When Moira Hardek was a Geek Squad technician in Chicago nearly a decade ago, she wasn't thinking about launching a summer camp for kids. But she did notice that a majority of customers who sought in-home tech services were woman, and she was the only female Geek Squad agent making house calls in Chicago at the time.
"I brought it up at Best Buy, when I started coming up to the corporate offices, and they said, 'you're right, go recruit.' I thought it'd be great, but then I couldn't find women."
The recruiting predicament led Hardek to the conclusion that women need to get interested in technology at a much younger age. "This is the physical manifestation of all that," she says of the Geek Squad Summer Academy.
Now in its sixth year, the technology boot camp has grown from a one-day, one-city camp to a nationwide program that's set to host nearly 10,000 students in more than 20 states this summer. It was an all-girls camp the first year, but now it's open to girls and boys, and Geek Squad partners with different nonprofit organizations - including Girl Scouts of America and Boys & Girls Clubs of America - to plan camps around the country.
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Partners of the Geek Squad Summer Academy share a goal of making technology accessible to a more diverse audience. "Technology is great, but what happens if more of our innovators are women? Or come from economically disadvantaged areas?" says Hardek, who's senior manager of Geek Squad Academy. "The tech field as a whole definitely needs a different point of view, it needs new innovators, and it needs its innovators to look different from the innovators we've seen in the past."
To put on the camps, Hardek works year-round with a core team of six people who create content and plan the logistics of each venue. During the summer months, she adds another 10 to 12 field employees who travel with the team and help run the camps. In addition, at each camp location, Best Buy and Geek Squad employees join in and volunteer their time to work with the kids.
"At every camp we bring on instructors and helpers -- usually about 40 Best Buy employees per camp -- who are local employees and get to work with kids and people from their own communities," Hardek says.
The curriculum is geared for kids ages 10 to 16 who are familiar with but not proficient in technology. "They're intimidated by technology. They use it, but they don't understand it. That's the market that we're looking for," Hardek says.
Best Buy supplies state-of-the-art gear for the campers. "That's really the key. It has to be extremely hands-on and interactive for kids to learn," Hardek says. "There's nothing that we talk about at the camp that you're not going to actually physically do while you're at the camp. We don't just talk about the components of a computer; you're going to build one."
Classes cover fun topics such as creating digital photography, videos and music, plus fundamental tech subjects such as network connectivity. Every class has a troubleshooting component, Hardek says. To keep things interesting, instructors add fun twists -- like turning a PC-building challenge into a relay race.
The camp makes kids think and encourages them to share their own ideas. "Technology can do a lot of stuff. What are you going to add to it?" Hardek asks of the campers.
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There's something in it for parents, too: Access to Geek Squad know-how. "Parents get unfettered access to our employees who are at the camp," Hardek says. "We make everybody who works at the camp go stand outside with the kids as they're waiting to get picked up. You can come up and ask a Best Buy or Geek Squad agent anything you want."
Best Buy doesn't make any money from the camps. There's often a nominal fee for campers, typically no higher than $35, but that goes to Geek Squad's local nonprofit partner to offset the cost of running the camp.
Even though the program isn't a moneymaker, it wasn't difficult getting leadership at Best Buy to agree to launch the Geek Squad Summer Academy, Hardek recalls. "Interacting with the community and building relationships is always good business," she says. In addition, it's a great way to keep employees happy and engaged. "They enjoy working at Best Buy, and they love the opportunity to serve the community as a whole."
Graduates of the Summer Academy are dubbed junior Geek Squad agents (and a few kids have gone on to become actual Geek Squad agents once they're old enough).
"We talk about the expectations of a junior agent: Now you have all these skills, and you can help others with their technology," Hardek says. "You never say, 'I don't know,' you say 'I'll find out.'"
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This story, "Geek Squad exec: 'What happens if more of our innovators are women?'" was originally published by Network World.