Business & Tech

Students with an app head to illustrious MassChallenge event

From left: Robert Simon, Christopher Michele, Paul Joseph, and De’Vante Mathurin outside the Ohrenberger Community Center in West Roxbury.
Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe
From left: Robert Simon, Christopher Michele, Paul Joseph, and De’Vante Mathurin outside the Ohrenberger Community Center in West Roxbury.

Tucked behind an affordable housing complex in West Roxbury, the dimly lit Ohrenberger Community Center is a place where neighborhood kids stop by for pickup basketball or to play video games on shared Xboxes.

It’s miles from the gleaming towers of downtown Boston’s innovation economy.

But for years it has been home base for five Boston high school and college students, neighbors and friends, who live around the corner from the center and have just won a coveted spot in MassChallenge’s 2017 class.

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OCC Youth Unleashed, named after the community center, will be among 128 teams participating in this year’s startup accelerator, which begins this month and draws entrepreneurs, engineers, and up-and-coming tech stars from around the world. They are among the youngest participants in MassChallenge.

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They stand out for another reason: They are among the few all-minority teams.

“It was a shocker,” said De’Vante Mathurin, 19, a sophomore at Bunker Hill Community College and the graphic designer of Youth Unleashed. “I didn’t know it was going to blow up.”

Their business — an app that connects youth with up-to-date activities at community centers and clubs near them — landed them a place in MassChallenge, where just 8 percent of applicants are accepted. That’s on par with some Ivy League colleges.

They never dreamed that an experiment launched at their neighborhood community center would turn into a business. Now, they’re fielding requests from founders of established technology companies hoping to mentor them and drawing interest in their app from around the region.

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That’s a long way from where they started more than a year ago.

The venture grew out of a partnership between United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley and the Boston Centers for Youth & Families as a way to teach young people about entrepreneurship. With $1,000 in seed funding, youth groups in community centers across Boston developed plans to build businesses and were given a volunteer mentor to help them think through the plan and launch it.

“They can see the possibilities that they can operate a business, that you don’t have to have a Harvard MBA to launch a business, or to address a gap in the community,” said William Morales, commissioner of Boston Centers for Youth and Families.

For the team, this venture has been personal.

The community center is where they’ve spent hours after school and during the summer, hanging out, working the front desk, and staying out of trouble.

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“We all grew up here,” said Paul Joseph, 19, CEO of the venture and a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “If we didn’t have the community center, I don’t know where I would be.”

‘They can see the possibilities that they can operate a business, that you don’t have to have a Harvard MBA to launch a business, or to address a gap in the community.’

WILLIAM MORALES, Commissioner of Boston Centers for Youth and Families 

Yet they noticed that attendance at community centers was often spotty, and few of their peers knew that some of the centers had 3-D printers and lots of after-school activities. Most events were advertised through paper fliers or bulletin boards — or buried deep in city websites.

“I wouldn’t look at the bulletin board for anything,” said Kyle Colon, 18, who is graduating this month from West Roxbury Academy.

Colon, who is headed to Fitchburg State University in the fall, with plans to study criminal justice and become a police officer, said the team understood the importance of these centers. He lost his cousin Dawnn Jaffier in 2014 when she was caught in gang crossfire during Boston’s Caribbean festival.

“We need some basic tools, where young people can have something to stick with, something that will help them stay off the streets and away from violence,” Colon said.

So, between classes, graduation, college applications, and proms, the team refined their business to bring youth recreation into the digital age. They practiced their pitches in front of their moms, convinced community centers throughout the city to share information on their activities for the app, and hired app developers to help them build their platform, using their winnings from local startup contests.

They’ve gotten about $16,000 from United Way and the accelerator program at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, where team member Chris Michel, 22, is finishing up his senior year.

But getting accepted into MassChallenge has been their biggest boost. The accelerator program bills itself as a launching pad for early-stage businesses, connecting them to money, networks, and mentors.

At the end of the program, MassChallenge awards a small group of the top teams in the accelerator tens of thousands of dollars in funding to help them expand their business.

Youth Unleashed’s profile is unusual in a startup world that is overwhelmingly white and male, said Kiki Mills Johnston, managing director of MassChallenge. And judges felt the group’s app could affect the community.

A report issued last year by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a Boston nonprofit, found that of the eight high-tech incubators and accelerators it surveyed in the United States, 20 percent were owned by women and 23 percent by minorities.

Last year, eight of MassChallenge’s 128 teams had all-minority founders, while about 42 percent of the teams had at least one female cofounder. MassChallenge has partnered with local foundations in recent years to boost its outreach to underserved communities, operating a boot camp that helps prepare startups in Dorchester and Roxbury for the accelerator program.

Youth Unleashed is hoping to shake up the startup culture.

“This is not like a kid game to us,” said Chris Michel. “We want this to succeed.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.