"I'm an immigrant from Malaysia, and I always felt like an underdog,” says Kenzie Academy co-founder Chok Ooi of his path to becoming a successful U.S. software entrepreneur.
“We were raising our first child while I worked three jobs to pay for college, so I understand the struggles of many of our students. Kenzie was designed for the underdogs. We built the program around our students and removed barriers so many of them could re-skill themselves while making ends meet.”
Chok and co-founder Emily Wattman-Turner, who worked for years in education policy and government, began to brainstorm solutions to address the disruption that automation was causing to manufacturing and other traditional industries, particularly in the Heartland.
“Everything is changing,” says Emily. “We needed to create a scalable way to prepare millions of displaced Americans for ‘new economy’ jobs.”
To do this, Chok and Emily founded the Indianapolis-based Kenzie Academy in 2017. Kenzie is an affordable, venture-funded software engineering and apprenticeship program accessible to everyone, from high school graduates to those with master’s degrees seeking new opportunities in the tech sector, to incarcerated individuals preparing for career reentry.
As U.S. education evolves to meet the shifting needs of the information economy, innovators like Kenzie Academy are opening up new pathways that allow more people to join the booming U.S. tech sector.
For millions of university students, along with many who aspire to attend a four-year college, the pandemic has exacerbated questions about the merits of taking on debt to obtain an education that — for many career paths — can be obtained virtually and in less time.
Adults already in the workforce who are eager to learn new skills are also fueling this trend.
It’s no surprise then that since the pandemic began, Kenzie applications have risen 300%.
“Many of our students come from heavily impacted industries, and they see the writing on the wall,” Emily explains. “These jobs simply aren’t coming back.”
There’s no question about the abundance and range of opportunities offered by the fast-growing tech sector. But there are serious questions about diversity and inclusion relating to who has access to these opportunities in an industry that remains predominantly white and male.
“When I went to college, people would joke about so-called ‘weed-out’ classes for computer science,” says Chok.
“Most people think they aren’t smart enough, that they don’t belong in this industry. We turned this upside down and designed a program to provide community and support for anyone who is willing to put in the work.”
Of the 1,100 students currently enrolled at Kenzie Academy, 52% are students of color, 36% are women, and 77% make less than $35,000 a year.
Access to opportunity comes in many forms, which is why the Walton Family Foundation takes a broad view of what it takes to build an inclusive and vibrant 21st century workforce.
The foundation’s commitment to expanding access to opportunity through non-traditional educational pathways that incorporate apprenticeships, technical education and career placement and to supporting partners like Kenzie Academy reflects one of our core values — to be open to ideas from anywhere.
“Through Kenzie, we can fill a major gap for people being left behind, those who can’t afford to put their lives on hold for a four-year computer science degree,” says Chok.
“Kenzie is a one-year program that takes the best from coding boot camps and pairs it with the critical thinking, communications and soft skills that come with a traditional college degree.”
The result? A diverse group of career-ready graduates prepared for a lifetime of opportunity—and ready to join the workforce on day one.
Every three months, a new cohort of students begins their training in what Chok describes as a “tech startup” environment. Students receive live instruction and project-based coding assignments that quickly build confidence and quality work.
To make the program accessible to everyone, students may participate in an income share agreement, which offers them the flexibility to delay tuition until they secure a job paying at least $40,000 per year.
Kenzie also partners with Butler University so graduates receive a dual certificate from a nationally accredited university, further boosting their credentials.
With the foundation’s help, Kenzie has begun working with Indianapolis Public Schools, introducing project-based learning and tech education to high school students.
“The current high school and college model was designed for the industrial revolution, it has not evolved for the new data economy,” says Chok. “Even if the career you eventually choose does not involve coding, technology now plays a role in everything, and you need to understand how to leverage it to solve problems.”
If these students do go on to choose a STEM career path, juniors and seniors in high school who complete Kenzie’s curriculum are a step ahead. Each graduates with an industry certificate in software engineering or user experience (UX).
As Kenzie continues to scale its operations, Chok and Emily are making the case to new and prospective students that a career in tech can and should be attainable for anyone willing to work hard and learn new skills.
“Economic recovery and social justice are so intertwined in America, and programs like Kenzie are really well-positioned in this moment to be a great equalizer for so many,” says Emily.
“There are great ideas everywhere, and to lift up people who have been left behind, we need to be open to change, while creating meaningful, scalable solutions for all communities.”