Long Island City nonprofi t breaks tradition in tech
hiring, offering path to low-income New Yorkers
TIMESLEDGER | QNS.10 COM | NOV. 27-DEC. 3, 2020
job with a major financial institution,
where he now works alongside several
Pursuit alums, and earns nearly six
times more money than he was making
at the call center where he worked prior
to joining the program.
“I feel that Pursuit – both in the actual
training and in the connections that
Pursuit has – without those, it would
have probably taken a lot longer or been
almost impossible,” Okonkwo said.
About 85 percent of Purusit’s graduates
have gone on to land high-paying
tech jobs at notable firms, including
Twitter, Uber and Citi.
“Having access to coding education
has the power to transform lives, which
is why we’re proud to work with the Pursuit
team to help prepare and empower
its fellows for in-demand careers and opportunities
in tech,” said Kip Price, the
director of engineering at Codecademy,
a company that has partnered with Pursuit
and hired several of their fellows.
“We’ve been thrilled to have Pursuit
alumni join the Codecademy team as
full-time engineers and apprentices, and
look forward to welcoming many more.”
In addition to sending nearly 100
highly skilled tech workers into the local
economy each year, Pursuit has long
been advocating for low-income tech education
in New York City and in Queens
specifically, where there are far fewer
tech education programs compared to
Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Councilman Paul Vallone, whose office
has allocated more than $100,000 in
funding to Pursuit, recognized the need
for the organization in 2011, back when
he was just a community board member.
After Hsu spoke at a community board
meeting in Flushing, he and Vallone
struck up a relationship.
“He was right on the edge of understanding
the need for tech jobs,” Vallone
said. “He saw that there weren’t many
opportunities for students in Queens.”
When it was announced that Amazon
was planning to move its second
headquarters to Long Island City, where
Pursuit is located, the organization
wanted to negotiate a deal to create a
tech education program that would prepare
local low-income residents for tech
jobs at Amazon.
Hsu, Pursuit and all their backers
were disappointed when Amazon backed
out of their plans to move to Queens, but
Hsu understood the community groups
that opposed the deal.
“I think it’s important that we have
tech companies in Queens,” Hsu said.
“But how do we create a tech community
where everyone benefits? And create
something that’s the opposite of Silicon
Valley or San Francisco where no one
can afford to live there?”
“That’s really the genesis of why I
created Pursuit,” he said.
By aiming to create a more equitable
tech industry, the organization has begun
to be noticed and celebrated by the
very industry it hopes to change.
In addition to getting financial support
from the New York City Council,
the nonprofit has been the beneficiary
of donations from major financial institutions
including Citi, BlackRock and
Capital One, as well as tech companies
like Facebook, Etsy and Salesforce.
In 2019, the nonprofit had over $6.2
million in revenue and a little over $4.5
million in expenses, a marker of major
growth for Pursuit. In 2018, the nonprofit
took in around $2.7 million and spent
“Pursuit is one of the city’s premier
upskilling organizations, and between
their programming, fellowship opportunities
and financing formula, they have
created a durable model for moving unskilled
workers into careers in coding,”
said Matt Fossen, a spokesperson from
Tech:NYC. “Pursuit is a boon for both
the economy at large as well as the tech
sector, and I am convinced they need to
play a larger role in New York’s broader
workforce development strategy.”
A new set of Pursuit fellows will begin
their training in November. They’ll
be the first group to begin, and possibly
end, their training in a remote setting.
Okonkwo, whose cohort was forced
into remote instruction halfway through
the program last year, said the transition
was a success.
“Pursuit really prides itself on its
community and I was afraid that in the
transition into coronavirus, that community
would be lost,” he said. “We were
really able to overcome that barrier and
we were able to continue that sense of
community and continue to gain those
skills that we needed to succeed in the
According to Hsu, the organization
is prepared for its incoming fellows and
he’s excited about the new set of opportunities
the fellows will face in what is
likely to be a fast changing job market in
the coming year.
“Our work is more important and urgent
than ever,” Hsu said.
BY JACOB KAYE
When the COVID-19 pandemic began
in March, Jukay Hsu began to worry.
Pursuit, the nonprofit Hsu co-founded
and currently leads as CEO, was built
to train people to code in person. Transitioning
to online instruction threatened
to slow down the yearlong program and,
in turn, slow down the mission of his
organization: to help low-income people
land high-paying jobs in the tech industry.
fter making sure its students –
which Pursuit calls “fellows” — had
access to Wi-Fi and a place to continue
their coding education, the organization’s
leaders realized they also had to
help with the basics. Pursuit, which is
located in Long Island City, created a
$100,000 emergency cash relief fund,
available to both current fellows and
alumni, to alleviate some of the financial
hardship caused by the pandemic.
“This wasn’t going to solve a longterm
problem,” Hsu said. “But we wanted
to move very quickly to mitigate the
impact this would have on the community.”
Hsu, who grew up in Flushing, has
always been driven by community, he
said. It led him to study international development
at Harvard, to his service in
the military and, ultimately, to co-found
Pursuit nearly a decade ago, in 2011.
The organization, which has grown
immensely since its founding, now graduates
around 140 fellows each year, increasing
its fellows’ salary from $18,000
pre-program, to $85,000 post-program,
on average. By only accepting low-income
individuals and prioritizing diversity,
Pursuit has made high-paying tech
jobs more accessible and lowered the
tech employment gap – something that
has plagued the industry since its inception
– in Queens and New York City at
The tech industry is tough for most
people to break into. It’s even tougher for
people without a college degree.
In New York City, approximately 81
percent of people working in the tech
sector held a bachelor’s degree or higher,
according to a 2018 report from the Community
Service Society. In non-tech jobs,
a little less than 50 percent of jobs went
to people with college degrees.
The requirement of a college degree
to work in tech is arbitrary, according to
Pursuit. A little over half of Pursuit’s fellows
enter the program without a degree
and go on to land jobs at about the same
rate as their college-educated colleagues,
according to the organization.
“A college degree is such a traditional
marker of class,” Hsu said.
For many of Pursuit’s fellows, earning
a four-year degree isn’t a financially
“I joined Pursuit at a time in my life
where I was essentially working and trying
to attend school,” said Chuck Okonkwo,
who graduated from the program in
Like many of his colleagues at Pursuit,
Okonkwo said he felt trapped in a
cycle while trying to earn a college degree
and he saw few paths into the tech
industry, the place he wanted to be.
Only a few months after graduating
from the program, Okonkwo landed a
Photo courtesy of Pursuit