Today’s guest on #MWL is Chok Ooi. We talk diversity in tech and his mission to equalize the playing field for everyone through education at his Kenzie Academy.

Chok and I also talk about how job automation is accelerating due to COVID-19 and what this means for the future of the workforce.


Where to watch live:

Guest Socials - Chok Ooi
Get The Full Episode Transcription


what's up

another day marcus whitney live and I've

been on zoom all morning I was laughing

with our guest today about how you know

you got to keep your energy up but these

zooms man they can get to you man at a

certain point you string enough of them

back to back and they can get to you

without further ado I'm super excited

about my guest today is we're gonna have

a great conversation about the the

importance of technology in in the role

it can play in economic mobility for

people and sort of the

under-representation that we have in the

tech industry today and and how people

have used their power and their

privilege to dedicate their life and

their resources to be able to to make a

real impact there and obviously that

means a lot to me is somebody who

changed their life via the power of

learning how to code so without any

further ado I'm super excited to have my

friend my new friend chalk on the show

chalk what's going on brother 



hey Marcus

thanks for having me it 



man great to

have you here man

so look I just wanted to kind of dump a

little bit into your background and just

you know sort of understand better about

how you actually you know made your

career in tech how did you you know find

this as a path for you before we get

into you know what you've been able to

do at Kenzi Academy 



cool so yeah you

know I I see myself as an outsider to

tech an immigrant from a little country

in Asia called Malaysia I came to the

States about 20 years ago

I always joke to my students that I came

here with two bags two suitcases and a

pocket full of hope and dreams and yeah

I found that you know I didn't knew I

didn't know anybody here I didn't know

how you know how to break into

opportunities in this brand-new country

and what I did have for me was my

engineering education and training but

over the years a lot of doors opened for

me through a lot of hard work but also

true a lot of true networking and true

friends and mentors and I've been able

to build a pretty decently successful

career in fact first my first seven

years as a technologies in wall street

Goldman Sachs Bank of America and then

the next few years in Silicon Valley

working back then for a young guy in

sam'l and in his last company which then

of course we're going to be head of Y

Combinator and start opening I will

unmask I then went on to found my first

startup my first company about ten years

ago try to solve the talent crunch in

Silicon Valley by going overseas to

vietnam to hire and train raw talent and

connecting those talent to companies in

the u.s. like Google and millicom nerve

wallet definitely needed talent to build

their products so did that for ten years

before you know stepping down to start




yeah that's that's an incredible

run you know for for people who are who

are uninitiated you sort of breeze

through the name Sam Altman but Sam took

the reins of Y Combinator which is

without a doubt the the most famous

accelerator and the history of the

market of accelerator is really sort of

the founding accelerator if you will he

took it over from Paul Graham who is the

founder ran it successfully for many

many years before turning that over to

Michael Seibel who's currently the the

president so that's a big name in

Silicon Valley so to be able to have

worked with somebody sort of at that

level is really really big and then 



 company was successful over the course

 of the ten years as well, right. The one

 where you were basically filling the gap

 on on the talent, leveraging overseas




Yep, we grew it to about 300

 people. And it's growing. And we started

 solving the problem in Silicon Valley,

 and quickly realized that the talent

 famine is actually global. So today, we

 are helping to you know build a

 payment wallet system in Nigeria. We work

 with fitness tech startups in New

 Zealand. We have clients in Southeast

 Asia, in South America, all around the world.

 So we're able to build a pretty

 successful global business using global




So so talk about the moment where

 you had the “aha!” for Kenzie Academy, which

 is what we're really here to talk about

 today, you know. As you you know, you've

 had this incredible story as an

 immigrant coming to this country being

 able to get into the tech industry. And

 clearly, you know, you're going from

 arriving with two bags in your hands -as

 you said- you know to working with you

 know one of the biggest names in Silicon

 Valley. You know, co-founding a company,

 growing it to 300 people. I mean these

 are just incredible, incredible successes,

 and they're all happening as a result of

 technology. You know, what are you seeing

 around you while this is all happening

 that is starting to make you think a

 little bit differently from your own

 personal experiences? Knowing how

 technology you know benefited you, but

 just you know you're you're now

 knee-deep in it… what are you seeing

 around you?



