The Hidden Genius Project is a 2021 Inc. Best in Business honoree. With the second annual Best in Business awards, Inc. recognizes companies that have had a superlative impact on their industries, their communities, the environment, and society as a whole.
If you ask Brandon Nicholson why he started The Hidden Genius Project, he'd say a rising tide lifts all boats. As a 17-year-old, Nicholson received the prestigious Ron Brown scholarship that he credits with changing his life. Now it's his turn to lift up more boats.
Over the past nine years, his Oakland, California-based nonprofit, with help from sponsors like Microsoft and Google, has trained more than 8,000 young people of color worldwide in tech and leadership skills. But this isn't a run-of-the-mill tutoring program; Nicholson aims to find the "hidden geniuses" in underserved communities and turn them into the next generation of entrepreneurs.
The Hidden Genius Project's flagship curriculum, its 15-month Intensive Immersion Program, gives young Black men in grades 9 through 11 more than 800 hours of education and mentorship in computer science and business. Participants have a 95 percent post-secondary education matriculation rate and say the program is transformative. "Being taught and surrounded by excellent Black minds inspired me to believe that I could always better myself, which was a feeling I had never felt before," says 2019 alum Brandon Bazile, who went on to win a pitch competition at the tech conference Afrotech with an app he developed while in The Hidden Genius Project's Intensive program. "We're extremely proud of our growth, of course," Nicholson says. "But we're most proud of the growth of our young people."
Inspired by the Ron Brown Alumni Association's commitment to fostering "lifelong goodwill" between scholarship recipients, Nicholson has devised ways to keep The Hidden Genius Project graduates involved in the organization beyond their 15 months as "Geniuses." Alumni of the Intensive program can become paid Youth Educators who serve their communities through Catalyst programs--free technical workshops that give middle and high school students basic computer science training and pathways to careers in tech. Not only do these events help The Hidden Genius Project reach more young people than it could through its Intensive alone; it also gives Intensive alums the benefit of more leadership training and experience. "Everything we do is about investing in a better society more broadly," Nicholson says. "We're creating an empowering and safe space for young people to impact so many others."
The organization also is dedicated to helping young people of color bring their entrepreneurial visions to life. In its most ambitious move yet, the organization launched its own $150,000 Alumni Venture Seed Fund in the fall of 2020 to back Intensive graduates via an accelerator with built-in coaching, training, and early-stage funding, thanks to sponsors like Plug and Play, Human Capital, and CapitalG. The five-month program culminates in a demo day during which participants pitch potential investors.
The Hidden Genius Project rapidly transitioned to remote programming at the beginning of the pandemic, and Nicholson is eager to bring in-person learning back to the organization's offerings once it can do so safely. The organization recently secured a new space in downtown Oakland, and aims to establish its first yet-to-be-disclosed location outside of California in the near future.
In the meantime, Nicholson is overseeing the development of an online platform that will allow Intensive participants to engage in self-paced learning (and give the nonprofit another opportunity to secure licensing and partnership deals that will help it continue to grow).
"I think there are all sorts of ways we can reach more young people," the founding executive director says. "We're wading into uncharted waters, but we have to put ourselves out there to have an even greater impact."