Promoting Innovation by Teaching Teens Tech

Nancy Mwirotsi sees the potential in making connections. But her drive is to make you see it, too.

Mwirotsi, a Kenyan immigrant now nearing the end of her seventh year as executive director year of Pi515, a highly respected nonprofit in Des Moines, sees both looming challenges and enormous possibility for Iowa’s economy in the years ahead.

“It feels like companies are starting to listen to us, and I really hope that continues,” Mwirotsi said. “It’s a matter of urgency now. We have to be serious about looking at the 2030 numbers, because we will pay the price if we don’t do anything.”

International consulting firm Korn Perry estimated last year that the world could have as many as 85 million unfilled tech jobs by 2030. The combination of Baby Boomer retirements and an increasingly technological, increasingly connected world is anticipated to spark an even greater demand for technology jobs across the board. Korn Perry estimated that U.S. companies could miss out on more than $160 billion in annual revenues if they don’t start preparing for their workforce needs right now.

For Mwirotsi, the answer lies in Iowa’s underrepresented populations – specifically, low-income youth, refugees, and girls.

Mwirotsi founded Pi515 (shorthand for “Pursuit of Innovation”) largely as a way to support economically challenged high school students. Over the intervening years, Pi515 has served more than 100 Des Moines youth as it evolved into a patchwork of program that now includes robotics and game design classes for middle schoolers, coding classes for high schoolers, a spring entrepreneurial summit for girls, and a summer innovation challenge for high school students.

Programming is built around partnership – from the computers donated by Facebook, Best Buy, and AT&T to the classes and job shadowing run by employees of Principal Financial and American Equity. Students, who get to keep the laptops, learn how to program in Python, html and JavaScript, as well as obtaining a basic understanding of Agile principles.

“We started doing coding, and it actually was fun,” a seventh-grade girl told Iowa Public Radio a few years ago. “I thought it was going to be boring and annoying. It is. But it’s actually pretty fun.”

The process takes time, but students actually learn more than just tech, Mwirotsi stresses. Being around professionals gradually helps students realize that a broad variety of career possibilities are within their reach.

“If you’re going to be talking about workforce, you have to be talking to kids that are younger,” she said. “It’s not about introducing a concept to people. It’s about introducing them to work.”

“Kids don’t know what work looks like, so you need to be able to open up their minds,” Mwirotsi said. “Make them feel like, ‘We belong here!’ That’s going to take time. It’s not like you’re just going to show up for one STEM competition and decide what you want to be when you’re an adult.”

Mwirotsi now can boast about a long line of Pi515 alumni that have gone onto college and/or solid tech careers. Since the program targets refugee and low-income students, that often has meant injecting new opportunities into families that otherwise might have been headed toward another cycle of poverty.

At the same time, the program is creating an intriguing new pipeline of potential tech workers – one that that’s gained the support of Iowa business leaders. Two years ago, the program received a $10,000 grant from Royal Neighbors of America. Just over a year ago, philanthropist John Pappajohn donated $100,000 and gave Mwirotsi access to experts at the five John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers throughout Iowa to uses as resources to help Pi515 grow.

At the time, Pappajohn told The Des Moines Register that his entrepreneurial center staff planned to train Mwirotsi to become a sharper executive. “When we get done, she’s going to be worth a lot of money,” he said.

Mwirotsi is currently in talks with two companies about expanding Pi515 in Des Moines. Eventually, she’d also like to launch programs in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo.

In the meantime, classes continue.

“I’m very proud of our kids,” Mwirotsi said. “Each one of them has great potential.”

For more information, visit www.pi515.org or listen to Episode 87 of our Mission: Employable podcast.