So this goes back to 2016. My

 business was going doing

 very well. And you know as an

 entrepreneur -I'm sure you can relate too-

 you know, I was growing my company. I kind

 of didn't have much time to watch my kids

 grow up. I totally missed that whole

 journey, so I was about to actually step

 down you know, get a beach house by the

 Jersey Shore and then spend more time

 with the kids. And then 2016 happened. And

 it was a wake-up call for me and a lot

 of my friends, seeing that there's a lot

 of anger and loss of hope in our country,

 especially the middle of the country. You

 know, with the changing of the economy

 where things are being digitized... a lot

 of the I'll say the much more industrialized

 cities in the Midwest

 were, you know, suffering. We lost jobs.

 Lost opportunity. Loss of hope. So I said

 to my co-founders back then that, “hey you

 know... why don't we leverage our knowledge

 on how to train hard, non-traditional

 talent and leverage our connection to

 the tech industry. And can we create a

 solution that will be able to transition

 thousands if not hundreds of thousands

 of people into new economy, new

 opportunity jobs. So that there was a

 “aha!” moment for me back then. And when

 I pitched that idea to a few of my

 friends, they said, “if you do it we'll

 fund you.” And the next thing I knew, we

 raised about $1.1 million in

 three weeks.

 And, “wow this is real now.” So that was my...

 I've moved then moved back to

 the Midwest to start Kenzie Academy.




