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Closing the technology gap

By Jennifer Dix Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday November 18, 2000

Resident ventures into philanthropy in Berkeley 


In 1994, entrepreneur Michelle McGeoy decided that she wanted to “give something back” after launching her first software company and then selling it for a high profit.  

In the tradition of “venture philanthropy” which has come out of Silicon Valley, McGeoy wanted to use her resources and business skills to better society. 

Her mission became to change the demographic of the high-tech industry.  

She said she remembers when she was taking classes in computer science.  

“I saw how few women there were, and even fewer people of color,” she said.  

She was also concerned with what has since come to be known as the “digital divide,” the gap between computer-savvy people and the often poor or unskilled folks who have no access to computers.  

But she didn’t always know what she was doing. When she first spoke to Berkeley High students about career opportunities in computer science a few years ago, McGeoy remembers, “It was kind of a shock. I was standing there in front of the class and they were yelling and throwing things, paying no attention to me.”  

Suddenly a young woman shouted, “Are you a millionaire?” 

Well, yes, McGeoy admitted – she was.  

Suddenly she had their attention. 

Danielle Delane was among the students in the classroom that day. Prior to that, she had pictured herself going into cosmetology. Instead, she became one of the first youths employed at Access to Software for All People (ASAP), where local teens are paid to learn computer skills such as web and database creation, and then go on to work for actual corporate clients. Today, rather than working as a hairdresser, Delane is employed at Kaiser Permanente. 

ASAP is a unique organization — both a nonprofit and for-profit company under one roof. In its Allston Way basement office, a few blocks from Berkeley High School, local teens are paid to learn computer skills such as web and database creation, and then go on to work for actual corporate clients. ASAP’s customers include the Alameda County public health department, NeoLogic Systems, and the California Symphony. In many cases it is high school students who are actually setting up web sites or maintaining the database. 

“Our whole network systems and management is basically in the hands of 16 year olds,” said Kiarash Afcari, ASAP’s director of social ventures.  

These young computer-savvy folks attract attention. Danielle Delane’s older sister, Denisha, came to work for ASAP three years ago and is currently a marketing associate. While working a second job in Kinko’s express computer services division, she met Oliver X, CEO of the indie music Web site He asked where she’d learned her computer skills, and was so impressed by what he learned about ASAP that this month he is sponsoring Dorkfest, a music festival on November 30 with proceeds to benefit the nonprofit organization. 

ASAP continues to attract bigger and more high-profile clients; Andersen Consulting is discussing possible joint ventures, and ASAP is growing with increased financial support from both corporate and government sources. This year it is California’s sole recipient of an Americorps grant, for nearly half a million dollars. That money will help launch a training program in which young people ages 18 to 24 are trained in computer skills and then take their know-how into local schools and nonprofits. 

All along, McGeoy’s hope has been to establish a program that could be replicated on a national level. She thinks the Americorps grant will help boost ASAP’s visibility. At the same time, she notes, the organization is experiencing an explosion of growth. “It’s scary, and it’s also exciting,” she said, of the program’s need to maintain a balance between its nonprofit mission and the need to run an efficient and profitable business.  

But she’s pleased with the success they’ve had so far.  

“I think the core difference [between ASAP and similar youth programs] is that the kids walk in and from day one they get a paycheck,” she said. “When you give them a job, and respect, you see them really come into their own.” 

The young people who come to ASAP’s office on Allston Way every day after school show satisfaction with the setup. Instead of having to divide their time between a paying job, skills training, and socializing with friends, they can get it all here in one place. 

“I like the atmosphere – it’s strict, but fun,” said Berkeley High School junior Jennifer Aquino, as she took a break from entering data for a local bank. Aquino came to ASAP through YouthWorks, the state job placement program.  

In the past seven months, she said, “I’ve learned HTML, how to do a web site, and how to make a database. I didn’t have any interest in computers when I came here, but now I love it more and more – I can’t get away from it!” 

Jasmine Jackson, also a BHS junior, also came to ASAP through Youth Works. She said her typing speed has improved, and she has learned numerous applications – Word, Access, and DreamWeaver among them. She’s been with the program for just over a year and is the project manager for several databases. Recently she was named “Employee of the Month.”  

Her take on ASAP? 

“It’s fun, it’s laid back,” she said. “It’s training you get paid for, and it’s so convenient – right by Berkeley High!” 

While most of the training is in software, some students have found their niche in hardware. Daniel Tompos, a BHS senior, is the chief authority on maintenance and repairs around here. Sporting a South Park T-shirt and green hair under his Oakland A’s baseball cap, Tompos is shyly proud of his skills but opens up after some prodding. 

“A while ago there was a network problem,” he said. “The people here spent hours on the phone with tech support and couldn’t get it solved. I came in the next day and fixed it in fifteen minutes.” His ambition is to go into hardware engineering. The real job experience he’s gained during his year with ASAP will definitely look good on his resume. 

“To me, the digital divide is not so much about access,” said Afcari. “But we are giving young people tangible skills. Not all of them are going to go into high tech, but they’ve learned basic skills like using word processors and gathering information from the web. Access to technology is no longer a luxury; it’s sort of a necessity.” 

ASAP can be reached at 540-7457, or on the web at For information on the November 30 Dorkfest, call ASAP or visit