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Philadelphia man computes a perfect way to help others

by STEPHANIE FARR THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER (TNS) | April 18, 2021 at 2:04 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA -- At his home, the connections Hai Thai makes inside of old laptop computers helps them work smarter, stay powered up longer and process data quicker.

But for Thai -- whose first laptop in college "totally changed my life" -- the best connections he makes are when he gives the computers to people in need.

"For me, having access to the internet opened a world of information. It was a gold mine," said Thai, 42. "By doing this, not only do I feel like I help someone else, but it makes you appreciate what you take for granted -- being able to buy a computer."

Since beginning his one-man TechCycle project last spring, Thai has repaired and given away nine laptops to students and families in Philadelphia; to a family in Guatemala; and even to a convent of nuns in Brooklyn who needed a computer to attend virtual church services.

"The nuns are thankful and they pray for me," Thai said. "Even though I'm not Christian, it's positive energy."

When community activist Venise Whitaker heard of Thai's project through a mutual friend last year and asked if he had a computer to donate to a struggling family she was assisting, he was more than happy to help.

"Pre-pandemic, the cost of a computer or tablet was unreachable for many families. Now during the pandemic it's unattainable," Whitaker said. "The best part of Hai's vision is reusing a device to pay it forward. Now that's Philly love."

So far Thai -- who funds the repairs out of his own pocket and fixes them in his free time -- has built his program strictly through word of mouth, but he wants to scale it up with more donations, more giveaways, and especially more volunteers.

"I want to teach people to do what I'm good at," said Thai, a senior manager of software engineering and development at Comcast. "Part of this program is that I want to mentor people who want to fix computers so they can build their resume and skills."

Thai didn't start out in tech. His first job was pushing carts at a supermarket as a teen. Then he worked as a dishwasher, waiter, blueberry picker and a garment worker at a sewing factory while growing up to help support his family, who immigrated from Vietnam in 1990. The Thai family first arrived in Lansing, Mich., before moving to the Philly area in 1993.

After graduating from Upper Darby High in 1996, Thai enrolled at Temple University, where he planned to major in architecture. But when he got his first laptop and fell in love with software engineering and coding, he switched majors to computer science.

Yet despite finding his calling, Thai couldn't seem to find his motivation.

"I was not doing well in school at all because I was not motivated," he said.

During his sophomore year, Thai took a semester off because he was late applying for financial aid and didn't have the money to pay for tuition. So he got a full-time job as a butcher at a Northeast Philly supermarket, cutting meat and cleaning floors.

It was all the motivation he needed.

"It was a lot of physical work," he said. "After that butchering job, I completely changed 180 degrees. I started doing very well in college."

Thai graduated in 2002 and worked on contract jobs with a consulting company before starting his career at Comcast in 2006.

Two events inspired him to create his TechCycle program. First was his mother's death from cancer two years ago.

"It slowed me down and changed my perspective," he said. "I felt I needed to make something of my life. I wanted to be more impactful."

The second was when he saw a fellow member of Fair Trade Philadelphia (a group that promotes fair-trade-certified products) asking for help to buy laptops for a family in Guatemala. Thai created a GoFundMe for the family, which raised nearly $2,500.

Then, he one-upped himself and decided to refurbish a few computers for them too, "so we could use the money we fund-raised for other things like food and water for them," he said.

From there, Thai's mission spread. He partnered with his friend Hang Dinh, owner of Pretoria Salon & Spa, for her business to serve as a drop-off point for laptop donations. And he works with Elemental Inc., a certified electronics recycler, to take any donated devices he can't fix.

While the cost to refurbish a laptop averages about $50 for parts, the time it takes Thai to fix one can vary from a few hours to a few weeks. Currently he's got seven laptops awaiting repair and will decide who receives them by listening to stories from members of his community who know where they're needed most.

Thai said the recent rise in attacks against Asian Americans in the wake of covid-19 have left him shaken but more determined than ever to help people connect with the internet and with each other.

"The stuff I'm doing here, I treat everyone the same. I don't ask what color they are," he said. "With all the hate against Asian Americans today, I hope this is another example that we're Americans too."

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