Marcy Lab School democratizing path to six-figure income in tech for Black, brown students

Reuben Ogbanna and Maya Bhattacharjee are creating alternative educational opportunities for underrepresented and underserved high school graduates.

Reuben Ogbanna started his career in education with Teach for America.

The organization stationed the young leader in New York City where he worked on the ground with the impressionable youth, leading him to become a coach for teachers within the program. One of the measures of success included the percentage rate of students attending college. According to The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 66.2% of 2019 high school graduates attend college.

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When you break this down by demographic, the college enrollment rate for Hispanic students is 63.4% and 50.9% for Black students. However, it’s not solely about attending college—who is graduating? At private colleges and universities, the graduation rate is 52.8%, while for public institutions only about a third (33.3%) of the students finish. A 2017 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that white and Asian students earn their college degrees at a rate of 20 percentage points higher in comparison to Black and Hispanic students.

These numbers show that Black and Brown students are being left behind in higher education and paths for high paying careers. However, it doesn’t show the story of the debt these students are potentially incurring—a cycle that Ogbanna saw play out in real-time.

“It would feel really scary to see a student sign a promissory loan debt that exceeds their total household income,” he explains. “On the other hand, some students would say ‘I got into this more prestigious school, I’ll attend a cheaper option to save myself and maybe my family some money.’ And those schools would fall completely short in a different type of area in that they didn’t have the same type of career opportunities, the networking opportunities, the same types of support.”

After having one too many conversations with students in this situation, he and his co-founder Maya Bhattacharjee began ideating over what is now known as The Marcy Lab School, an organization that is providing an alternative pathway to high growth tech careers for underrepresented and underserved students. theGrio caught up with the founders who spoke candidly about the impact of the pandemic, the real mission behind The Marcy Lab School, and what’s next for this company.

The Marcy Lab School launched in 2019 and a year later, they were faced with the effects of COVID-19. Ogbanna shares, “Being located in a Black neighborhood, in a low-income community in Brooklyn, we saw first hand what it looked like for this pandemic to impact marginalized folks disproportionately. Our students lost family members. When stuff happened, they didn’t have health insurance. Their family members were more likely to be essential workers.”

One hundred percent of the program participants are low-income young adults (ages 18-24) and 100% are Black and/or Latinx. While the organization is about helping young students, they are more than a non-profit. Ogbanna reveals, “It’s more than just about ‘poor kids learning to code,’” as he shifts the focus from the students and their demographics and onto the real problem he is solving.

“We are pushing the boundaries of secondary education. When we are successful, people are going to be questioning what is valuable about the traditional college experience at all. Institutions will be looking at this model to be relevant,” he adds.

One can easily see Ogbanna’s vision. The crisis of the virus has caused colleges and universities to adapt via distanced learning. An alternative form of “higher education” could be appealing to many. The school originally recruited students for whom college was not a financial option or a four-year education wasn’t a desire. However, new students are now discovering The Marcy Lab School.

Ogbanna shares the sentiments of his students: “My college is going all Zoom and I don’t want to pay 30K for college, so I’m going to take a gap year and do The Marcy Lab School.” The inaugural class of Fellows graduated at the ending of September and 89% of program graduates have been placed in full-time software engineering jobs at companies like The New York Times, JP Morgan, and Weight Watchers.

“We want to put a difficult but good decision in front of them: you can go work this six-figure job or go back to school,” Ogbanna reveals. The program actively recruits students without college degrees, creating pathways for socioeconomic advancement where it previously was absent.

The Marcy Lab School also differentiates itself from “a coding school” and it’s competitors by its curriculum. Ogbanna explains, “We want to bring some of the great parts of the college experience to Marcy Labs. We sometimes get that we are a ‘coding bootcamp’ but there are not many bootcamps where you are reading James Baldwin.”

Ogbanna credits much of the curriculum development to his co-founder Bhattacharjee. She formerly served as a Director of School Culture, as well as a literacy curriculum specialist. Bhattacharjee shares that the “curriculum is inspired by our fellows lived experiences, their own personal histories as Black, brown and indigenous people, and the stories of communities that they come from.”

She continues, “As a former English teacher, I fell in love with the empowering idea that ‘our words are our world,’ a pillar of The Marcy Lab School’s Leadership & Development curriculum. Our young people have shown us that learning to tell their stories from a place of power can be such a healing and transformative process. Our fellows study the words and ideas of authors and scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, James Baldwin, and Elizabeth Acevedo as a way of understanding the world around them. Because of the pandemic, they have moved to an online model and do in-person social meet-ups.”

Recognizing the potential challenges of working from home, Ogbanna states, “We’ve tried to do everything we can to help them focus and have a productive environment. We give each student a budget to set up a home office, we provide laptops, we provide 5G.” The students are equipped to learn and have instructors that are sympathetic to at-home environments. Ogbanna perks up, “We love to see aunties and nieces and little brothers that peer into the screen. It’s a reminder that our students are often caretakers.”

The Marcy Lab School is placing students in a position of opportunity. Ogbanna speaks fondly of his students, “Mark is shaping the way employers are looking at early talent. Mark, Devante, and Laisha went through our program and did very well.” The students secured internships at Weight Watchers and due to COVID, the company only hired 20% of the intern class. All three students were included and are now software engineers at the company. Ogbanna boasts like a proud father, “They are working aside students that went to schools like Stanford and UC Berkley.”

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As one can see, the pandemic isn’t holding Ogbanna and Bhattacharjee back. There are 15 students in their second cohort and 15 more starting in February of 2021. They are still taking applications for interested students who fit the requirements. What’s next? The duo is taking it a day at a time while looking to the future.

“By the time we feel like we’ve nailed it, that we know what it takes and we can consistently do it and train teams to do it, by that time, our first group of graduates will be saying ‘Rueben, Maya, we want to start a business of our own, can you help us raise money?’ I’m looking forward to being able to do that for the companies they start.”

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