Other youth are willing to help. Once my co-founder and I started this initiative I was surprised how many other youths were interested in spreading our mission. People from all over the world started to contact us, interested in starting their own chapters of our organization in their areas. We quickly grew from a 10–15 person organization to one with over 200 volunteers around the world.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rayan Garg.
Rayan Garg is a high school entrepreneur passionate about combining business and technology to create change in the world. Rayan has been featured on the New York Times(print edition), Nasdaq, and CBS for his efforts, and will be heading off to Cornell next year. Rayan is also the co-founder and Executive President of Elevate the Future(elevatethefuture.org), a nonprofit focused on increasing the access to business and computer science education through classes, summits and various initiatives. Since launching, Elevate the Future has impacted 5000+ students in over 40 chapters around the world, and partnered with organizations such as the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and Google. Outside of Elevate the Future, Rayan is currently the President of both the business and computer science clubs at his high school, and is also the COO at Spark Teen, a nonprofit which has already raised 6 figures in funding and is building the first accelerator for high schoolers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
My parents bought me up in a wholesome way trying to give me a balance between education and real-life experiences, constantly supporting my curiosity and encouraging my interests. When I was young, I always had a sensory table at home filled with things like playdough, paints, grains, wooden puzzles, blocks. I loved solving puzzles, building things from Legos, reading, and going for bike rides with my neighborhood friends. Having been a Boy Scout since a young age, I also had the opportunity to explore the outdoors, learn orienting skills, and take on leadership roles. In addition to all of this, my family strongly believes in giving back to the community and it has been a constant part of my life. I still remember going with my family to volunteer at homeless shelters and kitchens. All these values, exposure, experiences, and upbringing has provided me with a very strong foundation.
You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
As of today, there is a lack of access to business and computer science education for a large volume of K-12 students. Most elementary and middle schools don’t have any fundamental courses relating to these areas of studies, even though these subjects are becoming increasingly prominent in our society. This deficiency is greatly amplified in low-income communities, where students are unaware of the opportunities available to them and unprepared for these fields. Any alternative education institutions outside of school are often expensive, creating a barrier for many families. This problem only gets worse in third world countries, where the future generation doesn’t yet know how to use computers in the most basic way.
Elevate the Future is trying to close this gap by bringing computer science and business education to students worldwide free of cost. Our experienced team of high schoolers around the world donate their time to help open-up this world to younger students in their local communities. We strongly believe that technology today is a necessity and will be vital over the coming decades as society tries to deal with problems such as climate change. Our Society must progress forward, and this knowledge should become as mainstream as learning to read and write. We now have 45 chapters worldwide with over 500 volunteers who are making impact in their countries such as Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, Ghana, Dubai, Qatar to name a few.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
When I was in 7th grade, I took an elective class called SEARCH. It focused on teaching the basic business concepts and having students apply the principles learned by coming up with a company and creating a prototype. The way the teacher went about teaching the class was so unique for me, and is one of the major reasons I became so passionate about entrepreneurship. I still remember one of the activities, where people in the class were split into groups of teams and given the assignment to take just 10 dollars and make as much money as we could using it. Our team decided to buy fishnet gloves, with the aim to sell them at our local school dance coming up at the end of the week. We ended up selling out within minutes at the dance.
In regards to technology, when I was in elementary school, I had a teacher that always tried to integrate programming into the classroom by setting additional time aside outside of school hours to teach and expose us to programming tools and concepts such SCRATCH, Tinker, Raspberry Pi. Similar to business, this really inspired me to learn more about the field.
I will forever remember these teachers as they sparked in me the passion to share this knowledge and give back to my community.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger.
My palms sweaty, gripping onto the chair tightly. I looked over at my friend, Drake. Silence. It was the beginning of the 10th grade, and we were sitting, waiting for the final decision on whether our club would be approved. After four unsuccessful tries, this was our last chance — and our closest so far.
9 days later. I tipped the bottle over, filling up the mini dixie cup, one of dozens. Drake rushed, putting up the poster board and opening up the cookie box. Soon, the plaza erupted into a frenzy. Students running all over, stopping briefly, writing down their name, email, then rushing onto the next booth that interested them. It was the club fair. As a first year club, this was our main chance to let students know about our business club. By the end of it, the cookie box sat empty, the glasses gone — over 50 students had signed up. Weeks of preparation paying off.
The rest of the year was much like this, with Drake and I doing as much as possible — preparing curriculum, helping people with their ideas, and working with the administration — and learning the rest along the way.
