In Southern California’s underdeveloped tech world there’s Silicon Beach, the 3-mile stretch of startups from Santa Monica to Venice modeled after Silicon Valley, and then there’s much more obscure Silicon Alley. The latter, as its name suggests, also strives to incorporate the tech capital’s successes and “represents what Los Angeles could be”.
A Hack-A-Thon at Normandie Christian School in South L.A. on Saturday gave a glimpse into this work-in-progress.
The techies weren’t entrepreneurs with investor backing, but teens from the low-income neighborhood. For five hours, about 70 of them shared 23 Macbooks and learned about programming, coding, web design, web development, data management and social media. They also updated the Silicon Alley website, launched at the first Hack-A-Thon last month hosted by former Los Angeles mayoral candidate Emanuel Pleitez.
This latest South L.A. Hack-A-Thon came to fruition thanks to URBAN Teens eXploring Technology (URBAN TxT), an organization that empowers inner city teen males in urban communities. Its founder Oscar Menijvar, a L.A.-based tech consultant, attended Jordan High School in Watts and only learned to type in computer class. Disappointed that instruction was still limited to typing 15 years after he graduated, Menjivar decided to effect some change.
“Growing up in Watts, I always felt I had two options. Either I hustled to survive or became a victim to the streets. One of my friends got shot and killed and another one is in jail serving a life term,” he told The Atlantic Wire. “It happened in the 90s and it’s happening now in the 21st Century so I thought this inequality of opportunity was unjust. If we don’t do something about it, two, five years from now our communities will still be in the same place.”
While L.A. may not boast the tech community that Silicon Valley has, Menjivar and URBAN TxT realized there were quite a number of untapped resources in the local industry. He referenced a map created by Forbes contributor Tara Brown and couple of her colleagues, that pinpoints 743 local startups:
L.A. tech community members like Joe Conte, senior organizer for the community building software startup NationBuilder joined in the day of teaching.
Conte has much faith in the L.A.’s potential to become a tech hub. “There are a bunch of tech companies who have chosen to be based out of Los Angeles including our investor,” he said. “I see great things here in the future – especially since we can forge partnerships with Hollywood and the entertainment industry.” Virginia-based Nathan Latka, co-founder and CEO of marketing and advertising startup Heyo, stopped by while in town and added to the conversation by tweeting his good impression.
Advances at this Hack-A-Thon make up only a fraction of the pro-bono opportunities URBAN TxT has offered since Menjivar founded it a few years ago. They take applications for a 15-week intensive information technology summer academy hosted at the University of Southern California and last year, took those kids to the Google headquarters for a tour and panel.
For one of the participants, 13-year-old Kevyn McCurchin, the trip had the impact Menjivar intended. “Going to Google made me kind of wish L.A. would be how Silicon Valley is, with so many tech jobs and ideas,” he said. “I think we can be like Silicon Valley, starting with the people. If we’re willing to learn more technology and productive things, South L.A. can become a better place.”
It was on the drive back from Silicon Valley that Menjivar, McCurchin and other participants came up with the name Silicon Alley. And conversations on social media after the Hack-A-Thon suggest that other people are on the same page.