Youth Trailblazers Ignite Inspiration at First Ever Startup Weekend Oakland

swobma bannerFeb. 16, 2014 “You know you have something special when your teen and his friend are up and ready to head in to code by 7:15 am! –Startup Weekend Oakland is changing lives”—Leah McGowen-Hare

“Thanks for the best weekend of my life. We built an app with complete strangers that could save lives’ and had a blast while doing it.” — Iman Saint Jean, Winning Team, “HelpCircle” app

“It’s cool to say I made a website in a weekend” —Dylan, 4th grade

Now THIS is what I’m talking about. A perfect example of Using the power of media for positive change.

It didn’t matter whether you were black, male, or even a techie, there were wicked-smart synapses firing hither and yon, swapping skill sets across multiple disciplines of media and technology and lobbing ‘what-ifs’ into the arena at the first ever Startup Weekend in Oakland as the grand finale to Black Male Achievement Week Feb. 3-9,2014.

swoak homework team The inclusive spirit was undeniably infectious, and the roll-up-the-sleeves collaborations were like an energizing force field beckoning teens, techies, dreamers and doers in a Pied Piper meets Field of Dreams mashup that engaged and inspired hundreds.

Those who turned out to support a “see it, be it” mentoring nudge to ignite self-starters and entrepreneurial thinking, had our expectations exceeded multifold witnessing firsthand how combining visibility with possibility could not only upend stereotypes in a nanosecond, but change cultural codes altogether.

kalimah priforce QeynoAs one who has attended my share of shark-tank style, über-competitive, testosterone-laden hipster pitch session “startup” events for mindless money making apps that no one really needs, I braced myself for uncertainty, staking my faith on the youth empowerment and educational chops of Kalimah Priforce, (event host and founder of startup Qeyno Labs) to put his signature stamp of genius on creating something quite different for Oakland’s first ever Startup Weekend in history.

Sure enough, he and his team of innovative change agents took over the newly opened, Impact Hub in Oakland and started flipping the rules right away.

“Each team will need to have at least one ‘trailblazer’ (a 13-20 yr old young black male) and focus on problem solving in education, health, restorative justice, gaming, and sustainability.”

Brilliant! Whoop, whoop! Fistpump! Startup Weekend Oakland had me at ‘hello’ with this smart move…

swoak trailblazer teensBy mandating the existence of young trailblazers spread across teams, they not only glean untapped potential pronto, they move beyond lip-service to integrate youth directly and seed the future promise of STEM, brilliantly addressing the headline news we’re seeing daily about the urgency of closing STEM’s education and diversity gap that threatens American economic success.

Show and tell. Right there…

Full immersive learning meets mentoring on the spot. Boom!

With national headlines talking about lack of diversity in tech as early as high school, and President Obama launching new efforts to focus on young men of color, the trailblazer timing and tactical positioning was just sublime.

swoak app in a wkendThis criteria single-handedly elevates and differentiates StartUp Weekend Oakland right off the bat, by ditching the vapid ‘make a buck on the latest dating app’ mentality that Silicon Valley has devolved to lately, redirecting smart, fresh thinking and innovation into local pockets of problem solving that can scale systemically, creating seismic shifts. How refreshing! Mind you, some startup competitions and demo day style pitch fests would probably balk big time at this rule-shift, treating novice teens like ‘baggage’ to ‘bring along’ laden with a learning curve lag, but the Startup Weekend team in Oakland team is ahead of the game in what needs to happen. Short term entertainment apps may be cash cows but long term integration of youth early on in the process is key to growth and sustainability!

Youth are the future of our economy, the need for their presence, influence, and mindshare NOW is a global imperative.  Mentor now or pay the price of that lost opportunity later, as conveyed in this new “STEM urgency” report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

“STEM Urgency: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education in an Increasingly Unequal and Competitive World” points out the inadequacy of STEM education, particularly among African Americans and Latinos, and glaringly highlights how that translates into the work force, unemployment, and the lack of our ability to compete in a global economy.

