A Zimbabwean Student’s Journey to Silicon Valley
An amazing story of how a young driven entrepreneur, Mthabais Ndlovu, made his way to Silicon Valley
Sometime last year I (Mthabais) was watching videos from the SingularityU South Africa Summit 2018. One of the speakers said, “A mind once stretched by a new idea never returns to its original position. Everything good and great begins at the edge of our comfort zone.” This statement greatly resonates with my life. It aptly explains how I grew from being an ordinary village boy into being a young man who is so full of potential and so passionate about changing the world.
After graduating from high school in 2016, I suddenly had lots of free time which I intended to use very wisely. I challenged myself to learn something new every day, so I began taking online courses in Math, Physics and Philosophy. I also started visiting the American Corner more frequently, where I would meet fellow United States Student Achievers Program (USAP) scholars to help each other with our college applications and study for SATs. We would engage in hot debates, play scrabble and exchange ideas on how we could develop our communities. I learned how to read and write better. The American Corner was a cool and vibrant space that left an indelible mark on me. I met a lot of new people here and made a lot of friends.
In June 2016, Alvin Chitena (a fellow USAP Scholar) founded ZimCode, a non-profit that teaches high school students how to code. I jumped at the opportunity of joining ZimCode as a tutor even though I had no prior coding experience except for a ‘childish curiosity’ about how technologies like Facebook, the internet, Gmail and text messaging really worked. I took a two week Python crash course at ZimCode and immediately fell in love with coding. My first program made the words ‘Hello World!’ appear on my screen. The thought of having to write a few lines of code and have a computer greet ‘the entire world’ was truly breathtaking. I wanted to learn more.
What followed were long nights of no sleep. I would stay up late in an attempt to fix a small bug in my code. On average, I would code for more than 10 hours per day. I also took various Python courses and worked on different projects which kept increasing in complexity. I took UC Berkeley’s Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs and built a simple ‘Ants vs Bees’ game that closely resembles the popular game- ‘Plants vs Zombies’. With each coding challenge I completed and each project I brought to life, my love and passion for coding grew and so did my programming skills. I would post any coding challenge I solved on WhatsApp for my friends to marvel. Programming became a huge aspect of my life such that it became impossible for me to introduce myself without mentioning that I can code. This grew my developer network and opened a lot of opportunities for me to grow my programming skills. The EducationUSA Adviser in Bulawayo, my boss, gifted me a calendar that had the map of Silicon Valley printed on it.
In August 2016 I became the EducationUSA intern at the American Corner. It was evident that my affiliation with the American Corner was far from ending. I continued teaching Python at ZimCode and learning online. In October we moved to a new office. It was much bigger and was more beautiful and the name of the office was changed to American Space. By this time I had become excellent in Microsoft Excel and I could type very fast, without even looking at my keyboard. My network grew further and my passion for programming reached its record high.
Fast forward to April 2017. My friend Tafara who I had met at the American Corner and was now studying at Williams College texted me on WhatsApp:
“Hey bro, ever heard of Make School?
I think you should apply for their summer program.
You’ll love it!”
I quickly googled ‘Make School’ and was met by their call for applications for Make School Summer Academy 2017. I was thrilled by this golden opportunity because I had always dreamt of going to the Silicon Valley. So I applied and in a few days I got a response, I was accepted! I was overjoyed, I had been accepted with a 50% tuition scholarship. My bubble burst too quickly. I calculated that I would have to pay US$3,500 to cover the rest of the tuition and then pay for my plane ticket, a new MacBook and my living expenses in the Silicon Valley for the next 2 months. In total this amounted to about US$10,000 which was more than half of our annual combined family income. I was so near to fulfilling my dream, yet I was so far.
