How an App Is Sending First-Generation Kids to College

How an App Is Sending First-Generation Kids to College
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Why you should care

Because technology can break the barriers to economic empowerment.

OZY and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have partnered to bring you an inside look at how entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative methods to help the communities around them. Enjoy the rest of our special series here.

The Cape Flats neighborhood of Cape Town, South Africa, has a tough reputation in a city that is already renowned for crime. This year, the city was ranked the 13th most violent in the world, according to the Mexico Citizens Council for Public Security’s annual ranking of the world’s most violent cities. Gang-related graffiti covers buildings, marking territory, and high levels of unemployment fuel the vicious cycle: poverty provoking crime. But in recent years, a new approach to help Cape Flats’ young people find better economic opportunities has focused on something that has become an everyday staple: technology.

“Most youth are on their phones all the time,” wrote Marlon Parker, founder of Cape Town’s innovative Reconstructed Living Labs, in a recent op-ed for Fast Company, outlining the power of reaching vulnerable teens on platforms that engage them. Parker cited a Cape Town–based mobile social network connecting young people to job opportunities, where they could build online profiles accessed by recruiters. It was a solution, he wrote, to a situation in which “youth often lack knowledge of what jobs are appropriate and are unable to develop even a basic résumé” — stopping them short of even applying.

Barriers to economic empowerment are a root cause of communities that are disadvantaged and underserved. Chipping away at those barriers is a powerful thing. And for young digital natives, bringing down those barriers via technology — and by using technology in a way that comes naturally to them — could be a game-changer.

Cape Town isn’t alone in realizing that potential. Another recent tech-based solution aims to expand economic opportunities for young people in Ohio, reaching them before even the job-seeking stage. The LeBron James Family Foundation (LJFF) — James, of course, is the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball legend and Akron native — has committed college scholarships for up to 2,300 kids in the Akron public school district to go to college through a partnership with The University of Akron. The condition? That these students meet both academic and LJFF-stipulated requirements before graduating high school in 2021.

But how could they monitor each of these students and help keep them on track? The answer was dreamed up at Code for Good, a regular program of hackathons hosted by JPMorgan Chase. Code for Good events pair technologists from the firm with college students, challenging them to come up with tech-driven solutions to help nonprofits around the world. A team of Ohio Dominican University students won the competition with their ideas for an app that would help Akron high schoolers track their progress toward earning an LJFF scholarship. The ideas generated at Code for Good were turned into a working product by JPMorgan Chase staff in the following months.

They’ll be able to work on their own progress and know exactly where they are on that path.

Nick Lopez, the LeBron James Family Foundation

LJFF’s executive director, Michele Campbell, explains that as the students get older, LJFF asks them to fulfill various requirements outside of school, such as community service and proactively preparing for employment. The power of the app, she says, is that it keeps students engaged with, and focused on, these goals. Nick Lopez, creative design and digital manager at LJFF, notes how easy it is. “It’s going to be a very intuitive experience for the students. They’ll be able to work on their own progress and know exactly where they are on that path.”

A potential problem with tech solutions, though, is that it is uniformly nonprofits working to help the less fortunate in our society — and those organizations typically lack the funds and resources to employ highly skilled technologists.

This is why programs from big firms like JPMorgan Chase are a crucial part of the equation: taking what a business is good at and using it to do good.