Q&A: Per Scholas CEO Plinio Ayala on Bridging the Digital Divide
Today, Salesforce.org announced a $500,000 investment in Per Scholas, a nonprofit organization that prepares motivated individuals from underserved communities with the technical and business skills to launch successful careers in technology. Founded in 1994, Per Scholas operates in six metropolitan areas nationwide, including Boston. The announcement was made during Salesforce’s Boston World Tour event at the Hynes Convention Center.
Plinio Ayala became President and CEO of Per Scholas in November 2003 after serving as Vice President of Operations with oversight for the bulk of its programs. In 2006, he received the Liberty Award from the New York Post for his work, and in 2005 was issued a Citation of Merit by the Bronx Borough President for his leadership in Bronx County. In this interview, he discusses Per Scholas and its mission to open the door to transformative technology careers for individuals from often overlooked communities.
Please tell us about your background. How did you start working in the nonprofit space?
I grew up in the Bronx during the “Bronx is burning” era and had many friends who were equally talented but unable to access training or education opportunities that allowed them to succeed. I was fortunate to be noticed by an English teacher who saw my potential, and supported me into the Better Chance Program that let me attend the Collegiate School in Manhattan on a scholarship. It is because of that opportunity that I am here today, and I have dedicated my career to supporting others so that they have the same chances that I did.
Talent is ubiquitous, but opportunity is not and we have a responsibility to offer opportunities and solutions for the smart and creative individuals who live in our communities.
How did Per Scholas get started?
Per Scholas was established in 1994 by two corporate IT professionals who collectively believed in the transformational power of tech. The organization was originally founded to address the digital divide in New York City. The two founders recognized that schools in the Bronx were unable to afford personal computers to teach basic hardware and software skills to children in the community, creating lasting learning and skills deficits and limiting education and job prospects.
From 1995 to 1998 Per Scholas partnered with corporations in the five boroughs to take donated computers and recycle and refurbish them at a warehouse in the South Bronx, ultimately donating them to schools who could benefit from the additional technology. We hired local community members from the Bronx and taught them the skills to do the refurbishing themselves. However, after only a few months, each of their newly trained employees left the nonprofit to take higher paying positions in the private sector.
At first we were frustrated by the loss of our newly trained staff, but our leadership quickly recognized a major workforce development opportunity and an answer to the skill gap that they had heard echoed by their employer partners. In 1998, we launched the first IT Support training class and pivoted from an organization that focused on refurbishing hardware to an organization that trained overlooked communities with marketable skills and placed them into technology careers. Since then we’ve launched our training in nine U.S. cities in partnership with technology employers and community organizations across the country.
What makes Per Scholas unique in the workforce development space?
Since 1994, we have helped to open doors for more than 9,000 individuals, helping them build successful careers in technology and spurring economic development in their communities. Our model puts the employer at the center of the equation and every course we build is informed or customized by employers in our network. The model has been replicated and proven to work in multiple cities across the country. Independent, third-party data proves that we are making positive and potentially lifelong change happen in communities across the country. These are early and remarkable signs of what’s possible with Per Scholas. By 2023, Per Scholas will reach 4,000 students each year by training more people in its current sites and expanding new training operations in additional cities.
How do students find out about Per Scholas as a pathway for opportunities?
Students find out about us through a number of channels. We build close partnerships with community organizations who become strong referral partners, many students come to us by word of mouth having heard about the training from a friend or family member, and we use a variety of communications and outreach tools to spread the message about our training.
We have a very robust assessment and recruitment process. A candidate has to come in and spend basically a day with us where they have to complete a number of assessment tools. We test for reading and math levels; people have to be at the 10th grade in both. They’ve got to have a high school diploma. And they’ve got to have this willingness or inclination to want to be a technologist. Students who are interested in applying to either our IT Support or Java Developer training course should follow the link at our website here.
How important are employer partnerships for the success of Per Scholas graduates?
Employers are critical to our success and the success of our talent. Salesforce and Salesforce.org have been tremendous examples of what a partnership can look like between an employer and a nonprofit training expert, and have provided thought leadership, coaching, mentoring and volunteer support at a number of our locations. We’re very in tune with what the corporate community is needing as far as IT talent is concerned; and then we take that information, and we can build curriculum that can train people for those skills that are relevant today. It will range anywhere from IT support – these are the folks that will go in and set up your network or fix your computer when it’s down – to software testing, software development.
You’ve partnered with Salesforce.org in some capacity (as a customer, grantee or through pro bono and volunteer work) since 2011. How has this relationship evolved?
Per Scholas is grateful for our ongoing partnership with Salesforce.org. Thanks to the generous support of Salesforce.org we were able to expand our highly successful CodeBridge training, piloted at our New York City location, to our Atlanta site. This support will allow 60 diverse unemployed and underemployed individuals to access a tuition-free, immersive training that will prepare them for careers as web developers and coders and earn an average salary of at least $55,000 at entry level.
Salesforce employees also actively volunteer at our New York location during student mock interviews, career panels and LinkedIn learning workshops. Recently, Salesforce also hosted a screening and panel discussion of the documentary Solutions to America’s Workforce Crisis, a documentary profiling evidence-based programs including Per Scholas, at Salesforce Tower in NYC.
In addition, our customized Salesforce software is critical to our organizational outcomes and overall success. This system enables us to record, analyze and report on data about students, employers, volunteers and other key audiences and help all program staff assess day-to-day progress and challenges, at both micro and macro levels. Per Scholas has integrated this system into our operations so effectively that our staff have even held speaking engagements at conferences on the use of Salesforce and have helped other nonprofits get started developing their own system.
What are you most excited about in expanding to Boston?
The Greater Boston area has become a central hub for technology advancement and future-thinking corporations who are desperately in need of ready-to-work talent trained for specific roles in IT. I am thrilled that Per Scholas is able to partner with organizations like Salesforce and beyond to make sure that we are providing career opportunities to all communities so that equity remains at the center of economic mobility for Greater Boston residents.
What’s next for Per Scholas in Boston?
In Greater Boston, our goal is to expand our networks of employer partners and community organizations to ensure that we are providing the best training solutions for the regions. There is tremendous potential for business growth and scale, so we need to make sure that we are meeting the business demand with qualified and diverse professionals ready for these careers.
Our work in Greater Boston is a significant piece of our national expansion strategy to provide tech workforce solutions for employers and cities across the United States. By 2023, we plan to enroll 4,000 students annually across our markets, and in that first year they will collectively earn about half a billion dollars in wages. I am proud of the economic engine we are creating at Per Scholas and proving that investments in training solutions can strengthen both businesses and the communities where we work.