I took some time to process this. I felt the opportunity to visit the land of my dreams slip from my hands. I almost gave up, but something deep inside me could not let me give up just like that. I decided that there was no going back, I was going to the Silicon Valley that summer. I wrote a sea of emails to Make School requesting for more funds. The Make School team was very helpful. They promised to do all they could to make sure I don’t miss out on this opportunity and also advised me to apply for sponsorship from local companies, wealthy relatives or friends, and also launch a crowdfunding campaign. I applied to many companies in Zimbabwe and abroad and launched a campaign on Go Fund Me. Weeks went by, but I got no positive response from potential sponsors. Donations were slowly trickling in from my Go Fund Me Campaign but were too far from my target of US$10,000. My colleagues at EducationUSA and at the US Embassy advised me to quit and try again in the coming year but that was impossible for me. I wrote back to Make School and the response I got was life changing. They had secured a full tuition scholarship for me if I agreed to attend Make School Summer Academy in Oakland. I promptly agreed and thanked them for their generous offer.
I quickly updated my Go Fund Me campaign and reduced my target. I worked very hard to promote my campaign for funds to go to the Silicon Valley. I would stay up till midnight trying to reach out to anyone in my network for donations or a place to stay in the Bay Area. I would pitch at various events that were hosted at the American Space. This is when I met Kurt. I was so close to giving up. I explained my plight to Kurt as he sipped on his coffee and he challenged me to sell 4000 cups of coffee to raise the money I needed. I got the message loud and clear, if I desperately wanted this opportunity, I would have to work hard for it.
I continued promoting my campaign, applying for sponsorships and seeking accommodation and just a week before the time I was supposed to check in at Make School, a miracle happened. Freedom Cheteni- a professor at Stanford University, passionate educator and USAP alum- offered me a place to stay at his house in San Mateo for the duration of the Make School Summer Academy. I was so elated that for a moment I thought I had gone mad. My campaign also picked up some steam and in about five days I had raised about US$1,500 which combined with US$1,000 from my savings was enough for the plane ticket and a little pocket money. I quickly applied for my Visa. I expected the process to go smoothly but unfortunately my Visa delayed because the consular was convinced that I had applied for the wrong visa- a visitor’s visa instead of a student visa. I wrote several emails and made numerous calls to the US Embassy consular section to provide supporting information that would help resolve my visa issue. After a week the matter was resolved and I got my visa. Phew!
The former EducationUSA Country Coordinator and founder of Education Matters paid for my plane ticket. I was already late for the summer academy so I did everything in a rush. I could not even say goodbye to most of friends and relatives. I had never been out of Zimbabwe before, but I took the plane that was headed to the my dreamland. It really felt like a dream, I could not believe that things had come together in the very last moments.
I first touched California on Friday afternoon. Freedom came to pick me up from the LAX Airport. We drove to the Impact Hub in Oakland, one of the locations for Make School Summer Academy. Yes, after being on a plane for about 32 hours I couldn’t wait to get to class. Truth be told I didn’t gain much from my first lesson, I was too tired. However, I met my instructor Scott and my classmates. Scott helped me diagnose the concepts I had missed out on that I had to work on over the weekend. I had 2 weeks of work to catch up on, there was no time to waste!
On Saturday I got my new laptop and started playing catch up. I would go with Freedom to Stanford University. We would eat breakfast or brunch there and then he would leave me to do my school work. That would be the routine for most of my weekends. But my first weekend in the US was special. Freedom and I toured Stanford, I was amazed by how big it was and the state of the art architecture. Everyone I met seemed friendly and full of energy. Everything seem different from my home country. I had watched many American movies and read a lot about student life in US colleges so I was not really shocked by the culture, but experiencing it felt different from learning about the culture from miles away.
On Sunday I got enough rest in preparation for classes on Monday. My weekdays were routine-like. I would wake up early to catch the Caltrain to Millbrae and then catch a BART to Oakland. I would spend at least 8 hours at the Impact Hub learning more about the Swift programming language and iOS App Development. When I got home I would be exhausted but I would continue working because I was behind the rest of the class. This continued for close to two weeks, but I was catching up really fast. My peers were really helpful. I would also meet Scott over the weekend for extra help. I enjoyed the Make School classes. Our class was small so I got all the attention I needed from the instructor. We also practiced pair programming and this helped us (students) to learn more from each other. I built really cool apps, I started with a simple tip calculator and then developed an imitation of the iPhone notes app and the most challenging project I had to work on was Makestagram, a miniature version of the popular Instagram.
