Inspiring teens to think big

At the beginning of this week, I had the pleasure of spending two days running #AcornHackADA at Google – a collaboration between Acorn Aspirations and ADA College. With ADA College fast hurtling towards swinging open its doors for their very first students this September, we wanted to give them a taste of what they would be experiencing over the next two years. Because of the socio-economic makeup of Tottenham (where ADA College is based) as well as diversified backgrounds, we wanted to open up the hackathon to anyone between 14-19 years old.

When you hail from “the ends”, there are very people within your community or circle of friends who do tech much less care a damn enough to want to do something with it. Entrepreneurship especially tech is something that someone else does. Been a maker or creator of tech or tech enabled products or services is simply not on your radar. And to be blunt, your parents idea of prosperity or doing well is going into medicine, law or finance aka real professional jobs.

Just over 60 14 – 19 year olds later, we had the most diverse groups of individuals ranging from Turkish to Bangladeshi, Sri Lankans to Nigerians, Brazilians to Ghanaians in the room. There were more people of colour in the room than any other. I was reminded of one of the most poignant questions asked at the Mayor’s Digital Talent Programme in May – how do we introduce young black adults to such opportunities. This is how.

When asked who coded, less than 10 participants put up their hands. Whilst this may seem like a frightening prospect, especially as we live in a technological age, this is the true representation of the society in which we find ourselves. Despite popular belief, not all of generation z are tech saavy. Knowing how to snapchat, post on Facebook and bombard Instagram with selfies does not equate to tech saaviness. Let me reiterate, tech creation not consumerism.

For logistical reasons, normal team pitches were not possible so the participants had to write the name of their idea and the description on paper, put it on the stage. Everyone then picked what they wanted to work on. Ironically, most had not actually come with an idea. With the clock ticking, frantic discussions ensued and hard thinking faces were put on as brains were racked for ideas. Even though the event was advertised as an opportunity to develop your own idea, many just didn’t believe they had an idea worth working on.

Yet during the pitch, the ideas ranged from augmented reality games to retail solutions, panic devices pairing wearables to phone data lending. In a limited time frame, the teens had dug deeper into their initial ideas, figure out solutions based on their limited tech knowledge and produced prototypes that demonstrated their ability to think through user experience, growth strategies (including viral loops), revenue models and tech functionality often borrowing ideas from existing products they’d used.

When I announced they had 3mins to pitch and 1min to demo, faces were filled with horror and panic, this was further worsened when they realised they had to do it on the stage presenting to everyone in the room not just the invited judges. Again, the majority of the teens had never presented in front of anyone before much less under the pressure of judges and peers previously unknown staring back at them. At best, they’ve done so in a classroom of kids they spent years with. Whilst they were not all polished or confident speakers (and I’m talking literally not been able to get a sentence out for some), I can only admire their bravery for actually getting onto the stage and giving it a go.

It’s all too easy for those of us who are in the tech and tech-enabled industries to assume that opportunities are created equal because of supposed lower barriers to entry, access to information, free online MOOCs, meetups, coding communities and the plethora of free resources that exist out there. But when no one in your world has ever mentioned these resources or is in tech entrepreneurship world, these are simply not things that you’re aware of. You don’t know what you don’t know. And even if you are aware, the mere mention of these interests in their world just results in ridicule.

For me, opening teens eye to the possibilities of what can be done with their limited knowledge, bringing them together as individuals with others with common interests and inspiring them to aspire to want to work in places like Google or become tech entrepreneurs because they can see, feel and smell a route to making that happen, is a very satisfying feeling. If I have started a journey of self-confidence, self-belief and sown the seed of thought to think big, then my job is done.