MISSION, RGV – The founders of Mission’s Code the Town project knew they were onto something big when an assistant superintendent from Austin said to them, how come you have your entire community behind you and we, who have Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Drop Box, Google and the like in our community, do not?

The accolades keep coming for Alex Meade, Daniel Silva and the rest of the Mission Economic Development Corporation. They were invited to speak at computer science conference at Microsoft’s campus in Austin. They have been in conference calls with Apple, Google, and Microsoft. And they were invited to submit two applications for recognitions from the White House.

“When would you ever have thought of the Valley getting recognition like this?” asked Meade, CEO of Mission EDC.

Meade has just returned from speaking at an academy for computer science teachers in Austin. The organizers wanted him to talk about the collaborations and partnerships MEDC has built up in developing its talent pool in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Jim Vander Kolk
Jim Vander Kolk

The collaboration includes Royal Technologies, an injection molding company that manufactures plastic components for high end office furniture and interior automotive parts. The company employs 144 workers at its Mission manufacturing plant. The collaboration also includes Mission and Sharyland school districts and Sylvan Learning RGV, a private organization that runs specialist education programs.

“Code the Town, a computer coding project, has been a really big success with the schools that jumped on board and Sylvan. We trained 600-plus kids in nine months and 100 teachers. All of these kids and teachers took eight hours of code,” Meade said.

During the 84th legislative session, Meade spoke at a meeting of the Texas Computer Education Association. It was held at the Microsoft campus in Austin. He was asked to speak about Code the Town and House Bill 3700, a piece of legislation that would have allowed computer science education to count as a third math credit. Currently, it is an elective course that does not count towards graduation. The bill would also have provided about $90,000 in state funds, to be matched by a local effort, for a pilot computer science project in Mission.

House Bill 3700, authored by state Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra, did not make into law because it was in a logjam behind bills about guns and abortion that had lots of amendments and took up a lot of time. “We simply ran out of time. But, we will try again next session. We brought private industry in to offer their support for the bill. Code.org. wrote a letter of support signed by their COO. We were on a conference call with Apple, Google, Microsoft, and they were saying, what do we have to do to support the bill? It was unbelievable, the support we were getting.

Spearheading projects like Ruby Red Ventures, which nurtures budding entrepreneurs, and Code the Town, are not the normal fare for economic development corporations. Meade acknowledges this to be the case and gives a lot of credit to Jim Vander Kolk, president of Royal Technologies.

“We owe a lot to Jim. He pushed us. When he was planning to bring his company to Mission (they are based in Hudsonville, Michigan) he would say, I can bring my engineers with me but what are you doing to prepare our bench? I said, I can set up a meeting with STC (South Texas College). I can set up meetings for you with our school districts. He said, you do not understand me. What are YOU doing? All you are doing is referring me to someone else. I thought about and realized we were not really doing much. We were simply making connections.”

Meade continued: “Jim really wants to get involved in the community. He values talent. As he says, it is not the company that makes the difference. It is the talent that makes the company. He told me, we have been here in Mission for two years. I am happy with everything we are doing. They have already transferred about $65-$80 million of business from Michigan to Mission. But, we have not had to let go of one single person in Michigan. My aspiration for Mission is to become a mini-Michigan. Hudsonville, Michigan, is our headquarters but Mission has the potential to be an extension of the headquarters. We do not feel like we are giving enough to the community.”

Meade said he has heard many companies say they want to do more in the community. What they mean is they want to write a check. “I asked Jim, do you just want to write a check or do you truly want to get involved with the community. He said, no, I really want to get involved with the community. We have heard about Code the Town but we want to do something with engineering. We want to literally create a pipeline of engineers, not just for us but for the manufacturing base of the Rio Grande Valley.” The result, said Meade, is Enginuity, a project similar to Code the Town but which focuses on engineering. Enginuity is a play on words, combining engineering and community.

Meade said Trung Nguyen, plant manager for Royal Technologies in Mission, made a good point recently. He said if Enginuity had been in place 15 years ago, when he first arrived in the Valley, he would have had a talent pool to draw from when a manufacturing firm comes to the region needing 200 skilled workers.

Meade explained the mission statement for Enginuity. “It connects Royal Technologies, Mission EDC and the school districts in an effort to expose students to early opportunities in engineering, design and manufacturing careers in Mission. Because we are funded with the Mission sales tax, everything we do is about Mission. But the goal is to make this a regional program. We have ways in which we can go into other communities and promote engineering as a whole.”

Meade said that during last year’s National Computer Science Education Week he was able to speak to every school superintendent from Brownsville to Laredo at a meeting of Region 1 Education Service Area. “We talked, not about Code the Town but the importance of computer science education. At the meeting, Edinburg ISD said, we want to have an hour of code from you guys. Brownsville said the same. They saw we had an initiative a city that supports computer science. The students and teachers are starting to ask their EDCs, why can’t you do what Mission is doing? We would welcome that. We are an open book, we do not hide anything. Our guidelines are on our website. We say, take them, make them better. If it is a good idea, take it and make it better.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series about Mission EDC’s efforts to boost the STEM talent pool and foster an entrepreneurial spirit in the community. Click here for Part One. Part Three will be posted next week.

Editor’s Note: Pictured in the main photo accompanying this story are Daniel Silva, chief operating officer of Mission EDC, Susan Valverde, president of Sylvan Learning RGV, and Alex Meade, executive director of Mission EDC. Silva is holding a Raspberry Pie computer that Mission EDC is using to help teach Python computer code.