that's incredible and and and you're

exactly right 2016 was a moment where if

we didn't know that that that

globalization and and the internet had

sort of created a divide in our country

we certainly saw it in 2016 with that

election cycle and and sort of this this

this awakening to the reality that maybe

globalization and maybe the internet

hadn't brought all of America along with

it so for that to sort of have been the

trigger for you given everything that

you had experience with in terms of

filling those talent gaps with people

outside of the country I think was you

know was was pretty cool

why do you think you were able to raise

money so quickly do you think that that

you know your friends also saw that this

I mean obviously they trusted you they

believed in you you had had a great

track record of success you knew the

problem but do you think that they also

saw that hey this is a really big

problem we need to work on this pretty

quickly because you know raising one you

know one and a half million dollars in

three weeks even if you've got like

friends just off of an idea is not a

small thing so you know was it because

they also realized that there was

something bigger sort of happening



definitely both because you know as we

see you know technology the digital

divide is real I mean he definitely has

shown its ugliness where you know it's

leaving behind more and more people

every single day

and with automation that that trend is

just an accelerate so a lot of my

friends and other investors saw that and

we saw that the the current you know

offerings in the market were not

designed to scale no colleges and

universities they were designed in the

1800s or you know they were never

designed to be able to train large yet

they pride themselves many other

institutions quite themselves and how

few people they serve that's right and

you know it was never designed to scale

to train as many people as possible so

we saw an urgency and need to create a

new model a new system that can really

provide you know that really provides

equality to everybody where everyone who

is willing and able will have equal X

opportunity equal access

high-quality training and access to

opportunities you know like the people

always say that talent is equally

distributed opportunities are not so we

wanted to create a model that would

train talent and high talent to where

other opportunities are and you know as

much as technology has the ability to

divide society what's on the flip side

is it's one of the few things that has

the opportunity to really create you

know to really create true equality for

everybody right we live you know we live

in this new generation of tech goldrush

that regardless of your background you

know the color of your skin your your

sexual orientation or whatever it is it

doesn't matter you know as long as you

have the right skills and the right

connection you will have an opportunity

to change your lives

and and and really you know break into

this new opportunity so that's why we

see that you know Tech is gonna be a

major driving force to be able to

transform a lot of people into this new

new economy 



so now talk about Kensi

Academy because there are definitely

many you know tech schools out there I

mean there's everything from like the

old-school ITT you know Academy tech you

know trade school to many many you know

general assembly there's there's many

many different coding boot camps that

are out there talk about you know what

what you brought into the Kinsey Academy

model given your background your

personal experience and also the

experience of your company agility 




so when we started Kensie we saw that

with the boot camps they they they work

great as a finishing school for many

people who already have degrees and

instead of doing a mass or an mba wanted

to do a boot camp and then make their

way into tech jobs but the demographic

that we really want to serve the people

who are underserved the underrepresented

especially people who don't have college

degrees and come from frontline were

non-white collar jobs I feel like the

the high tech industry was over-index

for just focusing on training people for

skills and what was neglected was the

soft skill piece of it it's actually a

three legged stool one the first leg is

the skill the second leg is the soft

skill which is critical thinking


munication a lot of things that you know

you and I we all take for granted

especially we come from you know a

higher ed background that is equally as

important to get people employable which

was not not being as as emphasized in

other programs and then the third piece

of it is mental health you know when you

deal with a lot of people at the bottom

of the economic pyramid there's a lot of

anxiety a lot of impostor syndrome and

mental health again badly just because

all the challenges they do it in life

that a lot of people who came from

privileged never have to deal with so we

believe that to really you know really

make someone be successful and get them

into a successful career we need to

tackle all three pieces so Kenzie was

specifically designed around this

understood community to create an

environment where we can deal with

impostor syndrome and and all that and

also create environment with like-minded

people like themselves where they feel

confident and they feel supported so

that they have an equal chance towards a

lucrative career in technology so doing

things very very differently and

creating a model that is specifically

designed for this underserved population



so when we talked about having you on

the show you were like that's cool and

all but I want to make sure that we you

know give an opportunity to actually

hear from one of the Kenzie students and

so I thought that was a great idea so

can you tell us a little bit about the

student we're about to hear from 




brandy is one of my favorite students

although I'm not allowed to pick

favorites and she you know everyone

talks about you know like you know how

underrepresented and you know like a

black developer is you know sometimes

you go to a company you see one black

developer a month you you know whites

