Cultivating Tech Talent in the Midwest
Be prepared to answer when opportunity knocks.
Banke Nganire is preparing, spending his Saturdays in a middle school on the Des Moines east side working to better understand the basics of HTML. After growing up in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and coming to the United States in 2009, Banke is a junior at Des Moines Roosevelt High School and a member of Pi515, a nonprofit organization offering after school programming to teach students the basics of computer programming.
“I’m making my own website,” Nganire, 18, says. “It’s easier than you think.”
Since being founded by Nancy Mwirotsi in 2014, Pi515 works with students in grades 7–12 — primarily within the refugee communities of Des Moines — to build drones and robots, compete in app challenges and learn from professionals within the Des Moines tech community. In addition to technology, Pi515 also works with students on financial literacy, entrepreneurship and college preparation.
The number of students participating in Pi515 has grown each year since its inception. The inaugural group in 2014 started with 30 students but at the start of the 2018–2019 school year, Pi515 had 116 high school students participating and another 35 middle school students.
“These kids are going to need to work somewhere,” Mwirotsi says. “We want them to stay here and create value in the city. Having these kids know that there is a champion for them here, that speaks volumes more than what I can say.”
In total, 325 students have participated in Pi515 and 37 are currently completing postsecondary education. The popularity of Pi515 led to middle school students joining for the first time this year with the higher performing high school students serving as their teachers.
Nganire isn’t wasting the opportunities he’s been made aware of through Pi515. He says he is using the next 18 months to get his grades up, identify what he wants to do after graduating high school and eventually teach his mom how to read and write.
“Everybody looks for an easy way to be successful,” Nganire says. “But as you look for an easy way, that’s how you bring more challenges. I know school is hard and school can be boring at times, but you have to keep continuing. That’s the challenge.”
Monetery is helping others in our ecosystem defeat those challenges. As a funding engine for underrepresented groups in technology, we’re excited to announce that for the second consecutive year, Pi515 and Monetery are partnering to remove roadblocks for these students, who are working incredibly hard to be successful.
“Nancy Mwirotsi, Pi515 and these students are such an inspiration,” says Stephanie Atkin, Dwolla’s VP of Marketing. “As we grow our tech ecosystem, an important piece of that is having local talent to hire. Nancy is cultivating that talent — she just needs some help. We are here to help.”
Filling the Talent Pipeline
Before finding Mwirotsi and Pi515, Muhumure Zabakiza was in a refugee camp in the Congo.
After leaving the camp and being placed in Chicago, Zabakiza relocated to Des Moines with his grandfather.
Initially, the concept of going to school wasn’t something Zabakiza took seriously because in his home country, parents are required to pay for their children to attend school. And because his family couldn’t afford schooling, nobody in his family had an advanced formal education.
While attending church, Zabakiza connected with Mwirotsi.
“She speaks Swahili and we speak Swahili, so Nancy started talking to us,” Zabakiza, 17, says. “She knew we needed help.”
As he was introduced to more of the American culture, he learned that getting an education wasn’t like it was in his birth country. He could go to high school without having to pay.
“The reason why it is so important is because my father, brother, sister, mother — none of them graduated from middle school, let alone high school,” Zabakiza says. “Some didn’t even make it past second grade. I’m right here and not paying for it, so I need to use this while I can.”
Zabakiza is one of several higher performing high school students that works with middle school students on the basics of computer programming. He plans to graduate from high school this spring and attend Central College on a full tuition scholarship in the fall.
“I have a big dream, to help the people that were like me,” Zabakiza says. “In five years, I imagine myself as somebody that is guarding people. Right now I have people guarding me, so I want to guard some people. Return the favors of people that did favors for me.”
And according to Zabakiza, Mwirotsi is one of those people he looks forward to helping.
“There’s a reason why she’s helping all of us,” Zabakiza says. “I keep joining everything she has to offer and I’m able to get to work with her because even though it could be a small opportunity, if you don’t imagine big or go hard, you don’t get anything out of it. Life depends on how hard you are doing something.”
Exiting the Pipeline
Months away from graduating with an associates degree in Business Information Systems from Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), Mohamed Sharif has come a long way — literally.
Sharif, 21, left a refugee camp in Kenya in 2010 to come to the United States. He was initially placed in Idaho and relocated to Des Moines in 2011 where he would graduate from Des Moines Roosevelt High School in 2015, the same year he attended an event at DMACC and first met Mwirotsi, who talked about Pi515 and potential careers in information technology.
“I felt this urge to talk with her,” Sharif says. “She invited me to be part of Pi515 and be a tutor.”
Sharif, a self-taught programmer, says most of his programming languages were learned through Google and Stack Overflow.
“Those became my best friends,” he says.
As he works with students, Sharif tries to help them find a passion and continue to be curious — not frustrated — when struggling with a new subject or lesson.
“That’s what I love about programming,” Sharif says. “Today I think I will know something and tomorrow I’ll realize I don’t know nearly enough. So I just keep learning.”
With graduation approaching, Sharif says he’s looking for a summer internship to have professional experience and opportunities to continue his education. He’s currently building a fitness app that can suggest workouts, record data and replace the notebooks people carry with them to the gym.
“I want to create something people can use and provide feedback on how I’m doing,” Sharif says. “That’s what I’m wanting right now and my plan this summer: try and get feedback on what level my programming is at.”
Replenishing the Pipeline
Mwirotsi herself left Kenya in 1998 and moved to Iowa. Even as the organization grows, she is reflective about how far Pi515 has come.
“At least we have computers now,” Mwirotsi says, laughing. “We’ve been through a lot but if it weren’t for the kids I wouldn’t still be doing this.”
“It’s not just about graduating high school. It’s that when you graduate, you put yourself into a position where you can elevate your whole family,” Mwirotsi says.
While attendance grows, so does the level of activity. Along with building drones, robots and apps, Mwirotsi takes students on field trips to visit tech companies around central Iowa.
Mwirotsi says students “cannot be what they do not see” and that simply taking a group of students to the office of a tech company can inspire them. She says Pi515 will have students attending Monetery as well.
“It is about exposing a child to what they could be, and being relatable,” Mwirotsi says. “So when they hear a professional say how much they hated math, a student can hear that and think the same thing, yet they are looking at someone who is the head of a tech company.”
Mwirotsi says local companies — and even school districts — have evolved since 2014 in understanding the need for STEM education. But there’s still a disconnect, she says.
“When we talk about what the kids are lacking, I know kids who can barely attach a document,” Mwirotsi says. “That’s a lot of what we teach too, just the basics. I see it all the time with adults assuming these kids have these skills. They don’t have these skills until somebody teaches them.”
“Now we have students who have these success stories that are transitioning into college,” Mwirotsi says. “These kids realize there are people who genuinely care about them. They know they can trust us and that’s what it’s about: trust. These kids are damaged at home so when we talk with them, they need to know we are coming from a good place.”
Monetery is proud to support Pi515, which continues to inspire us and organizations across the country. If there is an organization that understands that a tech ecosystem needs everyone to participate to truly succeed, it’s Pi515.
Join us at the 2021 Monetery Summit