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Why we started CodeDoor and how Udacity now helps refugees to learn how to Code

Instead of asking “what problem should I solve?” ask, “what problem do I wish someone else would solve for me?” is a quote by Paul Graham. He recommends asking this question if you want to find a great startup idea. This advice stuck with me since I read it in 2012.

What does that have to do with refugees you might ask?

One of the first reception centers for refugees is in my hometown in Giessen, Germany. The steady daily increase in refugees arriving in our city with just 60,000 citizens made me ask: what problem would they wish someone else would solve for them? The answer became all too obvious when I found out that 80% of all refugees below the age of 30 have no access to secondary- or college level education.

I remember thinking that over 20 million youth could not possibly be forcefully deprived of their educational paths. At least in Germany, refugees would be able to visit a university, right? Boy, was I wrong! Before refugees are allowed to study in college, their asylum status has to be cleared. Clearing asylum status can take up to two years! These two years are relevant to all members of society when you know that 1,500,000 refugees will be arriving in Germany in 2015 alone. So what about online education? Can we leverage that? I was sure that refugees would have access to computers that allow access to online educational products, right? Wrong again. While most refugee camps in Germany have free wi-fi, no-one thought about how refugees can afford a laptop or any other device to use the internet. Although most refugees have mobile phones, computer access is severely limited.

So I started as a side-project to collect laptops. After launching the landing page, I posted my project on Hacker News and met my co-founder, Nicolas. We immediately clicked and started to work on building CodeDoor. We wanted to build what refugees need. Specifically, we wanted to build a system that makes it easy for them to learn how to code so that they could improve their lives with new job skills. We launched our program in July.

Something we learned

We learned that even though it might seem easy to put the pieces together (refugee+internet access+coding lessons+tutors), the outcome of enabling refugees to code and to help them get employed afterward is not easy to reach. One of the biggest challenges is to find the right educational content that gets the refugees employed after finish the coding classes. It is true that many free “learn how to code” sites provide formidable content, but only a few provide a degree/certificate that is affordable and accepted by HR managers in Germany.

Udacity & CodeDoor

This is where Udacity’s Nanodegree comes into play. When we came across the Nanodegree program for the first time, it just seemed perfect! Finally a new kind of university that will give you the right credentials to be employable!

Just look at it from a German company’s perspective: A software developer degree developed in Silicon Valley, with Google, At&t, Hack Reactor, Facebook, and GitHub. Provided by a new kind of online university founded by a former Stanford Professor and Google Executive (Sebastian Thrun). It is easy to see that if a refugee got a Nanodegree certificate from Udacity it would put her immediately in an employable position in Germany and all over the world. So I had to try to earn a Nanodegree certificate myself, before recommending this path to others. I enrolled in the March cohort 2015 and graduated in August. Suffice it to say that the quality of the courses was just insane. Two days after I graduated Udacity and CodeDoor have started to talk about how to bring Udacity to the refugees in Germany and Europe.

It is humbling to say that we are about to launch a program where Udacity and CodeDoor will reach more than 1.000 refugee students. With the help of Udacity, to ensure the educational path of refugees, giving them hope for the future.

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