By the end of the year, I learned how to effectively run meetings and keep a group’s attention. My first true leadership experience, I learned how to work with faculty and staff to find a way to move forward on things they were initially opposed to. And, at the same time, I found my self confidence. I found a sense of belonging and a community of people like me. Seeing what I had built by the end of the year at Mitty is what triggered me to believe I could build something such as Elevate the Future.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Initially there were many ideas of what ETF would be and how it would take shape but then we realized that the only way to not get sidetracked or overwhelmed was to take one step at a time with the key being that we had to keep moving forward even if it was slow. We decided to break things down into bite size milestones and started with the more tangible process of establishing a 503.1c organization, coming up with a Logo, and setting up a website. Then, we started developing lesson plans and reaching out to our network of likeminded people to create a working board and get volunteers. As our organization grew, we divided the tasks and soon we had our first school onboard as soon as the year started in Fall. This kept our momentum going. We revised, adjusted, and continuously grew ourselves during the entire time. I believe the main thing is to just do it even when you don’t have all the answers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I think the most interesting story that happened to me is actually the reason Project Falcon exists today. I remember in the winter of 2019, my family was visiting San Francisco for a day trip, and on the way back, we decided we wanted to pick up some pizza. As I pulled up my google maps, one of the nearest pizza places that popped up was a chain with 4 other locations. As I looked for their menu, or their website, I realized they didn’t have either online. How did a chain of 5 restaurants in one city not have any digital presence whatsoever? I was extremely surprised.
My family and I decided to go this pizza place, and I’m not sure exactly why, but after arriving, I asked the people working there why they decided to not have a website. Did they not want one? Did they know the benefits of having one? It turned out that although the business would have loved a website, but not only did they not have enough funding, they also felt like they didn’t have the time to spend on creating a website. After returning home and doing some research, I released that this was actually a problem faced by small businesses around the country, and soon after, Project Falcon was created. If not for this experience, Project Falcon might never have existed.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
I think one mistake that comes to mind is the opening day of Elevate the Future’s first ever class. We had worked very hard to prepare for our first day. We had gone over all possible scenarios and double checked them. We had emailed the school staff to make sure there were no last-minute changes, reviewed our lesson plan, emailed the parents, and showed up early to test things out. However, we didn’t anticipate many students showing up to the first class without their permission slip signed. Without their signed permission slip, they couldn’t attend our course. With an overflow of students entering the office to call their parents, and with many having nowhere to go as they failed to reach their parents, the administration quickly became irritated along with multiple parents. So much for making an awesome first impression. While all this was going on, we still had to continue teaching the class to students who had filled everything out. Luckily, we were able to finish teaching and work with the administration to ensure this never happened again. Looking back, this situation definitely taught our organization a lot, and definitely was helpful to keep in mind as we set up other locations. Since then we have never had this problem again.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Absolutely! Our biggest cheerleaders have been our parents and family. We knew that we had their unconditional support and at times we would use them as our sounding board. One experience that I was a few months after Elevate the Future started. My co-founder and I, along with our parents were meeting at a local Starbucks. Multiple people had reached out to us about starting chapters in their area, and we weren’t sure what strategy we should take with expanding beyond our community. Hearing our parent’s thoughts on the topic, and the exact strategy we should take with expansion, was really helpful over the coming months.
Aside from my family, I would also like to thank the Executives who have been speakers at our events — their time and guidance is a key factor in keeping us thriving and pursuing our goals everyday. We are also always thankful to our donors without whose support, we couldn’t have hosted the websites for small businesses.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I still remember the other day, when I was on a call with a restaurant owner for whom ETF had developed a website. He just opened up to me and started recounting the struggles he had faced at a young age. Not only did his mother die, but he also lost his home and had to live in a foster care system, where he was constantly treated as worthless and nothing more than a check. Cooking became his only escape and today it’s his livelihood. Being able to help him stay afloat during COVID and thrive, just by using the technical skills I had was so powerful. It’s in our hands to take our education and apply it to the better good and help our society.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- On a higher level, Politicians can help us address the root cause of the problem we are trying to solve by making STEM Education a focus in schools. This step will significantly lower the barrier for access to business and computer science education. Ontario recently decided to completely redo their curriculum, making computer science education a fundamental part of the education system and showing that large scale reform is possible. If politicians truly want to improve the society at large, they need to invest in education and make it a top priority.
- Private companies also have the ability to bring change as they have deep pockets and skilled workforce. ETF, launched an initiative during the onset of the pandemic called Project Falcon, where we design and host a website for the local small businesses, free of charge, to provide them online presence so that they can stay afloat. I understand that we are students but given the chance, we have the ability to deliver. Payment companies like Paypal, or Google can partner with us to provide their services to these businesses free of cost for a period of time till they are up and running and generating healthy profits. Consulting companies can offer their time pro bono to help the businesses learn how to navigate, market, and advertise successfully in the digital era.
