James Whelton isn’t your typical 21 year-old. Hailing from Cork Ireland, James grew up tinkering incessantly with machines, deconstructing and reconstructing everything from toasters to laptops. As a young adolescent, he became a self-taught computer programmer with the aid of the occasional covertly-attended University class. At age 17, after winning a 6th Generation iPod Nano in a contest, he gained international notoriety by becoming the first person in the world to hack it, a feat he accomplished on the plane ride home “out of boredom.”
In the midst of the renaissance-like explosion Silicon Valley, it seems logical that Whelton would have jetted off to join some trendy startup and perhaps made a few million dollars. What he chose to do instead stands as a shining example of social entrepreneurship and has elevated him into the upper echelon of innovators in education.
Whelton first identified two problems in his home country: the dearth of tech education options for young people and the mounting youth employment crisis. His solution was a humble one: to form a coding club at his high school with the aim of providing support for kids who wanted to express their technical abilities while at the same time promoting an environment of creativity and collaboration. He set to work building the club and in the true spirit of the Internet designed it to be both free and entirely open source. No set curriculum, all volunteer taught; a democratic and empowering space tailor-made for innovation and effective problem solving.
The club, as you can imagine, was a rousing success, and before long Whelton attracted the eye of veteran entrepreneur Bill Laio. Leveraging Laio’s experience and resources, the two developed a model for scaling the club far beyond Cork, beyond Ireland, and even beyond Europe. Maintaining Whelton’s free and open source mentality, the pair added another feature to the club’s structure: a martial arts-inspired model of belts and achievements that would help kids feel a sense of accomplishment while ensuring that the clubs stayed true to their founder’s values and goals. In 2011, under the new name of CoderDojo, the dream finally became reality.
In only a few short years, CoderDojo has exploded to over 220 locations in 27 countries. All clubs are entirely volunteer-taught, and due to their open source approach to learning methods have been able to multiply while remaining blissfully free of the infrastructural issues of hiring and translation of new materials. Clubs grow organically out of communities and take on the characteristics of their cultures. Only the martial arts belt system remains consistent, with kids reaching new ranks by performing tasks such as teaching a peer a new coding language or developing an application inspired by one of their personal interests. The organization’s phenomenal successes have landed Whelton on the Forbes 30 under 30 and resulted in his naming as the youngest Ashoka Fellow in history.
Clearly James Whelton has much to be proud of. But when we (Maya Najarian and Nick Rehmus) had the opportunity to interview him via a live-broadcasted Google Hangout. we found him to be humble, unassuming,effortlessly charming. With affectless wit and enthusiasm, he espoused the successes of the CoderDojo students worldwide, the games they have created and skills they have developed, as well as their increased agency and happiness.
Though he admitted to being extremely busy, he hasn’t allowed the demands of the organization to dampen his optimism or resolve to push CoderDojo to new heights of possibility. His eyes gleamed as he relayed stories of the effectiveness of using coding as a tool for teaching kids with autism, of the latent power of the Internet to disrupt institutions that perpetuate systemic inequality. His pride was evident as he named his most pressing goals to be expanding CoderDojo into more and more developing regions around the world and aiming for gender equality in the coding arena.
Evidently, James Whelton is just getting started. His recently established Hello World Foundation will sustain CoderDojo’s financial future, and he’s just beginning an entrepreneurial residency in Boston. While the world waits for his next innovation, CoderDojo will continue to deliver upon its promise. If you are interested in starting a club in your area, you can check out the CoderDojo website here.