Dylan Zajac, an entrepreneurial young man from Hoboken, used to go with friends to buy old computers from thrift shops, fix them up, and sell them through eBay and Facebook.
In 2019, when he was just 15, he turned that profit-making enterprise into a nonprofit enterprise called Computers 4 People.
Computers 4 People volunteers collect, refurbish, and donate used computers, as well as accessories, including keyboards and monitors, to people and organizations in under-resourced communities throughout New Jersey and New York.
The idea is to promote equity and access to opportunity, while at the same time creating a sustainable solution to the massive problem of electronic waste.
“We partner with more than 80 nonprofits and schools that nominate low-income individuals in need to apply for a computer,” Mr. Zajac explained. “Once approved by our application committee, clients receive their computers, allowing thousands to access job search, education, telehealth, and more.”
On August 15, Mr. Zajac plans to be in California to accept a $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award from the Helen Diller Family Foundation in recognition of his success mobilizing peers to take collective, meaningful action to “repair the world,” the translation of the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam.”
A rising sophomore at Babson College majoring in business, Mr. Zajac was nominated for the Diller Award by Nancy Sambul, a member of his family’s synagogue, Temple Beth-El in Jersey City.
Until then, he’d never heard of the award, which is given annually to 15 American Jewish teens whose tikkun olam projects demonstrate significant initiative and leadership.
Following a four-round application and screening process, including video interviews with him and with three “recommenders” who vouched for the nonprofit nature of Computers 4 People, Mr. Zajac was notified in June that he was one of the 15 winners.
“I was super excited because not only do I get to go to California in August and meet a bunch of other people doing likeminded work, but also I will get $36,000 to move my project along and expand it to where I want it to go,” he said.
He wants to increase the average number of donated computers from 60 to 100 each month, and he wants to open a new branch in the Boston area. Before starting college at Babson, Mr. Zajac had managed to raise enough funds to hire a part-time onsite manager for the project. Now he can hire more employees.
Knowing his ambitious plans will require more than the award money, he has scheduled a Computers 4 People fundraiser on August 25 at Wicked Wolf Tavern in Hoboken.
Although some other organizations refurbish and donate used computers, Mr. Zajac said Computers 4 People streamlined the process for all parties – donors, volunteers, and potential recipients. “I wanted to make this the most seamless, easiest way for donors and for clients,” he said. “So I’ve built out a whole system that takes all these applications and filters them, and then our committee reviews them and automatically sends donors decision emails.”
The process for recipients also is unique, he continued. Applicants seeking a free used computer must include a recommendation letter from one of Computers 4 People’s partner organizations or schools vouching for their eligibility. “We don’t collect any financial information from the individual,” Mr. Zajac said.
On average, a donated computer reaches a new owner within a week.
Mr. Zajac is the son of Paul Zajac and Colleen Castle. The catalyst for his pivot from profit to nonprofit was his stepmother, Sally Bowman, he said. “She works at a nonprofit in Brooklyn, and we were talking about how so many people need computers and are unable to afford them. And I was saying how there is so much e-waste getting thrown out and all these companies don’t know what to do with thousands of laptops discarded every year. They end up either not getting properly recycled or going to some company that kind of does the same thing that I did – refurbish and sell them.
“So I had this idea to collect all this e-waste, refurbish it, and then donate it to people in need.”
Ms. Bowman is the president of Computers 4 People’s board of directors. Dylan’s father, who works in the technology field, is vice president.
While he still was a student at LREI — Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School in Manhattan — Mr. Zajac applied for 501C3 charitable organization status and built the Computers 4 People website. “I knew how to do that because I’d already made websites for other businesses I had,” he said.
“It just built up from there. I started making all these partnerships and then it began snowballing from there.”
Mr. Zajac said that the Jewish value of tikkun olam has always resonated with him. “I feel like you kind of have a responsibility, if you can, to make the world a better place.”
A more personal motivation for doing good in the world is his heritage. “My great-grandparents all survived the Holocaust; they either survived the camps or escaped and were in Russia during the wartime and suffered a lot of tragedies,” he said. “Then, my grandparents and my dad were forced out of Poland in the 1960s for being Jewish. They were forced to go to Italy, and a Jewish organization helped them get visas to come to the United States.”
His grandmother, Anna Frajlich-Zajac of Manhattan, is an award-winning poet who taught Polish language and literature at Columbia University for more than three decades.
“Seeing my grandparents and my dad come here, and build up a really successful life for themselves, has motivated me to make a difference,” Mr. Zajac said.