I recently sat down with Nicholas Kee, a 22 year-old local entrepreneur who has built multiple start-ups, spoken at conferences and travelled the world. He is currently the founder of Next Gen Creators, a non-profit, which aims to teach youth in the Caribbean how to code. I was introduced to Nick through my father in September. They knew each other through an organization called Junior Achievement Canada, which facilitates an environment for business, entrepreneurship and mentorship. The reason I chose to interview Nick is because of his approach to learning and education, which manifests itself in a fearless and earnest need to take action. It’s truly remarkable how he transforms obstacles into learning opportunities by being resourceful and utilizing his practical skills. He is an individual who embodies failure and adds value to his career by building his own education.
We often see an individual’s start and end point, creating an assumption that life is a steady uphill slope to greatness. I hope Nick’s story magnifies the ups and downs and exemplifies a unique persistence and gumption that will hopefully inspire you.
Kindly introduce yourself.
I’m Nicholas Kee, 21 years old. I grew up in Jamaica and I guess I’m known for being involved in tech.
When did the interest in Tech begin for you?
I started coding at the age of 12 and then I started freelancing soon afterwards. Over the years I’ve gotten better and better at coding and then I got bored, so I decided to do something else. That something else was business. I was 16 when I started Junior Achievement and I was part of this company called CAN (Creating Accessories Naturally), where we made different accessories and jewelry from soda cans. What we did was process them and wrap them with certain materials. Sometimes we’d bend the cans and make earrings. The year after, I did Junior Achievement for a second year, acting as the president of a company called Plastato. We made appliances and accessories, but this time, from potatoes that we turned into plastic! We went on to compete in a regional competition in Latin America and Canada for “Company of the Year”. We did well, went on to Mexico and copped the FedEX Access award, which represented social goodwill, good environmental practices and potential for international growth.
At that time, during the year of the competition, I wanted to try something else – research. I was really into science, even though I didn’t pay attention to the rudimentary things in school – the information felt too antiquated, like something we all know. I needed that extra edge, which is why I got into research. I wanted to research organic electronics. That came from me walking around and noticing all of the pollution and I wanted to be involved in some kind of way to save the environment. After school I would go up to UWI (University of the West Indies) and would do some research with a professor who took me under her wing. She supervised me to research artificial photosynthesis – just using plants as a medium to harness light and heat energy from the sun and converting it to electrical energy.
Wow you did a lot. You were still in school at the time though, so how did that go?
The two years I spent in 6th form weren’t challenging for me. I got worried, which is why I spent so much time doing outside activities, school didn’t satisfy my curiosity. I ventured off, my grades suffered – I was pretty excited about going to college either in the U.S. or Canada. I did the SATs, and applied to 14 or 15 schools. The day after I submitted my applications, it was December 29th, I just said, “Screw this” and decided I didn’t want to do college anymore. Afterwards, I started looking into different opportunities that would allow me to live this life without college. I had my research, my prior experience, so I just used that to bolster myself. I would e-mail almost everyone that had some relation to what I was doing/interested in, to ask for guidance and point me in a direction. Instead of studying for mock exams, I basically spent that time sending close to 1000 e-mails and doing cold-calls. I got a few breakthroughs. January was the time that I told my friends that I wasn’t going to do college anymore. When I made that decision, I started to get responses, even though 90% of the e-mails were rejections, but I got a lot of positive responses as well.
What happened after you sent all those e-mails and decided not to go to college?
Two responses came from a start up company that were hiring interns and they asked if I wanted to come, which I surely did. They made games for iOS. I got the chance to make some great games and meet some amazing people and stay in Silicon Valley for the entire summer. Apart from that good-news e-mail, I got another email from a NASA scientist. I didn’t actually reach out to him, but somebody forwarded my e-mail to him. He said, “While you’re in Silicon Valley, you should stop by NASA AMES Research Centre, in Mountain View.” I had the opportunity to visit both places. I sat in a room with 6 or 7 scientists during happy hour and we had a discussion about my research and its possibilities and they told me what they were working on. That’s when they asked me to join their Planetary Sustainability Team which was a team dedicated to creating different technologies to enable habitation on Mars. I joined the team and after that summer, I met up with another friend who I met through somebody else and he created his own 3D Printers, and we were having this long discussion about manufacturing and that’s when we decided to go into business together. That was officially my first start up.
Nice! What did you guys do?
I created the organic resin for the printers themselves, made from the same plastic from Plastato, and it turned out well. We rose funding, we had to lock down shop early because we didn’t have the same vision. By that time, we raised all this money, which was going to R&D, and we were under pressure to show something to investors.
