(Left to right) Mission's Gaby Moreno, Jacqueline Salazar, Larissa Leal, and Micaela Segundo learn to code using a Raspberry Pi. Mission EDC

In South Texas, the Mission Economic Development Corporation is taking an unusually hands-on role to raise the STEAM skills of its current—and future—workforce.

Located on the U.S.-Mexico border, Mission, Texas, is home to a predominantly Hispanic population of more than 80,000. Manufacturing is the driver of the local economy, but the city has a poverty rate of 26 percent and a median household income of about $42,000, lower than the national median.

The Mission Economic Development Corporation funds a program for startup businesses and initiatives to teach both adults and kids how to code, and just opened a 55,000-square-foot co-working space, among other projects. Program Director Cristina Garza, a South Texas native, spoke to CityLab about creating new opportunities for Mission’s workforce.

The Mission EDC is taking an active role educating the local workforce. How did that come about?

It came about through another program we run called Ruby Red Ventures, [which] started as a shark-tank-style competition for small businesses. Any small business owner in the city could apply for it, and they go through classes that were taught by UTRGV (University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley). Then at the end of the classes, they have to write their business plan. We award them with up to $25,000 to help them start their own business.

The one thing that kept coming up was that most participants didn’t know how to integrate technology in their business. Across the board, that was by far the biggest weakness in all of the business plans. So we started looking into why.

They [the EDC] went to the local schools, met with the superintendents, and we were surprised to learn that [Microsoft, Excel, and Powerpoint] was what was being offered as computer science.

From there, the EDC decided to take an active role in teaching computer science and coding. From that came Code the Town, which is a newer program that offers free coding classes to kids after school through the Sylvan Learning Center.

What does the Code the Town curriculum look like?

The kids work on a resume of apps that they continue to work on after they graduate from the program. Just yesterday we held an Hour of Code festival in which we had 300 kids from all of the elementary schools in the district. They learn about algorithms, logic, debugging a problem without using computers.

At the end of the day, they also got to hear from a video game developer who works in our co-working space to understand what type of career possibilities there are with coding, not just programming.

Cristina Garza in Mission’s new Center for Education and Economic Development (Mission EDC)

What have you seen the coding program and events do for these kids?

We’ve had 3,000 kids go through the program. Even just yesterday, it was such an enlightening experience seeing how quickly they learned the material. We had little girls saying that they want to be programmers or they want to develop video games or “I want to work in tech.” For us, that was a huge accomplishment.

What about your program to teach coding to adults?

The coding academy for adults, called Boot, is funded by the EDC in conjunction with Workforce Solutions and taught by the nonprofit CodeRGV. Each student gets free tuition, a laptop, and a $1,000 stipend. Classes are taught at our co-working space. The students are here full-time for 12 weeks—it's a pretty intensive program.

So far we’ve had a summer and a fall cohort. We budgeted for 10 students [for the summer], but 430 people ended up applying. We were able to fund 18 students [for the fall].

Out of the 10 people who were part of the first cohort, eight were hired by local companies immediately after completing the program.

What made the EDC decide there was a need for a co-working space in Mission?

The co-working space came out of an idea to improve small businesses from the technology side. It provides all of the infrastructure that a small business or a startup company would need to basically get their business off the ground. The other thing is it provides a space for businesses to meet each other and collaborate.

It used to be a Kmart. A lot of Kmarts have closed down, and it’s right next to City Hall, and the EDC is part of the city basically. So they decided, “What a great idea.”

What kind of businesses work there?

Our first tenant was Teach for America. We also have Schreiner University. The middle section of the building is for entrepreneurs. We have a small magazine that just started; we have PeopleFund, a nonprofit which provides small business loans. On our technology wing, we have a 3D printer company, video game developers, and a nonprofit [CodeRGV] that teaches coding for adults, and we want to keep expanding.

What is the job market like in Mission? What kind of jobs do you hope to attract?

There’s a lot of trade, transportation, and manufacturing. Another big one is customer care centers, because we have a large bilingual population. These jobs are great, and we will continue to have them because we are on the border and we are so close to Mexico. But we recognize that they are not high-paying jobs, so what we want to do is attract companies that have high-paying jobs, or just [convince them to] bring their entire operations to Texas.

One example is Steelcase, the office furniture company. That gets manufactured in Reynosa [across the border]. But it starts here in Mission with their supplier company, Royal Technologies; they make all the parts for a piece of furniture. Then those supplies get sent to Reynosa. It gets manufactured there, then it gets sent to Michigan where they’re prepared for retail.

We’ve talked about attracting more management positions, or these companies moving their entire operations to Mission, but we don’t have the skill level to meet their needs.

We won’t see the immediate results of our efforts, but we’re really aiming to make this a better city in 15 or 20 years, and not just bring more retail, customer care, or manufacturing jobs.

We are in a position where we just want to take chances. We want to find opportunities for our population. Code the Town last year won a recognition by the White House for its efforts in Hispanic education. EDCs typically don’t get involved in education or programming, but we are thinking long-term and improving diversity for higher paying jobs.

You also have a new leadership program under way.

The new leadership program came out of a tweet. I tweeted out that Hispanic women make 54 cents to every dollar that a white man makes. A person in our community responded, “What is the EDC going to do about it?” We thought, “Yeah, this is our job.”

Our community is 84 percent Hispanic, and our school district is 98.9 percent Hispanic, and 84 percent of kids in our school district are considered economically disadvantaged. Given those statistics, we need to take a proactive stance and take a look at what we are doing, and we want to start early.

What was it about your personal experience that helped you develop this idea?

I went to New York University and I didn’t know anything about working. I didn’t know how to handle a situation with my boss, or how to write an email properly. The reason I survived was that I had these amazing women I worked with who helped me along the way. That’s how many women who are in great positions now got ahead. It took me until I was 22 to get in those circles.

I don’t want these girls to get to that point. What I want is for young women in our community to understand they have value within their local government, within their own community, and within their workplace regardless of where they live. And I think that’s the best thing the EDC can do.

What made you come back to Mission, and how has your education and experience in the arts shaped your role at the EDC?

When I left, I didn’t think of coming back. I wanted to be in the big city.

As I got through college and started working in the arts, I started to notice that I was the only Hispanic woman around, or I was only one of a few. I worked in nonprofit and museum education, a field that prides itself on being progressive, and yet the staff didn’t reflect that.

On the other hand, when I came back home, my friends didn’t have any idea what I was doing [in New York]. I wanted to see more women like me. Coming back was a decision to help improve the kind of people that will end up working in the arts or in nonprofits or in tech.

Anything else that you can want to add?

We really care about our community and we’re proud of what we’re doing. I understand that in the next couple of years, there will be a lot of conversations that pertain to border immigration and security, and I hope people take the time to learn about what is happening here, the amazing things that we’re doing, the fact that unemployment continues to drop every month.

Consider us [in terms of] education, when you’re having conversations about economic development, infrastructure and trade, and [don’t] just limit us to a conversation about national security.

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