Sometimes philanthropy is not only about giving back, but about paying it forward. To South Florida’s tech community, that philosophy means local entrepreneurs using their technology backgrounds and know-how to create opportunities, provide tech access and close the digital divide to make the community a better place.
Let us introduce you to some of those making a difference:
Every Thursday, a group of innovators gathers in Miami to mingle and learn. Participants don name tags with no job title or company affiliation, only their first and last name and a number signifying how many times they’ve attended the weekly gathering.
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The anonymity is intentional, so that CEOs, start-up entrepreneurs and those interested in cutting-edge ideas can mingle unencumbered by the hierarchy of who is most powerful.
This is Venture Café, a nonprofit focused on connecting people in the innovation and start-up community, said Leigh-Ann Buchanan, an attorney who founded Venture Café’s Miami chapter in early 2016.
“Our goal is to help grow Miami's ecosystem to make it more accessible for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic background, and to make it more diverse, more inclusive and better connected,” she said. “Here you get these serendipitous mash-ups of people who would never have come together otherwise.”
Free weekly gatherings began in July, and are open to the public. Each week, they attract about 150 people interested in innovation and new technolog, seven to eight programs over a five-hour period. It could be a workshop on design thinking, or how to leverage tech to make your business more efficient, or one-on-one coaching on marketing.
“The focus is not to come sell, but to see who you can meet, and what you can do for the community,” she said.
Using name tags without job titles creates an interesting pattern, she said. “When people see the number one (for first-time attendee), they gravitate towards the number one, and talk to them,” Buchanan said. “It's a little different environment than what you would usually find in Miami, where people are not always welcoming. That makes people come back, because they feel so welcomed.”
Training people to help fill a nationwide shortage of computer programmers is the goal of LaunchCode, a nonprofit that expanded to Miami in 2015.
Jim McKelvey, who founded LaunchCode in Missouri in 2013 but now lives in South Florida, said the nonprofit is creating a talent pipeline for companies. “We supply vetted, enthusiastic programmers that have immediate positive impacts on companies,” he said. “When the local economy grows, everyone benefits.”
LaunchCode hosts computer programming classes and bootcamps with Miami Dade College. It also helps match workers with apprenticeships and full-time jobs.
Educational resources, career coaching and mentorship are free, and about 90 percent of apprentices placed were converted to permanent employment after an average of three months, according to LaunchCode.org.
At its core, every company is a tech company, said McKelvey, who co-founded Square, a mobile payment firm. “The U.S. Department of Labor predicts there will be one million programming jobs unfilled by 2020 and there are 500,000 of these jobs open today,” he said. “This means that the tech-talent gap in Miami will grow without pipelines for aspiring developers.”
To date, 60 companies have hired South Florida LaunchCode participants and 86 people have been placed into jobs, he said.
“We need more skilled workers. To increase the talent pool, we are working with the Knight Foundation and MDC (Miami Dade College) to build fast and low-cost training programs,” McKelvey said.
When Natalia Martinez-Kalinina moved to Miami in 2013, she was looking for a way to connect to her new community. “I wanted to do something to make me feel invested and tied to the local community,’’ said Martinez-Kalinina, general manager of Cambridge Innovation Center in Miami.
In January 2013, Martinez-Kalinina founded the Miami chapter of the Awesome Foundation, a nonprofit that gives small grants to big thinkers.
“It's not a traditional foundation. It's an informal, highly localized micro-grant entity,” she said. “We award $1,000 grants to local, usually untested, grassroots ideas. There's usually one grant a month.”
The Awesome Foundation has given out $67,000 to date, to everything from art exhibits to a busker festival to social change missions.
“On the one hand it's a very small amount of money,” Martinez-Kalinina said. “On the other hand, if you inject it early enough in the development of an idea, it can have quite an impact.’’
Martinez-Kalinina said she likes that the Awesome Foundation model is accessible on both sides. Almost anyone can be a funder, because the money comes from trustees who give at least $100 a month.
“This makes philanthropy more accessible, especially to those who don't have thousands of dollars to contribute to a cause,” she said.
