Social Entrepreneur Spotlight: Reuben Ogbonna of The Marcy Lab SchoolApril 28, 2022
The Marcy Lab School, a member of New Profit’s first Economic Mobility Cohort, provides an exceptional post-secondary education experience that propels underestimated young adults into financially rewarding and purpose-driven careers in the tech sector.
To get closer with The Marcy Lab School, Co-Founder and Executive Director Reuben Ogbonna generously shared his leadership philosophy of “vulnerability and discipline” and what “economic mobility” looks like for his students.
Q: What is the one thing you wish more people knew about the issue The Marcy Lab School is working to solve?
A: Tech training is only a small (but important) component of what we do. We are trying to rearchitect the college experience by centering the interests of our students. We are not solely concerned with helping someone land their first job; we want to create the conditions for young adults to grow into the best versions of themselves.
Our job outcomes are eye-popping so I spend 80% of my time talking with potential stakeholders about our curriculum and employer partnership strategy. However, what makes us truly special is the work that our instructors do to facilitate holistic learning spaces. Currently, we are one week into the first week of school for our Spring 2022 class. They have not begun coding yet. Instead, their first week was spent diving into bell hooks’ all about love. Their first lecture was on our core tenets of great writing, guided by William Strunk’s Elements of Style.
You can literally learn to code anywhere. What makes our work special is that 19 and 20-year-old Black and brown young adults are stepping into six-figure jobs at leading tech companies and startups and being expected to contribute and assimilate to a new culture on day one. Our work is to help them be so grounded in themselves, their assets, and the community that they come from that they do not lose themselves in this new world that they will enter into.
Q: What has been the most fulfilling part of the work that you do?
A: Seeing Black and brown young adults step into true financial freedom. We talk about “economic mobility” a lot in our space but never really discuss what it looks like when it happens in a transformative way for the people we serve. Yes, our fellows are saving, investing, even buying homes with their families. However, they are also just living life on their own terms. They are taking advantage of their companies’ unlimited vacation policies. They are hiking in Utah. They are traveling abroad for the first time. They are living in fancy apartments with their best friends. They are hosting happy hours for their classmates. They are having the social and developmental experiences that we previously assumed were only available to the privileged few.
My leadership style is defined by vulnerability and discipline. Vulnerability can be defined as 'the state of being exposed'. I lead with openness and transparency - both pertaining to matters of my own personal life and the company itself.
Q: Can you share a story that brings to life why you made the decision to pursue a career in your field?
A: Meet Mark Griffith. He is the son of hardworking West Indian immigrants. He is a gamer, a hardware nerd, and an incredibly empathetic human being. He is one of our inaugural Software Engineer Fellows.
Mark graduated from a selective public high school here in New York City. He was a stellar student who engaged in extracurricular activities that fed his interest in technology. During his senior year, he was admitted to his dream school, Drexel University. He even received a partial scholarship. However, at an all-in cost of $70,000 per year, he still would have had to take out approximately $30,000 in student loans per year in order to attend. Wary of the financial strain that this would have put on him and his family, he decided to postpone college matriculation.
Mark spent two years out of school, somewhat aimlessly searching for a pathway into a meaningful career. He found us in May of 2019 and began his fellowship that following September. Motivated by an insatiable curiosity and a desire to succeed for his family, Mark approached his fellowship with an inspiring amount of ambition and discipline. From building an app that used NLP to help users find Reddit communities based on their Spotify library to experimenting with WebGL to create 3D games, he viewed every project as an opportunity to stretch his learning boundaries. An aspiring entrepreneur, he was never afraid to take on the Product Manager role for his group projects.
Over the past twelve months, he has developed the skills and mindsets that would make him an invaluable asset to any growing engineering organization. Last week, he landed his first full-time software engineering role. Had he chosen to attend Drexel University back in 2017, he would be $120,000 in debt, preparing for a semester of courses on Zoom. Instead, he will be getting paid $102,000 per year to build scalable APIs for a growing company with 4.6 million users around the world.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
A: My leadership style is defined by vulnerability and discipline. Vulnerability can be defined as “the state of being exposed”. I lead with openness and transparency – both pertaining to matters of my own personal life and the company itself. At Marcy, vulnerability manifests as a team culture where people feel connected enough to say to their colleagues “I love you” and safe enough to answer the question “how did my manager fall short” in a public forum. In my view, vulnerability leads to trust and trust is a necessity for us to do our best work for our kids.
To get closer to The Marcy Lab School visit their website, explore their year in review, meet students Shemar and Rosemary, and take a look at the first day of school. Learn more about why Economic Mobility is a key investment area for New Profit here.