4 minute read

Alumna spotlight

Computer science degree set the course for nonprofit CEO

By Michael Kuhl ’20

Since earning her degree as Watson’s first Black female computer science graduate, Nicole (Mitchell) Armstrong ’91 has combined her heart for service with her love of technology throughout her career. In 2020, she was appointed the CEO of TechBridge Inc., an Atlanta-based company that provides tech solutions to nonprofits, including Goodwill, United Way and Feeding America, to name a few.

When did you first become interested in technology?

When I was 11, my father bought a TRS-80, which was Radio Shack’s first computer. I taught myself how to code using a BASIC programming book. The first program I ever wrote resulted in a stickfigured robot dancing across the green screen. I was amazed that a few lines of code could do this. I remember thinking, “I can create things from nothing! OK, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

I continued coding as a hobby in sixth grade and was placed in a gifted class where I skipped from seventh to ninth grade. I was thrilled when I was selected to attend Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers (in New York City), a highly competitive school for those with a special aptitude in computer science. This is where I began developing my belief that education and technology can transform lives.

“Being a builder of people, being a builder of companies and being a builder of culture — that’s what gets me up every morning…”

—Nicole Armstrong

What experiences at Binghamton stand out to you?

In 1987, Watson was an early leader in developing computer science as an area of practice. I was part of the first cohort and was the only person of color. We lived in Rafuse Hall. During my first week, I remember sitting in my room and thinking, “I’m a nerd, and I’m surrounded by nerds.” It was good being with like-minded people and I believe that enhanced my learning and development.

The Watson School (now Watson College) did a great job preparing me for life after college. The foundational classes were heavy in math and science, and the coursework was grueling but produced hardcore programmers. When I graduated, I was ready for corporate America.

What were your experiences as a person of color at Watson in the late 1980s?

Although I was the only Black woman in my freshman cohort, I never felt like my professors treated me differently. As a person of color and a woman, the bar is always higher. It means that I need to work harder than most. Those of us breaking barriers and pioneering change have to be excellent and beyond reproach. We have to get up every day and knock it out of the park.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Working with and learning from John Katzman, who is the founder of the Princeton Review, the Noodle Companies and 2U.

John and I co-founded a company called Noodle Markets, which connects K-12 educators with vendors for over 30,000 products and services. As the chief product architect, I utilized my understanding of complex systems and pitched that prototype to some of the largest venture capitalists in the U.S., raising an initial seed round of $3 million and eventually raising a total of $12 million.

In Vanity Fair’s April 2018 issue, I was featured along with 25 other Black women founders/“unicorns” who raised over $1 million

in venture capital. In December 2020, I was also featured on CNN as part of the “Million Dollar Club,” acknowledging the accomplishments of Black women founders.

Tell us about your work at TechBridge.

In 2020, TechBridge celebrated its 20th year as a nonprofit. Our mission is to break the cycle of generational poverty through technology. We are doing amazing work. We have a strong reputation in Atlanta and have a national presence with the support of over 500 local technology leaders. We are well-positioned to deepen our impact in our core communities — Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama — and strategically expand to other states that need us.

We are focused on four key pillars. The first is hunger relief. Our platforms are tethered to the work we do with food banks and Feeding America. We support 63 food banks and almost 20,000 food pantries that move 6 billion pounds of food annually.

We also support the homeless community. We are currently working with the United Way of Nashville, Tenn., to build data integration solutions that allow disparate agencies to better collaborate and communicate. Once our work is finalized, we plan to have an app that allows case workers to meet families and individuals experiencing homelessness where they are — in the street, on a bench, in a subway. We want to provide real-time access not only to bed availability but also other critical services like food assistance, medical care and job placement.

Our third area of focus is legal justice. In 2019, we launched our JusticeServer platform, a legal case management tool that enables attorneys to volunteer for pro bono cases. More importantly, it allows attorneys to connect with low-income clients in need.

Our fourth pillar is workforce development. We give low-income, underserved, unemployed adults a pathway out of poverty through our Technology Career Program. The graduates of our free, 16-week program obtain industryrecognized certificates in Microsoft BI, Service Now and cybersecurity, to name a few. We also provide job placement, a mentor for six months and courses in basic web development, financial well-being and remote work etiquette.

I’m at a point in my career where my greatest joy is not derived from building software. Being a builder of people, being a builder of companies and being a builder of culture — that’s what gets me up every morning, and that desire is what positioned me to be the CEO of TechBridge.