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When you think about Africa, foreign kids traveling to the continent to learn how to code isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Well, this didn’t stop Aaron Fuchs and his team from setting up a business doing exactly that. In fact, this focus has given them an advantage.
Not only does summer tech academy iXperience have the advantage of earning dollars while running a business in rands, it’s also found the ability to blend a world-class educational product with a cherished novelty — Cape Town, South Africa.
“It’s such an incredible environment for people from overseas to visit. So, we’re teaching the same stuff that’s being taught in San Francisco and New York, except we’re teaching in an exotic place, which is Africa,” co-founder and CEO Fuchs explains.
Officially founded in 2013, iXperience is currently made up of a team of four: Aaron Fuchs as CEO, Alexis Gillis as Head of Operations, Darren Kramer as CFO and co-founder and Aaron’s brother Seth, who’s head of business development and described as being an “all-round genius”.
The startup’s first US summer programme held in 2014 was sold out. This means that 60 top class students from the likes of Yale and Harvard joined Aaron and the team for a four to eight-week experience in Cape Town, South Africa that’s made up of an intensive programming course, lifestyle activities, and an internship at a local tech company.
Aaron grew up in Cape Town and after studying engineering at UCT, managed to get a scholarship at Yale University in the US. He later on went to work at a hedge fund on Wall Street as an analyst for a couple of years where he was also introduced to coding.
After working as a project manager at Prodigy Finance for about two years, Aaron eventually saw that there was a massive demand for skilled developers, especially when it came to newer technologies. This is where the idea for a coding school cropped up.
Though, after working through a couple of business models, Aaron realised that it wasn’t really sustainable in the local market. So he looked at one where his concept will work.
“I had a friend who traveled from the US, who suggested it would be really cool if we could get college kids from the US to learn how to code in Cape Town,” he says.
Luckily for Aaron, he met professional poker player Darren Kramer who decided to back Aaron’s new-found startup. Kramer invested “a significant amount” which enabled the pair to travel over to the US in order to conduct some necessary market research.
“I had a lot of connections at Yale, who introduced us to people at Harvard, who introduced us to people at Stanford and so on. Today, we have strong relationships with all these universities,” he explains. These connections have proven to be an invaluable part of the company’s journey. Aaron notes that Harvard, for instance, pays for its undergraduate students to come on the course, while the University of Michigan and Yale sponsor their students to do the same.
Apart from having the cash to do so, Americans often understand the importance of getting to grips with new technologies. Founder of Code.org Hadi Partovi found that only around 2% of college students graduate with a degree in computer science. The rest, well, they have to become self-taught or partake in coding bootcamps.
A report by Course meanwhile estimated that the bootcamp market in the US more than doubled last year, from 2 178 in 2013 to 5 987 graduates in 2014.
“The thing about America is that people realise the importance of learning how to code. They don’t really care if they’re not a computer science major,” Aaron argues. “Some of them are like ‘Oh, I might be doing English Literature now, but if I go and work for the Wall Street Journal, chances are I’m going to be doing something online and knowing how to code will be really helpful.'”
“It’s not a difficult sell, really, because they don’t offer any kind of web application development courses on campuses yet. They only offer traditional computer science,” he points out.
Last year, iXperience received over 300 applications. After interviews and actual conversion rates, a total of 60 students were accepted. The lecturers are from San Francisco while teaching assistants hail from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with which the company has a partnership with.
As you can expect the case to be with sourcing skills from the US, teachers get paid quite a lot. Though that’s not iXperience’s biggest expense. Interestingly enough, the biggest expense is the office, classroom space and all its necessary infrastructure. For one, iXperience runs a fat 30mps line through its headquarters.
Now apart from visiting Mzoli’s (a legendary grill in the township of Gugulethu), wine farms and doing shark cage diving, the students are exposed to local issues as well — from transport to health and finance — and are motivated to apply their new-learnt skills in these areas.
Their final project is something they have to build that has some kind of positive impact. For instance, one student built an app for the environmental non-profit, GreenPop, that enables festivalgoers to calculate their carbon footprint and then pledge a tree via the app. Another app made it easy for people to find information and contact about local volunteering programmes — something that was strangely woefully overlooked until then.
Platform45 for instance saw about 12 interns in 2014, helping out with some of the company’s many software projects. Shaun Richards who is a co-founder at Platform45 notes that they’ve been incredibly impressed with iXperience so far.
“It’s amazing seeing the journey of these people. There was this one guy who interned with us last year, who is now working for Facebook. Another student went on to work for Microsoft,” Richards says.
“iXperience, in my opinion, is one of the greatest initiatives going on in South African tech because it’s bringing international students to the country,” he tells Ventureburn. Better yet, it’s bringing them over from the top schools in the US. “The caliber of people and the skills they bring is just phenomenal.”
iXperience has also more recently started offering workshops for local Capetonians who are keen to scratch up on some much-needed skills. These include evening in workshops in UX design, Adobe workshops, intro to programming and how to use crucial tools such as Google Analytics.
“While not part of our primary business model, we’re starting these local workshops to help uplift the local community and provide entrepreneurs with much needed digital skills to grow their business. Our business model is focused on the US market — paying a fairly big sum of money to come and learn something in South Africa.
Aaron notes that iXperience has steered into becoming more of a career preparations academy which tracks and helps their alumni in finding the right jobs when they go back home. “Our goal is to give these kids an amazing abroad experience, together with exposing them to a new culture and a new country while teaching them programming skills that are relevant to Africa but also their portfolio,” Aaron notes.
It’s also recently launched a finance course which carries the same structure as the programming one, but is just focused on the fundamentals of finance. It’s also looking to add a consulting course in the near future.
Speaking about the future, iXperience hopes to launch similar hubs in Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires and Bangkok as it continues to grow. Seeing that it’s looking to triple the amount of students this year’s course, it seems like it’s definitely on the right track.