How This Dreamer is Hoping to Close New York's Digital Divide

Bessie LiuExecutive Profiles
Josue De Paz

Josue De Paz, co-founder of First Tech Fund, a non-profit dedicated to supporting underprivileged students in New York City by providing them with technology and internet access. Image Source: Josue De Paz.

Josue De Paz received his first computer at the age of 9 -- a large, chunky, grey piece of technology that would change the trajectory of his life forever.

The co-founder of First Tech Fund, Josue runs a non-profit dedicated to supporting underprivileged students in New York City by providing them with technology and internet access. The 28-year old was inspired to build this company through his own lived experiences.

In the United States, an estimated 15% of households with school-aged children do not have access to high-speed internet connection in their homes, while more than 100,000 school-aged children do not own a laptop. Remote learning has brought further obstacles to parents of lower-income households whose children do not have access to online learning technologies.

With a mission to close the technology gap, First Tech Fund provides 50 students a year in New York City with a personal computer, mobile hotspot with unlimited data, and dedicated mentorship.

Josue was five years old when he first moved to the United States with his mother. Growing up undocumented, his opportunities were limited. His mother worked two to three jobs to support him, often working overnight and during the weekend, where she cleaned houses and babysat for affluent families.

"She saw how much further ahead students were that had access to technology in their homes," Josue said in an interview with The Org. "She really made it her mission to provide me with the same opportunities. Once I had internet access, and connectivity at home, I started to really excel in school."

Josue with computer as a child

Josue with his first computer. Image Source: Josue De Paz.

Having a computer allowed Josue to excel in the classroom and allowed him to explore his interests and curiosities.

"Over eight years, I won over $200,000 in scholarships, including a full-ride scholarship to college. So I know how valuable it is for students to have this tech access, and how much of an impact it makes in their lives," Josue said.

After graduating from high school, Josue went to Santa Clara University and majored in Political Science and Communication. Josue did not receive Dreamer status until 2013, so unlike most of his peers, he could not complete internships or gain work experience in related fields during his first two years of college. After graduating, he struggled to find a graduate job and ended up interning at ad agency, David Goliath.

“That was like a formative experience for me just being in a workplace," Josue said. "It really showed me that I needed to be in a position where I could empower people."

After leaving David Goliath, Josue worked at the Gerson Lehrman Group as a Client Solutions Associate for two years. He then took on a Brand Partnerships Associate position at Collectively in 2018 before leaving to join Girls Who Code as a Community Partnerships & Outreach Manager. It was at Girls Who Code where Josue really saw the impact non-for-profit organizations could make.

"I didn't know growing up that nonprofit operated at that scale at that impact and were able to drive that sort of change," Josue said. "It opened my eyes and so that kind of like sparked something in me, where I was excited by the potential of what I could do in the philanthropy space."

Josue started working on First Tech Fund in April 2020 after leaving Girls Who Code. The company received it's 501(c) status in July that same year. For the first few months, he focused on fundraising and recruiting students for the program. Eventually, First Tech Fund signed deals with T-Mobile and Revivn, who provided the program with refurbished Chromebooks.

As of May 2020, the non-profit has received $43 thousand in funding from 251 individual donors. Although more than 750 students applied to the fellowship’s pilot launch, only 50 spots were available, making the selection process extremely difficult for Josue and his team.

“It was really difficult for me to have to say no to so many students. A part of me wanted to extend the number of spots from 50 to 150, but we wanted to scale intentionally. While we could serve 150 students I don’t think we could serve them well. So we really want to be intentional with our growth,” Josue said.

Priority was given to 12th-graders from households who did not have access to computers or internet connection and all students accepted to the program were people of color, with the majority of the fellows identifying as Latinx or Black.

Student receives laptop

A student with his mother at a First Tech Fund event. Image Source: Josue De Paz.

Selected students received a Chromebook to keep and a wifi hotspot with unlimited data for a year. They were paired with a working professional mentor in an industry of their interest and attended regular skills training and career panels.

It's been almost a year since the students have been a part of the fellowship program, and Josue and his team are already seeing success stories. 18-year-old Mushfiq, inspired to pursue a career in finance after participating in one of First Tech Fund's career panels, was recently accepted to the University of Notre Dame with a full scholarship. Others have been accepted to prestigious universities like Cornell University and NYU.

“We want this to be a springboard for their career. The more we can expose them to, the more programs they can be involved in, the better off they'll be and the more prepared they'll be for their careers,” Josue said.

Students attend career panel

Students attend online business panel. Image Source: Josue De Paz.

Looking forward, Josue hopes to raise more money by forming partnerships with large corporations looking to diversify their employees, as well as with other nonprofits and foundations operating in this space. He hopes that in the next launch of their program, they will be able to provide their students with new types of technology and services, including cameras and digital software.

"If I could get 100 companies to sponsor one student, that would cost $550 for each company and I could serve so many more students. So really, I want to find organizations that are aligned to our mission, that want more people of color in their organizations," Josue said.

Josue is now working on First Tech Fund full time with no salary. By leaving his full-time job, Josue hopes that he will have more time to spend on cold-calling and finding corporate partners. He works closely with his co-founder and wife, Hana Seligman, a product marketing manager at Facebook, and has on boarded an impressive board of directors: Nakia Alston-Hendrickson, a non-profit fundraising professional, Jerome Sanders, a business development manager at CISCO, and Nicole Chin-Lyn, a communications director at NYC Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs.


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