This 27-year-old MIT graduate explains why she gave up a promising career in tech to help kids get vital job skills
Netia McCray / Youtube channel usembassybrussels
- Netia McCray is the founder of Mbadika, a Boston-area nonprofit that helps kids get the technology skills they need to succeed in the modern economy.
- Mbadika does hands-on workshops with schoolchildren, makes DIY robotics craft kits, films YouTube tutorials on 3D printing, and publishes material for teachers. Its content gets distributed around the world.
- McCray herself is an MIT graduate, who turned away from what could have been a career in Silicon Valley to help solve a problem that she fears is getting worse every year.
When she was 17, Netia McCray received a letter inviting her to attend a summer tech program for high school students at MIT. She thought the letter was junk mail, or maybe a scam.
She certainly didn't know that in a couple short years she would be leaving her home in Tallahassee to study full-time at MIT, or that she would be the first member of her family to travel abroad, as part of her undergraduate studies.
Ultimately, that invitation led her down a path that resulted in the foundation of Mbadika (pronounced bah-GEE-ka), a Boston-based nonprofit organization working to solve an incredibly difficult problem. As technology skills become increasingly crucial in the modern economy, society risks leaving behind those who don't have access.
The organization is headquartered in Boston, and McCray says she sees many of the same dismal learning conditions for students there as those she's experienced in a few of the African nations with which Mbadika partners.
"I've come across public schools that do not have any computers available to middle school students. We often have to bring our own computers and our own 3D printers along to workshops," she said. "And that's just in Boston. I'm worried that the amount of effort needed to solve this problem is only becoming bigger and bigger."
Mbadika has set out to tackle the socio-economic symptoms of the digital divide, which the World Economic Forum, among others, has labeled one of the biggest problems facing the development of the economy.
To combat that gap, Mbadika uses technologies like 3D printing and virtual reality to get kids excited about learning - and her her favorite pop culture characters, like Marvel's Black Panther, to inspire them. For instance, McCray is now co-hosting a YouTube series, sponsored by AutoDesk, showing kids how to use a 3D printer to make "Black Panther" costume accessories.
"We help kids take the crazy ideas in their head, and make them a reality," McCray said, describing Mbadika's mission. Mbadika, when translated from the Kimbundu language, means an "idea, a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action," and McCray says the word perfectly describes the organization's goals.
McCray and her team have partners in eleven countries - with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In addition to developing demonstrations, workshops and teaching aids, they sell DIY buildable kits to teachers and parents of young creatives all over the world.
We spoke with McCray last Thursday-which happened to be International Women's Day- about her work, her inspirations, and her goals for the future.
'It felt like everyone was competing for the same ten jobs'
McCray was first inspired to start her own non-profit while at MIT. Her classmates were competing for highly-coveted jobs at the big-name tech companies - but she wanted to go a different route.
"It's not to say that working at IBM or Google is a waste of time, but it felt like everyone was competing for the same ten jobs, and I didn't understand why more people weren't interested in breaking off, starting their own tech companies or working on their own projects," says McCray.
For a long time, McCray thought that she, too would go into the tech industry. Indeed, on an MIT study abroad program, she ended up assisting with the development of carbon nanotubes for possible use in spacesuits or a space elevator. She assumed that, eventually, she would wind up in the orbit of Silicon Valley tech companies.
But McCray grew worried about the curious, "nerdy" kids from modest backgrounds like her own - kids who wouldn't get to go to MIT, or who didn't have parents as supportive as her own, she says. She did a lot of reflecting on the famous Nicholas Kristof quote, "Talent is universal, opportunity is not."
"Those words made me realize there are so many kids out there with so many ideas that will never see the light of day...That's how Mbadika came to be," McCray said.
'A very unique childhood'
"I had a very unique childhood, in that my parents always gave value to my never-ending curiosity," McCray said. Her father spent six weekends helping her building a scale replica of the Space Shuttle.
"I was this carefree girl," she remembers. "I had no idea there were people like me, but with many more resources than I had," she said. That was, until she got to MIT.
During her second year away at college, her father's health took a turn.
In his last months, McCray found out her father had his own dreams of attending MIT, which he had kept from his daughter, to save her the extra pressure of having to fulfill both of their dreams.
McCray flew home that summer just in time to present her father with her class ring, bearing his last name, before he died in June.
Despite all odds
McCray says that in a larger sense, she's faced pushback and skepticism all along the way.
"As a woman of color in a tech field, it is incredibly difficult to find people that will give me opportunities that are equal to the opportunities being awarded to many of my peers. Learning how to navigate the real world includes learning to navigate that difference," she said.
The intersections of McCray's identity as a "nerdy girl" and as a woman of color are reflected in her love of incorporating pop culture icons into her work, which ultimately lead to the "Black Panther" YouTube series and her partnership with Autodesk.
McCray says she's inspired by "Black Panther" because to the characters in the story "have not been made victims, they have not had their creative agencies robbed of them," the way many colonized peoples and nations have throughout history.
'Leverage what you have'
However insurmountable Mbadika's mission may seem, McCray says she's excited about the future.
She likes to remind kids to never be too scared or too discouraged to reach out to mentors like herself, because a supportive mentor can be the strongest resource a student can have.
"There are so many people out there waiting to help you get ahead, and want to see you succeed. Leverage what you have, and you'll be amazed how far you can go."
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