last summer who became very much tech zealots,” Mernit says. When the program ended, “they wouldn’t leave.” Hack the Hood assigned a staff person continue to work with the group of eight young people. They designed a game called LUCiD, about two young people dealing with the death of a friend. Hack the Hood helped them enter a Hispanic Heritage Foundation LOFT competition and they won. One young man, José Martinez, received a scholarship to college and presented his game at the White House. The group is now working with a local youth business incubator to develop their game and bring it to market.
Hack the Hood hopes to give Oakland youth a flexible and scalable set of skills they can use no matter what the future holds. “The young people we work with, we don’t even know what kind of jobs they will have in 20 years,” Harris says. “They haven’t even been invented.”
Photo of Hack the Hood class courtesy of Hack the Hood.