Emil Ekiyor is the Founder & CEO of INNOPOWER Indy, an Indiana Social Enterprise that works with communities and stakeholders to create capacity-building opportunities for underrepresented ecosystems in businesses, education, workforce development, and entrepreneurship.
Eleven Fifty Academy is working with INNOPOWER as part of our Advancing Tech in 46218 initiative, which is designed to bring high-quality tech education into the Martindale-Brightwood community of Indianapolis and empower the neighborhood’s predominantly Black residents with the skills they need for rewarding careers in tech. We’re excited to announce that Lilly Endowment has awarded the program full funding, and we’ll be working closely with community partners like INNOPOWER, Martin University, Goodwill, and Eastern Star Church to make tech education accessible.
To celebrate, we sat down with Emil to discuss the need for this kind of community-driven programming in the 46218 area code, and the important steps ahead of our consortium to pave the way for the program’s graduates with top tech employers.
EFA: We’re so excited to work with you in the 46218 neighborhood on this initiative. Thanks for your partnership, and your willingness to talk to us today.
Emil: Of course! I am very excited about this initiative because I believe there are models out there that can get today’s kids excited to work hard and be a part of something bigger. Based on my background as a former athlete, I really believe in the power of skill development, and the fact that everyone can develop skills to do certain things.
Just look at what organizations like the NFL and the NBA have done. They’ve created a $100 billion industry based on cultivating talent from our most vulnerable populations and creating a process and a progression for kids to work through. And there’s a $100 billion industry created on the back end of all of that.
And you think the same thing can happen with technology?
I truly believe that the same mindset, same process and approach can be done in various industries. The issue is the people most affected have to be able to see opportunity in what you tell them is going to happen. So with the NFL and NBA… You have kids in the streets, in the 46218, they all see that and believe , if I work hard, and I do this, I can go be an NFL or NBA player, because I see people that look like me on a daily basis doing that and making money. So it becomes a reality.
In tech and in industries like that, we’ve never really done that. We’ve never really been deliberate about how we inspire people to get into it, to show people that this industry was created for them, and they have equal access to it. Today, we’re more aware that there’s not equal access, right? The playing field is not level. So with Eleven Fifty, and being able to focus on how do we prepare our most vulnerable populations to access this opportunity… That’s of the utmost importance, right?
The traditional path of “take all the core 40 classes in K-12, seven years of college, huge debt, and then maybe you get a chance to do something with all of that” doesn’t work for everyone, especially our most vulnerable populations. They have no networks in industries like tech, no social capital. And then we really expect you to just come out of all of that and then go be successful. The funny thing is people have actually done that, right. And those people are the outliers. We point to them and say, Well, if they can do it, everybody else can do it. But they’re the outliers.
What challenges do we face showing people there’s a different way into careers in technology?
I mean, something that has just really hit home for me is I’ve been working with EFA is that I think part of our challenge is trying to convince people that we’re not lying to them. Like it’s so funny in so much of the marketing that we do, people think that we’re trying to scam them or something by saying, “Hey, you can come and get everything you need to get an entry level job in tech, and do it in three months and do it for $13,000 or with funding a whole lot less money than that.” I think people just think, well, you’re lying to me, there’s not going to be any real opportunity there.
So it’s not enough to just make the education available.
That’s right, and I think EFA really is taking responsibility there. Historically, they’ve been creating the training. But on the back end of that, EFA also has to be an advocate to employers, to be able to understand, okay, these students who traditionally haven’t had the opportunity to get into this kind of situation, they’re really prepared and they’ve been trained. And employers should also help prepare their working environment to be able to accept and take some of these nontraditional students.
So EFA now has put them in position themselves to be that buffer, right? So not only are they training, but they’re also on the back end telling employers, “Hey, look, this black kid from 46218 who went through our program can really come to your place and do the work and do a great job.”
The pandemic has shifted a lot of thinking about what work environments can and should look like. Do you think that creates any opportunity for us to drive that kind of message home?
