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HackYourFuture: Meet the coding school for refugees on a mission to diversify the labour market


Story by:

David Wouters

Interview by:

July 15, 2022

In this month’s member story I sit together with member Wouter Kleijn (34), managing director of HackYourFuture. The not-for-profit foundation found in 2016 by Gijs Corstens offers a program for those that have faced challenging circumstances in their lives, for those that have limited access to education and for those that have trouble finding a well-paid job.

Through free education based on a 7-month program taught by 50 high-skilled volunteers, the school in Amsterdam helps motivated refugees, migrants, people with disabilities and long-term unemployed to a successful job in web development. Apart from technical skills, the motivated individuals partaking in the program learn soft skills, have access to conferences and events and receive interview training and job support. I sit together with Wouter to talk about his life, his drive to diversify the labour market, we talk about the success of the community at HackYourFuture, what these 2,5 years have taught him and on what being a member in A Lab means.

Hi Wouter, tell me about yourself, how did you end up at HackYourFuture?

I have been working at HackYourFuture for 2,5 years. Before that I studied journalism and got a master’s degree in international relations (political science). I have always been interested in economics and politics. More specific in how we can create conditions and opportunities for people who unfortunately didn’t grow up in the right conditions to make the choices they would like to make.

Where did that drive and interest come from?

Before starting out at HackYourFuture, I worked in development aid for 4,5 years. Many of the field-related projects come with the right intentions, but often don’t meet the goals they are supposed to. It came to a point where I just wanted to be part of a project I believed in. That’s when I came across the vacancy of Partnership Manager at HackYourFuture. I had been following the organization from the start and I really believed in the organization and its mission. I got the job and moved from Nairobi to Amsterdam.

There’s a lot of demand for software developers in the Netherlands but there are also a lot of talented and motivated people coming to the Netherlands who can’t find a job. We combine these two problems into one solution. My job was to help the graduated students into a job. It gave me the opportunity to support people in creating opportunities for themselves. Last year I became the Managing Director and right now I’m working together with a very talented team of 4 full-time staff and over 50 volunteers, the backbone of HackYourFuture.

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With your students mostly being refugees, I can imagine you’ve heard a lot of impactful stories, how do you experience that?

When I started at HackYourFuture, this was a challenge. I soon learned however that the beautiful thing about our organization is that we’re not focussing on these stories of hardship that much. People want to move on and not talk about their past all day. On the contrary - they want to start a new life and by learning about programming and discussing homework assignments we help them to achieve this.

Most of the people at HackYourFuture have a different but shared past experience, having left their countries - they also have a shared interest: programming. Does the combination of both create a community feeling within your classes?

Definitely. We realize that the first step to integration is a job. It’s the starting point that provides self-confidence, structure and the ability to take care of loved ones around you - a crucial step in the intricate process of integration. Of course, integration is much bigger than only work. It’s also about forming your own identity within society, making connections and a feeling of ‘belonging’. That’s why it’s rewarding when graduates tell us how HackYourFuture helped them make friends for life. The same counts for me, I’ve met quite a few people that have become friends of my own.

Your organization is built on teaching others. What has your experience in HackYourFuture taught you over the past years?

It sounds kind of cheesy, but I’ve learnt that if you have focus you can get really far in a short amount of time. Many of our students don’t have prior experience in programming. After 7 months they have their first internship and a few months later they’re already working for a big company while earning a steady income. Especially in today’s society, focus and the ability to shut out distractions, has become a hugely powerful skill.

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Founder Gijs Corstens mentioned in an interview with NOS that programmers should be able to learn and adapt quickly. Do you think your students are one step ahead on this matter as they have gone through an experience where they had to adapt quickly, having to flee from their own country and integrating in a new one?

Interesting thesis. When it comes to our students, I think that they are just like anyone else: you have people who do their homework and you have people who don’t. The word refugee is just a label. Just like Dutch people, it doesn’t make much sense to generalize all that much. These people have come to the Netherlands for good reason and they are now here to stay. We need to make it work. That said, we have a thorough selection process. And to be able to learn as quickly and be as determined as our students, after dealing with a lot of strife in your personal life, speaks highly to the character of HackYourFuture graduates. Companies are lucky to have their CV sent to them.

Looking back at your 2,5 years at HackYourFuture, what would you say is one of the most beautiful or inspiring moments?

When graduates work their behind off, find a job and no longer need our support. I also find it really inspiring to work with my colleagues. They have a true sense of dedication and responsibility for the organization. I don’t carry that by myself at all. When I started at HYF I was mostly driven by the positive societal impact we try to achieve. But I have learned that the way of achieving this, surrounded by talented and driven people, is at least 50% of what makes me thick.

What about A Lab, what do you enjoy within our community?

We’ve only been here since November 2019. But we really like the informal setting. The annual Christmas dinner event was a very big success as well as the Lab Crawl. I think what me and my team enjoy that most is that A Lab is a community of people coming from all walks of life. It's something that is very rare these days. To have a wonderful space with a diverse mix of people in the centre of Amsterdam, is unique and should be preserved. For me it embodies the Amsterdam I looked up to as child, growing up in a small village in the north of the Netherlands. With soaring housing prices and gentrification nowadays, I feel A Lab is one of the entities that helps to keep Amsterdam accessible and open-minded.

Have you cross-pollinated with other A Labbers?

We have. We are in touch with WeAreKeen to see how we can help each other, as they do a lot of work in the tech sector and recruitment. We have also been in communication with Le Wagon, a commercial coding school.

What’s in the future for HackYourFuture?

Of course, I’d like to see us move through the Covid crisis first. Companies have stalled their hiring processes, so we need to work extra hard to make sure our students will find a nice job opportunity once they graduate. We would also like to improve the level of our education even further, to prepare our students even better for their future job. We teach a lot of technical skills, but we want to teach more soft skills as well.

When speaking about a vision we’d like to contribute to an improved and diversified labour market. Many companies for instance have been posting on their LinkedIn profiles about their support for Black Lives Matter and inclusivity, but when I send them a CV of a person with a refugee background, they often won’t even look at it. We would like to contribute to an alternative vision of what Human Resource Management and more generally; entrepreneurship. A vision in which there is a bit less focus on the short-term, but a bit more space for future potential and kindness.

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