Since the inception of Chicago Rises, we’ve told the stories of many organizations and people making a difference in the city. A large percentage of those folks naturally are involved in nonprofits. When people think of entities making positive impact in society, nonprofits and social enterprises first come to mind. We at Chicago Rises want to explore all players in Chicago that contribute to a better world. This includes corporations which can possess the resources to make significant and lasting impact on our communities.
Last month, we sat down with Relativity, a leader in the e-discovery sector and a fast growing technology firm in Chicago, to learn how they give back. Story coming soon!
As technology and software become an indispensable part of our lives, the demand for skilled people to work in this sector continues to skyrocket. For those looking to start new careers in software, it can be intimidating to obtain a computer science degree. Recently, the rise of development boot camps and online courses have opened the doors to more people trying to enter the tech field. But even then, there are still considerable challenges for these people to convince tech companies to hire them since they don’t have real world experience. That is where The Difference Engine comes in to help.
The Difference Engine was born out of the experience and passion of Kimberly Lowe-Williams. As a young child, she knew she wanted to be involved with computers in some capacity. Lowe Williams pursued the use of computers in high school and naturally went on to major in computer science in college. In her first computer science class, she realized how difficult software development was and how it is truly a collaborative effort. Life took her away from computer science for a while, but Lowe-Williams’ passion for it never diminished. When programming courses started becoming more readily available online, she started getting back to pursuing her interests around software development. She discovered a development boot camp called Actualize and went through that program. After completing the program, Lowe-Williams started applying to development jobs and encountered another barrier in landing a job.
Tech companies were still skeptical that dev boot camp graduates had the necessary skills to build applications and software since they did not go through the traditional 4-year computer science path. They wanted more experience in these graduates. Lowe-Williams explains “There needs to be additional support after people finished the boot camp because a few months can pass where you are not getting a job and you’re not coding and you’re not building your skills and skills do atrophy”. The time gap makes it difficult for applicants to pass coding challenges and to articulate what they have learned in an interview. This was an issue that Lowe-Williams wanted to solve. She is passionate about making tech more accessible since she experienced how tech enabled her as a girl from a small town in Northwest Indiana to make a living and support her family. Also while volunteering as an adult, she saw the challenges nonprofits faced that could be addressed by technology, but these organizations didn’t have the resources or funding to take advantage of tech solutions. “Technology was changing the world and people who can most benefit from it are locked out”, recalled Lowe-Williams.
The Difference Engine solves problems for two groups that have needs. On one hand, you have aspiring software developers who have dedicated time and effort to change their careers, but are encountering challenges in showing prospective employers they have real world skills and experience to do the job. On the other hand, there are numerous nonprofit organizations that are trying to change the world, but many operate inefficiently and don’t have resources to use technology to help them. Lowe-Williams used her background working in technology companies to create an apprenticeship for the boot camp graduates to simulate an actual software work environment where a product is delivered. In this case, the product can be a website or application built for nonprofits to help carry out their mission. “The apprenticeship is a safe way to transition from one career to the next and keep growing, keep coding,” said Lowe-Williams. It also provides an environment to help participants determine if they indeed want to go into tech careers. “The true heart in the mission is to make tech accessible. The reason tech is not accessible is because how much it costs. To make tech accessible we have to keep the cost no to low. That is one of the reasons why we are a nonprofit to keep us mission first.” With this approach to eliminate the barrier of cost, The Difference Engine can support the large number of people trying to enter the tech world.
The process of the program starts with an applicant submitting a letter of interest to join the team as an apprentice. A phone screen or face-to-face meeting follows. Another method to inquire is to attend one of the info sessions. Once an applicant is accepted, a technical assessment is done by the volunteer staff so they can place people on the appropriate project based on their skill and experience level. Lowe-Williams said they will not reject anyone that qualifies, but that there may be a waiting list depending on the number of projects that need to be staffed. One requirement of the 17 week program is that you need to be actively looking for a job. This serves as a motivator and confidence builder for the apprentices.
The process for nonprofits/social enterprises is similar in requesting help to do a project. They would email The Difference Engine with details on the project and the organization must have no or low revenue. They also must have an open time frame since The Difference Engine can be constrained by the number of available developers. Requested projects must be new code (not fixing an existing site for example) and open to The Difference Engine determining the type of technology best to deliver the project. The goal is to building a minimum viable product (MVP) to solve business problems for the nonprofit or social enterprise.
