Cracking the code to a bright tech future

For new local startup Code Crew, Memphis has all we need to be a thriving tech city – if we are willing to teach our youth. The organization empowers kids from underserved communities to be tech innovators through computer science training. Their pilot program, Grizzlies Code Camp, has kids learning app development while hopefully developing a love for tech. 
Within two months of launching their technology education startup, Code Crew has attracted a group of more than 30 Memphis middle school children and the attention of the NBA. Thanks to funding from the Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation, Code Crew was able to institute Grizzlies Code Camp, a six week summer camp for Memphis children in grades 7-9 that develops their digital skills.

The startup began as an idea to bridge the skills gap so Memphis youth can grow to become producers of technology, as opposed to consumers. Co-founders Nnaemeka Egwuekwe, Audrey Jones, and Petya Grady began working on Code Crew as part of StartCo’s Sky High program, a 90 day accelerator for social impact tech startups in Memphis, with funding from the Grizzlies Foundation.

The goal of Code Crew is no small task. They are working to turn the tides for Memphis’ technology industry by building it from the ground up, instilling a passion for these skilled jobs in young students, to create a next generation of technology producers in a city sorely lacking.

“It was the coming together of StartCo and the Grizzlies Foundation that made this great thing happen,” said Egwuekwe, who has been working on the concept for Code Crew since last summer. Connecting with Jones on the project was a lucky coincidence – they both have been involved in StartCo for years, Egwuekwe as a mentor and Jones as a founder for another startup.

Egwuekwe is the Director of Software Development at Lokion, a Memphis web development company, and has been in the technology industry as a software developer for 18 years. He decided to become involved in technology education as a means of getting his daughters interested in “that boring stuff that daddy does all day.” Several years ago he began working with Black Girls Code, a technology education non-profit for young African-American girls. That involvement is how the idea of Code Crew took root.
“We can’t afford to wait as a city to get youth into these fields, it’s vital if we ever expect to be a prosperous city and stop being number one on all the wrong lists,” said Code Crew Co-Founder Nnaemeka Egwuekwe.
The Code Crew team has designed their technology education programs to grow at an accelerated rate, with plans to reach up to ten thousand Memphis children within the next three years. “We can’t afford to wait as a city to get youth into these fields; it’s vital if we ever expect to be a prosperous city and stop being number one on all the wrong lists,” said Egwuekwe.

A Future as a Tech City
The need for technology education in Memphis is severe. “Out of twelve thousand Memphis jobs listed on Indeed.com, 80 percent of those are tech-related and have tech requirements of some sort. But we still have a 6.8 percent unemployment rate,” said Jones. “We just don’t have people trained with the technical skills to fill these jobs.” With up to one thousand software development jobs available in the city right now, nine out of ten will be filled by out-of-state candidates, according to Jones.

Code Crew sees their education program as an opportunity to train Memphis youth with a valuable skillset. “We want to attract even more technology positions to Memphis and fill them all with locally educated people. Let’s get everyone to start thinking of Memphis as more than a barbeque city,” added Egwuekwe.

The vision of the Code Crew team extends beyond just educating Memphis youth—they endeavor to create a thriving technology production industry within the city. They hope to see these students not only succeeding in the tech field, but bringing it home and building new companies and new jobs right here in the Bluff City. “We want to get these kids to where they are being the producers of the technologies that everyone else is using. Let’s let them be the next Mark Zuckerburgs’ and Steve Jobs,’ and let them come from Memphis,” said Egwuekwe.

Jones emphasized the fact that there are several other technology education programs in Memphis, but where Code Crew differentiates is scale. The amount of children they plan to reach and the continuous education touchpoints should create a large and an ever-growing population of Memphis students passionate about technology that can transform the city. “These kids aren’t going to see us one time; they are going to see us over and over again, and we have multiple exposure points. That’s how we hope to make the maximum impact,” said Jones.

The vision of Code Crew is to educate children in grades K-12 everywhere in Memphis, but they began with programs for grades 7-9 because those students are the ideal age to operate technology, have plenty of room for growth, and plenty of time to decide what they want to do. Egwuekwe said Code Crew’s next move will be to involve high school aged children, so they can retain the students they have begun to work with in middle school.

Life at Code Camp
The inaugural Code Crew event was a one-day kickoff workshop in late May where the children were taught basic application development. That grew into the Grizzlies Code Camp which runs June 8 through July 17 and will culminate in a two-day “hackathon.”

If you’re not from Silicon Valley, you might ask: What is a hackathon? A hackathon is an event, typically lasting multiple days, where a group of people meet to do collaborative computer programming. Code Crew’s hackathon will be held at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School July 25 through 26, where the participants will be asked to build an app around the RiverFit project, the Memphis Grizzlies riverfront fitness trail in Tom Lee Park.

Jones said they hope some of the ideas created at the hackathon can be utilized by RiverFit to improve upon the project’s usefulness. Although any child in grade 7 through 9 can participate in the hackathon, those who attended the Grizzlies Code Camp have an advantage. For nearly two months they have been learning the specific skills that are necessary in building a mobile app and have been mentored by industry professionals through Code Crew.

The next step in Code Crew’s technology education effort is an after-school program that will hopefully begin at three Memphis schools in the fall of this year.

The Grizzlies Code Camp is three days a week, two hours each day, at the Lester Community Center in Binghampton. The room at the Center is decorated in Grizzlies yellow and blue and has plenty of bright artwork adorning the walls.
Audrey Jones helps mentor Grizzlies Code Camp attendees
James Thompson, an 8th grader attending the camp, really appreciates his time with the Code Crew. He and his group are making a spaceship gaming app together and he is working on the background. “Not a lot of kids over here get to do this, and we are getting to learn how to make apps. It’s really cool,” he said. His current dream is to grow up and become a scientist, or possibly a chemist.

A few desks over, Emily Coates sits with her partner as they work on their own app, which she described as, “a progression of time and mini-games.” She said she used to want to be an actor, but after attending this camp she’s really interested in design and photo editing.  

All three Co-Founders of Code Crew have full-time jobs in addition to their efforts in technology education, which they say is a struggle but they know their time and energies are going towards something great. “I grew up in Memphis, I know those exposure points. If you are in a child’s life and expose them to certain things, they are more likely to follow suit. So I know from personal experience that this works, and it’s all worth it,” said Jones.

The Code Crew team recognizes that none of what they are doing would be possible without the support of the Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation and Start Co. – the Grizzlies Foundation funding made it possible for Code Crew to put their ideas and plans into action this summer, while Start Co. assisted in business training.

“You’re not going to find this first-class community outreach that the Grizzlies Foundation does anywhere else,” said Jones, who has noticed the impact the Foundation has had all across the city.

And the idea is spreading. Thanks to the Grizzlies Foundation’s efforts in publicizing Code Crew events, NBA teams across the nation have heard about what is going on in Memphis. Recently the Utah Jazz reached out to the Code Crew team to see how they are running the Grizzlies Code Camp. “That’s exactly what we hoped for, that we demonstrate leadership and that people look to Memphis for something to learn from,” said Egwuekwe.

In order to continue the growth of these programs Code Crew needs more teachers. They are looking for people in the technology industry who are interested in instructing Memphis youth from two to 40 hours a week in competitively-paid positions. Jones said they are also in need of sponsors who can contribute anything to the hackathon or after-school program such as snacks, lunches, prizes, or even equipment.

For more information or to apply for a position at Code Crew visit their website or email them
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