Having experienced first hand the transformative power of education and mentorship, Oakland entrepreneur and community leader Kalimah Priforce has gained considerable recognition for his contributions to invigorating the careers of young people.
A native of the Bedford Stuyvestant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, Kalimah sought out Oakland three years ago with the goal of empowering underserved youth in the community. He founded Qeyno Labs in the summer of 2010, creating a program and web application that serves as a career pipeline for youth, informing them about career opportunities while also connecting them with the reliable resources to achieve their goals. We recently spoke with Kalimah about his childhood experiences, his thoughts on education, digital equity and inclusion, and the evolution of Qeyno labs.
In your eyes what’s the value of education?
The value of education is to transform peoples lives. It’s the vehicle. Education can erase poverty, or at least be able to lift a generation out of the economic situation that fastens them.
What do you mean by fasten?
Often what happens is you have several generations of people who are within an economic group and that group doesn’t get disrupted until education happens. That education could be formal or that education could be an apprenticeship or work-related. But there definitely is a certain amount of time and resources that must be put towards an effort for someone to change their economic situation.
How did your childhood or upbringing influence your career path?
I grew up in a group home in the Bedford Stuyvestant area of Brooklyn, New York. My biological parents were from Haiti, and I was born in Miami, Florida. Then I came to New York when I was about four years old. My biological mother suffered borderline personality disorder and so she was mentally unfit to mother us or even interact with us. So my brother and I, I was eight, my brother was six, entered a group home system after a family court process. So it was in the group home system that I eventually had a hunger strike against my group home in order to get more books into our library.
A hunger strike that you organized?
Yeah. Well I mean I self-organized it. It wasn’t like everyone else was going to join me. (laughs) This is Bedstuy Brooklyn in 1988.
How did you know that a hunger strike was an effective tool for change?
I didn’t. I didn’t even know what to call it. All I knew was that I wasn’t going to eat.
Until something changed…
Right. Because I knew that the system and the staff were responsible for certain things. I began to recognize incompetence before I could call it incompetence but I definitely knew that they would get in trouble if certain things were to happen [or not happen] in the group home. Because you could see what they were fearful of, and they were fearful for their jobs, and that’s all they cared about.
One of the things that was really important to them was that we ate during the designated times. And there were reports in case anything were to happen in regards to our eating schedule, that sort of thing, etc. Having read the library of books four or five times over and having already asked for new books, I knew what they were concerned about and that’s what I paid attention to. In my head, I thought “you’ve got to save a dollar or something for every meatloaf you’re not feeding me, that money’s got to go somewhere, so you’ve got to be able to afford books!” This was my thinking as an eight year old. So I told them I wouldn’t eat. It lasted for three days.
And what came of that?
After those three days not only did they order more books, but they also gave me permission to go to the library and to the museum. Because before that, we weren’t allowed to leave, so our lives were extremely isolated.
How did these experiences lead you to found Qeyno Labs?
Well it’s really been quite a journey. As I mentioned, I was not the only one who went through the group home system, my brother was also in the system, and at age 18 he aged out of the system. I was 20 years old when he came to stay with me. So he aged out in June, and by September he was shot and killed. He was shot and killed behind our old elementary school, right behind the school that he and I had attended everyday.
So I saw that as a transformative moment for me to shift my academic and career goals. At the time I was working for the United Nations and my goal was to become an international lawyer. I wanted to see the world and date U.N translators. Really just have the fun of being a black man globe trotting. But when he was killed I went back to my mentor, Dr. Lorraine Monroe, and I said, something’s happening in education that I need to be paying attention to, but I want to do it in a different way.
Dr. Monroe always knew I had a love for business, a love for entrepreneurship and a love for tech. So Qeyno comes out of those three things. One is this interest in entrepreneurial business. Then there’s the technology piece, and also the education piece. So Qeyno comes from those three loves.
Essentially I am trying to create a situation that addresses what I experienced growing up. Which was fighting isolation, getting kids exposed to what’s out there, and helping them formulate a plan towards getting to that goal.
So eventually that evolved into career discovery software, which featured an interface where young people could connect with careers and connect with the resources related to those goals. Also prevalent is the idea that technology could help them formulate what the next step is. Because what happens with a lot of young people is that they don’t know what the next step is.
We wanted to make an app that did more than just entertain. So we decided to focus on creating a comprehensive interface based around game development as a way to create incentives that gets young people thinking about their career goals.
How exactly do the game incentives work to drive career goals?
Say you want to design sneakers. Suddenly [through Qeyno] Footlocker is sponsoring a sneaker design competition. So now you’re competing against 500 other sneaker designers in this contest, but in reality that number has been reduced to 50 young people because you took several steps towards becoming a Level 3 sneaker designer already. Which might’ve been you picked up this book on sneaker design, and then entered the bar code of the book into the Qeyno application and you got a certain amount of points.
Right now, in regards to application development, we’re focusing on the searching process and mentorship matching, as it takes a lot of money to create these games. So we’re looking to develop a content library geared towards the career interests of young people.
From your experiences with your mentor Dr. Lorraine Monroe, in your mind what is the anatomy of mentorships?
Mentorship is about being able to communicate to the person who you’re mentoring that they’ve only begun to scratch the surface of who they are. And that you’re on their team and coaching them so they can unlock that. But it takes them to actually open that door and step through it themselves. All you can do is help them figure out what door is best for them.
How has Oakland contributed to the evolution of Qeyno Labs?
I moved out here three years ago on my birthday. I decided to come here for many reasons. One, I don’t know how to drive so I needed to be close to good reliable public transportation. But I also wanted to be in a situation where I was engaging in a school system that was a bit more honest about its ineptitude. And from what I learned, Oakland was a little more honest than San Francisco about the gaps in education and the children who had been left behind.
I thought it was important for me to be in a setting where there was some real talk about what’s not happening in our kids lives. So Oakland has allowed me to socially experiment with diverse minds while also being an advocate for what makes Oakland great.