It should, right? What’s happened has created some awareness. More and more employers now feel like they should be involved in the development process, and what that looks like. internships, all those things, those are all good. But at the end of the day employers are even starting to invest in their employees to say, “Look, I’m going to pay for you to go to EFA and take this. So when you come back, you can earn more dollars.”
So when we talk about the wealth gap and opportunity gaps that exist, and how we start cutting those down, we have to put people in situations where they earn more. But to earn more today, not four or five years from now. We know the advantage of the opportunity in tech, and tech in a lot of cases has been in its infancy stages in Indiana. Now is the right time to build that level playing field, especially with a schism we’ve had in the economy and everything. If everything was going great, and nothing happened, it’ll be so hard to convince people to do something like a tech bootcamp to accelerate their career opportunities.
But now that everything has happened, you know, the workforce is different today, people are working from home, people are more aware of the systemic issues people face, and the timing is right for EFA to come in with a focus on equity as well. To say, “We are also creating this deliberately, to help close the wealth gap, to put people in our state especially in a better position to earn more dollars by improving their skills.”
And the fact that you don’t have to pay for it up front, right? Oh, even makes it better.
So what does it look like, then, to approach MVPs with that kind of focus on clearing obstacles so they can participate in this education and the growing tech economy?
In any kind of design process, it’s always important to think about the mistakes of the past. We all know what happens with a lot of well-intentioned initiatives, where they’re not done with the right people. They weren’t done to the people, meaning we’re going to come do this to you or for you.
So the first step for something like Advancing Tech in 46218 is to truly understand the personas of those customers, right? Is it a single mom that has two kids? What are her barriers from doing this? How do I build around what I’m doing at Eleven Fifty for that demographic or that customer and not just saying, “We have this and now I’m gonna retrofit you into what we already created.”
I think that’s the mindset of the EFA team right now, working with Eastern Star and all the folks of Martin University to really design the delivery that fits the customer in that area. We can’t use the same methods that we use in Carmel, to say, “Okay, we’re going to take what we did in Carmel and just retrofit it to 46218.” Designing it with that customer in mind, understanding the headaches and the barriers that customer faces, and making sure that we’ve created an environment that really allows that customer to thrive and succeed. I think that’s the big thing.
Do you think that the presence of reliable infrastructure like broadband internet in these most vulnerable communities plays a role in the timing of programs like this? Could we have done this a decade ago?
I think those things play a role, but I think it’s also a mindset change that needs to happen in those communities. Meaning that people have to feel now that there truly is opportunity. And for so long, people haven’t felt that. So to come in and just think people are just going to jump up and jump into this without engaging and truly educating people about the opportunity and also trying to find out about the headaches people face… It won’t work.
So the broadband and the digital divide, all those things are issues. But those things don’t become issues if somebody really wants to do something. I think back to the NFL/NBA thing, you know, you’re not going to find an indoor gym on the east side of town. But guess what, because those kids really want to do it, they go find the indoor gym, right? They’re hungry to succeed. I think that’s part of what we have to build—the hunger for success.
I think the good thing is that Lilly Endowment folks understand that. And they’ve done a lot of work and research work in that area that we can tap into to truly understand if some folks don’t already know. But at the end of the day, it’s us creating those personas of that customer and really trying to understand how we work with them to make sure that they thrive and succeed in what we’re creating. We don’t want you to just come and be a part of it, we want you to succeed. Because when one person succeeds, five others are going to come. Because the story spreads in the community.
What would you say to prospective students in this neighborhood who have never heard of Eleven Fifty Academy or considered a career in tech?
I would tell them that they’re already immersed in tech, anyways. They use it every day of their lives on their phones, computer, video games, different things with their kids. But I want them to understand that this is the future that we’re headed towards. And there is a real opportunity to get yourself well versed and position yourself to earn more dollars, because tech is something that you use any way—you just get to know how to use it better.
You know, it’s no different than when we were in school. Everyone had to take a foreign language, right? Today’s changing, everybody has to understand this tech world. Code is the foreign language of today. We live in it. So to ensure that nobody is left behind, that’s the kind of engagement we need.