TL; DR: Kenzie Academy, a campus-based and online tech school, is on a mission to provide education, experiential learning, and mentorship to underprivileged groups and those displaced by automation. The institution takes a forward-thinking approach with its income share agreement and family-like environment, both of which empower students to launch careers in tech. With a future-focused mindset centered on the student, Kenzie is committed to delivering life-changing learning experiences that result in rewarding, in-demand jobs.
Labor in America has historically been defined by the shade of one’s collar.
White-collar employees of the shirt-and-tie sect — such as advertising professionals, architects, stockbrokers, and lawyers — are typically typecast as working in office jobs that require a college degree.
Those serving in industries like agriculture, food service, manufacturing, and construction are frequently referred to as blue-collar, a term that emerged in the 1920s to reflect the durable denim or chambray fabrics worn by manual laborers.
But today, attire-based employee stereotypes are making way for a fresh group of employees hailed for their ability to fill the jobs of the future.
They’re known as new-collar employees — programmers, cloud computing technicians, and cybersecurity analysts, among other IT roles — and they tend to obtain their skills in new ways.
At forward-thinking institutions like Kenzie Academy, for example, students graduate with a job-ready education in nearly half the time it takes to graduate from a traditional university and with no upfront tuition.
“The way we work is changing,” said Steven Miller, VP of Marketing at Kenzie. “Our goal is to equip learners with the skills they need to succeed in the digital economy. We want to get to the point where the U.S. is participating in the tech revolution to the same extent that we participated in the industrial revolution.”
Students can attend Kenzie’s Indianapolis-based campus or take online courses focused on software engineering or user experience design for 6-12 months. The institution’s instructors, staff, leadership, and mentors are committed to providing students with high-quality education, experiential learning, and mentorship, serving as lifelong advocates.
Working to Empower, Educate, and Upskill Automation-Era Workers
Electrical Engineer Chok Ooi, Founder and Chairman of the software innovation company AgilityIO, came up with the idea for Kenzie in 2016 after the U.S. presidential election that year.
“Our founder, Chok Ooi, had created AgilityIO here in New York, successfully exited the company and was essentially enjoying his life on the beach,” Steven said. “After the elections, he decided that it wasn’t a good time to sit on the sidelines, so he created Kenzie with the mission of empowering, educating, and upskilling underserved populations.”
The institution opened in 2017. While many of its competitors attempt to attract students in urban areas or along the East and West Coast, Kenzie focuses on those without access to traditional coding boot camps.
“We want to help people who have been left behind; people who are usually on the lower end of the economic equality spectrum and have experienced hardship,” Steven said. “Our diverse student population includes people with manufacturing backgrounds, students that only have a GED, military veterans, and the formerly incarcerated.”
Steven told us he joined the staff at Kenzie because his experience growing up in a small Midwestern manufacturing hub mirrors that of many students.
“I’ve watched these changes decimate job opportunities, affecting people I know and love,” he said. “As we see now, with COVID-19 and the downturn in the economy, a lot of traditional industries are getting hit hard, whereas tech companies are still growing and hiring. That’s why Kenzie is working to provide opportunities in tech.”
A Forward-Thinking Approach to Tuition and Instruction
Former Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang, known for his background in STEM, sits on the board of advisors at Kenzie. He recently joined an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session hosted by Chok Ooi on the future of America and the perseverance of the tech industry.
“Chok and I have been friends for years; he believed in me before anyone else did,” he said during the session. “I’m trying to help Kenzie Academy in any way I can because I’m very passionate about the work they are doing.”
Steven told us that Andrew Yang provided some forward-thinking direction in the conceptualization of Kenzie. The institution is very progressive in terms of its pedagogical approach and tuition structure, requiring zero tuition until students get a job earning $40,000 or more. Otherwise, they walk away debt-free.
“Our income share agreement (ISA) helps people who couldn’t afford to have a student loan take effect immediately after graduation without an increase in income,” Steven said. “Our agreement is a bit different than some boot camps in that we don’t offload our ISA debt — we put our money where our mouth is.”
Students at Kenzie graduate equipped with the experience they need to thrive in the real world. Steven told us there’s not a lot of hand-holding involved.
“Students are given the coaching and tools to succeed, but it is also on them to solve problems,” he said. “We teach them how to learn, how to think outside the box from the very beginning.”
Family-Like Support from Admission to Employment
Kenzie students also graduate with a full portfolio of work showcasing the problems they’ve solved and skills they have acquired.
“We have a lot of competitors out there that provide students with enough base knowledge to get going, but what sets our students apart is that portfolio — it’s a huge success booster,” Steven said. “Our instruction is very hands-on and true to form. We get students ready to hit the ground running.”
Steven said Kenzie graduates also gain a lifelong bond with the organization’s staff and educators. Upon acceptance, they’re welcomed into what the school calls the Kenzie Family. Former students often comment on the life-changing nature of the overall experience.
“It’s almost Hallmark-ish,” he said. “Starting with admissions, our staff doesn’t go through a sales routine or try to pitch things. It’s more of a therapy session, assessing what’s going on in that student’s life and whether it’s the right time to enroll. We will say no if we realize it’s too much of a time commitment or there is too much stress they are going through.”
The school also asks that students pay it forward after they become alumni by mentoring current students and offering prospective students resources that could help them.
“I’ve worked for a lot of tech startups and organizations, but this is the first one where, from top to bottom, it really feels like a family,” Steven said.
Continually Preparing for What’s Next
Kenzie Academy has big plans in the works, including a one-month trial program for students who aren’t sure if coding is right for them.
Meanwhile, Steven said the academy is always looking ahead, preparing for changes in the tech industry and the world around us.
“Kenzie is always preparing for what’s next instead of training for the now,” he said. “Chok has always been a proponent of planning for the opportunities that our future reality will present.”