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Bottle Rocket partners with Bold Idea to grow future technologists

Over the past few years, technology has been sneaking its way into everything from finance, to energy, to clothing and more. Many companies are now even adding in a coding requirement with their job descriptions. Technology is everywhere.

Our educational system is unfortunately not evolving to keep up with this demand. Most schools do not offer computer science at all. This creates an equity issue, and a company here in Dallas is determined to change that.

Bold Idea started as a series of community programs before becoming a full-fledged nonprofit organization in 2015. Their goal? To increase access and interest in computer science education for all Dallas area students by tapping into the resources present in the DFW area. Some of these resources include the presence of large corporate entities such as Microsoft, Raytheon, Texas Instruments, and a vibrant community of tech entrepreneurs as well. That, CEO and Co-Founder of Bold Idea Robyn Brown, is why they started here by creating their program and partnering with these resources.

What is Bold Idea?

Our students sign up for a 10 or 14-week program, depending on their age. They meet every week with the same group of students, probably about eight to ten, and mentors. These mentors, most of them come from the tech industry. A lot of them are software engineers, they’re programmers, they might even be designers.  We have several university students from UT Dallas and even a few high school students who volunteer as well and share their experience.

They work together every week and do hands-on computing projects, anything from mobile apps to websites, online games. We believe hands-on experience is really the best way to stay engaged with stuff, to learn something new, especially with coding. Day one they start creating a project and they are doing that with their peers and they’ve got these mentors alongside them. The impact there is they’ve really got this role model, somebody they can look to who looks like them, who is supportive, who they know works in tech.

In a lot of our low income or mixed-income neighborhoods in Dallas, it’s not very often a student would encounter an engineer.  So when the teachers ask them what they want to be when they grow up, it’s not really going to come to mind. But now they’ve got somebody that they can look up to, who is that role model that they work with every week.

About a year ago, we have a relationship with a school in North Oak Cliff called Rosemont and one student we met at meet the teacher night, her name is Sophie. She really didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up. There weren’t a lot of activities that she was interested in outside of school. She wasn’t really engaged academically. We met her and said, “have you ever wanted to make your own mobile app?” Middle schoolers, you know often they think about that kind of thing. She was like “well yeah, I’ve got some ideas”.

So she joined Bold Idea and we’ve worked with her. She is in her second year now with us and this young woman who is 25, is a software engineer in a company in uptown, she has worked with her that whole time. Now Sophie looks up to her mentor, Nicky. It’s something she is excited about. She looks forward to going to our building every week and trying coding. She’s got a mobile app and a website so far, and she can now picture herself in that role.

What are some of the organization’s goals?

When we work with students, our main impact goal is to see them build confidence in themselves and their ability to create with technology. We want them to increase their interest in computer science. We’d like them to increase their awareness and interest for careers in technology and engineering.

Because we are an educational organization we are really trying to increase their skill level in computer science and also what we call ‘habits of mind’. When you are a software engineer, there is a lot of nontechnical things that are really helpful to have like being able to work on a team and communicate your ideas. Being able to persevere when things get tough because coding is tough. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Those are all really helpful as you are a coder. We also want them to see computer science as a creative outlet and a tool for problem-solving. We give them experience creating projects that allow them to do that.

Our goals as an organization are that we are seeking more corporate partners who can provide that critical funding and volunteer/mentor base, to continue to build that out. We are planning to do some growing in 2019 so those corporate partnerships are really critical as we grow, to bring in new resources.

What is the impact of partnerships?

We work alongside our corporate partners and our community partners to create that ecosystem to support computer science education. Bold Idea comes in and we train the engineers and the programmers to mentor students. We create all of our curriculum in-house, a project based computer science curriculum. We work with corporate partners who provide funding to make our programs possible and support a lot of our operations that keep the program going. They also provide volunteers to serve as mentors with our students. A couple of the relationships that we have with our corporate partners include:

  • Alkami Technology, a banking software company in Plano
  • Bottle Rocket, a mobile app development company in Addison
  • Pariveda Solutions in Uptown Dallas
  • Microsoft

These partners bring in the people and the funding to make our program possible.

We partner with community organizations too, like Wesley-Rankin Community Center in West Dallas and Rosemont, a DISD-based school in Oak Cliff. They host our program and provide students.

Robyn Brown, Sophie Butler, and Nicki Hames

We also talked with Amy Czuchlewski, VP of Engineering at Bottle Rocket, about the company’s recent partnership with Bold Idea. She shared some her thoughts below.

Why did Bottle Rocket decide to partner with Bold Idea?

It’s two-fold. First of all, as a technology company, we have a vested interest in growing future technologists. Tech jobs are some of the fastest growing in the country. By working with Bold Idea we are proactively building to grow talent. The other thing is that it provides great leadership and growth opportunities for my engineers. By working with kids and having the opportunity to help mentor and grow them, they say that the best way to learn is to teach. So, my engineers are learning soft skills about how to nicely tell somebody that they need to make changes in their code, as well as the hard skills of improving their debugging skills and everything else by working with the kids.

What was your first impression of Bold Idea? How has that changed by working with them?

My first impression was “wow, that’s pretty neat.” I didn’t realize that something like that was going on in my community. The more I’ve learned since working with them, it’s actually pretty horrifying how little support we have for computer science in the Dallas schools. Bold Idea is able to really provide some services for kids who wouldn’t really have access to computer science education without the program. To be able to affect the community at that level is really important to me, especially as we’ve been trying to focus more on getting more girls into the program. I think that’s tremendous because the girls learn to work with the boys at an early age and get used to the technology so that hopefully we can build an even stronger pipeline junior programmers.

What has your experience been working with them?

I work with Bold Idea in many different ways.

From purely the Bottle Rocket perspective, I will say they do everything. They provide the computers. Bottle Rocket provides some of the mentors but Bold Idea also provides some. They give us training. They provide the curriculum. They give us tools for managing the classrooms. They do everything. They give us all t-shirts. Basically, they do everything, down to the smallest thing.

I am one of the mentors. Every Saturday I come and work with the students. For me, it has been a very long time since I have written any code myself. So I love working with those kids, helping them grow those skills because it is something I feel like I don’t get the opportunity to do it on my day-to-day job anymore. I love to be able to work with them and hopefully enabling them to do what I used to do when I was younger in my career.

I’m a parent. My daughter participates in the program. It’s a wonderful chance for us to spend time together. Programming is super frustrating, and then every once in a while there is this lightbulb moment where everything comes together. Everything just works in that moment. Watching my daughter go through that, it has been tremendous for me. To be able to share that with her and share my experience. (Editors note: she started getting emotional at this part)

I am also on the board of directors. I get to participate in the future direction and envisioning of Bold Idea, where we want to take the organization and where we want to grow.

My husband and I, our charitable giving goes to Bold Idea in order to help impact local kids in the Dallas area.

What would you say to any companies that are thinking about partnering with nonprofits like Bold Idea?

I think it’s a great opportunity to really help give something back to the community that you are a part of. A lot of companies, we think about how to grow more business and how to solve more things. We have a great ability to really impact the world around us at a local level. It really costs the company almost nothing. We provide some space and we provide some mentors, and Bold Idea provides everything else. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain.