Long Island City nonprofit breaks tradition in tech hiring, offering path to low-income New Yorkers

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Photo courtesy of Pursuit

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Jukay Hsu began to worry. 

Pursuit, the nonprofit Hsu co-founded and currently leads as CEO, was built to train people to code in person. Transitioning to online instruction threatened to slow down the yearlong program and, in turn, slow down the mission of his organization: to help low-income people land high-paying jobs in the tech industry. 

After making sure its students – which Pursuit calls “fellows” — had access to Wi-Fi and a place to continue their coding education, the organization’s leaders realized they also had to help with the basics. Pursuit, which is located in Long Island City, created a $100,000 emergency cash relief fund, available to both current fellows and alumni, to alleviate some of the financial hardship caused by the pandemic.

“This wasn’t going to solve a long-term problem,” Hsu said. “But we wanted to move very quickly to mitigate the impact this would have on the community.”

Hsu, who grew up in Flushing, has always been driven by community, he said. It led him to study international development at Harvard, to his service in the military and, ultimately, to co-found Pursuit nearly a decade ago, in 2011. 

The organization, which has grown immensely since its founding, now graduates around 140 fellows each year, increasing its fellows’ salary from $18,000 pre-program, to $85,000 post-program, on average. By only accepting low-income individuals and prioritizing diversity, Pursuit has made high-paying tech jobs more accessible and lowered the tech employment gap – something that has plagued the industry since its inception – in Queens and New York City at large. 

The tech industry is tough for most people to break into. It’s even tougher for people without a college degree. 

In New York City, approximately 81 percent of people working in the tech sector held a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to a 2018 report from the Community Service Society. In non-tech jobs, a little less than 50 percent of jobs went to people with college degrees. 

The requirement of a college degree to work in tech is arbitrary, according to Pursuit. A little over half of Pursuit’s fellows enter the program without a degree and go on to land jobs at about the same rate as their college-educated colleagues, according to the organization. 

“A college degree is such a traditional marker of class,” Hsu said.

Photo courtesy of Pursuit

For many of Pursuit’s fellows, earning a four-year degree isn’t a financially viable option. 

“I joined Pursuit at a time in my life where I was essentially working and trying to attend school,” said Chuck Okonkwo, who graduated from the program in June. 

Like many of his colleagues at Pursuit, Okonkwo said he felt trapped in a cycle while trying to earn a college degree and he saw few paths into the tech industry, the place he wanted to be. 

Only a few months after graduating from the program, Okonkwo landed a job with a major financial institution, where he now works alongside several Pursuit alums, and earns nearly six times more money than he was making at the call center where he worked prior to joining the program. 

“I feel that Pursuit – both in the actual training and in the connections that Pursuit has – without those, it would have probably taken a lot longer or been almost impossible,” Okonkwo said. 

About 85 percent of Purusit’s graduates have gone on to land high-paying tech jobs at notable firms, including Twitter, Uber and Citi. 

“Having access to coding education has the power to transform lives, which is why we’re proud to work with the Pursuit team to help prepare and empower its fellows for in-demand careers and opportunities in tech,” said Kip Price, the director of engineering at Codecademy, a company that has partnered with Pursuit and hired several of their fellows. “We’ve been thrilled to have Pursuit alumni join the Codecademy team as full-time engineers and apprentices, and look forward to welcoming many more.”

In addition to sending nearly 100 highly skilled tech workers into the local economy each year, Pursuit has long been advocating for low-income tech education in New York City and in Queens specifically, where there are far fewer tech education programs compared to Manhattan and Brooklyn. 

Councilman Paul Vallone, whose office has allocated more than $100,000 in funding to Pursuit, recognized the need for the organization in 2011, back when he was just a community board member. After Hsu spoke at a community board meeting in Flushing, he and Vallone struck up a relationship. 

“He was right on the edge of understanding the need for tech jobs,” Vallone said. “He saw that there weren’t many opportunities for students in Queens.”

When it was announced that Amazon was planning to move its second headquarters to Long Island City, where Pursuit is located, the organization wanted to negotiate a deal to create a tech education program that would prepare local low-income residents for tech jobs at Amazon. 

Hsu, Pursuit and all their backers were disappointed when Amazon backed out of their plans to move to Queens, but Hsu understood the community groups that opposed the deal. 

“I think it’s important that we have tech companies in Queens,” Hsu said. “But how do we create a tech community where everyone benefits? And create something that’s the opposite of Silicon Valley or San Francisco where no one can afford to live there?”

“That’s really the genesis of why I created Pursuit,” he said. 

By aiming to create a more equitable tech industry, the organization has begun to be noticed and celebrated by the very industry it hopes to change. 

In addition to getting financial support from the New York City Council, the nonprofit has been the beneficiary of donations from major financial institutions including Citi, BlackRock and Capital One, as well as tech companies like Facebook, Etsy and Salesforce. 

In 2019, the nonprofit had over $6.2 million in revenue and a little over $4.5 million in expenses, a marker of major growth for Pursuit. In 2018, the nonprofit took in around $2.7 million and spent $2.8 million.  

“Pursuit is one of the city’s premier upskilling organizations, and between their programming, fellowship opportunities and financing formula, they have created a durable model for moving unskilled workers into careers in coding,” said Matt Fossen, a spokesperson from Tech:NYC. “Pursuit is a boon for both the economy at large as well as the tech sector, and I am convinced they need to play a larger role in New York’s broader workforce development strategy.”

A new set of Pursuit fellows will begin their training in November. They’ll be the first group to begin, and possibly end, their training in a remote setting. 

Okonkwo, whose cohort was forced into remote instruction halfway through the program last year, said the transition was a success. 

“Pursuit really prides itself on its community and I was afraid that in the transition into coronavirus, that community would be lost,” he said. “We were really able to overcome that barrier and we were able to continue that sense of community and continue to gain those skills that we needed to succeed in the workplace.” 

According to Hsu, the organization is prepared for its incoming fellows and he’s excited about the new set of opportunities the fellows will face in what is likely to be a fast changing job market in the coming year.

“Our work is more important and urgent than ever,” Hsu said. 

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