and Asian's and all and then a black

female developers even more of a unicorn

yes and you know I can see you have no

idea how many black female developers we

have that I really know that kicking ass

there they have great work ethic they're

very smart they work hard and brandy is

is one of them definitely she's you know

she's overcome a lot of adversity

challenges in life but that has not set

her back you know

despite you know everything that goes

against her she you know pushed herself

through and it's about to complete

Kenzie and you know hopefully you'd be

able to land a highly lucrative job in a

very soon



that's amazing so so without

further ado let's quickly here from from

Brandi and see what she has to say about

her experience at Kenzie 



my name is

Brandi Khan and I'm a suffering you

certainly can see Academy

prior to attending Kenzie Academy I was

a stay-at-home mom for 11 years sending

six of those years also homeschooling my

three children what spurred me to take

was a childhood passion for computer

engineering as well as recent hardships

of my husband becoming injured and also

being unable to find a job in the

workforce spending one year with no

income was really tough for my family and

so I decided I needed to get a skill

that no one could take from me and we're

making more competitive when applying

for positions my goal intake is to work

for a company that's really more family

focused and more open to me spending

that time with my family as well as

accomplishing my goals with this company

I really love debugging and really

solving the puzzle of code and so I'm

really excited to get started doing that

have a great day thank you 




awesome man 



it's stories like Brandi and

many others that motivates me to wake up

every day and keep pushing and and you

know we always say that we you know if

if we are successful at what we do we

will have a chance to remake the

composition of the tech industry and

really bringing a lot of talent and

voices and ideas that currently are on

the sidelines 



you know I don't think

people understand just how incredibly

transformational tech can be in this

current economy I've spent a lot of time

over the last week talking about my book

and my book starts with me dropping out

of college and you know I was just too

immature for college at the time no

knock on higher education but it doesn't

start with me dropping out of college

and then next thing I knew I had a

family and next thing I knew I was you

know in a way of frontline worker I was

waiting tables and

and living in a week-to-week motel and

you sort of like look up and you find

yourself in these in these situations

and I was very very lucky that my uncle

rest in peace uncle Otis he was a

programmer at IBM and when I was young

one of the gifts he gave me for

Christmas one year was an IBM PC jr. and

we know we're talking about the 80s and

back then computers didn't do much that

you couldn't program them to do they

didn't like come with all these games

and things like that so you had to like

program so I learned like very basic

programming but chalk you know from from

where I was brand-new to this town

without a degree you know I did have I

did have soft skills I did have these

these things but teaching myself how to

code took me out of that situation that

was very very tenuous you know into

situation where I was making forty five

thousand dollars a year and I had

benefits and I just built this

foundation you know that within a very

short period of time I'm now in a

startup leading a team getting equity

learning about leadership you know and

in tech was the path and so 

In this

 world where -especially this COVID-19

 world- where you know, for better or

 for worse, the Internet is the real world

 right. You know what I mean, we

 unfortunately can't touch each other. We

 can't be in close proximity the way that

 we used to. So many things we used to do

 in real world we now have to do via

 technology; it is it is an unbelievable

 equalizer. It is an unbelievable

 equalizer... and so you know we can't have

 enough of initiatives like Kenzie out

 there that are that are introducing this

 this equalizer to people. And and for

 people like Brandi who are dealing with,

 you know, real responsibility, real

 hardships at home, you know things that

 are happening to her spouse and you know

 she's just being incredibly

 strong. The fact that she has the support

 of Kenzie to help her to explore to find

 the things she likes... You know, when she

 talks about liking debugging, so many

 people don't know Quality Assurance is a

 great career. You know every software

 development team needs Quality Assurance.

 And so you know, I don't know I can

 talk a lot about this because I think

 it's so important. I get really

 passionate about it because it is in

 many ways my own story.




 absolutely. And another another example

 the story of one of my students, Shaquan,

 he was formerly incarcerated. And then

 after that, he was homeless living in

 his friends car for an amount of time.

 Went to you know work you know in the

 fulfilment centers at FedEx, and found Kenzie.

 Graduated earlier late last year, and

 just recently got a job as an apprentice

 with Dropbox. So, think about that. You

 know, from the journey where he was... and

 he said it's like he can't imagine his

 path would ever lead him to where he is

 today. Tech is a huge equalizer

 in our generation. And it all goes

 back to if you're willing to put in the

 effort. You... the first part is definitely,

 you need to you know get rid of that the

 victim’s mindset and and tune yourself to

 a growth mindset. And that's what we do

 at Kenzie is we surround our students in

 an environment among all people -all

 like-minded people who has that growth

 mindset- and after the 12 months of

 training and after 12 months of being

 with people like this, you know, you catch

 the the growth mindset of code. And and

 you know you that that changes the

 way you think, the way you approach

 things at all. And hopefully, that that

 would you know give our graduates unfair

 advantage, or an equalized advantage to

 to get into the tech industry.



