How One Entrepreneur Makes Education Her Business

Jerelyn Rodriguez saw a void in the educational system and decided to do something about it.

“I was frustrated that in the education field, advocates were pushing low-income kids to only go to college,” says Rodriguez, co-founder and CEO of The Knowledge House (TKH), “So I started TKH.”

Launched in 2014 and based in New York City’s South Bronx community, TKH is a training academy aimed at closing the gaps in the education-to-employment divide for low-income learners.

Rodriguez envisioned an alternative path to the traditional path to get out of poverty that educators were amplifying. The Bronx native and Columbia University grad held that the college approach was not for everyone.

TKH recently partnered with New Jersey’s BRICK (Building Resilient Intelligent Creative Kids) schools and with the BRICK Family Alliance to help funnel youth/young adults into TKH fellowships and eventually into job opportunities in tech.

BRICK schools, which includes the Achieve Community Charter School and the Marion P. Thomas Charter Schools, are home to a pool of youth and young adults who need the skills and training that TKH will provide through its fellowship programming

Additional resources come from the BRICK Family Alliance, which includes the South Ward Children’s Alliance that supports children from cradle to career, as well as funding from major organizations.

TKH training

TKH programs teach hard and soft skills, access to postsecondary training, and career readiness for the technology and social innovation sector. The business has served nearly 2,000 young people in New York. In 2021 it expanded its programming to Newark, N.J., Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

The goal, says Rodriguez, is to lift entire communities out of poverty by creating a pipeline of talented and capable workers equipped with the technical skills that provide economic opportunity, living wages, and career mobility.”

“The Knowledge House’s mission is to empower and sustain a talent pipeline of technologists, entrepreneurs and digital leaders who will lift their communities out of poverty. TKH combines technical training in digital skills, coding and design, career support, and a comprehensive network of partners to help disconnected job seekers secure rewarding careers in the tech industry,” explains Rodriguez.

TKH offers two innovative digital skills training programs annually: the Karim Kharbouch Coding Fellowship for high school students, with a preference for immigrants; and the

Innovation Fellowship for adult job seekers. Each is 12 months long, with nine months of technology training and three months of on-the-job training through internships with employee partners.

“Seventy-seven percent of our 2020 graduates are continuing their college education or have secured full-time employment with salaries averaging $90,000, compared to an average of $14,000 upon starting TKH,” says Rodriguez. “Ultimately, TKH is creating an inclusive 21st-century economy that provides opportunity and equity in the tech industry for underserved young people.”

Addressing diversity  

Creating a much-needed pipeline to tech careers for underserved youth involves matching such individuals with companies, Rodriguez contends.

“I believe there is already a talent pipeline eager to enter the tech field, but the talent needs to be matched to educational and employment opportunities. The tech sector presents many economic opportunities for individuals without college degrees, so we began exposing community members to alternative pathways in tech,” she explains.

Pipeline or not, a diversity void still exists in Silicon Valley for a variety of reasons, she argues.

“Geographic disparities, programming gaps and capacity challenges limit access for underserved communities and make it more difficult to develop a diverse talent pipeline for the tech sector. There is a critical need for job training and workforce development programming, specifically in technology and digital skills, to ensure underserved young people are not left behind,” Rodriguez points out.

She adds, “There are 531,200 new technology jobs nationwide, with a projected growth of 11% over the next decade, and college degrees are not required for nearly half of these open positions. The impact of COVID-19 has exacerbated the unemployment rates in underserved communities and has drastically increased the need for The Knowledge House’s tech training programs.”

Transformative impact

Rodriguez has seen first-hand how tech skills have transformed careers, including how access to coding helped TKH’s co-founder.

“I met my co-founder, Joe Carrano, in 2012 and saw his story: He was a self-taught programmer, and before he learned to code, he was stuck in a dead-end, minimum wage job,” she says.

“Furthermore, he was pushed out of his hometown in Brooklyn due to gentrification and moved to the Bronx wanting to give back to the community. After learning code, Joe went from minimum wage to a six-figure job. I knew we had to replicate his experience for other young people in communities like the Bronx.”

Rodriguez met Carrano at her former job. Her experience as a Black woman in education led to her TKH venture.

“After working a few years in education, I grew frustrated with stakeholders’ focus on college pathways for poor kids. Although college worked for me, it did not work for many of my peers, and I wanted to expose low-income young people to alternative pathways to sustainable careers,” she points out,” she explains

The tech sector, says Rodriguez, is an alternate route.

“The tech sector presented many economic opportunities without college degrees, so I began telling my community members about pathways into tech. Since co-founding TKH, we have already positively impacted the Bronx as a nonprofit led by people of color that have created jobs locally and provided digital skills to almost 2,000 underserved young people,” she stressed.

2022 goals

TKH has seen many success stories since 2014, but Rodriguez refuses to become complacent.

“One success story is Janet Perez, a graduate of our Data Science course and class valedictorian. She recently received a full-time offer at Bloomberg LP, with a starting salary of $170k, the highest starting salary ever offered to a TKH graduate,” says Rodriguez.

“In 2022, we are expanding nationally and increasing enrollment to 230 participants across New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Newark. To help young people come out of this pandemic, we have a heavier focus on supporting the entire fellow by reducing barriers and providing wraparound support to help them succeed,” answers Rodriguez.

She continues, “This includes financial literacy education, resume building, interview preparation, soft skills training, enrollment in public benefits, job readiness assessments, job retention services, vocational certifications, laptop, Wi-Fi, and cash stipends.

“We are also striving to support fellows beyond digital skills training. We are also working to offer mental health services to provide counseling and wellness workshops on overcoming the effects of COVID-19 and systemic racism through partnerships with local health care providers.”

The Knowledge House has received funding from major organizations and companies, including the NBA Foundation, American Heart Association, Robin Hood Foundation, Microsoft, Capital One, French Montana, Goldman Sachs, New York Community Trust, Summerfield Foundation, and PSEG.