The first computer language Ralph Smith ever learned was Fortran. He didn't like it. Undeterred, the budding programmer next studied COBOL and his life changed. "I fell in love with programming," he said. At that time, in the late 1980s, African-Americans were underrepresented in the tech industry.
But the experience planted a seed inside Smith that he was determined to see blossom: What if kids who looked like him were taught computer programming? What kind of effect would that have on their lives? Their families? Their communities?
In 1997, the Ann Arbor, Mich., native set about founding an organization to do just that: Computer Mentors. Initially, the mission of the scrappy grassroots nonprofit was to improve computer literacy among East Tampa students by putting computers in their homes. That mission was accomplished, with Computer Mentors giving away more than 3,360 units.
Over the years, the organization — now celebrating its 20th year — expanded its focus to include teaching students to code and build apps and obtain Microsoft certifications.
Smith, a graduate of Eastern Michigan University, recently spoke with Times correspondent Kenya Woodard about building a business on faith, and what's ahead for the nonprofit after he steps down, and why he doesn't use Instagram.
In 1997, you were working for a major financial institution making a very handsome salary. What led you to leave that comfortable lifestyle and found a nonprofit?
I always wanted to do some sort of school. When I looked at the numbers in preparation for the luncheon, I thought about how there was no way I would have known it would involve this many kids, this many programs, this many mentors. It's a bit overwhelming when you think about it. It's surprised me how popular it became and how fast it's grown.
I knew that this was something that kids could do to change their lives. I got my first job as a programmer in 1986. I was sent to training to learn the (computer) language. I was the only black person at the school. And, I was the only black person in the IT department at the bank.
It led me to think that this (learning computer languages) really isn't that hard. It was kind of fun. I was making $70,000 a year as a programmer and I knew you could do that without a college degree. That's what I wanted to give back to the community. That's what we're trying to do.
How important has your faith been in guiding you through Computer Mentor's development over the years?
I've got a Christian upbringing. I feel like I'm really in God's will. He made this happen; that's what happens when you're in the will of God. Once it was revealed to me that this was the path to go, it was easy.
I started at the Ybor City Library with five kids and five students with Urban Young Life. They were trying to do something similar. They didn't have the skillset but they did have the space. We first met on Tuesday nights. And then it grew to Tuesdays and Thursdays. People were knocking on the door.
Originally, I used to fund it. Then I realized we had to organize and get grants. The Children's Board of Hillsborough County gave us our first grant. And we used that money to pay for a grant writer.
The second grant we received was sponsored by Gateway Computers, AOL, and Verizon. Winners received cash and were outfitted with new computers. I had to write that grant and I procrastinated and I had to write that grant in 48 hours. I remember apologizing to the kids that Mr. Ralph didn't give it his best effort. I asked them to pray with me. And we got the check.
At the celebration banquet, you talked about Computer Mentor's future. What do you envision the organization to be in another 20 years?
When I think about nonprofit, there's going to be a transfer when the visionary steps away and let's the operations person step in. I'm a visionary; whoever takes my place will be the operations person. That person can take it to the next level. The next level is to expand and cast a wider net (to capture) more clients and support. And also add more programs, like robotics coding and cybersecurity. (Computer Mentors) is waiting for somebody to come in and expand it. If we're perceived as a program just for low-income students, we're at risk. We have to service a larger demographic that will allow us to expand. Right now we stand head and shoulders above everyone. But that won't always be the case.
Looking back, are there some things you wished had happened differently for Computer Mentors?
I'm enthused that after I retire, there's still room for Computer Mentors to exist. There's still some work to be done. I regret that we have not been asked to provide this on a wider scale. We've struggled with resources. It's been a constant struggle. I would have loved to have been adopted by the IT community in Tampa. I thank God for the ones who do support us. Some, like the banks, even hire our students. We get great support and that's all good. But $10,000 here and there – it takes a lot of those $10,000 to run one of these programs.
As a technology professional, what are your thoughts on the future of the industry as it opens up to more women and minorities?
There are so many branches of IT. It changes so rapidly that new experts are made every day and old experts are excluded every day. I don't know if I can consider myself a technologist anymore because I don't know much. I don't know Snapchat, I don't know Instagram. Well, I know that Instagram is for posting photos but that's it.
What's really validating is that we started Computer Mentors before there was a thing called the digital divide. It seems we were well ahead of our time. Now it seems the world is catching up. There's more of a demand now and I don't see that changing.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Kenya Woodard at email@example.com.