On the football field, Russell Okung is an enabler. The Seahawks offensive lineman is responsible for making sure his quarterback has enough time to find an open receiver; he must also block opponents and clear out enough space so his running back can gain yardage.
Off the field, Okung is doing the same — but the people he is protecting, guiding, and creating opportunities for are quite a bit different.
Okung is the co-founder of GREATER, a new Seattle-based non-profit that aims to mentor at-risk youth and give teenagers the tools and mentorship they need to succeed.
One way GREATER does this is by exposing young adults to technology. This past Tuesday, it held its second coding workshop at the Seattle Urban Academy (SUA), a small school in Rainier Valley that helps high school students who have previously struggled academically or behaviorally and better prepares them for the next steps in life.
GREATER invites volunteers from Microsoft and Code Fellows who step away from their day-to-day jobs and spend time at SUA teaching the basics of computer science to a group of 10 students who have never learned about the software development process.
Tuesday was just the second coding workshop, but judging by the excitement, focus, and passion that the students showed, it’s clear that this exposure is already making a difference.
Take TJ Mauigoa, for example. Like Okung, the 16-year-old loves football. He’s an aspiring defensive tackle and hopes to play in the NFL some day. But he’s smart enough to know that his athletic dreams may never come to fruition.
Now the sophomore is learning about a whole other side of technology and a potential new career path.
“I didn’t really look into coding before, but it’s actually pretty fun,” Mauigoa said. “All I knew was you’d get a smartphone and use Snapchat and Facebook. I didn’t know about this deep stuff until now.”
In fact, Mauigoa already came up with an app idea.
“It would help people find job interviews,” he explained. “This will help tell you when jobs are available and you could apply on the app. You could also talk to the boss on the app through something like FaceTime.”
Or how about Peyton Rentz, another 16-year-old who was breezing through the Code.org lessons taught on Tuesday, jumping ahead of classmates with a hunger to learn more about coding.
“It’s fun,” Rentz said. “You can tell the stuff what to do; you can make your own games and apps. Before, I just downloaded these apps, but now I actually know how it’s made.”
Sharon Okamoto, executive director and principal at Seattle Urban Academy (SUA), said she’s already seeing a different attitude among her students.
“They are seeing their image of themselves start to shift,” she said. “They are taking more initiative. They are leading the way to class, getting ready before it even starts. I think they are seeing themselves develop a skill that can be transferable to a career path.”
Okung, born to Nigerian parents who immigrated to the U.S. just before his birth, knows what these students are going through. Many of them are victims of gang violence and deal with a multitude of distractions outside of these classroom doors that make it difficult to envision a 4-year college degree or a well-paying job as even a possibility.
But Okung wants to change that.
“I’m with these kids and I see myself,” said Okung, whose father was murdered while working at a gas station when he was 5 years old, leaving him to look after his mother and sister. “I just so happened to be the guy that made it out, but everybody doesn’t have that luxury. What happens to everyone that can’t play a sport or who’s not involved with entertainment? You still need a livelihood, too.”
Okung, who stands at 6-foot-5 and weighs 310 pounds but is very much a gentle giant, sees potential with these at-risk students who have struggled with school. Many have simply not been in the right environment or had a mentor to show them a path toward success.
“It’s not because of a lack of capacity, but rather a lack of access,” said the 28-year-old Houston native. “They deserve a chance and they want a chance.”
To help start GREATER last year, Okung teamed up with Andrew McGee, a former college teammate at Oklahoma State who is the organization’s executive director. McGee said one of the larger goals for GREATER is to not only provide opportunity for the students, but also cause real change in a U.S. technology industry that is lacking diversity.
“These students have been looked over and we are trying to correct that issue,” McGee said. “The technology world may not be full of people that look like them, but that’s the battle we are fighting.”
Added Okung: “These kids understand technology from a consumer standpoint, but not from an innovation standpoint. They want to do what the rest of the tech world does — they want to change the world.”
Rick Duncan, a 15-year Microsoft veteran, helped lead the workshop on Tuesday, guiding the students through tutorials and lessons on Code.org. After spending more than a decade at Microsoft, he knows that having employees from various backgrounds who can share different viewpoints will help companies develop better technology.
“One of our core values at Microsoft is that we think we can build better products if we have a diverse set of people working on it,” Duncan said.
It was rewarding for Duncan to see the students on Tuesday not only understand what he was teaching, but excel. Some of them, like Rentz, were flying through the exercises and Duncan was forced to make the curriculum harder.
He noted that it’s important to have more kids, particularly in the U.S., be exposed to computer science. Duncan explained that he interviewed 30 people in the past three months, many of whom are graduates from places like Stanford and MIT, and only wanted to hire three or four.
“And most of these people weren’t from the U.S.,” he added. “We have 300 million people here in the U.S., and if we want to compete, we need to cast that net wider to really grab people. With GREATER, we can give this out to folks that may not have had the opportunity to learn computer science, and just put a lot of bait out there, see if it catches anyone, and help those people who want to learn.”
GREATER is tackling a complicated problem, and having a real impact will take hundreds if not thousands of hours. Someone who understands this challenge is Zithri Ahmed Saleem, a director at Seattle-based Technology Access Foundation, a 20-year-old organization that runs a STEM-focused school and is partnering with GREATER to help the program achieve its goals.
Saleem supports the mission that Okung and McGee are pushing forward. But he wants them to know how much patience and perseverance is needed to turn a hopeful intention into something that is really meaningful for the lives of at-risk and underserved kids.
“Someone like Russell, with the right folks at the table, could have a substantial impact,” Saleem said. “But it’s just potential until you make it real.”
Starting something like GREATER is a lot to take on, especially for someone like Okung who is in the midst of his NFL career, recovering from an injury while trying to sign a new contract without an agent.
But the Pro Bowl lineman and Super Bowl champion is confident that by partnering with organizations like Microsoft and Code Fellows — which brings in mentors to the workshops and offers scholarships to students at SUA — his non-profit can cause systematic and institutional change over time.
“Football is my job and it is extremely important to me,” said Okung, who earned a business degree at Oklahoma State and is also studying for an MBA from the University of Miami. “I see my career as a responsibility. Part of that responsibility is to understand the platform I’ve been blessed with and managing my time in order to be able to service all of my endeavors. I’m committed to seeing great work being done on all fronts. GREATER plans to do work better than it’s ever been done before.”
GREATER is not going to change the tech diversity problem overnight, or even this year. It is taking a grassroots approach and Okung said the “big vision” won’t come to fruition for at least 15 years, when today’s students have created a successful legacy for their own children. The plan is to build a model that can be replicated in more schools and that can reach more students across the nation.
“Real quick, guys,” Okung said, standing at the front of class and addressing the students. “If you are dedicated, you can make it. I’m going to tell you (that) every week until you get tired of hearing it — I really believe what you guys can do and I believe in your future. Congratulations, because you are still here, you’re still ready to go. So, keep staying at it, keep working. There is a reward at the end, as long keep your mind to it and stay focused, stay determined. I’m proud of you guys. Thanks for letting me be apart of this.”
Editor’s note: Russell Okung will be speaking at GeekWire Startup Day, sharing lessons from the football field that entrepreneurs can apply to their startups. Get your tickets to the Feb. 12 event in Bellevue here.