Get Closer: Jerelyn Rodriguez of The Knowledge HouseSeptember 22, 2023
There is growing recognition that the systems supporting economic opportunity in America are not working for most people. That’s why New Profit is investing in visionary social entrepreneurs who are creating access to postsecondary and career opportunities for young people from historically overlooked communities and driving economic mobility.
Each leader is advancing a differentiated approach, with a model that is deeply responsive to the needs of the communities they work with. What these leaders have in common is that their insights, expertise, and efficacy come from first-hand experience with the systems they aim to shift, and close connections to the communities they serve.
In this series of dialogues, we get closer to these proximate leaders and their organizations to elevate the ideas, insights, and innovations that are advancing economic mobility and opportunity in America.
Jerelyn Rodriguez is the co-Founder & CEO of The Knowledge House, a South Bronx-based nonprofit committed to building a diverse pipeline of tech talent from low-income communities as a critical step in achieving its broader vision of alleviating poverty. The Knowledge House provides high school students and young adults with training, fellowships, and internships to prepare them for successful careers in technology.
Abby Marquand is a Managing Partner on the Economic Mobility team at New Profit, leading the venture philanthropy organization’s efforts to support proximate leaders building new systems of opportunity in the United States.
Abby: Jerelyn, I’m so thrilled to be here with you today. I’ve been an admirer of your work and vision over the past five years that we’ve known each other, but I’d love to learn more about how you got here. Can you share more about what led you to start The Knowledge House?
Jerelyn: I love to say I had two “aha” moments that led me to The Knowledge House. The first was falling in love with technology through making short films in high school and witnessing how technology transformed cinema. The second was my transition into the education field where I saw educators busting myths everyday for low income students. During this time, I met my co-founder, Joe Carrano and I saw him go from a minimum wage job to a six figure salary through teaching himself Python. I saw first-hand that you don’t need a college degree in computer science to get high wages and enter the tech industry. That’s really when I started focusing on alternative pathways and why we started The Knowledge House in 2014. My co-founder and I wanted to make sure that the Bronx was not left out of the innovation economy.
Abby: Tech is such a high-opportunity sector—it makes so much sense that you saw the potential there. Can you say a little bit more about what was missing in the Bronx that you felt that you could do differently and better?
Jerelyn: When we started The Knowledge House, the existing options were for-profit and didn’t offer scholarships to students, making them less accessible to the population that we serve. We noticed there was a real gap in the ecosystem, and we needed to fill it. We looked into evening job trainings to better serve folks that are both unemployed and under-employed providing the flexibility they need. We also wanted to cater to a younger audience, one that saw themselves as digital natives and wanted to move from consuming tech to producing tech. This meant that they needed more time with us versus what existed in the market. Today, we offer a 12 -month experience where we can focus on training people without tech experience to an entry-level technology professional.
Abby: One really unique aspect of The Knowledge House is that you start with kids while they’re still in school. Can you talk about one of the fellowships that exist for high school kids? What does that model look like?
Jerelyn: Absolutely. Today, The Knowledge House offers two core programs. The High School level program is called The Karim Kharbouch Coding Fellowship (KCF) and in this program, high school students join us for summer instruction, and learn everything from coding and graphic design, to presentation and networking skills. Once they complete the program, we follow up on a monthly basis, and support them as they pursue college, or their first internship in tech.
The second program is the Innovation Fellowship. Geared toward adults, this is part-time and delivered in the evenings. Our participants learn web development, front-end engineering, and more. With the adult training program, participants are matched to a case manager that supports them in coping well with the program’s demands as well as an external affairs team that engages with our corporate partners to ensure their support. It’s a very holistic program and, so far, about 75% of our graduates are able to get their first job in tech.
Abby: Another thing that I find so powerful about the Fellowships and your model is that you go beyond the technical skills required for these careers and center the importance of networking, mentorship and social capital. What does social capital mean for the people that go through The Knowledge House programs?
Jerelyn: I am a living example of why social capital is so important—as a Black millennial woman who founded a nonprofit and needs to fundraise. Knowing that Black women get the least philanthropic funding than any other demographic, I have actively tried to model building relationships and networks for our students. This is also a major part of our training. Our students practice their elevator pitches, [then] record and submit them to their career instructors for feedback. We work with them to build their confidence and believe in themselves. We also help them articulate their past journeys and existing transferable skills because often our students are college stopouts or college dropouts and are competing with folks that have four-year computer science degrees. We know this is especially true for the population we serve: if you don’t have certifications or the degree, you have to be great at presenting the way you think, problem solving, and collaborating with others.