From the report: “African Americans and Latinos represent a large pool of American potential talent that isn’t being developed. And with changing demographics—the Census predicts that the nation will be majority-minority by 2043—this underdevelopment will continue to hinder the nation’s ability to compete globally. We’re talking about the implications on the future of our country,” Miller says. “We’re talking about building infrastructure, we’re talking about cybersecurity; we need Americans working on these things. And if we’re not investing in the communities that are going to be the majority, it’s foolhardy of us.”

SWOBMA is not only historic but prescient, addressing these conundrums head on.

swoak healthy bird#SWOBMA also flipped the script by incentivizing mentorship via judging criteria…

Not only were the teams evaluated by the number of trailblazers to embrace youth driven needs and perspectives from their lens to build solutions for the marketplace, they swapped community problem-solving for big bucks revenue model evaluation.

Cue wild applause, elated emotion…

…And perhaps the most hopeful high spirits I’ve ever had in ALL of my Silicon Valley days since the launch of She’s Geeky back in its inception circa 2007 when I met like-minded entrepreneurs eager to get beyond click-n-twitch games and pocketing profits to actually DO something that mattered!

As far as I’m concerned, uniting form and function beyond the usual pitch and ditch IPO gazillionaires churning out of Silicon Valley that go their merry way building McMansions and retiring before they can barely shave is a win right there.

black girls code logoThe value of addressing “How much social impact will this have?” for “How much money will this app make?” is really just a different way of evaluating fiscal propositions and pay-offs through the lens of long term strategic over short term tactical objectives. I haven’t seen this level of positive direct impact to youth and communities since the systemic STEM solutions of organizations like Black Girls Code and Girls Who Code rolled out their gender parity programs! Exciting!

By recalibrating the notion of what constitutes “achievement” in a ‘hackathon’ competition, and focusing on youth as our future, they’ve created an uplifting new benchmark for entrepreneurial think tanks worldwide.

It makes me want to shout from the rooftops, “Yooo—hoooo! Funders, mainstream media, business alliances…are you SEEING this?” Because frankly, it’s been a bit depleting watching worthy projects go unfunded while venture capitalists throw money at the same circle of startups in ‘old boy network’ style, even if they have had gobsmackingly vapid ideas or brutally reckless, feckless failures, simply because they ‘know them.’ Ugh.

swoak hoodie tweetAt the risk of sounding like I walked out of an emotional SuperBowl advertisement singing “We are the World,” with enthusiastic exuberance, I’ll just say that in 54 hours, 14 teams were formed with strangers united in purpose and challenge

Just hearing some of the kids react to seeing their ideas actualized in even a raw ‘beta’ form of a game or an app working alongside engineers and professionals who teased out the ‘next step’ questions without doing the work for them was pure magic. swoak trailblazer-age 8There were no ‘gimmes’ here…

I popped in and out of multiple sessions with my mind percolating like popcorn thinking about connections that could carry the work forward, partnerships that made sense to scale and expand, data that exists already which could easily fast track some of the ideas rather than reinvent the wheel…and the youth were ‘on it.’

The trailblazers saw new ways of thinking that adults hadn’t thought of, or couldn’t relate to, generationally…They’d repurpose media already out there to build upon, “You know, kind of like ___ only with ___and then build a layer that does___” They’d also think critically, question, reframe, and redirect, “But what about ___ ? It needs to __ .” The “code or be coded” theme emerged as a catch phrase among the youth, who could see the vast potential of collective collaboration, pushing beyond their comfort zones to learn new things, not just coding but how to belong to something much bigger.

That’s the value of bringing in different communities of professionals to collaborate and build on one another’s work rather than silo thinking, that’s 21st century participatory learning…It was awe-inspiring.

swoak help circleIronically, the winning conceptual app, Help Circle for outreach to family and friends when feeling unsafe is very similar to Circle of 6 which I’ve written about extensively for violence prevention (vs intervention) could be a perfect springboard to jump start some use cases, data, and best practices.

