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STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Grand Rapids organization has an idea for how to make the tech industry more diverse

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Dustin Dwyer
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Michigan Radio

It doesn't take long for a line to form to try at the new virtual reality headset. 

Right as the event gets started inside the basketball gym at the MLK Leadership Academy in Grand Rapids, the kids spot the headset and want to try it. Nine-year-old Sydney McKinney is one of the first to get a chance. 

The headset completely covers her eyes, I can't see what she sees. What I see is just a regular, rectangular TV screen, with her red Ferrari winding through the streets of some European town.

"How was it?" I ask McKinney when she takes off the headset and returns to real-reality. 

"Good," she says, still smiling.

"So she’s got to buy you a Ferrari now?" I nod to McKinney's mom, Whitney McKinney. 

Her mom is in the same club I am. Neither one of us has tried out virtual reality.

"No, I have not," Whitney McKinney says. "I’m from the old school like Nintendo, Mario Kart and Duck Hunt age, so this is all new for me."

And this new virtual reality video game headset is just the start of the crazy tech in this elementary school gym. There are robots, a 3D printer and one guy demonstrating a brand new, $3,000 dollar headset from Microsoft. 

The hope is that all this tech might convince some of the kids here to see a future for themselves in the industry. And if that works, it could help solve one of the industry's most glaring problems: Its lack of diversity.

This whole event in the MLK Leadership Academy gym came about through the vision of two guys who grew up in Grand Rapids.

"The Midwest Tech Project is a mentoring program that’s kind of constructed to connect kids from the inner city to the technology industry," says co-founder Jonathan Jelks. "Clearly women are underrepresented in the field and minorities are underrepresented in the field so we wanted to do something that was intentional to make sure that people who come from the neighborhoods that we grew up in can become part of Michigan’s 21st century workforce."

"We did it really to help demystify tech for inner city students, Grand Rapids Public Schools students," says co-founder A.J. Hills IV. 

"We see an entrepreneur being birthed out of these young people that we work with."

Neither Jelks nor Hills is a tech expert. But they’re both involved in Grand Rapids entrepreneur community. Both grew up black in a city where most of the business and tech leaders aren’t black. Long term, The Midwest Tech Project they launched is really about making the tech scene look more like their community.

"We see an entrepreneur being birthed out of these young people that we work with," Hills says. "In the future we want to be kind of a tech hub in the community here. We want to be able to offer some incubating services, and help offer a space for entrepreneurs to get connected."

Some of that work has already begun.

"Just this week, we started coding with HTML, and we also used Python," says Brandon Wells. He’s a high school freshman, taking part in another aspect of the Midwest Tech Project’s work. It’s not just this tech expo. Wells is learning programming. He’s gone on visits to local tech companies and pitched ideas to them. He says one day he wants to start his own company. 

For some of the younger kids, just being exposed to new tech is the biggest thrill. Behind Wells, Sidney McKinney holds a different set of goggles up to her face, while a kindergartner gets a lesson on how she can someday build goggles like these.

"Have you ever heard what programming is?" asks John White, leaning down to speak to the young girl. White tells me he works for the furniture company Steelcase. 

"You seem to do really well explaining this stuff to kids," I say to him.

"Because, you know I have more of a purpose here," he says. "Because, I work in IT, I’m one of the few black people in IT in my company. And I look around this room and all these youthful black faces, and my job currently is to see how I can inspire them."

White says for him, there is no more exciting field to be in than tech. And he hopes these kids grow up and consider it, because he says they are needed.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.