Interview with Dean Kamen, Segway Inventor and Founder of FIRST


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Kamen: I think if you just ask any of the big companies here they'll tell you FIRST has become their most effective source of talent. It used to be you could wait for kids to graduate college, do a 20-minute interview, and try to pick the winners for your company. Today, there's a huge shortage of really good technical people, and kids are now so mobile they'll go anywhere. These big companies need the kids more than the kids need them, and waiting until they're out of college to try to figure out how to get a relationship started is ridiculous. It would be like saying to kids at the age of 20, "Hey, you know what? You should think about sports as a career. Have you ever tried to play baseball? Have you ever tried to play football?" If you're not involved as a kid, you'll never be great. If you're a college that has never done scouting, you're toast.

Our model is very, very similar to the real model of sports. We have a place called Scholarship Row at the championship in St. Louis, and it's the whole first floor of the convention center leading into the 76,000-seat arena. We had 182 universities lined up for this. You know, little ones like, oh, Stanford and MIT, Cal Tech, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Last year, they gave out about $30 million in scholarships to these FIRST kids, but they are scouting like in sports. They are scouting our kids at that high school event in the same way the football coach is scouting. The companies have now realized, "I've got to give summer internships to these kids. I want these kids to stay local." Pick a place like Des Moines, for example. If the kids in Des Moines don't go off to college, they probably aren't going to be capable of being a great resource in your company. If they go off to college and get a degree in engineering, maybe they want to go to Silicon Valley? Maybe they want to go to San Diego? Maybe they want to go to Research Triangle Park? They may not want to come back home, so all of a sudden these companies realize that among the young people in their community there's two kinds: The ones that probably can't add value for them and stay there, and the ones that could be great, and they leave.

These companies support FIRST because they get involved with them while they're in the community, they help them get through college, and they give them summer internships. The kids know the companies, the companies know the kids, and that's how they grow. When you look at what it costs a company to hire an engineer it’s phenomenal. We have whole HR and recruiting departments. We fly them in,  interview them, and 50% of the time we make the wrong choice anyway. We figure that out in the first year. Then we spend money to move them.

It costs so much money to get one person, and you need multiple people. You say to the companies, "You know, adopt your local high school and you have access to a thousand potential kids. Half of whom you're going to turn into people that will be great contributors because you've turned them on, you've given them passion, you've shown them a way, and you've helped them get there. Who do you think they want to work for? The mentors that they've been working with the last five years."

Matties: Exactly. How does a company get involved?

Kamen: They send me an email or they go to the FIRST website, firstinspires.org. Just enter the word FIRST, in lower or uppercase, into Google, who happens to be a major sponsor. They sponsor a whole regional event for us. I mean, if you type "purple dinosaur" in Google, you'd probably find 10,000 hits, right? You type the word "first" and you get, I don't know, a few hundred thousand hits, but the very first thing you see when you hit "first" is us. Thank you, Google.

It's easy to get involved in FIRST for every kind of company. The kids don't all have to want to be engineers. They need to learn how to organize. They form teams that are essentially little companies in their school and they may have a marketing department. FIRST transforms the lives of the kids. After we've been in the school for three or four years, you'll typically go into that school and more of their trophy case and more of the banners hanging in that school are related to FIRST than football and basketball combined.

Matties: In America in particular, we know there are some cities and inner cities that are very poverty stricken.

Kamen: The highest density of FIRST teams in any school system in the United States is Michigan. Within Michigan, the highest density is Detroit and their surroundings because the giant companies there realized that if they didn't turn the next generation around, their city would rot from the inside out. They committed to FIRST and right from the very top, General Motors, Ford, all the big guys and all of their suppliers have become major FIRST sponsors. To the point that the governor of Michigan and the mayor of Detroit came to their championship event and announced that their goal is to put FIRST in every school in the city of Detroit and then in every school in the state of Michigan.

Matties: The supplies that a city needs or a school needs, is that done through the sponsors? For the kids it's all zero cost?

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