Story by Muriel Vega / Hypepotamus
“People look at us as just as an education initiative, but we're building a social enterprise.”
Jeffrey Martín is someone who speaks very matter-of-factly, sure of what word will follow the next when sharing his passion for education. He’s a natural-born teacher and has spent years inside the classroom, breaking down the concepts behind computer coding to small children. The entrepreneur brings his commitment to providing access to technology with his social enterprise startup, honorCode.
An Atlanta native, Martín grew up in what at the time was called ‘Little Vietnam,’ near Atlanta’s East Lake Village (also childhood home to rapper Gucci Mane). As one of the students attending Georgia’s first charter school in the 1990’s, “I really got to see first-hand how schools in communities played a role,” Martín said.
A graduate of Penn and Brown, he witnessed his fellow charter students and peers go to college, get jobs, and eventually bring that money back into their community. As an adopted child with biological parents that self-medicated, none of that initially seemed possible for Martín. Moreover, historical data consistently shows how regions with larger black populations have lower upward mobility rates.
In honorCode, Martín is hoping to change those statistics by providing children from K-12 with the necessary tools to build a strong foundation for future careers. The idea came about during his stint with Teach for America in Providence, Rhode Island in 2013, where he was “the only black, Spanish-speaking teacher for my predominantly black student population.”
Born out of a 25-page concept paper outlining several statistical resources on how financial, social, and human capital were not given to communities of women and people of color, honorCode aims to flip that funnel.
“I personally believe that startups have the power and the capability to really change and shape our world,” Martín said. “When you look at the venture capital model, less than one percent of women of color are getting funded, we're at this intersection right now where we have to start investing in them because those are the folks that are driving revenue outside of the boys club.”
In 2015, Martín partnered with his co-founder, Dylan Stone-Miller, to bring computer science and socio-emotional learning — paying attention to each child’s background and related traumas — into the public school curriculum in Atlanta.
While Atlanta has risen through the ranks as a top tech talent city, with over 17,000 technology companies representing an economic impact of $113.1 billion in Georgia, educational access is not equal across the metro. Martin added, training children in STEM education — including coding — from a young age, can become an economic empowerment tool, especially in black and Latino communities.
“Our mission is to coalize educators, and our local business community, to build future workforce ecosystem outside of K-12 schools,” Martín said. “Yes, there’s a coding craze right now — but personally I think that learning how to code, and understanding computing and computing logic, it's a civil right at this point.”
“We always do this thing where we're trying to build capacity for tomorrow, and we haven't started thinking about building the capacity for the present. We're building that capacity for the present because it hasn't been thought about unless you were a high-performance school or a school with an excellent education leader. We’re talking about creating opportunities.”
One essential pillar of the social enterprise is the value it puts on teachers. Through a teacher training program, honorCode works with educators to give them computer science skills and “bring together the social, digital, and technical space — and understanding computational thinking as a problem-solving skill.”
“Social and emotional learning is really, really important. We talk about that at honorCode as two pillars of our training because we will not survive here without those soft skills . . . we aren't talking about how we make a moral, whole human being,” Martín said.
Coming full circle to his childhood, Martín has incorporated the trauma and emotional support into his curriculum. He firmly believes that childhood trauma, both physical and emotional, can hold a student back from succeeding.
“People need to understand that mental health is crucial in a bottom line. People don't understand that having therapy and counseling, this impacts our bottom line. You have to go through the layers, otherwise you're not creating anything that's sustainable,” Martín said.
“We have to deal with the trauma first, before we deal with the skill acquisition. And then once you deal with the trauma and the skill acquisition, then we can really start talking about what it's like to prepare your workforce pipelines.”
Through intentional learning, Martín said that students can obtain business acumen, soft skills like empathy and teamwork, and the confidence to find their place in a professional ecosystem.
“As they enter the workforce, then how do you train them so they can rise in the ranks and actually help shift perspectives at your company?” asks Martín.
So far, through a partnership with Charles R. Drew Charter School, Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta, and other public schools in the area and beyond, honorCode has trained over 60 teachers and impacted over 3,000 students. This summer, the organization held its first Future Workforce Conference, a third component that brought teachers and corporations to the same table to discuss the future of hustle.
“We want to play a role with corporations in thinking about that, in an intentional way, where it doesn't marginalize the communities that we're working with. Atlanta sometimes has these tales of two cities, and it has good intentions, but if we don't tackle this now, it's going to be a space where if you live in the metro Atlanta region in the next ten or fifteen years, if you don't have a six figure income — you won't be able to live here.”
According to Martín, there are about 4,000 students between the ages of 16 and 19 in Atlanta’s Fulton County who are not attending school and not working. “If we were able to reduce that number by ten percent and keep those kids in the classroom, teaching them web development so they're able to get a client that's $35 dollars an hour, that's a $27.1 million economic impact in those communities in one year — and that's just ten percent of them — let alone a one billion impact in their communities over the course of a lifetime.”
“That's how we need to be talking about, are we moving the needle there? We need to bridge the gap between business and policy. And that is something that is very integral and special about Atlanta, given our civil rights history. We are the city that has the strongest case for social enterprises, but we have to have social enterprises working.”
In 2016, Martín and his team won the Change the World Competition at the Forbes Under 30 Summit, taking home a check for $425,000 to further scale their impact across Georgia. He says that having the ability to show corporations that a child has been exposed to computer science from the 6th grade will help companies think outside the box when recruiting talent, especially when it comes to whether they require college degrees.
As they head into 2019, the honorCode team is on schedule to launch an education tech platform to expand its teacher training, with a goal of reaching up to 300 schools in Georgia.
After three years of hustle, Martín is now a few months into serving full-time as CEO of honorCode.
“I'm really grateful for the five years I had in the classroom,” Martin said. “I love my students. I love the teachers I've worked with. I love the relationships that I've built.
“But now it's time, in Atlanta, to step into this full throttle, and I'm really excited to see what ends up coming about — what it means for a city to have an honor code.”