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New VR fellowship creates career pathways for Seattle’s underserved communities

The Seattle Office of Economic Development launched the FutureFounders VR Fellowship this fall, a paid, four-month training, networking and hands-on experience in virtual reality app development. The program is intended to create career pathways for communities with low access to opportunity in Seattle’s booming tech sector while simultaneously encouraging innovation in community development. As a part of the FutureFounders pilot program, a group of young Seattle developers created a new app which allows residents of Rainier Beach to explore their neighborhood virtually.

Future Founders 2018 Fellows. Left to right: Julie Le, Eduardo Rojas, Beverly Aarons, Jakari Brown, Hafsa Don

Future Founders 2018 Fellows. Left to right: Julie Le, Eduardo Rojas, Beverly Aarons, Jakari Brown, Hafsa Don

The inaugural cohort, comprised mostly of South Seattle residents ages 18 to 24, learned virtual reality design and coding and built a prototype of the Rainier Beach Food Innovation District in just four months. The VR app is a game called “XR Valley” and can be played on the Oculus Go. The Fellows will present their prototype during a demo event at the Ethiopian Community in Seattle on Friday, December 21 from 6:00-8:00 p.m.

“Participating in FutureFounders has been life-changing for me,” said Beverly Aarons, a member of the cohort. “When I first got involved with the program I didn’t have any technical background. I’m a writer by profession but for the past few years, I’ve been experimenting with game development. However, my biggest obstacle was that I could not code. I always depended on partnering with a programmer. Now that I’ve gone through the program,  I have the skills I need to create my own game or interactive experience from the ground up. Getting involved with FutureFounders was one of the best professional decisions I’ve ever made.“

Throughout the program, the Fellows had guidance and support from companies like SIXR, Chronos Global Academy, Floodgate Academy, and other local tech experts and mentors. This Friday’s event will kick off with a brief presentation, followed by demos in which attendees will have the chance to use an Oculus Go headset to navigate the neighborhood virtually as they visit places in the Food Innovation District via the Metro Bus.

In 2012, Rainier Beach residents came together around a renewed neighborhood plan. In their vision, food acted as a catalyst for neighborhood identity, cultural diversity and heritage, health and job creation. Local food innovation (growing, production, and distribution) is projected to be a top-ten growth industry over the next decade. Jobs are an anti-displacement strategy.

The concept of the Rainier Beach Food Innovation District, led by the Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC), clusters manufacturing, technology, and food sectors around the light rail station to provide access to career paths in living-wage jobs, strengthening the local economy through production rather than consumption. The VR Fellows wanted a way to help the Rainier Beach community visualize and feel ownership of the Food Innovation District, so they learned how to create immersive experiences using Unity, a game engine, and C#, a common programming language for virtual reality.

“Creating the Rainier Beach Food Innovation District VR experience has been really exciting. I hope that people who take the time to experience our demo will get a taste of what this amazing food industry hub can be for South Seattle,” said Aarons.

As Seattle is poised to become a leader in emerging tech industries like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and blockchain, there is also opportunity to prepare youth and young adults from communities that have been marginalized from the innovation economy to not only participate but become future technology leaders. The FutureFounders pilot program seeks to leverage the innovative thought and resources found in Seattle to connect underserved communities to opportunity, break cycles of poverty and build generational wealth.

Register for the demo event, and learn more about FutureFounders.