This Stanford Student Is Closing The Digital Divide By Connecting Nonprofits And Underrepresented CS Students - Fast Forward

November 24, 2021 | Tech Nonprofits

This Stanford Student Is Closing The Digital Divide By Connecting Nonprofits And Underrepresented CS Students

By Shannon Farley, originally posted on on 11/24/21

Mary Zhu was studying computer science at Stanford University when the pandemic hit. In the midst of rapid changes and mass panic, she spotted two critical needs: first, tens of thousands of nonprofits were projected to shut down without technical support to digitize their services. At the same time, millions of college students were sent home, with internship plans and student activities cancelled, and few opportunities to gain professional experience. Mary saw an opportunity to address both problems with one solution. Uniting her technical skills and passion for supporting vulnerable communities, she founded tech nonprofit Develop for Good. I chatted with her about how it works and the exciting impact she’s making. 

Shannon Farley: Mary, you’re bent on accelerating the digital transformation of the nonprofit sector through Develop for Good. What drove you to commit yourself to this issue?

Mary Zhu: Growing up, my family of five lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Having just immigrated from China, it was all my parents could afford. It was nonprofits that helped us access basic living necessities like food. As I got older, I realized how fortunate we were to receive help from these organizations. When the pandemic hit, I saw my opportunity to pay it forward.

After immigrating from China, Mary’s parents settled down in Wisconsin, leaning on nonprofits to support their family

Farley: When the pandemic hit, our world became virtual within the blink of an eye. Nonprofits, like everyone, had to adapt. You saw a complementary need as a student at Stanford. What was it?

Zhu: The pandemic drastically transformed the college experience for me and 14 million other American college students. As students left college campuses en masse, I saw my classmates struggle as their summer internships were cancelled left and right. On top of this shortage of professional opportunities, the tech industry is becoming more and more competitive. Particularly for underrepresented students, it is incredibly hard to break into tech. Students needed a way to stand out. And I knew how: by gaining real, hands-on experience.

Zhu: Exactly – Develop for Good solves the digital transformation challenge on the nonprofit side, and the need for hands-on experience on the student side. We do this through a volunteer engagement platform that pairs underrepresented computer science and design students with nonprofits to build custom technical product solutions. Students get the project experience they need to launch their careers, and nonprofits receive low-cost, accessible technical support that drives their digital transformation. It’s a win-win.

Farley: You mentioned that Develop for Good focuses on underrepresented college students. Can you say more about what this looks like?

Zhu: Totally. A key part of our mission is driving DEI in the tech industry. In practice, this means prioritizing students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in tech. We recruit students from over 260 colleges and counting, ranging from Ivy Leagues to community colleges. We’re also excited to launch a grant for first-generation and low-income students, as we know volunteering is an inaccessible privilege for some. These efforts have helped us reach a level of diversity we’re proud of and excited to build on: one-third of our volunteers are first-generation or low-income students, and two-thirds are female. 

Develop for Good is a volunteer engagement platform pairing nonprofits in need of technical support with underrepresented CS students to build product solutions

Farley: Your solution is working. Since founding Develop for Good, you’ve scaled your program across the country. What impact have you seen so far?

Zhu: When my co-founder Amay Aggarwal and I founded Develop for Good back in March 2020, we never could have imagined how quickly we’d scale. Since then, we’ve engaged 1,000+ volunteers in over 80 nonprofit projects. Doing the math, this means Develop for Good has helped our nonprofit clients – which include organizations ranging from the World Health Organization to small nonprofits like BreakTheTide – save $3.7M in development costs.  

To us, these metrics are quantitative milestones that propel us towards our north star: to inspire the next generation of leaders in technology to dedicate their skills to social good.

Farley: That’s really exciting. Can you share a standout project that’s been particularly successful?

Zhu: One of our most exciting projects was with Computers 2 Kids (C2K), a small nonprofit. Develop for Good’s team of student volunteers worked with C2K to develop a mobile app for low-income families to access low-cost computers and free tech support. This service was essential during the pandemic as families navigated school closures and financial strain. Thanks to the app, C2K can serve more families and scale its work closing the digital divide. 

Amay Aggarwal and Mary Zhu founded Develop for Good when they were juniors at Stanford University

Farley: What do you hope Develop for Good will look like in five years?

Zhu: We’re building for Develop for Good’s future scale, today. Five years from now, we want to be operating at 10x – or even 100x – our current capacity for nonprofits and volunteers. To get there, my Co-Executive Director Ryan Scott and I have been hard at work redesigning the operational and algorithmic pieces of our platform. Big picture, we hope to see our work driving three key outcomes: digital transformation of the nonprofit sector, increased diversity in the tech sector, and our future leaders committing their skills for good. 

Farley: You founded Develop for Good while you were a college student. What advice do you have for college students hoping to start their own nonprofit?

Zhu: My biggest piece of advice: it’s never too early to start making an impact. I’ve noticed a cultural stigma around starting or working at a nonprofit straight out of college. We’re told that there are few incentives for brilliant young people to go straight into nonprofit work because of the perceived sacrifices. I’d push back against this perspective, and instead urge you to find ways to leverage your own unique talents and passions. Whether this means volunteering your tech skills with Develop for Good, starting your own nonprofit, or whatever else feels meaningful to you, don’t wait!

Farley: I agree – don’t wait. To wrap us up, Mary, what’s been your proudest moment in your Develop for Good journey?

Zhu: It’s hard to choose just one! I’m incredibly proud when volunteers tell us their Develop for Good experience helped them land their dream internship or job. On the flipside, I’m thrilled when we receive raving testimonials from our nonprofit clients. Our volunteers have been praised as being smart, creative, and responsible for creating high-quality tech products that are changing lives. The pride I’ve felt from helping form these meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships is truly unparalleled.