Partners join forces to diversify tech


With a 53 percent unemployment rate in predominately African-American neighborhoods, organizers are looking for ways to introduce minority students to high-growth industries. Courtesy The Factory

Jonathan Jelks and Matt Visser have joined the might of their respective programs to help provide more technology career opportunities for minorities.

Jelks is co-founder with A.J. Hills of The Midwest Tech Project, a program that teaches technological skills to African-American and Latino Grand Rapids Public Schools students.

Visser is director of The Factory’s coLearning program, which is a series of 12-week courses in design, tech and business held in the organization’s co-working space downtown.

As a way to close the wealth gap and employment disparities among people of color in West Michigan, The Midwest Tech Project will offer 15 scholarships to the coLearning courses beginning Sept. 12: Intro to Programming (back-end web development), Modern Web (front-end development) and Design Thinking (creative problem solving in the context of business).

“The deindustrialization of Rust Belt, heavy manufacturing-based communities across the country has had a disproportionate and devastating effect on the African-American community,” Jelks said. “In Grand Rapids, there is currently a 53 percent unemployment rate in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

“CoLearning offers an affordable on-ramp through courses and training for people to be gainfully employed in a high-growth sector.”

All classes will take place at The Factory at 38 W. Fulton St. in downtown Grand Rapids.

The courses are $800 apiece and can accommodate up to 20 students each. Visser and Jelks said enrollment is open to professionals and adults looking for career retraining, as well as students.

“Of the 15 scholarships offered, 50 percent will go to high school students in GRPS or students who have graduated from GRPS. The others will be people we recruit making sure that diversity is a priority,” Jelks said.

Visser emphasized the hands-on nature of the work.

“All of our courses are taught by industry leaders,” he said. “Our real focus is connecting the students to the companies and thought leaders in those fields to give them real-world experience and projects to work on.

“They leave with a portfolio to bring directly to employers. The feedback we receive from companies is, ‘We want to know what you’ve done, not what you know.’”

Students who enroll in Intro to Programming, taught by Alison Major of Sysco and Kendall Joseph of Elevator Up, can expect to learn how to write a JavaScript program. Students in Modern Web, led by Jeremy Abrahams of Mighty in the Midwest, will build and optimize websites using responsive design and HTML and CSS. Design Thinking students, taught by Marlene Hernandez from Steelcase, will tackle a challenge in multi-disciplinary innovation within a business context.

Students of all three courses will work on shared projects while applying what they learn to their own portfolio pieces.

“All of our students leave with one portfolio project, but several leave with two or three because they’re working on additional projects in their own time,” Visser said.

Besides the portfolio projects, students will work on résumés, job interview preparation — and especially networking with leaders in the tech sector.

“The courses are just one component of the learning,” Visser said. “CoLearning has a network of mentors ready to support our coLearners — a company network, a community network of meetups to help them connect to the ecosystem in Grand Rapids. We want to embed people in all the experiences and events happening.”

Jelks said the “tech ecosystem” in Grand Rapids consists of companies such as Blue Medora, Open Systems Technologies, Atomic Object, Start Garden, Collective Idea, Visualhero, Elevator Up and West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, as well as all of the colleges and universities that offer degrees in fields such as data science and information technology.

“We have a robust community of tech companies, and we have different entities that educate people in tech, so creating alignment between those organizations and entities has to be a priority in Grand Rapids,” he said. “When a student finishes our (Midwest Tech) program, which is focused on exposing them to tech, and they want to learn more, I need to have a place to refer them.”

Jelks said the coLearning tech training effort also ties in with the Good for Grand Rapids initiative launched by Local First, which aims to strengthen the network of companies promoting social good and adding high-quality jobs.

Of the students currently enrolled in the Midwest Tech Program, Jelks said at least three are ready to transition into coLearning.

Those interested can apply for one of the 15 scholarships by visiting

Jelks said scholarship recipients will be selected based on whether they are “interested, committed and hungry to gain workforce experience and know-how about the tech industry.”

He added: “Our role in the community is to not only be an architect within the tech ecosystem but to help democratize an industry many don’t think is for them.”

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