The Forge Initiative Demo Day, 2015

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On a recent Saturday in July, the American Underground’s Main Street campus buzzed with energy and activity. But that’s not unusual for the startup hub—even for a Saturday. What was abnormal about this day, was that the average age in the room was 10-20 years younger than typically seen in American Underground. Kids outnumbered adults three to one. 

Durham children and their families were invited to the American Underground for an open house hosted by the Forge Initiative, the Cary-based non-profit organization formerly known as Wake Robotics whose mission is, “to empower families and individuals of all ages to collaboratively explore, learn and lead using technology and engineering.” 

But many of the children weren’t there just to play with the Legos, robots and other high-tech gear. They were teaching other kids and adults (myself included) how to use the equipment. 

In the hour I was there, a nine-year-old explained to me how to make music with carrots using an invention kit called Makey Makey, and a seven-year-old showed me how to make electronic connections using littleBits

The Forge Initiative Open House 2015
Ben Whipker of the Forge Initiative demonstrates 3D printer to youth; Credit: The Forge Initiative

The ability to teach others how to use technology—even at a young age—is what makes The Forge Initiative unique from other kid-focused organizations. Through its various programs and events, the nonprofit fosters leadership in children while encouraging learning and growth in individuals of all ages. 

The open house itself was a product of this leadership training. Three recent high-school graduates (and Forge members) taking a gap year between high school and college hosted the open house as part of a feasibility study. They’re helping the Forge Initiative gather feedback from Durham families on what types of maker equipment they would use and programs, trainings and events they would participate in if the Forge Initiative expands to Durham next year. 

A new space—dubbed the Underground Forge—is slated to open in American Underground’s American Tobacco campus in 2016. 

Simultaneously, the Forge Initiative is working towards opening a space in downtown Cary

I attended the open house with my five-year-old in hopes of learning more about the Forge. In between building Lego towers and watching 3D printers work their magic, I caught up with the Underground Forge team and its executive director Linda Whipker to learn about the history of this unique organization and its work introducing Triangle kids and families to technology and innovation. 


History 

Whipker founded the organization in 2010 as a nonprofit called Wake Robotics, a name she kept until April 2015, when the nonprofit’s board set plans for a larger footprint and bigger mission. More on those goals below. 

Wake Robotics helped to fill a gap that Whipker noticed in traditional classroom education. Though her background doesn’t seem to lend much experience to nonprofits or education—she’s a former marketing specialist and agricultural economist—her decision to found an organization dedicated to technology education came down to her son. Like many parents, she wanted her son to learn technical skills and develop an understanding of technology and engineering. She founded Wake Robotics so he—and other children—could have a place to learn those skills while also building soft skills like leadership and communication. 

She found other interested parents, who helped her set up a formal board, apply for and receive non-profit status, establish a membership structure and develop programming. Today, their year-round programs include youth leadership development, engineer and hacker clubs, and demo times where students can explore and use new technologies. They also form teams to compete in competitive robotic competitions hosted by the national robotic competition league, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). 

In 2011, they moved into a space in Cary, but with rapid membership growth—from 12 to over 100 members in three years—they outgrew the space. In 2014, they found the perfect 6,500 sq. ft. space in downtown Cary and began a capital campaign to raise the money to renovate it. 

But soon after they raised $42,000 on Kickstarter, they learned the building would be zoned as an “educational” facility and required additional renovations to meet state standards. Those would cost exponentially more than $42,000. They’ve been on a mission to raise the additional funds ever since. 

Though they moved out of the original space in April 2014, operations have continued in locations across the Triangle. It wasn’t until earlier this year though, that expansion plans evolved to include Durham.

It all went down after a team of Forge students attended a Leadership Triangle event and managed to impress Michael Goodmon of Capitol Broadcasting (ExitEvent's parent company). According to Adam Klein, chief strategist for the American Underground, this serendipitous meeting was the beginning of conversations with The Forge Initiative’s leadership to expand to American Underground. 

While perks for American Underground members are still being sorted out, Klein is excited about the partnership because it not only offers a maker space for members to test products and ideas, but gives AU and community members a place to bring their children to learn about technology and entrepreneurship. Klein says the partnership will “play a pivotal role in Durham’s continued development as an entrepreneurial and creative hub.” 

The Future 

The group’s big goal is to expand its programming and welcome new members—it began limiting membership growth in 2013 because there wasn’t space to accommodate them. This week, the Forge moves into a temporary home—thanks to a partnership with Cary’s Hopewell Academy. It plans to allow new members to join Forge programs this fall. 

But before The Forge Initiative can expand to Durham or renovate the downtown Cary space, it has to finish raising money. And lots of it. Annual membership fees—$125 per family—cover some expenses, but not enough.

To expand, the Forge is relying on individual donations, partnerships with large corporations, and grants. So far, there are backers like Red Hat, Cisco and Qualcomm in addition to the 400+ people who made pledges on Kickstarter. But at least $200,000 is needed to begin the first phase of renovations on the Cary space. Additional renovations (to be done down the road) are estimated at $300,000. 

Part of the attraction to Durham, and American Underground specifically, was American Underground’s strong support and understanding that opening the Forge Downtown in Cary would remain a high priority for the Forge leadership. 

While expanding to Durham stretches resources, it also connects and makes the organization more visible to regional investors. Whipker says the decision to expand was difficult. But rather than detract from the Cary location’s resources, she expects the Durham operation to assist her team as they raise funding for the Cary location. And they plan to combine the capital campaigns for both locations into one to streamline the process. 

The Forge Initiative Open House, 2015
Kyle Mellandorf explains Forge programs to open house attendees; Credit: The Forge Initiative

The feasibility study for the Underground Forge is still in the works, so a cost estimate for the Underground space is not yet available. But architectural plans for the space are already drawn and include an ARTtech area where users can explore engineering and art simultaneously.

Despite the funding gap, and lack of a home, the leaders and students of the Forge Initiative are overwhelmingly positive. In an email, Whipker wrote, “The delays have required extra effort within the organization to keep the feeling of community among current TFD members. (…) TFD will be a unique place in Cary where families will be able to explore and learn together. We will find the right funding.”

If the dedication and passion the leaders have shown in keeping the organization running is any predictor of future success, they’re likely to achieve their goals. After all, the organization is 100% volunteer led, with over 13,000 hours donated from adult volunteers in a year during which they faced difficult challenges. In an update on their Kickstarter page, the Forge leaders even admitted to considering closing shop. But when they imagined a world without The Forge Downtown, they were saddened. The many ways in which their kids have benefited kept them working toward those permanent spaces where more and more families can learn and play together.

As Klein says, “At the end of the day, the Forge partnership is about sparking a fun and curious generation of students who love technology and creating new technology. Our hope is that the Forge furthers that passion in Durham's youth and that it also provides a great opportunity for adults in Durham to connect with a great asset where they can learn to do new things on fantastic equipment.”