Most would think starting a nonprofit during the COVID-19 pandemic is a big risk, but not for Josue De Paz. In fact, the height of the pandemic was when De Paz saw an opportunity to uplift his community and help close the digital divide for under-resourced students. He and his co-founder, Hana Suzuki Seligman, founded First Tech Fund, or FTF, a nonprofit with a mission to close the digital divide by supporting students of underserved backgrounds with technology, practical skills, and opportunities to succeed in the modern world.
Josue moved to the United States from Mexico with his mother as a child. His mother worked multiple jobs to buy him a laptop after noticing the value and potential opportunities of technology and dial-up internet. Once Josue was equipped with the resources he needed to excel, he went on to win scholarships for high school and college. Realizing that technology was the tool needed for a youth to succeed, he founded FTF, alongside Hana, and went on to win the prestigious Obama Foundation Scholarship at Columbia University.
New York Nonprofit Media sat down with De Paz to talk about starting FTF, its impact on the community and what winning the Obama Foundation Scholarship means for the future of his organization.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about the moment you decided to start the First Tech Fund and why you decided to start it.
I grew up in Mexico but moved to the United States at the age of five with my mom. I was undocumented for pretty much my whole life. I'm still a DACA recipient at the moment. Growing up under the poverty line in a single parent household, I really saw how technology access was really a way for me to break the cycles of poverty. As I got older, in high school, it just became less and less safe for me to access the public library or go anywhere else outside. My mother had three jobs for me to be able to have access to broadband and a laptop in the home. Tech access was able to change my life, so that experience planted the seed in my head.
I worked in the corporate world at first, but after five years transitioned over to the non-profit space, to Girls Who Code. That was the first time I realized that I can have an impact and enjoy my day-to-day job, which is great. But then, like many other people in New York, COVID-19 hit and I got laid off, and I just started thinking back to all the experiences that I had. At Girls Who Code, I would encounter families who wanted to do the program, which is free, but didn't have a laptop, didn't have guidance and didn't have mentorship. So all those things came together and in May 2020, we started the First Tech Fund.
First Tech Fund is a one-year fellowship program for underserved or low-income students here in New York City, all five boroughs, where we provide each student with a laptop, if they request it, and a Wi-Fi hotspot with unlimited internet access. We pair them with a mentor in an industry specific field like tech, law, finance, health care, government, etc. to make sure that students are being guided through very pivotal times in their lives while also getting access to someone who can help them on certain assignments, or college applications, etc. So far we've worked with over 135 students. We just accepted a cohort of a hundred and two students. And we've just been really, really excited about what we've seen students accomplish.
Starting a nonprofit always comes with its challenges. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome those challenges?
Like any nonprofit, funding is usually a challenge, so I was really doing everything we could to spread the word via the internet since we couldn't see people. I was calling everyone I had ever gone to school with, even if we were in the second or third grade together, and just spread the word about what we're up to and try to serve as many students. The first year, I think we had over 700 applicants for 50 spots in our program. For us, we saw that there was a big demand for the program in the community and that really informed how we thought about growing and scaling the program in New York because we saw so much interest. There's a lot of students that really could be benefiting from the program. One of the other things we just thought about in terms of challenges and ways we could solve them was finding the right people to join us from a leadership perspective. I don't really have expertise in public relations, so finding someone was really helpful. Making sure that we are assembling the right team to move forward was really important, especially from the beginning. I had never run a nonprofit before, so I just wanted to make sure that we were hitting all the right milestones.
What does being an Obama Scholar mean for you and what does it mean for the First Tech Fund as well?
To meet President Obama and then to be part of the Obama scholars program was just a transformational moment for myself. And I think I'm especially excited for the scholars program because it does provide leadership development, mentorship and network of support to really help us with complex problems. The digital divide is not easy to solve, the lack of insight into career pathways is not easy to solve, so I'm really excited to be able to engage with other young changemakers. There's currently 12 of us at Columbia University and I'm incredibly excited to really be able to learn from them, to learn from the faculty at Columbia University and to learn from the broader international network of folks who are part of the Obama Foundation network.
As for the organization, we've been really thinking about ways to grow but grow sustainability. What we hear from students is that hands-on support they get from our staff and from volunteers are some of the most critical support that they get generally. For us, we were always thinking about how we can grow while keeping that part of the program front and center. We started because of students and we want to be student centered, and for us, we really want to grow and potentially serve more students in New York, and also think about ways to scale the program nationally. I’m excited to gain skills here at Columbia, whether it's to manage teams or make sure we’re creating a culture where folks are excited to come to work every day. We just made our first two hires last month, so we're already on our way and that's been really exciting, but I think otherwise just thinking about gaining the skills to be a strategic leader to make sure that the company is moving in the right direction, to make sure our programming is robust and aligned with what the youth actually need are all things that were really excited about. It's exciting, especially as we look to grow every year and I think this program will only allow us to grow more sustainably and more efficiently this year and in the future.
What is FTF’s proudest accomplishment so far? And what do you hope FTF achieves in the future?
In terms of proudest accomplishment, it's just been working with our students. We've seen a ton of students really have that life changing support and trajectory defining experiences. The first student that comes to mind is my mentee from the first cohort, she got to the United States a couple years ago. She lives in public housing, and during the pandemic, was sharing a cell phone with her siblings and doing her homework on her cell phone. To see her go from that moment where she was really struggling to then being part of the program and then seeing her come back as an alumni and work with FTF on her college applications and now seeing her win a full ride scholarship to Columbia University has just been something indescribable. To see students go off to these incredible institutions with not a lot of loans is like what we're focused on. Not just getting students to college, but making sure that they can afford it, and that they're not taking on a level of student debt that will Impact them in their future. For us that's been truly transformational. The Obama Foundation program will just really help me to scale our work but also think of other ways that we can provide programming and resources to the larger community, where we can really help accelerate change. We just did an event with Univision for back to school and provided 30 free laptops to the community there. Because we know that having a laptop at home really helps you with schoolwork. Even in some cases, students get to sign up for vaccines or find social services, so it doesn't just help the student, but really helps the entire community.
At the end of the day, we just want to make a trajectory defining change in the lives of young people all over New York City and we want to work with thousands of students. And I think that in the same way that people made a lot of sacrifices for me, I think that we owe it to the next generation to give them what we didn't have. That's been my whole thing, creating what I wish I would have had access to when I was in high school.
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