everything you just said is is so

incredibly important and and you know

when you think about the things that

make somebody employable that the you

know you mentioned the soft skills you

you know the growth mindset is one of

them if people don't know but but people

hire based on energy as well you know

and and they're looking for optimistic

people that are going to bring you know

ideas and a can-do attitude and and

those kinds of things and and especially

in the technology space that's such an

important you know mindset to be able to

bring to the table you know you need to

be you need to have healthy skepticism

you need to make sure things actually

work it is engineering at the end of the

day we want we don't want to have you

know optimism in the face of facts you

know but at the same time you do need to

have strong belief in yourself that's

you know that's kind of what I think

about it when I think about the growth

mindset I think about how important it

is to believe in yourself and to believe

that yes there are obstacles out there

that are that are that are real they're

real I don't want to invalidate those

obstacles but the belief that you know

with with the right amount of support

and in the right amount of effort that

you can be successful at



solutely absolutely and you know like

not everyone makes it to the program and

people who are successful or has that

traits that you talked about and there

are people who go into don't put in the

effort or is constantly playing the

victim mindset blaming when everything

goes wrong blaming everyone but

themselves without taking ownership of

their own life and what we tried our

best do at Kenzi is you know to show

them the opportunities show them a

better way and you know and then we

would do our best to get them connected

and that's I think what's that's I think

one of the differentiations of Kenzi

instead of just focusing on the skills

these are all you know we call this a

360 education and training and then we

bring in you know speakers in order to

to show them that hey you know you're

not an outsider you're no different than

someone who's made it in the industry

you can you can as long as you put in

the effort and have the right thinking

you can be as successful if not more

successful than some of the speakers



that's amazing

so so talk a little bit about the

structure of the company I whenever you

hear about things that are that are

mission driven I think I think we can't

help it we have our minds immediately go

to not-for-profit you know what I mean

it's just it's just we have these really

bad associations in our mind and and

that's one of them and so I I asked you

hey is this a for-profit because it is

very mission driven it's a mission

driven business and you said it's a it's

a for-profit can you talk you know 


 someone who has, you know, worked with

 very successful business people, been a

 successful business person…  as you

 endeavour to do this, how have you

 thought about the scalability? The


 You know, what success means for for

 Kenzie as a for-profit that that exists

 to achieve a mission?



So when we started

 Kenzie, that did cross our mind. Do we run

 this as a non-profit? Do we run this as a

 for-profit? And you know, prior to Kenzie,

 there are a lot of nonprofits that are

 in this space serving this demographic

 that we serve, but they tend to be small

 and usually mostly localized and not

 very scalable. So you know, when we put

 our minds to this, you know, like for me

 to force myself to delay my retirement

 to come in and do this, I want to make

 sure that we can do something scalable


 touches a lot of lives as much as possible

 because of how urging the problem is. So

 when we thought about it... so the reason

 we decided on a for-profit model is that

 with a for-profit model, we can galvanize

 the right level of resources and talent, you

 know, that that would be able... with all the

 smart minds, we can really solve this big

 problem at scale. And with a for-profit

 model, we're able to attract you know

 people coming from -who used to work at- LinkedIn,

 Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and a lot of

 other tech companies that we will not be

 able to attract as a nonprofit model. And

 then secondly, I've never run a proper

 nonprofit, and don't even know how to go

 about it. And and I you know, instead of

 you know running something where I constantly

 have to raise money with funders that

 all maybe have different views of how

 things should be doing -I'm pretty

 stubborn, I have you know, because I've

 done this before for the last 10 years- I

 know how to train people. I know how to

 get them into opportunities. And I would rather

 build something where it's sustainable

 if we can build something -even though

 it's for-profit, yes we do need to

 generate a return for investors- but, you

 know we also align ourselves with

 investors who believe in the mission, who

 believe in the impact. So we we you know

 we do need to generate returns and profit

 responsibly. But that allows us to then

 build something more sustainable and a

 lot more scalable long term.



