Square and LaunchCode co-founder Jim McKelvey offers insights from his career, discusses what’s next for South Florida tech

Above: Lilia Luciano, founder of CoInspire, and Jim McKelvey, co-founder of LaunchCode, an emerging nonprofit that has helped 300 South Florida residents  learn to code, discuss next steps in better connecting residents with jobs. Photo by Jenna Buehler.

Jim McKelvey, co-founder of the $6 billion company Square, which debuted last month on the New York Stock Exchange, says that South Florida has proved to be an excellent location to expand LaunchCode, a nonprofit that equips residents with relevant coding skills and competitive job opportunities for free.

Since March, LaunchCode has trained more than 300 local students and community members. In the next six weeks, McKelvey says he expects to report that all graduates of the first class have received competitive technical positions. McKelvey founded LaunchCode in St. Louis and expanded it to South Florida, its first expansion city, in 2014 with the support of Knight Foundation.

The Idea Center at Miami Dade College featured McKelvey as the first speaker in its new “CodePro: What’s Next” monthly series, which kicked off Thursday night.  The Q&A moderated by Lilia Luciano, a journalist and local entrepreneur, served to explore what emerging tech entrepreneurs can expect in the future. Prior to diving into reports of LaunchCode’s success, Luciano first applauded McKelvey for hitting a new milestone and taking Square public. McKelvey said that South Florida’s openness to new ideas and its eagerness to fill the tech gap are two important elements that will help to launch similar “radical ideas”  throughout the region. Some of the questions explored included:

Luciano: Can we get started with the Square IPO? I’m sure everyone in the room is curious how the process has been in the past 2 weeks.

McKelvey: The best way I can describe it [is] that it’s like a roller coaster. You get there and the ride clicks down and there is a certain point where you’re committed to the ride. Prior to this, we certainly were not subject to scrutiny because we were not a public company. Now, unfortunately, that we are, I’m not allowed to speak about Square and the great things we did.

Luciano: Technology changes the very nature of where we’re going as humans. As a computer science engineer, did you ever have that moonshot vision to change the way the world works yourself?

McKelvey: LaunchCode was inspired by a darker, pre-Ferguson moment in St. Louis coupled with the notion that we were hiring people at Square who didn’t have traditional credentials. It was the idea that if this model could be used by the rest of the world, many more people would have access to jobs was ultimately the notion that lead to LaunchCode.

What’s interesting — what my wife and I discovered while she was taking CS50 at Harvard and told me that EDx offers the class online for free to anyone — is that outside the classroom, there is a 1 percent a student can pass this course online. So, technology didn’t do it. It can’t do it because technology plus the human element is what’s needed to succeed. That’s why LaunchCode is so successful.

Luciano: What’s the magic of LaunchCode and what is it that makes it an effective solution in both St. Louis and Miami?

McKelvey: We did two things to better address systemic issues in the economy. First, we created a new pedigree, or a new standard for what quality credentials look like — and those credentials may not include a four-year engineering degree. Second, we removed bias because we’re a nonprofit organization; it’s free and we’re agnostic to whatever previous educational background students may or may not have. The reason this is important is because it’s too easy today to end up with a three- to four-year degree that’s absolutely valueless. It’s because we’re a nonprofit that we can be really very radical, trailblaze the issue and witness other organizations replicate similar models for success.”

The Idea Center at Miami Dade College partners with groups such as LaunchCode to increase opportunities and make competitive resources more accessible to students and community members. Other partners include Generation, the first program of the McKinsey Social Initiative, which offers a 12-week technical and job-readiness program that connects students with entry-level jobs in South Florida.

The Idea Center’s CodePro initiative serves to equip students with reduced-cost code certifications and offer free monthly “CodePro: What’s Next” events showcasing inspiring talks with local CTOs and entrepreneurs in South Florida. Upcoming CodePro programs include an in-person introduction to Harvard CS50x, Full Stack Bootcamp,

Jenna Buehler is a startup writer and co-founder of Groundswell, a startup incubator located in Space Coast, Fla. Email her via [email protected] or follow  @swellstartups on Twitter.

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