Access GrantedAug 01, 2021 ● By Steven Monacelli
Whether for school, work or play, access to a computer at home is becoming increasingly essential to participate in modern life, a trend accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet many people – especially students – are still unable to access the internet at home.
For those who cannot afford a computer, it can be extremely difficult to get ahead. According to the Pew Research Center, some 13 percent of adults in low-income households nationally lack access to a desktop computer, laptop or tablet at home. Meanwhile, nonprofit The Education Trust reports that 50 percent of low-income families and 42 percent of families of color do not possess sufficient devices at home required to access distance learning. This disparity in access has become known as the “digital divide.”
Through a recently launched nonprofit called The Restart Company, two Frisco teenagers hope to bridge that divide one laptop at a time.
Rohan Nayak, a 17-year-old student at the Texas Academy of Math and Science in Denton, and Rania Khan, a 13-year-old incoming freshman at Frisco’s Heritage High School, could not imagine a world without their computers. When the pandemic pushed education online, they found themselves reliant on and tethered to their laptops. “We basically spent the whole day on our laptop taking Zoom classes,” Rania said.
Even before last year, many students visited public libraries or cafes with free Wi-Fi to get online. However, when learning went virtual beginning in early 2020 and in-person classes were traded for Zoom calls, at-home computers and laptops became a necessity for students, not only to complete schoolwork, but to access the world.
Despite that rapid shift to digital learning, it may be surprising to learn that disparities in access to computers and high-speed internet persist. “A lot of children still don’t have access to computers,” Rohan said, “so I thought it would be a great idea to form a nonprofit to donate low-cost laptops to different organizations across Texas.”
Rohan is the technical brain behind the operation. From a young age, he’s had a strong interest in computers that has grown over time. “I liked tinkering around with software, and as I got older, I started taking (computers) apart and putting them back together just to see how they worked,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rania has had a keen interest in running her own business since she was a preteen. By the time the two met in fall 2020, she had already founded an online sticker business, called 17 Degrees, with her sister.
Rohan and Rania met through the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!), a nine-month program designed to encourage youths age 11-18 to become entrepreneurs. YEA! was founded at the University of Rochester in 2004 and has since spread across the country. In Frisco, YEA! partners with the Frisco Chamber of Commerce to bridge the area’s education and business communities. (The Frisco Chamber was the first chamber of commerce in Texas to offer the program.) Students who participate in YEA! meet weekly throughout the school year.
Through the program, Rohan and Rania learned the basics of business planning. “It was definitely an eye-opening experience for me,” Rohan said. “It gave me a newfound respect for how much work goes into building a business or nonprofit.”
For Rania, it helped her gain the confidence to branch out into philanthropy and launch The Restart Company. “(YEA!) is a great opportunity to grow as a person,” she said.
Bradley Elledge, a volunteer mentor with the Frisco YEA! program, described Rohan and Rania as being among the top quartile of student teams participating this year in the program.“ They were highly engaged in class and asked extra questions,” he said. “They are impressively articulate about their business and their mission.”
As top program performers, Rohan and Rania received $1,400 in investments to cover the initial start-up expenses for The Restart Company.
Restart’s business model is simple: The teens accept donations of used Windows-based laptops that have functioning screens and CPUs. Basically, as long as the device is not a Mac, its screen is not cracked and its power button functions, they can accept the donation. “Apple computers are a little more difficult in terms of their compatibility with upgrading and replacing hardware, so we particularly work with Windows laptops,” Rohan explained.
As part of the refurbishment work, which they plan to perform at their homes, the teens will run diagnostic tests on the laptops to learn what may need repair. From there, they will acquire the computer parts to be replaced, install hardware and update operating system software. “For example, often the hard drive will be corrupt, or sometimes the RAM needs to be replaced, and we have sources for these parts,” Rohan said.
After the laptops are fixed up and ready to go, Restart will deliver them directly to area schools and homeless shelters among other organizations in need.
The Restart Company is just getting started. The teens were set to receive their first shipment of donated laptops late last month and plan to refurbish dozens by the end of the year. Rohan estimates that it will cost approximately $25 to $50 to repair each device based on the cost of parts and labor (at least initially, the latter will be an entirely volunteer effort).
Restart will charge a small fee to individuals or organizations that request the laptops. “A couple of bucks to go toward our operating budget that allows us to fix more laptops,” Rohan said. The devices are “a lot cheaper than anything you’ll find on eBay.” In addition to laptops, Restart also accepts monetary donations that go toward the purchase of needed parts for refurbishment.
For Rohan, The Restart Company is about much more than fixing laptops. It is about ensuring that children are able to be educated and productive no matter where they are. “The internet is truly a place where anything can be taught and learned,” he said. “Without access to laptops – not only for children around the world, but also for adults – there is a lot of lost productivity.”
Rania agrees, describing her laptop as a “lifeline” that allows her to do much more than just her schoolwork.
Although there is a long way to go toward closing the gap in access, organizations like The Restart Company demonstrate how steps in the right direction can be taken. Although they’re starting small, Rohan and Rania hope they will one day be able to put laptops in the hands of thousands of students.
“We are starting in Texas,” Rohan said, “but hope to grow to help people across the entire United States.”
Those interested in donating laptops or who represent organizations that work with students in need of low-cost devices should email [email protected]