High school students in Tampa Bay are getting the chance to develop their own tech ideas into marketable products, with help from expert mentors and area business leaders. Next Gen Tech 360 bridges the skills gap between education and the business world by connecting technology professionals with student teams to create actual products that have real customer value. The program’s sixth year starts in October, and is expanding to the entire Tampa Bay area.
Next Gen Tech 360 is the brainchild of Robyn Mussler, herself a leader in the Tampa Bay tech world. Her inspiration came initially from her own experience judging a high school technology competition where she saw firsthand that today’s education is not aligned with industry processes. Mussler also found she was hiring more young adults who, despite enthusiasm and some hard skills, lacked essential job aptitude and understanding of the real-world technology business development lifecycle. Mussler felt an obligation to make a difference and created a non-profit, Connect IT 360, that addresses this growing skill gap.
Mussler and her Connect IT 360 advisors have crafted the Next Gen Tech 360 program specifically for high school students who have an innovative technology solution to meet a real-world need. The after-school program utilizes industry experts as coaches to train students on how to work effectively as a team to create a working version of their product. Participants get comfortable with rapid change and shifts in direction so they can better compete in the dynamic technology industry.
At the conclusion of the seven-month program, teams “pitch” their product to a panel of judges who represent major businesses in Tampa Bay. Three winning teams receive cash prizes and the opportunity to pitch their product to Kevin Harrington, one of the original “sharks” on the television show “Shark Tank.”
Alumni of Next Gen Tech 360 go on to some impressive achievements: highly-competitive programs, sought-after internships, and Ivy League colleges. Many credit the Next Gen Tech 360 program for not only creating these opportunities but giving them skills they will use in all areas of business, not just technology.
“NGT has given me so many tools to apply into the next chapter of my life,” says Kiran Ganga, member of last year’s winning student team that created a mobile application, ClimaTrek, that uses Bluetooth technology to monitor atmospheric conditions. “As an aspiring entrepreneur, I now know what it takes to develop a product and market it. Most importantly, it’s encouraged me to become an innovator and identify unique solutions to today’s issues.” Ganga and her teammates from Palm Harbor University High School raved about their experience. Mateuse Plaza said Next Gen Tech 360 is unlike any other pitch or student competition. “It’s really not about who wins – it’s about the process,” he says. “We came in with a half-baked idea, and in several months we’ve changed that into a real product for a real market.”
“NGT opened up so many doors for me!” says Cassandra Bernard, who acted as Project Manager on a team that created an augmented reality safety app called Prepare Now. “I was able to obtain an internship at Tulli (local tech startup) and work alongside qualified app developers, marketers and business developers to get real-life experience in my field of interest.”
Matthew Werneken, 2019 winning team member and freshman at Columbia University, calls Next Gen Tech 360 “life changing.” He says that as a result of the program he has earned numerous scholarships, mentorships, and other competition opportunities, and was able to secure a position on the President’s Council for Future Business Leaders of America.
Students come out of the Next Gen Tech 360 program with expertise that is not taught in most high schools, yet is critical for success no matter which career path they choose. Just some of the experience participants can apply to future careers: product development, business analysis, user-interface, architecture, cybersecurity, marketing, and project management. In addition, interaction with leading industry professionals can open doors to internships and other career opportunities.
Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program. Mentors, who are volunteers typically from local technology businesses, rave about their experience. Kishen Sridaharan is a cybersecurity executive at Raymond James and Next Gen Tech 360 mentor and calls the Next Generation Tech program “worth its weight in gold.” He credits the student-driven format for creating experienced future employees for companies like his.
Mentorship is key for not only young people, but anyone looking to achieve career success, according to Kevin Harrington. He is not only a vocal proponent of mentorship – he literally wrote the best-selling book on it called “Mentoring of Millions” – he is a supporter of the Tampa Bay program too. “Next Gen Tech 360 nails this,” he says of its model that trains the next generation of business leaders and tech stars by getting the help of local tech business leaders. He credits the program for fostering young talent to create what is needed in today’s economy: “solid, impactful and marketable solutions.”
Tampa Bay companies also recognize the value in the Next Gen Tech 360 program, not just for today’s students, but for tomorrow’s industry leaders. Says Sridaharan: “We like (the mentor format) at Raymond James; that is why we are heavy in terms of our partnership with NGT.” Other corporate sponsors, who provide mentors, workshop speakers, and financial support, include Achieva, Nielsen, Synapse, Malwarebytes, GTE Financial, Raymond James, Givvn, TechData, Catalina Charitable Foundation, Tampa Bay Tech, Pinellas Education Foundation and Florida Funders.
This year Next Gen Tech 360 is going virtual and moving to a micro-learning digital platform, a change that started toward the end of last year’s program. Mussler says this shift is one hundred percent positive. “We’ve had to pivot to a digital platform, just like most other companies this year,” she says. “For us, this has been terrific – not only can we accommodate all the students who want to participate, but we can do more in less time and improve team communication.” She says that the new digital module tracks team progress, marks milestones, and even facilitates career planning and goal setting. “You won’t find something else like this anywhere in the country let alone the Tampa Bay area.”
Mentors interested in the program should contact email@example.com for more information. Mentorship only requires -about three hours a month for workshops and team activities, and lasts from October until April.
High school students interested in the program should assemble a team of three to five students with real world problem they want to solve with a technology solution, and attend an information session to find out the application process. The seven-month program requires two hours a month in interactive workshops with topics ranging from Customer-Centric User Experience Training to Architecting for Contingencies, all with the ultimate goal of helping teams flesh out ideas and roles to create a workable product and pitch. Finalist teams pitch their product to a panel of judges in hopes to win prize money and one-on-one zoom session with Kevin Harrington.
Next Gen Tech 360 is executed by Clearwater-based nonprofit Connect IT 360, whose mission it is to bridge the skill gap between youth and the business world, by teaching essential building blocks for success in technology, business, and life. The organization relies heavily on area business to provide financial and volunteer support.
Watch videos from last year’s finals, hear more student and mentor testimonials and make a donation at www.connectit360.org. For more information contact Robyn Mussler, Executive Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org.