Clayton Banks and Silicon Harlem Bring Technology to the Masses

The company's co-founder discusses his efforts to transform Harlem into a technology and innovation hub by delivering reliable broadband where very little currently exists.

Careful when you’re dealing with Clayton Banks. You don’t want to embarrass yourself. When you look at the long list of his accomplishments working with Harlem youth, when you consider the massive amount of time and effort he’s devoted to advocacy on behalf of the underserved in his neighborhood, you just assume he’s laboring on behalf of some as yet unidentified, but obviously worthy, nonprofit organization.

In fact, you might be reaching for your checkbook to make a donation. “Keep up the good work, brother,” you might feel inclined to say. And it is good work. In fact, it’s great work. But Clayton, himself, will be the first one to tell you that Silicon Harlem, the organization he co-founded in 2014, is actually a for-profit social venture, a limited liability corporation designed to transform Harlem fully into the technology and innovation hub burgeoning just below its surface, to deliver Internet access (read: information) to a place where very little currently exists, and, by the way, to make a profit.

Just as virtually all Americans have done over the course of the past few years, Banks has enjoyed the many changes and improvements the Internet has brought to modern society. “In 2013, I’d been going to a lot of meetups and a lot of net activities and conferences,” he recalls, “but they were all happening in downtown Manhattan. So, for me, I said ‘Wow, why do I always have to go down to Brooklyn or Soho to do anything? Can we do one of these in Harlem?’”