The biggest challenge The Difference Engine faces is getting more funding and sponsorship so they can provide more nonprofit projects for apprentices to work on and help the program become more sustainable. As with many startups and nonprofits, building a team of advocates and board members and network is also a necessity to succeed. Another challenge Lowe-Williams pointed out was to break down biases toward non-traditional software development candidates. Many tech companies filter out non-traditional resumes, so many people with high potential are left struggling to find jobs. So working with startups to diversify at conception versus trying to change views on this bias later is ideal. Partnering with good companies that believe in their mission and developing a pipeline of volunteers that understand the challenges facing these non-traditional applicants will help remove these biases and lead to more successful job placements.
During her journey so far, Lowe-Williams feels giving a voice to people trying to get into tech is one of the proudest accomplishments of The Difference Engine. Many of the apprentices didn’t have knowledge of technology or what a developer was only a short time ago. “They were working in manufacturing, were construction workers, guitar instructors, Uber drivers, moms, former nannies, and there’s been quite a few people who now have had their lives transformed.” She said these people’s children now know what a developer is and with this exposure to tech, can see the field as an option for a future career. These stories and impact fuels Lowe-Williams and The Difference Engine to support others to make that leap.
CALL TO ACTION
There are several ways to help The Difference Engine keep running and making an impact.
Join as a technical (Product Owners, Dev Leads) or admin volunteer to be part of the team supporting the apprenticeship program
Donate to help support more nonprofit projects for apprentices to work on
Recently we collaborated with the platform Founder Stories to share what we do here at Chicago Rises. It was the first time I remember doing a video interview, so I admit it was a bit awkward at first talking straight into the camera. But I was able to quickly loosen up and really enjoy the interview. It was a great experience and hopefully I was able to articulate Chicago Rises’ mission to viewers. We’re always looking to collaborate and partner with other organizations to help lift each other up.
It’s that item sitting in your closet gathering dust. Or you find it hidden in a drawer or your garage. Many of us have items in our home that we no longer need. The best option in most cases is to donate the item so it can be re-used. But have you ever wondered if your donation will go to a person or home with the most need?
Fortunately there is a platform that can help with this predicament. GiveNkind directly connects individual donors with 501(c)(3) registered nonprofits to make this donation process more personal and purposeful. I had the chance to meet giveNkind’s founder, Emily Petway, to learn more about their mission.
Petway’s journey to founding giveNkind began in Atlanta. As a music teacher in Atlanta, she learned that some of her students were not able to afford dresses to attend formal dances such as prom. Unwilling to accept this situation, Petway eventually founded the Greater Atlanta chapter of Becca’s Closet, a national, non-profit organization that donates formal dresses to high school girls who cannot afford to purchase them. During her time as a volunteer manager of this chapter, she discovered how much material goods are needed by nonprofits to operate. In cases of small nonprofits, being able to afford these goods is not feasible and can threaten their ability to carry out their mission. For Becca’s Closet, not only did they need prom dresses, but they needed items like clothing racks, mirrors, and chairs among other things. When Petway narrowly missed out on securing a donated lawnmower to help keep the grass in front of their building up to city code, she knew there needed to be a system for donations to be re-purposed for only nonprofits. Determined to solve this social problem, Petway’s idea for giveNkind was born.
The giveNkind platform is straightforward and free to anyone that registers. Once a donor signs up on the site, they can post a list of what the items they have to donate. On the other side, a nonprofit can also post a list of goods they would like to request after signing up. In addition, the nonprofit can explain how the items will impact their organization and communities. “A donor list is available to be seen by nonprofits and a nonprofit list can be seen by donors, so the connection is authentic and direct,” Petway said. That direct connection is important so the actual donation matches are not determined by a third party system, but instead by the two involved parties.
I was able to experience the process through giveNkind first hand when my family needed to donate some baby clothes, detailed here in my story about Cradles to Crayons. According to Petway, my experience is the ideal one in the their system, explaining “We’re of course hoping the item fulfills the need and allows them to extend their reach, but now you’ve entered their circle of volunteerism and potential donors, so that’s expanding not only the nonprofit’s reach but their base of support and that’s awesome!” The goal of fostering these direct connections is for people to get involved in another organization by joining their volunteer base and donating, which can result in reoccurring gifts without giveNkind’s involvement.
