Above: Charles Ashley III. Photograph by Allison Pharmkis.

AS SOMEONE WHO GREW UP IN Chicago and Las Vegas, Nevada, Charles Ashley III easily could have fallen under the spell of urban life. Instead, he found his future in a cloud. The cloud, to be precise: the Internet-based work space in which tomorrow’s jobs will operate. From a base in Albuquerque, Ashley and his 16-person Cultivating Coders team help kids craft their own digital pathways.

Cultivating Coders’ eight-week mobile boot camp lands in places like Albuquerque’s South Valley, Española, and the Navajo Nation to work with young people who have experienced poverty and, in some cases, live far enough off the grid that merely opening a laptop can seem like an unattainable dream.

“The common thread with these kids is that they want to see something more,” Ashley says. Because he personally interviews each participant, he can recount stories of sweeping successes. “One kid is now at Columbia University studying computer science and had enough confidence to apply for a Google internship,” Ashley says. “He was part of a group of 10 of our kids who were invited to the Netherlands to conduct ethical hacking.”

Ashley and his young family were living in Las Vegas when they decided to relocate to Albuquerque, before the 2008 recession. After working in the economic development and education sectors, he began wondering why non-affluent kids of color weren’t part of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) revolution that’s taking over education nationwide. After gathering some data, Ashley started setting aside funds and reaching out to potential investors to build a robust program. Early on, some fretted about performance metrics. “Wait for deploy day,” Ashley told them.

They did. In 2016, the program leapt to an early benchmark by slaying an international representation of tech groups at the Tech.Co South by Southwest Startup of the Year pitch competition. Judges included Microsoft, IBM, and Google. Today, Cultivating Coders boasts a 94 percent completion rate. Students walk away knowing how to build web pages from scratch as well as how to deploy a server and apply for quality assurance and project management jobs.

Each participant receives a laptop and access to a designated life-coach-style mentor. The training is free. “I don’t want anyone paying out of pocket,” Ashley says. “All you have to do is show up. You pay us with your commitment and motivation.”

Ashley’s own experience as a young teen who fell severely behind in math has made him a champion for access to higher levels of care in education. Ultimately, his plan for the future of Cultivating Coders is to expand its reach to southern New Mexico, with the goal of continuing to offer beginning and advanced courses while meeting the demands of an ever-advancing technological landscape. “This is not school,” he says. “This is an experience. This is what happens when you plant the seed, water the seed, and support the seed.”

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