- Lastly, I believe the community can also help our initiative by donating funds to our nonprofit. Although all our classes are free, donations from the community help us purchase computers that we can use to teach students in low-income areas or pay for website hosting services for the businesses, enabling the businesses to have the basic infrastructure for a digital/online presence that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Be willing to do something, even if it seems crazy at first. I remember way back in February of 2020, I approached my team with an idea: why don’t we have students who go through our online web design course build websites for local businesses who need them. Initially, my friends thought it was impossible. How would the communication work? Would businesses even be interested? How would students learn and deliver what the clients want. But, despite all the skepticism, I decided to try and build out the initiative. Fast forward to today, and we have helped dozens of these small businesses and taught 100+ students through our program. Betting on what seemed impossible worked.
- Other youth are willing to help. Once my co-founder and I started this initiative I was surprised how many other youths were interested in spreading our mission. People from all over the world started to contact us, interested in starting their own chapters of our organization in their areas. We quickly grew from a 10–15 person organization to one with over 200 volunteers around the world.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Initially, I was worried that being an organization completely run by high schoolers would mean people wouldn’t be willing to help to believe in our mission. Instead, I found that schools and organizations were open to dialogue and were willing to give us a shot. I realized this as I tried to find speakers for the Summit and Webinars our organization was planning to host. Unsure how to start, I just began cold messaging people on Linkedin. Although some didn’t respond, quite a few people actually did and ended up speaking to our students. I am truly appreciative and thankful to all of them and want them to know that their effort and time makes an impact on the next generation of America.
- Persist, persist, persist. Since starting the organization, there are countless examples where persistence has led to a payoff. One that stands out to me is our situation as we tried to get the word out to businesses about our new initiative offering them to build and host websites for free to help them get an online presence during COVID-19. We started off by calling a few businesses — unfortunately, they thought it was a scam. But we didn’t give up and reached out through our local Chambers of Commerce. Unfortunately, very few businesses in the chambers of commerce were interested in having a website developed. But our team was determined and didn’t want to ca./ ., .. ll it a day. We then looked further at programs that help small businesses and found SCORE. We reached out to our local SCORE Chapter, and actually found multiple interested businesses. In addition, our team continued to call businesses and slowly learned how to talk to these businesses. Now, our team is working with various businesses and has already completed some websites.
- Be ready to adapt. This year especially, I think our nonprofit has learned the importance of being adaptable and adjusting to change rapidly. With the COVID-19 outbreak, our whole model of holding classes got uprooted, as we couldn’t teach students in person anymore and schools weren’t willing to let their students know about outside programs. Figuring out a new way to operate as an organization became critical, and our nonprofit pivoted by making classes virtual. Because we were small, decision making and moving was swift. Our program gained further steam as lots of students were getting bored at home as they waited for their school to re-orient. Our enrollment exploded. Beyond this, we also realized that we could now access industry experts much more easily due to virtual delivery. Instead of having speakers only from Bay Area, we now had the opportunity to bring in speakers from around the world. This led us to hold a Virtual Summit in May and June with speakers like an IBM Executive Partner that our students really enjoyed.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Now, more than ever, it is up to our generation to create change. Each day the problems our world faces seem to grow. Whether it’s our environment, poverty, equal rights, or disease. Everywhere we look, there are problems to be solved. We cannot sit down and wait for others to solve them. I would tell them that you CAN make a change as a single person, you CAN start a movement, you have more of an ability to create change then you think.
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. 🙂
Growing up in Silicon valley, I have obviously been surrounded by the Tech culture and seen offices of big corporate giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft. I have read the biographies of Steve Job and Bill Gates and followed news about Elon Musk, Peter Theil, and other industry experts. I was recently watching an episode of the Netflix show “Inside Bill Gates Mind” and during the show, I learned how passionate Bill Gates is about Philanthropy and how it was an integral part of life growing up around his Mom. I saw in the documentary how relentless he was in his pursuit of providing sanitized bathrooms to poorest of communities who had nothing but nature as their bathroom before. In the documentary, he came across as a thinker, a doer, and a kind-hearted person. So if I could, I would love to have a meal with Bill Gates and tell him more about ETF, pick on his brains on about how we can have the Digital Revolution be impactful for those people who are left behind, and maybe obtain support for ETF if I got lucky.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!