Corporations of all sizes are seen as our employers of goods and services. Sometimes lost in their identity is their critical role in giving back to society. Businesses can possess vast resources, knowledge, and skills to make significant and lasting impact on our communities. Chicago Rises has highlighted many nonprofits and social enterprises and their amazing work. But we also want to profile companies in the business world and how they are making a difference. Last month, I spoke with Colleen Smith, who leads the Community Engagement effort at Relativity, to see how one Chicago company gives back.
Relativity, is a leader in the e-Discovery sector and a fast growing technology firm in Chicago. The core principal behind their philanthropy program, Relativity Gives, is leveling the playing field in regards to access to technology in education. “We truly believe whether a kid lives in Evanston, Austin, or Englewood, they should have access to great technology,” Smith said. “We believe it’s that important to their future and the well being of the community and we want to make sure they have equal access to those things.” Much of Relativity’s focus is on education and schools and there are four programs (or pillars) that make up Relativity Gives.
The first pillar is Wired to Learn, a grant program that provides an influx of technology to schools in the greater Chicago area that need it most. The grant awards qualifying schools $250,000 for 3 years and is milestone-contingent based. Past recipient schools of the grant have experienced transformative changes and very positive results. While just having technology is not a silver bullet to solve all issues plaguing a school, explained Smith, access to great technology can improve drastically the students’ learning experiences and aid in teacher and community development. “The teachers will be the first to say that having the resources they need and having a company believe in what they are doing can change the culture of a school.”
Geek Grants makes up the second pillar, which are $2,500 grants awarded monthly to nonprofits, school, and causes nominated by Relativity employees. Anything technology related is eligible to help the grant recipients achieve their mission. Common uses of this funding have been for Chromebooks and iPads for school and after school tutoring programs. “We’ve seen everything from girls learning how to code, after school programs, and Cradles to Crayons actually used it to upgrade their systems. They needed additional server space to grow from serving 16,000 kids to 32,000 kids,” said Smith.
The Volunteer program is the third component of Relativity Gives. It focuses on allowing their employees to step away from their desks periodically and do something good. Relativity hosts quarterly field trips or events for Wired to Learn partner schools or Geek Grant schools at their downtown office. Employees can host a coding workshop, talk about career exploration, or give tours of the office, just so students can get a taste of what it feels like to work in a tech environment. Outside of technology, employees also have opportunities to share their favorite organizations they support with their colleagues.
Community Partnerships is the final pillar, which encompasses partnerships with various organizations around the area. These can include events like food drives and holiday gift sponsorship of local children in need. One community partner is Embrac, a nonprofit that helps kids get to and through college through experiential learning. Relativity hosts coding sessions with kids to expose them to new experiences and technology. Another partnership that Smith was especially proud of was their relationship with Cristo Rey Jesuit and Christ the King high schools. These schools offer a unique work study program to their students where a student goes to school four days per week and then one day per week interns at a local company. This helps fund the student’s private education and gives them exposure to people that have gone to college, to careers, and perspectives that are outside of their neighborhoods. Relativity has eight interns from this program, including one student/employee who has been with Relativity for over six years!
From these four pillars of Relativity Gives, you can see the diversity in the programs which gives both opportunities to internal employees to give back and allow for different types of community partnerships to flourish. It’s not just about donating money, time and talent are as valuable or more so than just giving money according to Smith. She feels it is important to have their employee’s talents be exposed and shared both in or outside their office. As for how Relativity Gives is managed, decisions are made democratically within the organization. Whether someone has worked at Relativity for one week or five years, anyone can get involved.
One of the main questions I had was why is it important for corporations and for profit organizations to give back? “We are part of change in the world every single day through technology, it just makes sense our neighbor should have access to being part of that change as well,” answered Smith. Whether it’s through industry changing software like Relativity or high speed internet access in the classroom or something non-technology related, it’s the right thing to do for corporations to help others via their resources. As for why Relativity gives back, Smith said it’s in their company’s DNA and the mission of leveling the playing field for access to technology comes straight from their CEO, Andrew Seija. He fully supports and empowers Relativity Gives and this mentality permeates throughout the organization. Smith described how there was such a giving community inside the office and that passion fuels their giving programs.
One challenge Smith noted was that there was far more need out there that they can be meet alone. So Relativity Gives looks for as many opportunities as possible to partner with organizations. A couple of cool ones in the technology space are Chicago Tech Rocks and T4Youth. They also look for opportunities to evangelize what they are doing. “If you’re a startup with seven people, there’s stuff they can do now. You don’t need a quarter million dollars or 800 people or massive infrastructure to do something,” said Smith. She is open to providing informational sessions and talking to people from other companies looking to start similar programs and to share knowledge and learnings. Internally to Relativity, the challenges come from being in a fast growing company and people being busy. So Smith focuses efforts on breaking down barriers to give to make it easy for employees to volunteer, such as doing things online.
In the last year, one of the proudest accomplishment Smith highlighted was the work and progress made by the Wired to Learn schools, Pickard and Ruggles, who have experienced remarkable success and growth. Though much of the credit is due to the schools, teachers, parents, and the students themselves, the grant to transform the technology available at those schools was certainly one catalyst for the positive changes. Smith recalled how walking into the schools and seeing the changes in how the students interacted with technology and how the staff feels about coming to work was so inspiring. Internally, she is very proud how the Relativity team has stepped up for giving events. For example, there was a waiting list for sponsoring kids this past holiday season well beyond the 301 kids already helped. Small things done by the employees make a difference, from taking time to spend an hour to help, to donating to a food drive.