The foundation also is easily accessible to grantees. The application, a short questionnaire, is online in three languages.
“It can be in the idea stage, and it's meant to be accessible to the average person, so whether you're a housewife in Coral Gables, an entrepreneur in Wynwood or a high school student in Little Havana, the objective is to reach anyone in the community with an idea,” Martinez-Kalinina said.
She said supporting innovators contributes to the community as a whole. “I don't think you can have a vibrant ecosystem without looking at it as an ecosystem,” Martinez-Kalinina said. “When you look at Miami, we all bear responsibility for looking at it as a system. We cannot afford to just work in our silo, because we won't be able to make the whole work together and evolve together as city. You have to think beyond yourself.”
South Florida Digital Alliance
Whether it's paying taxes or doing school homework, so much of our world is connected and driven through the internet and technology, said Don Slesnick III, deputy director of the South Florida Digital Alliance. “When there's a portion of the community that is not hooked up into this network, and not communicating on the same level, they're being left behind. We want to bridge the digital divide.”
The South Florida Digital Alliance is a group of corporations, universities and organizations that have allied to help the community access technology.
One example: The alliance’s Reboot program collects unwanted computers from companies, city governments and universities, refurbishes them and gives them to public and private schools in Miami-Dade and Broward. To date, more than 1,900 computers have been distributed.
The organization also has set up 13 computer labs at Miami-Dade and Broward parks. The labs “give free computer access to kids who come by after school, and to adults who need to use a computer to do their taxes, resumes or complete training,” Slesnick said.
Alliance members work with college interns to give them real world skills, and help match them with local companies. “We help not just with technical knowledge, but with soft skills like work ethic, collaboration and showing up on time,” Slesnick said.
Slesnick said the alliance’s goal is to spur big-picture economic development. “We're trying to bring some of the big players here into Miami, whether it's Google or Microsoft, or another company,” he said. “We need a workforce that has the technological skillsets that speak to those demands. On both sides of that spectrum, we're hoping to pair the community with the resources to close the digital divide.”
EcoTech Visions Foundation
With a goal of protecting the planet, Pandwe Gibson started EcoTech Visions, a for-profit incubator for green startup companies. But Gibson, a former educator, wanted to do more. So she founded a nonprofit, EcoTech Visions Foundation, to create opportunities where none existed.
The foundation has a simple mission: to create earth-friendly jobs by teaching people about new technologies, and mentoring them.
Its core program is a Digital Citizen Bootcamp. The foundation did a pilot program in 2015 with 25 people. Then the Knight Foundation stepped in with funding. To date, 75 people have gone through the program. They hope to do four a year.
Gibson said the goal is to provide direct pipelines to employment. “Tech is the biggest equalizer. In our first (Digital Citizen Bootcamp) cohort, we had an individual get a job at Microsoft, making $50,000 a year working from home,” she said.
In 2017, the foundation will launch a solar bootcamp to train people for jobs in the solar energy industry. “We call it a blue collar to green collar conversion program, which is helping transition blue collar workers, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, etc., into the green economy,” Gibson said. “We want to play matchmaker between individuals who have seasonal jobs with the opportunity for year-round employment within this growing sector.”
A Green Scouts program for high school and college students pairs them with companies from the for-profit arm of EcoTech, who need help with skills like human resources, social media or marketing.
“Universities are graduating students who can't find jobs because they don't have work experience. Through our Green Scout program, we pair individuals with those skill sets with companies who need help,” Gibson said. “In many cases, they're paid to fill that gap. It creates opportunities for students, and fills in the gaps of what entrepreneurs need, to help small businesses scale.
“It's all about creating opportunities for people. It’s like a wave. The more you create opportunities for people, the better the planet.”
How to get involved
Thursday Gathering at Venture Cafe Miami: Meets every Thursday, Venture Cafe, 4 to 9 p.m, 1951 NW Seventh Ave., Suite 300, Miami
The Awesome Foundation: firstname.lastname@example.org
South Florida Digital Alliance: email@example.com
EcoTechVisions: ecotechvisions.com, 305-399-5556