so in in the

in the context of everything that's

happening in the world

Kenzie has become more relevant I I

would just say as an outsider we haven't

talked about this but inequity is a top

of mind daily conversation and I think

we're all looking at all of our systems

all of our institutions and we're asking

the questions how much how much inequity

is baked into the system how much racism

how much sexism how much elitism you

know is built into these systems and

what do we need to do to start to root

some of that stuff out you know how do

we start to have conversations about

that since since America has really

started to engage in the

much more open and honest dialogue about

this how has that changed

Kenzie's interactions with the market

and even the conversations you're having

internally I'm really curious about that

we're definitely getting a lot more

outreach from companies and people we're

definitely seeing more and more

companies now being very proactive in

their hiring in looking for diverse

talent but well we hope companies will

do a lot more than just you know you

know this pain lip service to it make it

real this time

and you know like when you talk about

like population of our students many of

them coming from underserved communities

yeah they did they did the one-year

Kenzi program you know what we asked for

companies is to give everyone equal

chance after the gorge for killing we

hold a session where a lot of our black

students actually talk about their

personal experience being black in

America and kind of the discrimination

bias there to deal with and one thing

that really really you know really

resonated with me and really broke my

heart was we had this student and you

know she's a great student really work

hard would do well in the field but she

said in you know in her job search she

had to change her name to lady versus

actual her full name just to be able to

get more interviews and and you know so

what we want to do is really find ways

to really know you know proactively work

with companies who want to you know get

rid of this this bias and autistics in

hiring to give equal opportunity to

everyone in the country so we say the

companies like yep if you're looking for

diverse talent we have a lot of them and

they have great work attitude they went

to university and they're willing to

work as hard if not harder than many of

the people coming from more privileged

pipelines and also hey if they don't

have the level of skills that you're

expecting give them a chance hire them

is apprentice hire them as an intern you

know provide that training and and you

know that person would then grow on to

be the the star employee that you're

hoping to be and that person would then

draw on more other diverse talent into

your organization so what we really tell

companies is you need to really rethink

the way you hire you know and be really

more proactive in to looking at talent

and places where resources are that you

were not traditionally recruiting from

so Chuck as we wrap up you know what I

would love for you to share because I

think this is this is the the most

important thing in this moment you know

you were a person when you made the

decision to launch Kensi you were a

person of power and privilege right who

had who had a unique perspective a

unique experience you had the network

that could get you funded you know you

had all these things and you decided to

take time away from retirement and these

other things move and actually you know

make a difference with with your life

and and with your with your treasurer

what would you say to people right now

who do have power who do have privilege

and who in this moment are starting to

have these you know uncomfortable

internal conversations and wondering you

know how they can how they can show up

in this moment you know what would what

would you what guidance what wisdom

would you offer to those people in

particular yep of course not everyone

you know has the language of me to

really really you know change my my

company of course what I was doing and

focus on you know being impact as many

lives as possible

but you know despite how busy you on

everything you're doing like the bare

minimum can you do if you can you can

afford time to change hundreds of

thousands of lives

start with one start with to take be a

mentor take on somebody under your wing

we really recently launched a campaign

called and make the hire campaign and

we've gotten so much request from a lot

of my friends and connections and and so

we've had like the former VP of Netflix

now want you to be a 10z mentor to our

students who are people of color they

you know we have people from a lot of

other companies and even CEOs of

startups who and people from other

companies have come in and chime in you

know volunteer

be a mentor help you know people you

know craft their resumes help them with

mocking abuse prepare them and then

leverage the power of network to get

that one or two person place in a tech

company yeah and if everyone does that

you know think about how many lives were

changing and this lives this are mounted

generation changes were making because

by giving someone an opportunity you're

essentially creating a better life for

their kids and and beyond and you know

you have no idea how powerful the impact

of doesn't changing one or two lives at

a time is so people who have interested

you know come to Kenzie's AutoCAD emini

you know reach out to us we have this

make the hire campaign you know if

you're interested to be a mentor we're

happy to pair you with one of our

students who has a great story to share

and and hopefully you'll be motivated by

the more passionately that's amazing

that's exactly what I was looking for so

thank you really practical if you can't

help a hundred thousand people help one

help to get and really really help

really lean in really help really

transform that person's life because it

does have a multi-generational impact

Chuck thank you so much man it's been

great getting to know you you know in

the weeks leading up and really today

and I look forward to speaking to the

Kenzie students next Wednesday so thank

you for the the honor and the

opportunity to do that everybody out

there you should follow chok chok

on Twitter and LinkedIn and Kenzie

Academy as he said e ke n zi e

dot Academy go check them out they're

doing incredible work out there again

I'm just plugging it create and working

straight the book where you can read

about how tech changed my life and

helped me to become an entrepreneur

without my own journey into tech that

would have never been possible subscribe

to the podcast marcus Whitney's audio

universe everywhere that you get

podcasts and follow me at Marcus Whitney

everywhere online that is it it has been

another great show so thankful to my

guest today we'll be back tomorrow with

another episode of Marcus Whitney live

was building to normal y'all peace

Leave a Comment