Charles Ashley III is President & Founder of Cultivating Coders, a New Mexico based company that provides technical training in web and mobile application development to rural, tribal, inner-city and underserved urban areas that lack resources in coding education.
Cultivating Coders is on a mission to build a pipeline of talented coders who are poised to advance along career pathways and solve local problems with coding skills. Their core expertise is providing technology training and workforce preparation services to underserved people and geographies. Incorporated in late 2015, Cultivating Coders is blazing new trails from rural America to inner-city neighborhoods by taking coding camps to students overlooked by traditional STEM education.
MiLLENNiAL met up with Charles in Albuquerque, NM to learn about his unique social entrepreneurial business.
Explain the services Cultivating Coders provides cities and the results it’s producing in underserved neighborhoods.
Cultivating Coders is a social enterprise. Our goal is to provide social impact in isolated communities, particularly for students in middle school and high school. We use project-based learning with a strong emphasis on computer science and coding. The traditional model requires students to come to an urban place to learn these skills. Our approach is to bring the learning experience to the students; we pack our tool box and parachute into communities throughout New Mexico and the the Southwest.
The program is free of cost to every student. Additionally, we provide a laptop to each participant, one that they keep upon completion of the camp. Technically, we don’t work in cities; we work primarily in small towns, like Gallup, Shiprock, and Espanola, New Mexico. Our impact to date: 137 students have attended camp with a 94% completion rate; over 60% of graduates are women; and 80% are Native American. Graduates of our program have gone on to work as freelancers for companies like WSI and the City of Albuquerque.
What sparked the idea to create a for-profit extra curricular coding program?
We are a hybrid entity- a non-profit and for-profit organization- with the same name but two functions. We are structured this way because, in the state of New Mexico, there aren’t any approved business models that seek to encourage social enterprise and mission-driven businesses.
We are a social impact business, because when you see the communities we serve, you see the same narrative: lack of computer science education, equipment, local knowledge, and financial resources. Our goal is to eliminate as many barriers as possible to tech education by providing access, transportation, food, tools, and safe spaces to hold these classes. We strive to create opportunity in communities that are typically left behind.
How do you select the communities you service and what is the application process like for the candidates?
Selecting communities to service is the most difficult part of our process, because there is so much need for our program. Once we are engaged with a community, we then: examine how invested the community is in driving the local impact component of our work; strategize with that community to identify a funding source and local stakeholders; recruit students and get to know them.
Our maximum class size is 21, but we often get at least 40-50 interested students. We then have to assess students by way of a survey to test aptitude. The final part of the application process is an interview, which is the most important piece. At this stage, we see the students’ grit, determination, and any other important attribute that does not translate from test scores.
How did your formal education help you achieve success in your business? What is the connection between your degree and your journey as an entrepreneur?
The best thing college did for me was teach me how to interact with people from all walks of life. I learned how to listen to others, with different ideas and beliefs, and have constructive discussions and dialogue. While formal education did that for me, it was also “hard knock university.” Learning the hard way by just doing it is the greatest university one can attend.
My degree hangs on the wall, and it shows that I can complete something, but the skills I learned in life are the ones I use to achieve success in business. My experiences taught me how to be an entrepreneur- when to pivot, how to work well with teammates, how to recognize the value of teammates, when to delegate, and the importance of surrounding yourself with people smarter than you. College is great, but it is not the only pathway for achieving success.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an entrepreneur promoting coding proficiency, and how have you overcome it?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced is the procurement process. It is archaic and has not adjusted to the modern financial or educational climate. Unfortunately, it is challenging to convince gatekeepers that we need to equip our kids with more than coding, but programming, engineering, and math as well. As a country, we have been trying to promote STEM education, but a lot of the challenges we see at Cultivating Coders are due to the lack of qualified STEM teachers. We need to be using project-based learning as tool to engage the student, which will then create the curiosity to explore technology more.
What were you doing prior to launching your first business? What happened during and after finishing college that led you to where you are today?
Prior to the creation of my own business, I was helping other people build their businesses up- everything from tech companies to higher education programs. I cannot pinpoint exactly what led me here. I don’t think anyone fully knows what they want to do after college.
My journey took me from Miami to Las Vegas to Albuquerque. I could not have predicted my path, but what I can say is that I have never been tied to a career track or specific idea. I am more interested in where the world going. I am an agile human being, and we run an agile company. We need to be mobile, open-minded, and open-hearted to be viable and do good work.
Share a real life success story with us that Cultivating Coders is responsible for igniting.
I recently had the experience of watching a young lady from the Navajo Nation go form zero exposure to computer science and technology to someone who is writing code for major companies. Not only that, but she is also giving back to her own community by being a certified Cultivating Coders instructor. Seeing her confidence and capacity grow has been a tremendous experience for me and this organization. Now, she is out in the world, doing important work that belongs to her; she owns her own success.
What are your short term and long range goals for Cultivating Coders, and how can a community engage your services?
Our short-term goal is to create programs for middle and high schoolers in communities that align with our mission. Our long-term goal is to reach more communities outside of New Mexico. We are expanding to California, Washington, and Florida in 2018. The end goal for Cultivating Coders is having large-scale companies scout New Mexico for talent, and not just any talent- specifically talent from communities that have historically been furthest from power and wealth.
To learn more about Cultivating Coders, visit their website.