Turning kids into geeks: Vend boss' new plan

Tech entrepreneur Vaughan Rowsell (the guy with the memorable moustache) will this weekend launch his latest venture – a series of high-tech workshops for kids, particularly from low-income families. It’s a project inspired by his mother, a wheelchair-bound single parent on a benefit who, in the 1980s, mortgaged her house to buy her children the latest computer gadgetry.

Vaughan Rowsell, now CEO of retail software start-up Vend, was one of three boys raised by “an inspirational, paraplegic, unemployed, solo mum on a benefit”.

A solo mum prepared (in the 1980s) to mortgage her house to buy her sons their first computer – a Sega SC-3000, then the height of technological complexity and sophistication. 

Rowsell says it was his mother's courageous and far-sighted decision that got him into computing and now he has set up a not-for-profit, OMG Tech!,  to give other kids the same opportunities he had to get hands-on with "the latest crazy stuff".

“She didn’t understand computers but she understood they were the future; that they would change the world. She struggled financially being on a benefit, but she saw we were intrigued by computers, so she went to the bank and took out a second mortgage. People thought she was mad.

“We all went on to have successful careers in IT.”

Rowsell speaking at TEDx Auckland

Rowsell’s mum died three years ago, not long after Rowsell founded Vend, now one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing software start-ups, employing 150 people across six countries, and with $35 million in venture capital under its belt.

OMG Tech is Rowsell's idea, but putting it into practice is a collaboration with “Nanogirl” Michelle Dickinson and Moustachio man Rab Heath. This weekend sees the first in a series of workshops, which will give 40 kids, many from cash-strapped South Auckland families, the chance to get their hands on their own crazy stuff – things like robots, nanobots, wearable tech, programming and rockets.

“Once you get kids playing with technology, they will play and invent and maybe in 10 years time we’ll find we’ve invested in the next batch of technology entrepreneurs who will change the world.

“If you just get one kid it will have been worthwhile.”

Following the inaugural workshop this weekend, Rowsell hopes to set up a template so the OMG Tech! can be rolled out across the country by other organisations.

“Once we get a good formula and we open source it we can make it available for other people to run these events.”

Initially, Rowsell plans to run one workshop a month, but once other organisations are on board he says the goal is to get four workshops a month around the country.

Rowsell says the aim of the not-for-profit is to have a 50:50 ratio of boys and girls, and to use crowdsourcing platforms like Pledge Me to raise funds. He says the 1 + 1 sponsorship model (where a wealthier family pays $50 for their child to attend and that money funds another kid to go for free) should be sustainable long term.

“Who wouldn’t want to send their kid along?”

Despite only getting the final funding model in place a couple of weeks ago, Rowsell reached his $2000 Pledge Me target on Wednesday.

Rowsell and Dickinson, a senior lecturer in engineering at the University of Auckland, specializing in making complex topics like nanotechnology understandable, will be in action at the first workshop on Saturday, before Rowsell flies back to San Francisco.

“I’m mega-nervous.”

Rowsell talking recently at TEDx Auckland about the impact on his life and career of his inspirational mother