Evin Robinson & Jessica Santana: Providing inner-city youth with tech opportunities

Jessica Santana and Evin Robinson of New York on Tech (NYOT)

Interested in tech from an early age, two friends are trying to reach out to the next generation.

Growing up in New York City, Evin Robinson and Jessica Santana were fascinated with the booming technology scene. Today, they’re fostering that same spark in the next generation through their nonprofit, America On Tech (AOT).  The organization provides low-opportunity students with access to expert-led technology courses, with hopes of preparing them for careers or entrepreneurship in the field.

Discovering their talents in tech

Growing up, Robinson and Santana glued themselves to a site familiar to many Millennials: Myspace. But while their peers were busy snapping new profile photos, these two were much more interested in what was going on behind the scenes of the site.

When they each headed to Syracuse University — where they first met — both were focused on business studies. But their love of tech persisted, and the two decided to pursue master’s degrees in technology studies. Upon graduating, both clinched roles as tech consultants at major firms in New York City.

“My primary goal is to make America On Tech a sustainable nonprofit organization whose brand and impact is immeasurable over the next three years.”

— Jessica Santana

Stepping up to help at home

As Brooklyn natives, Robinson and Santana were excited to return to their home city to begin their careers. But they soon noticed a need among minority youths in their borough to learn more about the technology industry.

“There was not a lack of local talent but a lack of opportunity and access granted to those who come from underserved communities,” says Robinson, noting the lack of tech resources inside and out of the classroom for students in low-income communities.

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts 1 million tech jobs will go unfilled by 2020. The New York tech sector has increased its employment by 57% since 2000, so the opportunity is there. Yet African-Americans and Latinos make up less than 10% of the tech workforce nationwide and just 18% of computer science college graduates.

Robinson and Santana’s concerns about this situation grew from conversation into action, and soon New York On Tech — the early version of America On Tech — was born. The organization’s pilot program, the “Tech Flex Leaders Program,” offers 40 highly-motivated high school students the opportunity to receive professional mentorship in weekly technology classes. The two founders also forged partnerships with tech giants operating in their region, allowing their students to go on field trips to companies like Twitter and see what it’s really like to work in technology.

The challenges of entrepreneurship

As New York On Tech began to take hold as an idea, Santana says she was faced with a choice many entrepreneurs are familiar with: Should she quit her day job and go all-in on the project?

“I chose the latter, and it has been a wonderful nine months working on creating the strategy and building the organization to serve high school students in NYC and work with professionals who really care about the cause and our youth,” she says.

For both, running a start-up organization has been an incredibly rewarding experience and one they are quick to recommend to any aspiring entrepreneurs.

“Follow your dreams and do not look for validation from others,” advises Robinson, with Santana adding, “There are so many great ideas flowing through people’s minds every day. You will not know how successful you can be until you try.”

Still, their dedication to the organization, which became America On Tech in 2019, often costs them their personal time, and Robinson says trying to achieve a work-life balance can sometimes feel like an uphill battle.

“I won’t lie. I do not have much,” he says. “However, I do make time for things that are important to me and give myself time to wind down. This is important. Otherwise, you will burn yourself out.”

As close friends, starting a business together was certainly a risk, but the two say they are lucky to have similar work and financial styles. Santana identifies herself as “disciplined and creative,” while Robinson says he’s driven by collaboration. Both say they’re cautious when it comes to finances.

Looking forward

Robinson and Santana saw successes in the program’s first year. One student was able to find a mentor through AOT and, as a result, majored in computer science, with a full ride. She’ll be among the first in her family to attend college.

Robinson and Santana hope to continue helping young people through AOT for years to come.

“I see the potential it has to mobilize change in the industry so that our youth can access opportunities in the field,” says Santana. “My primary goal is to create a sustainable nonprofit organization whose brand and impact is immeasurable over the next three years. Let’s see what happens after that….”

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