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Program helps Brockton students see business future

CEO ‘boot camp’ teaches teens to solve global, local problems

BROCKTON — Hunched over his laptop Monday afternoon, a sweatshirt-and-jeans-clad Romi Alexandre put the final touches on an important pitch he was about to deliver via conference call.

For three months, Alexandre has been in contact with potential corporate and philanthropic donors to raise $16,000 to match a grant for an educational nonprofit.

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The money would help fund the organization’s research on solutions to a myriad of global issues, such as improving Internet access in Haiti or creating a geographical data mapping system for Brockton.

After about a half-hour, Alexandre emerged from the call, satisfied it went well. Next up on his agenda? Get started on his homework.

At all of 16 years of age, the Brockton High junior is among a handful of local teens who have been balancing school, friends, and hobbies while enrolled in the Robert R. Taylor Network , an intense program based out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that teaches high school students how to use technology and innovation to come up with solutions to global problems.

Named after the first known black MIT graduate, the 28-year-old Robert R. Taylor Network pairs professionals in architecture, science, technology, engineering, and math with students from urban communities who are underrepresented in those fields, said Darian C. Hendricks, the network’s chairman and chief executive.

“I went through a lot of conferences and you hear a lot about the ‘diversity pipeline.’ . . . They were talking about it, but no one was doing something about it,” said Hendricks, an MIT graduate and technology and digital consultant. “If you want to better increase the number of minority students who are going to rise to corporate America and to find the talent to find those skills, I said people like myself, ‘We have to go back and teach these students earlier [than college].’ ”

Hendricks decided that the organization’s first partnership would be launched in Brockton, which he first visited about six years ago. He saw an opportunity to engage student-led solutions in the diverse, but cash-strapped city of 95,000 .

Hendricks said he met with enthusiastic, but skeptical city officials, who agreed that they too envisioned Brockton students building local companies, but not for another 20 years.

“They said, ‘We need tax revenue now,’ but I said we can do it,” he said. “But let the students lead.”

Using MIT’s “Learn by Doing” method, Hendricks connected with Brockton High School math teacher Lloyd Lamarre in 2009 to recruit students to start XStudio Brockton, a virtual studio using IBM cloud technology. The idea is for students to create programs and solutions to problems that can generate revenue.

Currently, the program has four students from Brockton High School and Foxborough Regional Charter School who meet twice a week during the school year, as well as eight hours a day, five days a week, at MIT from June to August.

“In a nutshell, this program is a CEO incubator — a CEO boot camp,” Lamarre said.

For Alexandre, who has been involved in the program since he was a freshman at Brockton High, it has been a challenging but rewarding experience.

“I thought it was going to be a program where you just sit down and they teach you about professionalism and at the end you get a certificate,” Alexandre said. “It was the complete opposite of that.”

Alexandre said he recalls coming home with a headache after his first full day in the program two summers ago. Like others before him, he briefly considered quitting because it was too intense. But he stuck with it.

So far he has been tasked with developing a system to integrate several of the organization’s contact-list software programs so that each contact does not require multiple entries.

For himself, he chose to work on the expansion of Internet to Haiti, where power failures are frequent and sudden. He is creating what he calls XStudio Haiti, which he hopes to bring to that nation to spur technological advances, such as the use of solar power to solve the electricity problem and to find a solution to the slow Internet speed issue.

“Once Romi solves that in Haiti, he’s solved it for the world,” Lamarre said. “Mr. Hendricks makes it so students are in the thick, in the middle. . . . Part of it is, and it’s part of our moniker, age is not an excuse. So we do not allow them to say, ‘Well I’m only 15.’ That’s absurd. We don’t use that as a crutch.”

A Haitian native, Alexandre was living on the island in 2010 when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake caused widespread destruction. With school buildings demolished, his father and mother decided she would move to Brockton, where they have relatives, along with Alexandre and his two younger brothers so they could continue their education.

Now Alexandre sees a limitless future.

“I want to have my own company,’’ he said. “I see myself as the boss [at] a company that will help other companies excel, having a service that every company needs to have.”

Mary Waldron, executive director of Brockton 21st Century Corporation, the city’s economic development agency, said she is confident the program will soon yield technology companies in the city, perhaps started by XStudio Brockton students.

“I would say these kids are the epitome of trying to make their city better,” Waldron said. “Usually young people are fleeing out the community, and here these people are engaged, and care, and have a social agenda to better their community.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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