-by Ben Sun, General Partner at Primary Venture Partners
I met Maurice through Rob Locascio, founder and CEO of Liveperson. Rob, has also started the Dream Big Foundation, a nonprofit incubator that assists new businesses in poorer parts of the city. One of Dream Big’s biggest successes has been 3 Black Cats Cafe in Brownsville, started by three enterprising sisters who grew up in the neighborhood. In addition to selling killer cake, the Jiminez sisters have built up their venue into a communal meeting place; they’ve held fashion shows, invited local musicians to perform, and they also hold classes in entrepreneurship.
Following one entrepreneurship class that Rob led, a boisterous 17-year-old approached him with an obvious passion for technology, a seemingly limitless curiosity, and a boundless energy and enthusiasm that he focused into probing and well-informed questions. Impressed with his drive and thirst for knowledge, Rob introduced me to Maurice. We spoke for a while about his interests (video games and technology, more broadly), his long-term goals (he’s got some really interesting perspectives on what’s wrong with the current video game production industry, and already some well-thought-out ideas for how to improve it), and a shockingly mature recognition of what he still needs to learn before he can even get started. The more I heard, the more focused I became on helping Maurice get the type of exposure that would answer his big questions, give him insight into NYC’s tech startup world, and give him the continued motivation to keep chasing his dreams.
Maurice grew up in Brownsville, and a simple Google search will tell you that that area is one of the most challenged and neglected neighborhood in New York City. Rates of crime and poverty (40%, nearly twice that of New York City on the whole) are staggering, and less than half of working-age adults currently hold jobs. Much of the neighborhood’s population is cut off from basic services, including fresh food, public transportation, and day care, all of which contributes to the neighborhood’s reputation as one of the riskiest areas in Brooklyn for children to grow up.
As Maurice tells it, the typical aspirations of most kids in Brownsville center around rap or basketball, which they view as their only way out of the neighborhood. Those are the two main pursuits they’re exposed to, through friends and what they see on TV. “If you don’t have any exposure to something,” he says, “you’re not going to know that anything else exists. People are afraid to stand out and be different.”
Maurice doesn’t mind being different, and says he’s never cared about what people think. He tells a story about how he once cut off his eyebrows to see if he could withstand the inevitable ridicule he would face--a bold stand for any teenager to take. Maurice credits his parents for passing along these admirable qualities; his mother, who passed away earlier this year, was a strong role model for him, and he says she was never afraid of what anyone said about her. Both she and his father were known for standing up for their beliefs, and they gained the respect of others in their community for not being afraid to speak their mind.
Maurice’s story resonated with me, and I became determined to help him - and the broader Brownsville community - by providing the type of exposure to NYC Tech that might help him and other teens see vast array of opportunities that exist beyond the Brownsville border. Exposure is key here; these kids won’t be able to think outside of the box until they know what else there is to shoot for. NYC Tech is not for the have and the have nots. It’s for inspired and passionate individuals who want to drive change, and our community could be missing out on some great talent if we limit those opportunities to those with the means to seek them out for themselves.
So we offered Maurice a job. He’ll be working with us for the next month, before he starts his senior year of high school, and his main task is to learn. He’ll be shadowing our team and learning about how startups work, the world of venture capital, and various job paths. Hopefully he’ll also gain a deeper understanding of the tech industry that will be valuable for him as he continues to think of his future.
But Maurice’s takeaways from this opportunity will focus on a more tangible and imminent goal: He’s going to help us develop the Brownsville Tech Project, a summer internship for Brownsville High School teens that will help them land internships at NYC-based startups. The program will specifically address the issue of exposure by giving Brownsville youth the opportunity to work at participating NYC Tech startups, and give them a feel for the jobs and professions that are available to them. In addition, the program will help them build a network of mentors - people they wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to meet - that they can continue to build and lean on in the future. Maurice will be pitching companies and VCs to participate in this internship, and we’re thrilled that he’s agreed to come back to manage the program next summer.
Not only will this be an eye-opening experience for Maurice, but we’ll be learning a lot right alongside him. There’s nothing like a fresh set of eyes and a brand new perspective that makes you see your own “normal” in a new light. We’re looking forward to an exciting month with Maurice, and we’ll be posting his takeaways on our blog for you all to read over the next few weeks.