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New mentoring program seeks to connect local youth of color with Grand Rapids' tech industry

The Midwest Tech Project Mentoring Program, co-founded by Jonathon Jelks and Alvin Hill IV, launches Februrary 11 at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
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On Thursday, February 11, local businessmen Jonathan Jelks and Alvin Hill IV will launch The Midwest Tech Project Mentoring Program at the Grand Rapids Art Museum aimed at exposing Grand Rapids’ youth of color to the technology sector and opportunities within it.

“What inspired this project for us is the fact that Grand Rapids is ranked with 53% unemployment for in the black community and 43% of African Americans live in poverty in the city of Grand Rapids. And we have a really fascinating and strong tech community in Grand Rapids. We think we can help them have a stronger relationship, more grassroots in our own city, particularly the African American and Latino communities. Since the 2014 Future of Michigan Workforce forum at Grand Rapids Community College, we’ve been brainstorming and conceptualizing way to connect kids of color to the tech industry here in Grand Rapids,” Jelks, co-founder of The Midwest Tech Project.

The project will begin as a six month program for 25-30 youth and will run after school and throughout the summer. It will begin with a focus on 7th, 8th and 9th graders and be a hands-on learning experience.

“Those grades are a critical point in young people’s lives where they make decisions about who they want to be, and we want to open up their world about who they can be as professionals and entrepreneurs. It’s not meant to duplicate what’s in the classroom. The teens will get real life experience. They’ll go to the Van Andel Institute and see how their tech works and Atomic Object and see how they design software. That’s a business right in the neighborhood that kids are exposed to,” says Jelks.

The event launches the recruitment of technical professionals across the city for financial support and hands-on help. The Midwest Tech Project is raising money to hire two professionals who will lead the youth through the curriculum and help them navigate the world of tech. It’s also looking for mentors and volunteers who want to take on kids within their interests.

Companies and organizations already supporting the project include Open Systems Technologies, Atomic Object, AIMWest, GR Current, Start Garden, the City of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS).

"We've had fantastic reception from the tech community. The love and support has been overwhelming. The community is extremely excited. Tech is such a fast, riveting industry and people want to be a part of it- they just don't know how or have the access," says Jelks. "We're very excited to have the event at the Grand Rapids Art Museum and grateful for their support. Mentoring will take place at the Baxter Community Center after school, starting in May. GRPS is a partner and we'll refer kids to their robotics programs, and they'll refer kids to us. [West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology] WMCAT is launching a program around tech and they'll be speaking at the launch event as well."

Other speakers include Mayor Rosalynn BlissJ. Kevin McCurren of GR Current and Executive Director Of GVSU's Richard M. & Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & InnovationBejamamin Edgar Gott, CEO Of Boxed Water and Team Start GardenTim Vandermel of AimWest and Collaborative Communications Consulting (C3) and GRPS Assistant Superintendent Ron Goreman.

The long-term hope is to facilitate and work with already existing programs throughout the Midwest.

The Power of Tech Fair was the first event of its kind; there's a void,” says Jelks. “Right now we’re strictly Grand Rapids focused, but we’re making connections all over the country. Techtown Detroit has been highly supportive of us. There's a lot of fragmentation between east and west Michigan, but we went and visited them and they gave us a lot of pointers and it was fantastic. They gave us a tour and talked about how they're incubating biz on the east side of the state.”

Jelks and Hill are also planning to go to Silicon Valley to meet with tech professionals and to study other programs that are facilitating diversity in Information Technology in March.

“Both of us grew up in and are from southeast Grand Rapids. We went to Creston and Ottawa Hills High Schools," says Jelks. "We feel that it's our responsibility as younger generation leaders to connect young people with the industry and employers with Michigan's 21st century economy.”

The Midwest Tech Project Mentoring Program Launch will run from 5:30-8 p.m. at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.The event is free and open to the public. Donations are suggested and a cash bar is available. The Grand Rapids Art Museum is located at 101 Monroe Center St NW.

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