I’ll be doing a separate post on some of the apps themselves, circling back with folks for interviews, asking for teen trailblazer take-aways and next steps in phases of progress, but will wrap with my own most strikingly surreal observation from the weekend…Unequivocally…the vibe.

Not once did I feel like an interloper…

This is wild to me. Instead of protective fiefdoms that battle for advantage through exclusivity, secrecy, greed and glory, (which I’ve seen far too often jockeying for ‘first to market’ startup scenarios infecting Silicon Valley like a plague) SWOBMA was uncommonly open, village-like even, embracing collaboration and diversity of thought across race, gender and age lines.

It was all about building up rather than tearing down.

What a difference from our mass media experiences of reality TV competitions and pop culture put downs that set up humiliation and degradation as entertainment value for a ratings game!

swoak group van jonesListening to a young teen falter on stage a bit, or pitch an idea not fully developed I felt myself cringe in expectation thinking about the pitch pythons I’d been exposed to who could swallow them whole…instead…nada. Just encouragement, good-will, support and loud applause.

The fear of failure removed, these young people could be real and risk freely, ultimately pairing into team learning experiences where they’d not just survive, but thrive as valuable, core participants.

During the first night of 60 second pitches, the line would dwindle and then surge again with new faces who would muster the courage to pop on stage and pitch in casual, “why not give it a shot?” mode…One young woman floored me, “I’m gonna do this on the fly, ok? But what if…we create a platform that rates organizations, companies and educational programs on diversity?” This passionista proceeded to rattle off an energetic burst of energy so pitch perfect and on point that I looked on both sides of me to see if she was planted in the audience and had a teleprompter somewhere; nope. She was just comfy and ready to make some change.

swoak teensThis is what happens when people are given a non-judgmental, safe space to feel supported and accepted. They risk and dare and venture forth with positive, productive ideas. They lead. They probe. They nurture and push each other forward to examine better ways of building solutions.

These are 21st century skill sets and necessities for our survival…

When youth are given the tools, mentoring, and opportunity to pave their own paths as catalysts, entrepreneurs, and participating producers rather than passive consumers of media, they flourish.

It was so great to hear people commit to building useful, inspiring technology with form and function not just ‘there’s an app for that’ media ‘me-too’-ism.

The Ashoka Changemakers Community sums my feelings about Startup Weekend Oakland well:

“This is success for us as a species as well as us individually, everyone has an opportunity now to make a profound scratch on history…we are at this extraordinary moment, that tipping point is right now.”

Kalimah-Priforce-NPRNotable News:

Don’t miss Kalimah Priforce on this NPR interview with Michel Martin about StartUp Weekend Oakland (9min 30sec) titled “Are Tech Execs Uncomfortable Around Young Black Men?”

And also this reprise/post about Kalimah Priforce on Shaping Youth, “Reading Rockets Kids Into Their Future”

Here’s a great synopsis of the apps presented at SWOBMA via EdSurge in their post detailing the educational significance of the Startup Weekend Oakland/BMA event, as well as a Google Doc of some of the original ideas pitched before the 14 teams were narrowed, shared via Twitter notes from an attendee.

American Promise: If you missed the kick off of Black Male Achievement Week with the documentary American Promise on PBS, you can watch the entire film via that link directly on their site until March 6, 2014. See the NPR Morning Edition piece on the American Promise film, the Edutopia write up which is a great read, and share this infographic on AP Class potential with school leaders to start seeding change.

Ironically, one of the app winners at #SWOBMA was “Connect the Dots” about creating a social network for African American boys in private schools to share and befriend via virtual environs. Finally, here’s the trailer from the American Promise documentary, 13 years in the making by parents turned filmmakers, below:


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