As for upcoming goals around Relativity Gives, they recently relaunched Wired to Learn to open it to more schools in the greater Chicago area. They are also going global by extending Relativity Gives to their Krakow and London offices. As mentioned earlier, Smith continues to look for ways to make it easier for a rapidly growing employee population to volunteer. A new event that they will host this year is a volunteer fair of 15-25 organizations at Relativity so employees can meet local nonprofits personally to potentially support. As Relativity’s business continues to grow, it is great to see how Relativity Gives scales with the growth. It is a example that other businesses can certainly follow to increase their community impact.
Call to Action
- Know a school that can benefit from the Wired to Learn grant? Spread the word and go here to find more information and apply. The application deadline is February 14th.
- How can someone outside of Relativity help? Smith said if you are a company or work for a company and you’re not engaging with the community to its full potential, Relativity is willing to talk and share knowledge. Here’s some advice to other corporations and businesses on creating and growing giving programs:
- Start small and with something close to home that is a good fit. Close to home means seeing who your employees are connected to and what they care about. This approach will be more meaningful and impactful for your employees.
- Create an advisory council and codify processes and procedures.
- Integrate your giving program into what the company does everyday and line it up to the mission of the company if possible.
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 to get 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, but encountered another barrier in landing a job.
Tech companies were still skeptical that developmental boot camp graduates had the necessary skills to build applications and software since they did not go through the traditional four-year computer science path. They wanted more experience in these graduates. Lowe-Williams explained, “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 firsthand how it allowed 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”, Lowe-Williams said.
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 encounter 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 trying to change the world, but 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,” Lowe-Williams said. “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, followed by a phone screen or face-to-face meeting. 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 work on a project. They should 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 build a minimum viable product (MVP) to solve business problems for the nonprofit or social enterprise.
The biggest challenge The Difference Engine faces is finding 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 to 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
- As a nonprofit looking for development work to aid their cause, submit a project request!
- Volunteer as a board member! Applicants with nonprofit and fundraising backgrounds are especially needed.
Late one night, when we were all in bed
Old Mother Leary left a lantern in the shed,
And when the cow kicked it over, she winked an eye and said,
“There’ll be a hot time, on the old town tonight.”
Fire, fire, fire!
If you grew up in Chicago, chances are high that you’ve heard the song detailing the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The infamous event left the great city in devastation and shambles, but that’s not where the story ends. Some of the greatest minds from various industries joined forces, collaborated, and did the seemingly impossible. The community banded together to rebuild and better the city. Inspired by the spirit of growth and development that existed after the Great Chicago Fire, 1871 was founded in 2012. The organization has grown to be a valuable resource and support system for over 400 digital start-ups and events in the city of Chicago.
1871 is the main initiative of its parent non-profit organization, the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center (CEC). CEC developed 1871 to provide a tangible address and work-space for Chicago based entrepreneurs in the technology and digital arenas. The entire operation is run and supported by CEC. According to their website, 1871 “is a place where you can share ideas, make mistakes, work hard, build your business and, with a little luck, change the world.”
There have been a variety of events held at the eye-catching and modern work-space, such as the StartupAmerica: 1 Year Anniversary National Event, Innovative Technologies in the Automotive Industry: a French View on the Green, and most recently The Purpose Pitch. I was particularly impressed with the push to get young girls interested and involved in the technology scene.
The main goal of the organization is to connect people to resources- be it financial, human collateral, work-space, or simply acting as a think-tank to bounce ideas around. A wide variety of programs are offered to fulfill that mission like mentor/mentee programs, volunteer opportunities, classes and seminars, and the opportunity to hold an event at the Merchandise Mart work- space.
1871 is growing in popularity and helping Chicago based entrepreneurs. The organization is a prime example of the ideal that we are better together, and is doing great things for the city of Chicago.
CALL TO ACTION
Check out 1871’s website, social media pages, and get involved! That can manifest as taking a class, attending an event, or even sharing their page on your social media sites. Digital technology is an ever growing and expanding field and you don’t want to get left behind!
21st Century Charter School teacher, Janell Lewis fulfills ‘life purpose” teaching students and teachers to “Be Great!”
While dozens of teachers have abandoned their mission to educate youth in Gary, Indiana, one South Side Chicago native is challenging students and teachers to be great in a community that thousands of people have left. The birthplace of pop idol Michael Jackson is now a place where hundreds of youth cannot leave and who aren’t sure if anyone will ever know their names.
Located on N. Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park is a store called ‘Secret Agent Supply Co.’ The store carries a unique inventory. Most all the items in the store are meant to spark a person’s curiosity and creativity.
The store location is shared with 826CHI, a non-profit organization offering creative writing tutoring. The space was created to give people in the community an opportunity to learn and grow creatively through their writing.
Chicago and all of its glory can feel overwhelming sometimes. There’s so much going on, there are so many people going so many places and the areas in need of improvement are never ending. The problems that plague this great city may seem far too advanced and complicated for any one person to solve.
Because of this, it becomes so easy to throw our hands in the air, denying responsibility. After all, ‘what can we do?’ So we move on, ignore the issue and focus on other things. Knowing what is going on around us but feeling helpless to change anything.