Petway’s mission for giveNkind is to grow a community of giving. “We believe everybody has something they can give, even if it’s not money, it’s something that isn’t being used or it’s being underutilized,” Petway said. “It’s some item that’s been misplaced in your home and actually belongs somewhere else.” GiveNkind’s model focuses on the individual donor and enabling them to make the most impact, which results in nonprofits being more productive. Instead of using energy to find things they need, nonprofits can use that energy to focus on servicing others.
The giveNkind platform launched in April of this year, so they are in an early adoption phase while trying to create more awareness of the platform. A couple of challenges that surprised Petway when talking to nonprofits about giveNkind were related to what can be posted and the free cost. She wants to convince nonprofits to post requests for more than the obvious and that they can literally ask for anything they need. As for the free cost, it takes skeptical nonprofits some time to understand that giveNkind is indeed completely free. Petway feels a growing system with more participants will address these issues and earn the trust of nonprofits going forward.
It is amazing that giveNkind is operating with a 100% volunteer base. They have volunteers all over the country, which requires them to meet virtually. A large portion of the team are software developers. For them, being able to give back in way that leverages their skill set is enticing. Petway believes that their structure so far is sustainable because of the low overhead and that they are all volunteers. This fact also gives them credibility in the eyes of nonprofits since giveNkind is a nonprofit itself and not making money off their platform.
The proudest accomplishments so far with giveNkind, Petway said, are the experiences of dropping off donations and seeing someone shopping and using those items. She recalled a time when they dropped off a couch and later found out that it was used by a woman going through a very difficult time in her life. In addition to the donations, Petway also gets to meet and learn about giveNkind’s nonprofit partners and their selfless work. Seeing the impact and gratitude directly is very rewarding, Petway shared.
During our conversation, it is easy to feel the energy and passion that Petway exudes about helping others and furthering nonprofits’ missions. She has a refreshing perspective on how helping others is bigger than any individual and organization. On multiple occasions, Petway said it would be great if people used giveNkind to donate. But if people don’t use them, she encourages others to still use other organizations and take action to make a positive impact.
Call to Action
There are several ways one can make a difference with giveNkind.
Have something to donate and looking to make a connection to a great cause? Then register as a donor and make an impact with your donation.
Are you a nonprofit looking for items that can help your organization better serve your community? Then register as a nonprofit and share the list of items you need so you can meet wonderful donors that could potentially become future supporters of your mission.
Are you a software developer looking to give back by using your skills in technology? GiveNkind would love to have your expertise to make their platform even better and to help bring some great ideas to fruition.
To contact giveNkind directly, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 847-802-8977
Here’s some parting advice from Petway that resonates: “You have a skill that can benefit someone in the community or organization. Don’t underestimate your ability to affect change. Someone can do anything, however small, to start a chain reaction. Don’t not start because you’re afraid what you’re doing isn’t big enough. Start. Do something. You never know what your impact will be and what that will lead to.”
The team has been discussing recently how we can better communicate and engage with our fellow Chicagoans. We want to have an open line of communication going both ways. First, how can we let you know what we’re doing to improve Chicago Rises to best serve you and our communities? This is the purpose of this blog, to inform you of what we’re thinking and doing at Chicago Rises. Then secondly and most importantly, how can we get your feedback and engage you better? Our goal is to connect and rise together in a wave of inspiration and collaboration.
Here at Chicago Rises, we embrace the concept of experimenting. This is a great way to learn and create things that we as a team, and hopefully you as a Chicagoan, value. With that, we are introducing a couple of new features to the site:
Riser of the Month: We recently posted about our first Riser of the Month: Justin Cabrera. The idea around this is to put a spotlight on someone in our communities doing amazing work to positively impact others. If you would like to nominate someone, please send them our way!
Events: As we meet and hopefully build relationships with the organizations we highlight on Chicago Rises, we want a forum to share their events to allow others to connect and support them. The Events calendar will help our readers and followers find ways to take initiative and answer that Call to Action.
So please look for future postings here from the Chicago Rises team. As always, we would love to hear from you. Talk soon!