By GREGORY ZELLER //
In an age ruled by digital interfaces and computerized systems, Noreen Kazi and Nisha Bhalla may have cracked the code.
Neither is, by education or inherent skill, a natural coder. But the entrepreneurial sisters are both scientists: Kazi studied physical therapy at Stony Brook University before pausing to raise a family, while Bhalla earned an MBA at Harvard University and made a career of launching high-tech startups for larger corporations, focused on healthcare-technology integration.
On Oct. 14, founder and GM Kazi and Senior Advisor Bhalla will flip the switch on the first Long-Island based franchise of The Coder School, a Silicon Valley-based program created to teach not only the computer languages running everything from our smartphones to the national power grid, but the mindset – specifically, the critical-thinking approach – required to code.
While it was a professional colleague from Bhalla’s past that turned the sisters onto The Coder School’s franchising opportunities – a friend from a long-ago Harvard internship, Bhalla noted – it was Kazi who seized on the business opportunity.
Busily raising that family and making a home, Kazi “always had my hands in other organizations,” including community-service and school-related projects.
“Many moms who are home, we aren’t just at home,” she told Innovate LI. “We’re running the Robotics Club. We run the PTA. We run most of the volunteer organizations throughout a community.
“And I could see how technology was impacting the curriculum at local schools.”
Enter Bhalla with her hot tip. Also a mom, Bhalla was originally interested as a potential learning opportunity for her own 5-year-old son. But the tech-startup veteran – who also logged time in administrative roles at CVS Health and New York Presbyterian Hospital, as well as the defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers – had quickly learned The Coder School’s founders were “eager to build out their East Coat business.”
Sensing a unique opportunity, the sisters approached the idea from two distinct perspectives: national and local.
“When you look at other high-performing areas – and I think of San Francisco or Silicon Valley – you have a lot of things like The Coder School,” Bhalla noted. “And a lot of smaller programs are popping up everywhere.”
One such startup program, Oyoclass.com, recently completed a summer-camp run on the SBU campus, teaching basic coding skills to various age groups. But while there are an increasing number of temporary programs designed to introduce youngsters to coding, few get into the thinking behind the tech – that critical-thinking approach required of programmers, a major focus of The Coder School program.
“We started to look at the local geographic, where you have a couple of programs – mom-and-pop shops or retired folks or maybe shops that historically did arts and craft for kids, and maybe have added on some coding,” Bhalla noted. “But no programs dedicated to teaching the coding technology plus the stuff we want to teach.”
Officially founded by Kazi, who personally invested most of the $100,000 in startup costs, the latest franchise of The Coder School is scheduled to begin operations in October inside a 1,250-foot Syosset storefront. The space is currently being renovated – consuming the lion’s share of the startup expenses, followed by some hefty equipment purchases – and Kazi is on the hunt for as many as 12 employees, primarily instructors capable of delivering customized learning experiences for students at different coding levels.
While the franchise currently holds exclusive expansion rights in certain Greater New York locales (including parts of northern New Jersey) and first-refusal rights in others, the entrepreneurs are focused first and foremost on their Syosset flagship.
That hiring spree, for instance, will be essential to the franchise, with the sisters targeting graduate students and even regional university professors who can go beyond whatever might happen in a one-week coding camp.
“We’re looking to build an entire ecosystem around this,” Bhalla noted. “You don’t just come in and sit at a computer and learn technology.”
The franchise is already planning a Speaker Series featuring CEOs and COOs from regional tech companies offering perspectives on their personal career paths and the effects of modern technology. The Syosset enterprise has already lined up the CEO of a telehealth company and the COO of a consumer-tech firm, according to Bhalla, who said the series would be largely reserved for program participants but occasionally opened to the general public “for marketing.”
While Kazi is actively engaging in social media and print advertising campaigns, at least some of the startup’s marketing seems to be self-generating. With plans underway for after-school, vacation-schedule and weekend classes, the Syosset Coder School is already stirring interest – including inquiries from throughout and beyond the Syosset community.
“We are in the process of reaching out to other school districts,” Bhalla noted. “But a lot of the PTAs from neighboring schools have already been reaching out to us.
“They want to get us in front of the right people in their communities.”
Kazi noted professional networking groups – in particular, the Long Island Software & Technology Network – that have also helped spread the word.
“LISTnet was one of the first to reach out to us,” the owner said. “They’ve been instrumental in connecting us with the right people.
“A lot of it is just hitting the road and getting out there and getting into the community, going to events,” Kazi added. “But we’ve been fortunate that a lot of the PTAs have been coming to us.”
With the renovation of their Syosset space nearing completion and a load of equipment – including 15 Chromebox computers, a handful of larger Macs and even a PC, for anyone so inclined – ready to be installed, the GM said she was comfortable with her startup’s development pace.
“This is exactly the kind of opportunity we wanted,” Kazi said. “And it’s encouraging to see there is a real interest out there from people who want our product.”
The Coder School (Syosset)
What’s It? Franchised technical instruction (and mental programming) for tomorrow’s coders
Brought To You By: Founder Noreen Kazi, who knows a good idea when she hears it
All In: $100,000, self-invested by Kazi (with family and friends), covering renovations of a 1,250-square-foot school, a competitor analysis, equipment and early marketing
Status: Gets with the programming in October