Jerelyn Rodriguez of The Knowledge House: “You will fail”

Leadership means empowering other people. For example, this year I want to make sure all of the staff at The Knowledge House have PD opportunities, not just managers and senior staff. Leadership is also having a succession plan; making sure The Knowledge House is sustainable. As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making […]

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Leadership means empowering other people. For example, this year I want to make sure all of the staff at The Knowledge House have PD opportunities, not just managers and senior staff. Leadership is also having a succession plan; making sure The Knowledge House is sustainable.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jerelyn Rodriguez.

Bronx-native, Jerelyn is a graduate from Columbia University and developed a career in city politics and education. In 2016 she was named on the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Education list and is currently on the leadership council for South Bronx Rising Together, a board member at Creo College Prep and the KIPP Foundation.

Ms. Rodriguez co-founded The Knowledge House (TKH) was founded in 2014 to close the gaps in the education­-to-­employment pipeline by leading digital skills training in coding and design for underserved young people in the Bronx. TKH combines technology training, career support, and a comprehensive network of partners to help disconnected job seekers secure rewarding careers in the tech economy and become financially independent.TKH aims to lift entire communities out of poverty by creating a pipeline of talented and capable workers equipped with the technology and skills that provide economic opportunity, living wages, and career mobility.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After working about six years in education, I grew frustrated with the focus stakeholders had on college pathways for poor kids. Although college worked for me, it didn’t work for many of my peers and I wanted to expose low-income young people to alternative pathways to sustainable careers. The tech sector presented many economic opportunities to folks without college degrees, so I began exposing my community members to pathways into tech.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Last year, surviving the pandemic, was probably the most interesting thing that we had to go through as an organization. My co-founder, Joe and I thought that The Knowledge House would not survive and were beginning to make arrangements for if we had to shut down. Then, after the murder of George Floyd many peoples’ giving priorities changed. We wound up raising the most money in our history.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The first three years of The Knowledge House, I was frustrated with any failures or challenges that came with fundraising. I often took rejection personally. Soon though, I realized that regardless of the funder that I am talking to, the failure to fundraise would be my own fault. I learned not to take things personally and instead of getting stuck on others’ bias, I decided to just improve my pitch to be able to convince a biased person to fund The Knowledge House. I learned that when funders take a meeting with me, it is up to me to raise the money.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Traditionally 3 out of 4 fellows get their first job in tech after The Knowledge House. This year was the highest performing cohort in our history, increasing job placement rates to 80%. Five of our fellows recently accepted full-time roles as Data Engineers. Several fellows have secured internships and apprenticeship roles at companies like Red Hat, Google, and Dynamic Yield. One of our Innovation fellows, Quiana applied to us during Covid because she wasn’t sure how a college experience would prepare her for a career. She went on to study engineering at TKH and is now at Red Hat.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Our fellow, Rakhshanda Mirza, having immigrated to the United States from Pakistan, wanted to work in the medical field as a professional but with her previous roles in banking and retail she needed the technical background to get there. She wanted to learn Data Science and Python and as a result of the program, she is now working with the New York Blood Center and does critical work on their website. She uses the skills she learned as a Data Scientist to make important contributions to the lives of New Yorkers and our community.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We need to prioritize digital literacy for all people, not just students and young people. The average worker, not just those in tech careers, need digital literacy.

Community-based-organizations need to begin to provide digital literacy programs. Additionally, the government needs to invest in bridge programs that teach digital literacy. At The Knowledge House, we often see students lack the digital literacy skills to pass the admissions process.

We need community and media outlets, like yours, to help us spread the word about organizations like ours especially as we expand within three major cities this June — Atlanta, GA, Los Angeles, CA and Newark, NJ.

Lastly, I think that governments need to incentivize corporations to hire people without degrees.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership means empowering other people. For example, this year I want to make sure all of the staff at The Knowledge House have PD opportunities, not just managers and senior staff. Leadership is also having a succession plan; making sure The Knowledge House is sustainable. It is important to uplift other people, make sure they can lead, get things done, and take the organization in the right direction.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) In entrepreneurship, you have to do things you don’t know how to do. I had no accounting skills when I began The Knowledge House and I had to do all of the book keeping the first few years of operating.

2) You will fail. Don’t get discouraged. Like I said about learning not to take fundraising personally, it is important to be able to be rejected and to keep going.

3) The customer is always right. Joe and I can think that we have a good program, but in reality the only thing that matters is what the students and alumni say, and what the results are.

4) People invest in the leader of the organization. Especially in the beginning, funders invest in the person, not in the company. That is why it is important for the leader to uplift and empower the rest of the staff.

5) National expansion is very hard. In a virtual environment it’s especially difficult to build strong relationships in new sites.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The private sector has begun to pay more attention to the need to be diverse. There are more DEI initiatives but it hasn’t changed philanthropy enough. Unless more people of color get funding, nonprofits are not equitable. This change needs to happen at a faster pace.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again”. You make a lot of mistakes in entrepreneurship and it’s expected. You have to keep going.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Michelle Obama.

How can our readers follow you on social media?


Twitter: @theknowledgehou

Instagram: @theknowledgehouse

YouTube: The Knowledge House

Facebook: The Knowledge House Fellowship Inc.

Instagram: @jerelyn_r

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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