A Texas Instruments home computer was the perfect Christmas gift for 10-year-old Meka Egwuekwe in the early 1980s since he loved video games like Combat and Pac-Man. Months later, Egwuekwe was bored with those games, so he turned to studying a BASIC computer programming textbook. Once he learned to move the letters of his name across the computer screen, a passion that has now spanned 32 years took root.
"I really started to take off with coding when I entered seventh grade at East High School," Egwuekwe, 42, said. "I knew I wanted to go into computing, but I didn't know what that meant until I was in a classroom setting at East. I could actually take a full semester's class in programming. I really credit East High School with setting me on my path, which would end up being a 19-and-a-half-year career as a software developer."
Egwuekwe has two teenage daughters and ran the Memphis chapter of Black Girls Code, a California-based nonprofit that provides African-American girls with technology education, for almost three years. He's now the executive director of CodeCrew, a local startup that mentors young African Americans, Latino Americans, and women — all demographics that are under-represented in the tech world — in coding basics. Those groups do, however, make up the largest demographics in Memphis, Egwuekwe said.
"We believe the work we are doing at CodeCrew is transformative for Memphis," Eqwuekwe said. "Too many kids who are not white or Asian males don't see themselves as producers in this space. All of those groups are heavily underrepresented in these 21st-century careers. We can't expect to be prosperous as a city unless we directly address those groups."
CodeCrew, which Egwuekwe founded in 2015 with Audrey Jones and Petya Grady, grew through preliminary funding from the Grizzlies Foundation. They hosted a six-week pilot camp and a two-day hackathon last summer for kids ranging from fifth graders to high school sophomores. The events drew about 65 children who were challenged to build smartphone apps that would help people take advantage of Tom Lee Park's Mississippi RiverFIT. Following the camp's success, the Grizzlies Foundation provided funding for CodeCrew to register as a nonprofit. The organization was then able to start an after-school program.
"I learned that once these kids are shown, they thrive," Egwuekwe said. "They can express their creativity, and they can go far beyond our own imagination in terms of what we thought they could do."
After receiving a private, multi-year grant from a local organization, CodeCrew has extended their reach. Word spread after last year's camp, and this summer they were able to host three camps — two beginner courses and one advanced course. About 85 kids, with more on a waiting list, signed up for the camp. This weekend, July 30th to 31st, they will host their second hackathon at Grizzlies Prepatory Charter School. This year's theme is Memphis City Pride. The kids will break up into teams, choose an attraction or landmark, and build an app to help visitors take advantage of the location.
Egwuekwe quit his job as director of software development at Lokion Interactive in June to fully focus on CodeCrew. When school starts, the organization will teach programming at Grizzlies Preparatory School, MLK College Preparatory School, and at Veritas College Prepatory School. Grizzlies Prep and MLK Prep will offer elective courses where students will earn grades.
"I'm inspired by my East High experience," Egwuekwe said. "I was in a classroom setting that had rigor, grades, and assignments. I believe that can work for other kids."