That was short-lived. What happened after?
Shortly after I created another start up with a friend from the previous summer called Stork – we were the middlemen for tech companies and start ups to sponsor things that were eccentric and seemed important to them like a hackathon. At the same time I started going to Hackathons at colleges (Waterloo, Yale, Stanford) and I started to crash classes. I’d meet tons of friends and try to experience the college lifestyle that everyone raved about and assumed I was missing out on. I went to classes, didn’t like them, and then started to look at Psychology. It rang some kind of bell internally so I wanted to do some more investigations into the human mind and what makes us tick. For Stork, we decided to do everything remotely to save money. It was then that I decided to travel to Central and South America and the Dominican Republic.
Okay so you were running a start-up and then travelled, why?
I wanted to find more about cultures, what made them interesting and to do a lot of social experiments. I started late January in the Dominican Republic. I met this group of girls and we decided that we were going to travel together for the rest of the trip, so we left and headed straight to Costa Rica and fully immersed ourselves in the culture – we even spent a few weeks with a farmer and learned what it was like to live there. It was eye opening. I was on a beach on Costa Rica where my former boss called me to say that a guy from Israel was interested in Hackathons. He knew I was in the Hackathon space and wanted to branch out to Jamaica, as he ran his own Hackathon. He wanted to know if he could bring the Hackathon to the island. That guy turned out to be one of my co-founder for Next-Gen Creators (my current non-profit).
Hold up, so what happened in South America then?
In South America, I went to Peru, ran out of money, got stuck in Lake Titicaca, met the last weaver alive (His name is Alejandro Flores). I got friendly with the villagers and there was this lady that was pregnant. One of the midwives asked if I wanted to help deliver the baby. I became the God Father of that child – Estrella, which translates to Star. There was another girl there named Milagro (it means miracle) who was six and she was the first one to meet me in the village. She stayed with me the entire time and I would teach her all these weird math formulas. Language wasn’t really a barrier because math is well…math. I ended up becoming her God Father too! There was this ceremony and everything…..very cool. When I left Peru I ventured off to the rest of South America, volunteering and doing eccentric things like sand gliding! At the same time, I was still running the start up. I ran out of money at one point so I had to spend some time doing web development for the locals and their businesses. I used the money to buy a plane ticket home. I came home for two weeks and then left for Silicon Valley again. At that time I exited the startup company Stork. At the time I had the non-profit on the back burner and provided support remotely.
South America, back to Jamaica and then Silicon Valley, gotcha.
Back in Silicon Valley, I created another start-up. Did I give it a name? I had a name… Clanytics? I met another co-founder from India who was doing his Master’s in CS at Stanford. We started going to different conferences and began building a platform for B2B and liability companies, which would analyze eccentric data to give an accurate premium for their customers. Say for instance you had a hotel and the hotel was somewhere in a rural area in an abandoned town with a low population. We would take these data points and analyze it to help insurance companies to give the best premiums to hotel owners. My co-founder decided he was going to go back to India and get married and we set aside out losses and closed the company.
I’m sure it wasn’t long before you started another one.
I got an e-mail from CERN, a big European nuclear organization, inviting me to join their think tank. I worked alongside the most amazing scientists from all over Europe. We got divided into teams and we got to create renewable energy technology. We made a solar collector – a device that’s 500x more effective than a solar panel. Instead of being refracted off panels, light would be refracted off a really shiny surface inside a heated vacuum. It was created for people in developing countries and those in refugee camps. It was pitched to the UN in Switzerland, and they’re using it in Nepal for the people living in the mountains who can’t necessarily get utilities where they live.
After, I decided to focus solely on Next Gen Creators, which started with a phone call I got on the beach in Costa Rica. We host events such as hackathons and workshops. We plan to release a platform that’s currently in the Beta stages of testing and hope to release it Summer 2017.
Next Gen Creators is your current start-up and non-profit. Why did you start this one?
The reason why I started Next Gen Creators was because I didn’t exactly believe in the currently education system, or the one society deemed successful and valuable. This non-profit allowed me to be apart of the commonwealth. Now I’m the Co-chair of the Queen’s Young Leaders Program, where leaders from all over the commonwealth are groomed to become exceptional leaders. What we’re trying to do is give the common wealth a positive light outside of the violence, segregation and slavery. We want to push leaders to become the forefront leaders of the commonwealth. Next Gen is the tech-arm of the commonwealth.
Zoe Chung is working as a Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Specialist with Eve for Life in Kingston, Jamaica.