When you read the list of his accomplishments in working with Harlem youth and the effort he’s devoted to advocating for the underserved, you might assume Clayton Banks is laboring on behalf of a nonprofit organization. But you would be wrong.
Silicon Harlem, the organization Banks co-founded in 2014, is a for-profit social venture designed to transform Harlem into a technology and innovation hub and deliver internet access to a place where very little currently exists.
Banks’ work stems from a simple observation. “I had been going to technology meetups and conferences, but they were all in downtown Manhattan. I said, ‘Wow, why do I always have to go to Brooklyn or Soho to do anything? Can we do one of these in Harlem?’”
Banks and his team hosted their first technology meetup in Harlem in February 2013. It was a modest affair, and Banks expected about 25 people to attend. Instead, at least 500 showed up.
“We realized this is not about how smart we might be or how many white papers we write or how many times we go to Congress and testify,’” says Banks. “This is about galvanizing the community.”
The group began hosting monthly meetups in Harlem and built a database of participants. Almost immediately, Banks was approached to help develop a technology ecosystem, and the idea that Harlem could become an actual tech hub leapt from the realm of the theoretical to the land of distinct possibility.
That first year, Banks and his colleagues decided they did not want to be a nonprofit. “We wanted to build a business model that would self-sustain, so we wouldn’t have to focus so much on repeatedly raising funds, which is the burden of a lot of nonprofits,” he says.
The plan came together in 2014, and the group incorporated as Silicon Harlem LLC.
The mission and focus of Silicon Harlem lies in two areas. “First, we work diligently on education,” Banks says. “How do we get tech training, skill building and mathematics curriculum in schools? Because we’re finding that these disciplines are woefully lacking in a lot of schools, largely because they don’t have the curriculum or the people who can teach it.”
To address this problem, Silicon Harlem partners with the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) to provide after-school technology programs.
“I teach kids how to code and how to build video games. In doing this, we transform students from consumers into makers,” Banks says.
His passion for his work is evident.
“Students are inspired by their work with Clayton,” says Samantha Joseph, director of Youth CareerConnect at NYCDOE, the program through which Silicon Harlem’s courses are implemented.
“I’m also inspired by his vision for his company, by his belief that access and exposure can have a profound impact on young people, by the way he interacts with his students and by the way he interacts with me. It’s genuine, and I don’t see this kind of attitude often enough. It’s infectious.”
Approximately 300 students have participated in Silicon Harlem’s after-school program — the Apps Youth Leadership Academy (AYLA) — and 100 percent of the seniors have attended college.
Angelica Luna’s experience shows the program’s potential. Luna joined AYLA with little interest in technology, but soon became a top student. Then she landed a coveted technology internship which opened the door to even more opportunities.
“She wrote me and said, ‘I’m at About.com,’” says Banks. “‘It’s a great internship and it’s thanks to you guys that I even started to think about technology and computer science. Now I’m around people who are doing all types of coding, and I’m loving it.’”
During her senior year, Luna surprised Banks with the news that she had accepted a full-ride scholarship to Smith College and planned to major in engineering and computer science. And this past summer, she interned with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
“Those internships were really game-changers for me,” says Luna. “But as much as those internships meant to my career, I never would have even thought about applying for them if it weren’t for the skills and experiences I gained through AYLA.”
Banks recently experienced another gratifying endorsement of his work after teaching 21 kids how to make their own video games during a five-week summer course. At the end of the program, Banks invited the students’ parents, guardians and siblings to play the games in an arcade set up in his office.
“You should have seen these kids on day one compared to the final week of the program,” he says.
“The difference was like night and day. These are kids coming from tough situations, and they emerged from this program with pride and professionalism. To see their faces as they watch somebody they care about play their game is priceless.”
Silicon Harlem’s second area of focus — a plan to provide portable high-speed broadband — will launch in 2018.
“As many as 40 percent of the households in Harlem and Upper Manhattan don’t have broadband, and many of those homes have children,” Banks says. “Those kids are finishing their homework at a Starbucks or a library on a cell phone, because some of them don’t even have computers.”
Banks’ team is raising capital to first provide portable high-speed broadband to families who reside in Harlem’s affordable housing and who are classified as low income. Ultimately, they plan to make the service available to everyone. Besides the 2018 broadband initiative, Silicon Harlem is constructing a resilient network in East Harlem — which is in a flood plain — to ensure internet connectivity even during natural disasters. The company signed a multiyear contract to complete construction of that network and hire labor directly from the neighborhood. “We’ve got our workers going digital,” Banks says. “We’re learning how to splice fiber and connect routers and climb up on rooftops and install antennae. They’re gaining a set of skills they can turn into a career, and we’re very proud of that. We’re helping to ensure that people have a good quality of life.”