Juan Vasquez (right) of the non-profit URBAN TxT helps a South L.A. high school student learn skills to create apps and develop tech projects.
Los Angeles-area tech entrepreneurs want to challenge Silicon Valley’s place as the nation’s technology start-up capital. One way they hope to get there is by incubating local talent.
High school and college students are swarming to meet-ups and workshops to learn skills that could make them competitive in the 21st century. But some advocates say a large portion of youth are being left behind because they’re growing up in neighborhoods that remain technology deserts.
“I was in the third grade and wanted to make something," said Zach Latta. "I bought a textbook on HTML, and I started making websites." Latta, who said L.A. County is a technology oasis, said he learned advanced systems, “and I’ve been programming for as long as I can remember.”
When public schools in El Segundo fell short, Latta's parents encouraged him to enroll at a nearby community college. At 15 he’s finishing his computing degree there and has become plugged in to the programming community.
On a recent Saturday, Latta attended CodeDay L.A. It was a pizza- and grape soda-fueled hack-a-thon with about 30 teens like him at an art studio-sized space on the edge of downtown L.A. They were playing tech entrepreneurs for the day.
Latta’s project? A game for Android, iPhone and the web called "The Love of Rice" that involves ninjas, peasants and rice paddies. Another game he and a high school buddy created already has 45 downloads. That’s a big deal for him.
“I want to be a software engineer in the future," Latta said. "My main goal is to do a start-up, I want to start my own company. I consider myself quite entrepreneurial. I like leading, and I want to be able to do that in a company."
Code Day LA was organized by StudentRND, a small Seattle-area tech company. It’s organized these events across the country to ignite creativity and encourage the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.
A few miles away, in South L.A, another hackathon took place with a very different group of kids.
Latino and African-American teens and their parents signed in at the Normandie Christian School at the corner of Normandie and Gage. This hackathon’s organizers said this part of South L.A. is rich in ideas, but poor in resources.
They brought in programming and start-up experts in their 20s and 30s to teach the basics. Karla Reyna came from nearby South Gate.
“The last time I ever took a computer class was my sophomore year, which was computer science," Reyna said. "I thought it was very interesting, it was very fun, but then later on I couldn’t get ... computer classes in my school."
Reyna’s now a senior, which means it’s been two years since she took a computer class. She brought her eighth-grade brother, Cesar, to give him an earlier start. But he’s running up against the same limits she did.
“In my school we only have one computer class," he said. "Not many students have that opportunity. I wanted to get that class but I never did."
Resources are scarce even at home, where there’s a single laptop, and Karla and Cesar have to take turns with their parents.
“We only have one MacBook, so obviously we have to share it," Karla said. "Sometimes it’s hard for me, because I have to do college stuff and I have to wait, it takes a long time. Once I get a chance to use the computer, it’s late at night."
Normandie Christian School’s principal Teresa Wilson warmly welcomed the nonprofit Urban TxT when it proposed the hackathon. The goal at this one was not to develop new apps, it was to get the school’s server back up and running.
“We’re definitely the little lost community, when it comes to technology," Wilson said. "There’s no investment in our community when it comes to technology, so our kids are being left behind."
Oscar Menjivar designs computer systems for public and private schools. He founded Urban TxT three years ago to close that technology gap in South Los Angeles.
Exceeding their limitations
As the hackathon started, he told the two-dozen teenagers taking part that they can get beyond the limits of their community.
“We have the most creative people in South L.A.," Menjivar said. "We have the biggest hustlers in South L.A. We have the people who make trends come out of South L.A. But nobody addresses that, nobody talks about that. We set trends on Twitter. We set trends on Facebook."
Menjivar lived it, too. He grew up in nearby Watts, went on to study at Cal Poly Pomona and earned a master’s degree at Pepperdine.
He showed participants a website that plots all kinds of technology companies and groups on a map of L.A. County. They form a fertile technology crescent from Redondo Beach through Santa Monica and across Wilshire Boulevard to downtown L.A. (You can view the map embedded below.)
“And if you look at it carefully, there’s a desert right in South L.A.," Menjivar pointed out. "You know what this map is called? It’s called Represent LA. But we’re not being represented."
Menjivar saw the need first-hand six years ago when he visited his former Watts middle school. He asked students what kind of computers they were using and what kind of programming they were learning.
“I said, 'What are you doing in class?' And what was their response? 'We’re typing.' That scared me. That said to me there are a lot of wrong things in our communities that no one is addressing."
Menjivar’s dream is to create a hacker space, a brick-and-mortar storefront with wi-fi, computers and a friendly vibe for teens and adults. It’s going to take a lot of cash. He’s applied for one of ten $100,000 LA2050 grants from L.A.’s Goldhirsh Foundation. But so have hundreds of others. Menjivar is hoping his application will stand out because his group is encouraging inner city teens to become catalysts for change. He’s hoping for good news later this week.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the Goldhirsh Foundation. KPCC regrets the error.