Restart Network: Providing world-class tech education to underserved communities

For Romanian-born Teodor Cătăniciu, everything started with an eye-opening experience. A few years back, he was a business student at a Dutch university only to realize that the program he had chosen wasn’t given him enough real-world knowledge. He wanted more.

“If anything was going to change the world,” he remembers thinking, “it was technology – and I wanted to understand it better.”

So, he got on a plane, landed in Silicon Valley and locked himself in a room with 20 other people for a coding bootcamp. Four months and a steep tuition fee later, he had learned a lot about technology and himself. “Mostly, I learned that I was in a privileged position to afford it all. A lot of people never get that chance, even if they have the motivation and intellectual capacity to do it.”

He came back to the Netherlands with the idea to make tech education accessible to those with little to no access at all. Not long after, and with the unequivocal support of fellow business partner Frederick Rustler, Restart Network was born.

 

The crowdsourced tech school

“At Restart Network, we are expanding educational opportunity for historically underserved communities, specifically such of refugee, low-income, and minority backgrounds,” Teodor says. The goal is to get people ready to enter the workforce as qualified tech professionals. They call it a ‘network’, too, because they believe it’s the role of an entire city to run a school.

If this sounds ambitious, it’s because it is. Yet, it’s also more than realistic.

Teodor and his team have rallied key stakeholders in the city of Rotterdam – from educational institutions and the municipality, to the local tech industry and dozens of volunteers – and have managed to bring them together around this one mission.

“Through crowdsourcing, we were able to align the incentives of a lot of people and create a network where everyone wins something along the way.” Students end up in high-paying jobs, companies get motivated people to work for them, and the Dutch government wins by getting people off social support and into the tech industry.

Having started in the not-so-distant August 2016, the program now welcomes 20-25 students every three months, and around 100 per year. It takes one year to complete, half of which consists of classes, and the other half takes place at a company – it’s what the team calls “the development period”. It’s about applying the lessons learned in over 1,000 hours of coding to a real-world environment, side by side with seasoned engineers.

 

Changing careers – and lives

While the main goal of Restart Network is to place people into well-paying tech jobs, it’s also about helping them become well-rounded tech professionals. Because the program is a crowdsourced one, it allows for a peer-to-peer learning approach, where more advanced students can pass on their knowledge to the ones who had just joined.

“We do this for two reasons,” Teodor says. “We believe that teaching someone a skill is the best way to learn that skill yourself. We also want to make sure that our students not only have the technical background, but also the leadership, management, and public speaking skills necessary to be successful in their new career.”

Seeing people grow, both professionally and personally, is in fact what really makes Teodor tick.

“Especially for the refugee demographic, getting a job in the Netherlands is a big move. Our students are often separated from their loved ones, and the only way to reunite is for them to get a stable job here. Only weeks ago, one of our students welcomed his wife at Schiphol Airport thanks to the job he got as a developer.”

“Those are the moments that really matter in the end,” Teodor says. Those are the moments that let him know that he is on to something special.


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Photographer: Raymond de Vries photography

Copywriter: Mina Nacheva

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