Columbia University Magazine
Sept. 10, 2018

Jerelyn Rodriguez

Technology against poverty

The South Bronx might be the poorest congressional district in the United States, but Jerelyn Rodriguez ’11CC thinks the borough is rich with rising tech talent. “The Bronx is full of creativity, innovation, and grit — people here invented hip-hop and helped lead the graffiti-art movement,” she says. Many neighborhoods, however, lack the educational resources to nurture the potential of their young people. Rodriguez’s nonprofit organization, the Knowledge House, strives to fill that void, providing free coding and entrepreneurship programs for low-income students. 

Rodriguez knows the borough’s challenges firsthand. A South Bronx native, she grew up in a single-parent household, surrounded by poverty. But through the support of her mother, a teacher, Rodriguez attended a private high school in Manhattan and eventually went to Columbia College, where she majored in film studies. She started working in education reform after graduating and grew frustrated by the dominant focus on college as the sole pathway to success. “Being on the college track worked for me, but a lot of my friends dropped out or didn’t even get to college,” she says. So Rodriguez looked for new ways to bring professional opportunities to her community. 

She created the Knowledge House in 2014 as a pathway for young people in the Bronx (ages sixteen to thirty) to break into the tech industry without earning a degree. Rodriguez, who was featured on Forbes’s “30 Under 30” list in 2016, says that with the ubiquity of smartphones and video games, the students are already tech-savvy: “Because they consume technology every day, they can gain these skills and actually make a lot of money.”

To date, the Knowledge House has trained over a thousand students in digital literacy, coding, advanced Web development, and entrepreneurship at its Hunts Point headquarters, as well as through programs at schools and government agencies across New York City. “They give us the tools we need to be relevant and stay relevant,” says Stephon Nixon, a former student who was hired as a technical-data analyst at Viacom. Critically, the Knowledge House not only offers participants an education but also guides them through the hiring process, with 75 percent landing entry-level jobs or freelance contracts. 

Rodriguez hopes that graduates of the Knowledge House will help to revitalize their communities by starting their own ventures and employing their peers, while bringing their unique perspectives. “We want to develop talent in low-income places and nurture people of color who can offer innovative solutions in the mainstream tech industry, which lacks diversity,” she says. “We’re hoping that one of these ideas pops, that one of these kids gets discovered, and that one of their startups can actually create jobs. We’ve already seen our students do amazing things.”