I was really having the time of my life in the Silicon Valley. However, I realized I was at the risk of burning out. My love for programming was making me oblivious of the unreasonable hours I was putting in, I barely spared anytime for recharging my body. I quickly adjusted my schedule and dedicated my weekends to touring the Silicon Valley and meeting new friends. I met with many Zimbabweans who were working in the Silicon Valley. Some were interns at giant tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google and some were full time employees at such companies. I was surrounded by brilliant tech minds and I made sure I learn a lot from them. One thing I learned is that every meeting in the Silicon Valley is important. The conversations we engaged in were intellectually stimulating and often led to bigger opportunities. I got invitations to tour the Facebook Menlo Park campus three times from such ordinary meetings. I also got an opportunity to visit Twitter and speak with some of their engineers. This offered me new insights about how I could be a more successful software engineer. I was inspired at all times, the people I met in the Silicon Valley seemed to be very intentional about their lives and were always busy during the week.
To unwind I would watch Game of Thrones on Netflix or play chess on my laptop. At one time I went to watch Real Madrid play against Manchester United at Levi’s Stadium and after the game went with friends to party in Berkeley. On the fourth of July we watched fireworks light up the sky. These were really exciting times for me, but I had one other place to visit: the Golden Gate Bridge. On August 6, Kurt told me he was in San Francisco. I went to meet him and he introduced me to his two friends, Dawn and … I’ve forgotten his name. We didn’t have any plans for the day. Kurt had just arrived from his entrepreneurship tour in Africa and needed some rest. All of a sudden I remembered that it was my birthday, and the mood changed. We went to grab a hearty lunch and everyone wished me happy birthday. Kurt and his other friend had to dash off but Dawn was still eager to spoil me. We drove to the Golden Gate Bridge but we couldn’t stop for pictures because Dawn had another appointment in Berkeley, so we went there. We met with Dawn’s family at the Ashby Theater to watch the play ‘The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence’. It was a really exciting play and got me thinking about how we can coexist with AI powered robots.
As time went by the deadline for submitting my final project, an original that I would ship to the App Store, drew closer. I had cut down on my social time and get some work done. A week before the deadline I attended Make School Hack Day where I learned about Java Script and did some user testing for my soccer app. After Hack Day I polished my app and just before the deadline I shipped my first app. I was so excited. In my wildest dreams I had never thought I could build something that would be used by thousands of people from all over the world. It turned out my app was a hit. It was selected in the top 8 apps from hundreds of submissions from other Summer Academy participants from other locations in America. I presented my app onstage on demo day and sold the dream of a sensational app that made picking teams for social soccer games faster, simpler and more fun. I was really proud of myself and very grateful to everyone who had supported me. Especially Freedom, he was like a super brother to me. He really made sure that I enjoyed my time in the Silicon Valley and gave me sound advice that I could use even after this experience. He taught me to be intentional about my actions, and to be more empathetic. He would say, “Why do it later if you can do it now? Why give people your second best when you can give them your best?” These words fueled my passion for changing the world. I stopped wishing to be the best Software Engineer, but hoped to the change the world with the power of computing. I was no longer focused on my individual success but that of many.
Today I am a more passionate programmer. I am now focusing on building Progressive Web Apps but I will soon go into Android Development. I also teach Math and Science in my village with the hope I will be inspire more children to learn about science and computing. Last year I founded Velamfundo, a non-profit that seeks to improve the quality of education in rural areas and develop entrepreneurial leaders that will help solve challenges that face rural communities globally. I intend to grow this organization into a community learning center that will be equipped with the state of the art equipment that will inspire a great deal of innovation in rural Africa. Okay, let me rephrase this statement. I wish to create a mini Silicon Valley in my village. My plan is to get more villagers to love learning, learn more Math and Science. I also want to introduce a coding school at the Velamfundo Learning Center. It will be name Codeville and will be responsible for pioneering technological disruption in rural areas. I also want to use our culture to attract accomplished innovators to my village. I always find the Xhosa culture intriguing and if we share our culture with the world it might bring people who will help us take part in the global innovation journey.