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Millennials teach tech skills to low-income youth with video games

While tech talent remains in high demand, Damon Packwood, Founder and Executive Director of Gameheads, a non-profit organization teaching technology and game design skills, is making sure underserved young people have the tools they need to get jobs in the field.

Hailing from a “low-income working community” in San Francisco, Packwood, 35, worked hard to become the first in his family to go to college through the Upward Bound program. He found himself doing college access and youth development work soon after graduating, but noticed there was one thing that obsessed all of his students.

“I started noticing that the students were different around 2007-2008. They were all on the computer. They were finishing their assignments faster and we realized they were getting their resources from the computer,” Packwood tells CNBC Make It. “I was a film studies student, so I knew the media. But they were really into the media without having any media knowledge, [doing things like] getting new music and finding the latest movies online, which was fascinating.”

At that point, Packwood recognized that he and his colleagues needed to switch gears.

“We weren’t digital natives, we didn’t really know what was going on. And there was a moment when I realized, ‘Oh, my God, we’re starting to look like old people.’ I told everyone that we had to change what we were doing now or we would become obsolete, because this [the students] font is different. And they said no. So I quit.”

Years later, this experience inspired him to create a space that gives low-income youth and youth of color the training and resources to build their computer, production, design and media skills through video games.

Gameheads students on their laptops

Damon Packwood

Founded in 2015 and based in Oakland, CA, Gameheads has provided free tuition, mentorship, equipment, and software/hardware to hundreds of high school and college students.

Here’s how Packwood started his entrepreneurial journey, how he approaches partnerships, and his advice for others looking to do work they love.

“Stop complaining and do something”

In 2011, Packwood began graduate school at California State University, and he says the tech diversity movement in California was just getting started, citing the launches of Black Girls Code, Van Jones’ #YesWeCode and Impact Oakland.

But teaching technical skills through video games was still uncharted territory.

“Nobody was focusing on video games,” Packwood says. “And teaching game design to low-income students of color has value because when you break down a video game, you get these different media. You get sound design, level design, architecture, coding, project management, art and animation and motion picture. When you look at the talent of people of color, a lot of them are our natural talents.”

Packwood says the urge to start his own business came from one of his professors.

“It was my teacher who said ‘you have to do strength-based learning’. You can’t put students in a class and say ‘you’ve never looked at code, but I’ll teach you how to code “. You have to put them in a class where they are somewhat familiar with it to get their attention. And then after a while this very wise man told me that I had to stop complaining and do something. about that. So I created Game Heads.”

“Develop your way of thinking about partnerships”

Like many entrepreneurs, Packwood has been able to grow its business by partnering with other brands. Companies like EA, Oculus, and XBOX are all featured partners on the Gameheads website. And while some of its partnerships help bring in funds, Packwood says those business relationships are about more than money.

“I see a lot of people make the mistake of wanting to create something but before they do that they want someone to give them money. If you think about the value of a partnership by a check, you make something bad. “

Packwood encourages entrepreneurs to broaden their vision of what these types of collaborations can look like. He says people and companies who share their time, knowledge and resources can also count as partnerships.

“When people give of their time, it has value. And there are partnerships that we have where they just give us books, laptops that they no longer use or video game consoles that they no longer need.It’s 200-300 dollars [in equipment] for a youngster who is trying to get into the game, but doesn’t have the resources.”

“I would tell people to broaden the way they think about partnerships. Most people just want a partner to write them a check or teach them a class. If you broaden, you will find yourself forming more partnerships. That’s when the funding will start coming in because people now like working with you because they see the impact.”

‘Do the thing you would do for free.’

For Packwood, turning his passion for youth development into a career was a no-brainer. His advice to people looking for happiness in their professional life is to “do what you’re going to do anyway.”

“I’m going to go up to people and say, ‘Listen, do you want to partner on this? Because if you don’t, that’s cool, I’m going to do it anyway. It’s going to work, so you want be a part of it or not?’ If you approach something with that kind of passion, you’re always going to have fun.”

And as to whether or not he feels Gameheads has “succeeded,” Packwood says there are a few announcements coming in 2023, and if they’re made, “we’ll have established ourselves.”

“But, do I personally feel like I’ve made it? Yes. I have an amazing family. I love my job. My wife is awesome. My daughter is the cutest thing in the world. I have a video play center full of toys that when I was 10 I was lucky if I had any of these things and I can see kids coming in and having fun with all these toys and everything we have. So I can’t say Gameheads succeeded, but I know it did.”


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