By Jasper Burget
Ming Horn is as excited about her summer plans as anyone. Over the next few weeks the Berkeley High junior will be teaching web design and other computer skills to orphans in Cambodia. The classes are part of KhodeUp, which is entirely Horn’s creation.
While organizing such an ambitious project is a tall order for a busy high-school student, Horn has risen to the challenge. At the time of writing, KhodeUp’s crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo has raised 97% of its $15,000 goal in under a month, the initiative won $1,000 at the Thiel Summit’s first under-18 pitch competition, and, last week, it was featured on Tech Crunch.
“I don’t get a lot of sleep anyways,” said Horn, talking about the challenge of creating and running a major overseas educational program while balancing the everyday priorities of high school. “It is hard, but it’s definitely worth it.”
The birth of an idea: a trip to Cambodia
Horn got the idea for KhodeUp on a trip to Cambodia. She had a conversation with a girl who would be going to school in the United States. The girl, Srey Art, wanted to study computer science, but she had no experience so she decided to major in business instead. Horn did some research and found that while Internet use in Cambodia is skyrocketing, people access the web primarily through mobile phones. Because desktop or laptop computers are necessary for coding, Cambodia has many potential consumers of online content but a small number of people capable of creating such content.
Horn discovered that the going price for a website in Cambodia is $200 while the average monthly wage is $80. All this means that someone with the right skills could easily earn two month’s wages in just a few days.
Horn has a personal connection to the project. She and her brother are adopted, and her brother has extensive family in Cambodia. She has been to Cambodia five times.
“I’ve seen kids grow up and what I’ve found is that their greatest aspiration is to be a waiter at a hotel and that kind of bothers me,” Horn said. She hopes that even if her students don’t become web designers, they will at least gain skills that will help them in achieve success in whatever fields they enter. “They want knowledge so badly,” said Horn of her students, “and you’re like, well, I guess I can give you that.”
This year is the pilot year for the project. There will be a focus on evaluating what works, with an eye on the future. But Horn hopes to continue KhodeUp’s work long after the initial program is over.
“I’m hoping to give them the basics and then, once I leave, I’ll be able to give them continued support. I just won’t be there,” Horn said, “I want them to be able to go on in the future, start their own web design business with each other if they want to or pursue other opportunities that they find.”
Another important factor was Horn’s own passion for computer science. She is a self-described tech addict. She started programming in first grade with the educational tool Scratch. Over the years she was drawn toward designing and building websites. Last summer she participated in Girls Who Code, an eight-week immersion program at Twitter.
“I have to be able to help these kids get exposed to it,” Horn said of technology, “because it’s so much a part of my life.”
“This is kind of my baby”
Getting KhodeUp started hasn’t necessarily been an easy process. Horn admitted that time-management has proved to be a major difficulty. She has found herself interested primarily in working on KhodeUp, perhaps at the expense of other responsibilities. Another challenge has been soliciting donations.
“I felt kind of awkward about that. I feel bad that I’m like ‘Hey, there’s this thing, donate please.’ But everybody’s been super cool about it so it’s worked out so far.”
That seems to be a common theme. Many people have contributed to KhodeUp’s success. Horn acknowledged that knowing people in Cambodia was a major advantage.
“I wouldn’t even know where to start if I didn’t have connections there.” Her parents have also helped out. “They keep me sane,” said Horn. They have also helped by spreading the word about fundraising, which Horn believes is the most useful thing people can do to support her.
It seems to be working. KhodeUp is on the cusp of reaching its crowd-sourcing goal. Horn is grateful for the support, be it from donors giving their money or from friends giving their time. “I have a lot of people who want to help me,” she said. “The most fun is probably seeing other people get excited about it.”
But the real force behind KhodeUp is always clear. “This is kind of my baby,” Horn said. “People are like ‘I want to help,’ and I’m like ‘You can help, but I’m going to stand right here while you’re doing it.'”
Advice for others: “Jump in”
Asked if she had any wisdom to share for anyone seeking to get involved in a cause, Horn said, “I think it’s just to jump in. I was originally really hesitant about starting it, and I wrote to my teacher from Girls Who Code and I was like ‘I don’t know if I can do this, I don’t know if I have enough experience. I want to do it but I don’t know if it’s the right time yet,’ and she’s like, ‘Well, I have like 20 years of experience in this field and I still don’t know what I’m doing, so just do it.'”
Horn is motivated by a number of factors, but she says that college admissions is not one of them. “That is not where this is coming from,” she said. “And it kind of offends me when people say that, because I’m not doing this for myself. I did this because I know people there who have so much potential and can do so much and aren’t having the opportunities to do that… There are people’s lives that can be changed. And it sounds kind of cheesy, but that’s how I feel about it.”
Horn was inspired to embark on this journey when Sheryl Sandberg asked her to write down what she would do if she had no fear. Horn wrote that she would start her own non-profit, and then she worked to achieve that goal.
“And so basically that’s been what’s driving me,” Horn said, “I can’t stop because I don’t know what I’m doing. You just have to keep going. It will hopefully work out in the end.”
Jasper Burget, a senior at Head-Royce School, was a summer intern at Berkeleyside. He will be attending Williams College this fall.
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