In February 2013, Banks and his team hosted their very first meetup in Harlem, a modest affair at which he expected 25, maybe a few more, guests. “We were geeks,” he recalls, “but we really didn’t know how many other geeks were uptown.” They were prepared to accommodate thirty. Instead, five hundred showed up. “That’s when we realized, ‘Ohhhh… this is not about how smart we might be and how many white papers we can write and how many times we can go down to Congress and testify about whatever,’” explains Banks. “This is about galvanizing the community.” 
Following that first attempt, the group began hosting monthly meetups in Harlem and building a database from their list of participants. Almost immediately, Banks was approached to become more involved in developing a (technology) ecosystem, and the idea that Harlem could become, in its own right, an actual tech hub leapt from the realm of the theoretical to the land of distinct possibilities. “Of course,” notes Banks, “that was always our vision.”
That first year, Banks and company focused almost exclusively on meetups. Gifted with an astute business mind, Banks instinctively set about developing a business plan. He and his colleagues decided almost immediately that they did not want to be a nonprofit. “We wanted to build a business model that would self-sustain,” he says, “so we wouldn’t necessarily have to focus so much on just raising funds over and over and over again, which is the burden of a lot of these nonprofits. Plus, I had never worked with nonprofits, and I just have a business mind.” It all came together in 2014, and the group incorporated as Silicon Harlem LLC. 
According to Banks, the primary mission and focus of Silicon Harlem lies in two areas. “One,” he explains, “we work diligently on education. How do we get tech training, skill building, 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 the problem head-on, Banks paid a visit to the New York City Department of Education, where his business acumen again kicked in and, after convincing them that technology represented great after-school curriculum opportunity, Silicon Harlem was retained to provide after-school technology programs, not just in Harlem, but all around the state of New York. 
“So that’s one side of our business: we deploy our curriculum,” says Banks. “I personally teach kids how to code and how to build video games and, in doing that, we transform them from consumers into makers. And we get paid for that, which is really good. There’s a reason why a lot of people think we are a non-profit. It’s because we lead with our hearts rather than just our pocket, but we make money doing it. So it actually turns out to be pretty good. Everyone benefits, and that’s pretty great.”
Silicon Harlem’s second area of focus launches in 2018, though the group has been diligently working on it since first incorporating. Banks’ enthusiasm for the project is unmistakable as he discusses it. It’s as though he can hardly contain himself. “We’ve been negotiating the proper deals to put ourselves in a position to bridge the ultimate gap,” he beams. “As many as 40 percent of the households in Harlem and Upper Manhattan don’t have broadband, and many of those homes have children. This means 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. So we have negotiated and worked and planned and have been raising the capital to be able to bridge that gap and provide what’s called portable high speed broadband, initially to those residing in Harlem’s affordable housing and to those who are classified as low income.” 
Banks says the service will also be made available to the general public eventually. “We’ll get to those with higher incomes,” he assures, “but we do the reverse of trickle down. We want to do trickle up. New technology and new breakthroughs always start at the top and then ultimately get down into the hood. We want to start things in the hood for a change and let it trickle up. So, we’re literally bridging the gap with a low-cost, affordable high-speed broadband connection for those who are living in low income and affordable housing. And you go from there.”
In addition to the 2018 broadband Internet initiative, Silicon Harlem is also constructing a resilient network in East Harlem, a region that sits in a flood plain, right on the East River. Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, hit the area that was already vulnerable to flooding. That event, or any severe weather, results in wiring problems, knocking out connectivity to the Internet. According to Banks, “You can’t make phone calls or even send an e-mail, so we’re building a resilient network designed to function even when the Internet goes down.”
Silicon Harlem has signed a multiyear contract to complete construction of that network and, in the process, hire labor directly from the neighborhood. “We’ve got our workers going digital,” boasts Banks. “We’re learning how to splice fiber and connect routers and climb up on rooftops and install antennae. They gain a set of skills that they can turn into a real career, and we’re very proud of that. We’re helping to ensure that people have a good quality of life.”
On the education side, Silicon Harlem is now in its fourth year. Approximately 300 students have gone through their after-school program, and 100 percent of their seniors have gone on to college. Overall, it’s an impressive record, but one student in particular stands out in Banks’ memory. “One of our kids from East Harlem came to our class,” he recalls. “She wasn’t really that interested in tech and computer science, but one of her teachers or counselors recommended that she come to our class. Over time, I got to know her. I knew she was smart. She became one of the top students we’ve ever had in the course. She stayed in touch with me.”
The summer preceding her senior year in high school, she was fortunate enough to secure an internship at “She wrote me, saying, ‘I’m at,’” says Banks. ‘It’s a great internship. It’s thanks to you guys that I even started to think about technology and computer science! Now I’m around all these people who are programming and doing all types of coding, and I’m loving it!’”
During her senior year, she surprised Banks with the news that she had accepted a full-ride scholarship to Smith College. “You know when I’m thinking about doing?” she wrote in a note to Banks, “I’m going to major in engineering and computer science.” Banks replied, “Well you’re way past me now!”
This past summer, she served an internship with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “I’ve got my own little ‘Hidden Figure!’” exclaims Banks. “That’s a success story, on her part,” he continues, “I mean, I like to think that I played a little bit of a part in that. She actually came back and visited us just two weeks ago and came to our conference, so, more than anything else, it’s just a very strong affirmation of our work.”
This summer, Banks experienced another gratifying endorsement of his work. “I taught 21 kids over the summer — 10 girls, 11 boys,” he explains. “They all learned how to make their own video game. Not playing the games, they were making the games. They made the games, and then we invited dignitaries and parents, guardians and brothers and sisters, and we’ve built an arcade in our office, and people got to come in and play their games. You should have seen these kids on Day One and then during the final week of the five-week program. The difference was like night and day. And the pride. I’m telling you... these are kids coming from tough situations. It’s not like they were coming out of Beverly Hills or the Silicon Valley. They were coming out of some tough neighborhoods and tough issues, and they emerged from this program with a level of pride, a level of professionalism, a level of completeness, with their own video games, and to see their faces watch somebody they cared about play their game is priceless. Man, it’s hard to even articulate. It is an amazing thing, and those kids couldn’t get enough. They wanted to stay in the program when it was over, but, of course, they went back to school, and they’re now becoming top students in their schools, and that’s what we wanted. And that, man, is a paradigm shift. They’re not thinking about going out and buying games. They’re now thinking, ‘I could actually make that stuff.’”
Obviously, Banks came away from the experience, himself, with a level of pride and completeness that is equally priceless.
As with anyone as passionate about his work as Clayton Banks, you get the sense that he could discuss it all day long. He seems to realize this, as well, and, anxious to return to the business of making more memories, he appears to be searching for a moral to the stories he’s spun, an appropriate summation of this exploration of the organization he’s co-founded and its work in the community. “When I worked for President Clinton, a philosophy that we shared is the idea that ‘intelligence is distributed everywhere evenly.’ For me, I add on to that, ‘since the beginning of time.’ Since the beginning of time, intelligence has been distributed around the world evenly, but access and exposure has not. That’s the only difference. And when you look at even slaves. Slaves weren’t dumb. They just didn't have the access or exposure necessary to bring out their intelligence and utilize it publicly. So, if you think about it that way, it’s all about access and exposure, because that turns into opportunity.”
He pauses for a moment, as if carefully formulating the words he’s about to speak, though it’s apparent that he must have said them a thousand times before. “So my quote is this,” he says. “The skills we build today create the access, exposure, and opportunities for tomorrow. And that applies to everyone.”
And that, in the words of its co-founder, is exactly what Silicon Harlem is all about.