Abby: I love that you are highlighting young peoples’ inherent strengths—rather than focusing on how they should conform. Another part of what strikes me about your leadership is how your proximity to the Bronx allows you to relate to these young people. Can you talk a bit about what proximity means to you?
Jerelyn: Proximity is why we’ve been able to do what we do and be successful at it. The Knowledge House was built for us by us. Starting with myself, not only am I a Black woman, I’m an Afro-Latina woman from the Bronx. I’m young and still live in my neighborhood. I’m surrounded by the population that I want to serve which means I’m always hearing the feedback and seeing the problems up close so that they can be addressed very quickly. It took meeting my co-founder and witnessing how he lifted himself through his own training to wonder how we can replicate his experience for the young people that we serve who are all like my co-founder. He’s a Latinx man who grew up in Brooklyn and was pushed out of his neighborhood because of gentrification.
Before the pandemic, The Knowledge House staff was 100% Black and brown. Today, 90% of our staff are people of color and that change is important because since the pandemic, we’ve had an increase in white participants who are low income and also need opportunities. Proximity is key to making sure that we’re being inclusive and diverse.
Abby: That is so powerful, thank you! Given the power of really understanding the community you work in—can you share what it’s been like for The Knowledge House to expand to communities outside of the Bronx?
Jerelyn: In 2019, we really started thinking about expansion because there are so many neighborhoods just like the Bronx that consist primarily of people of color that can also become tech hubs due to an existing STEM investment in that community. While it took us longer to expand due to the pandemic, we’re excited for the upcoming class and have so many applications coming from each region. As of now, The Knowledge House is in the Bronx, Newark, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. In 2022, we were able to recruit about 15 to 20 participants in each region, and this year we’re wrapping up those cohorts and placing those students in jobs.
Abby: That’s amazing progress—and such a clear indication that the well-honed model of Knowledge House could benefit so many more people. Thinking big picture-from a structural standpoint and given that no one organization has solved these vast inequities yet, what do you think it would take for there to be true equity in economic opportunity?
Jerelyn: That’s such a great question because I’m someone who strongly believes in partnerships. I don’t think that we get to the scale that’s needed to solve the problem if we’re not working together, and year after year, I still find that it comes down to the same need: We need to start thinking about systems change and partnerships at a level that is scalable. If we’re not analyzing economic mobility at a systemic level, how can we measure success? It’s a lot of work but I think we can get there as long as we work together which also means addressing the barriers we face to working together. For example, emerging technology is a huge debate right now and it’s already here. We need to overcome barriers like the education sector’s fear of AI. We need to embrace solutions that can automate data for us but we’re too scared that AI is going to replace teaching jobs. Instead, we should be forward looking and think about how to leverage technology to accelerate partnerships and work using automated data.
Abby: That’s such an provocative example of an opportunity for partnership in this sector. Thank you so much for your insights, Jerelyn! Is there anything else you’d like the general public to understand about the young people going through programs like yours?
Jerelyn: My students want to see philanthropic partners commit for the long term. In 2020, we met and surpassed many of our fundraising goals following George Floyd’s murder and the racial reckoning the country was going through. Since then, those funds have dwindled and low-income communities are frustrated. It shouldn’t take an emergency for funders to pay attention to us. As a Black entrepreneur who has to sustain the budget after getting a drastic increase in funding in 2020, it was very hard to maintain our organization’s budget with that uncertainty. My students want to feel like the world has their back.
Abby: That’s so important to raise. Many people were sounding the alarm bells when the money first hit the ground and asking, is this all going to dry up? That said, what inspires you to keep going?
Jerelyn: My staff! My staff have kept me energized the past three years which have been very hard. In 2020, our budget tripled. Our team grew from 25 staff members to 60 in a year … and they’ve had my back and my students’ backs. The Knowledge House has the potential to scale and put more people into jobs and create generational wealth for them. We’re finally at a place where we can see our household impact. This keeps [staff] going. They are passionate, dedicated to the work they do and are here for the long run. And yes, the program is working and people are excited. There’s just so much hope in the work and I love that. That’s what makes me wake up everyday.
Abby: Yeah, that’s incredible. And obviously a testament to your leadership in building a team that is so committed to the vision and so deep in the work.
Jerelyn: That’s exactly it. Right now, we’re focused on exploring different staffing models. And what’s top of mind for my instructional team is AI, and how to get ahead of it. We’re also considering the tech layoffs. How do we ensure that our graduates are still getting jobs? We have a lot of work ahead of us but I feel great. The hope and passion is there, and we are getting to work.
For another perspective from a social entrepreneur, check out the conversation between Sandee Kastrul of i.c.stars and New Profit’s Kevin Greer.