Many want to be the next Bill Gates or the next Steve Jobs, starting from their backyard and building an empire which actually changed the world. And the world needs more of them and could have more of them, if more people had at least the same opportunities. Yet, the high tech world, and in particular coding, has three big issues: not enough people, there is a huge need of programmers, they are less than the positions available in the job market; secondly, there is a big gender gap in this field, so half of the world population is not even looking in that direction; thirdly, most of the best developers, like the two icons mentioned above, didn’t go through formal IT education, they learned on the way free from the embalmed education system.
This is even more so in regions, such as Latin America, where these gaps are more marked. Marisol and her friends decided to do something about it. They created a small pilot program in Peru, then Chile and Mexico to prepare 200 women to become developers.
What is Laboratoria?
Marisol: Laboratoria is a social enterprise which was created a bit more than 3 years ago. We started with a group of 6 friends from the university. Today we are a formal boot camp academy that focuses on women who couldn’t develop in their life the way they wanted because of social and economic reasons. Women apply to the program through a recruitment process which is becoming extremely competitive. More than 4000 women applied for the last edition between Peru, Mexico and Chile. Applying means that they spent approximately 1.5 month doing a psychological test, a medical test, pre-work at home, coming for interviews, doing pre-admission sessions and then ending up in Laboratoria. Our students are typically women that tried or even went to school, either university or technical institute, but they didn’t finish their education. Some didn’t even go to college. And some actually did finish low quality institutions and ended up without good jobs or in the informal sector. We accept around 10% of those who apply, 400 women between Peru, Chile and Mexico. We have a special algorithm which helps us to choose the right people, not based on their IQ but on their ability to learn, perseverance and strong motivation. Through all these years we managed to serve 1000 women, who graduated our program.
Are they able to find a job afterward?
We have a 75% employment rate after graduation. Our 6-month course ends with a hackathon, for which we invite big companies looking for employees, and we collaborate with around 250 of them. It’s very hard to find good developers, especially good women developers. Our hackathon is a recruitment process for them, it allows them to work directly with women for 36 hours. They work with one group, giving a specific challenge and observing how they perform, but they can also read the profile of all the other participants and interview them meanwhile. This is huge for companies, normally they need 3 to 6 months to hire somebody.
What kind of companies do you collaborate with?
At the beginning companies which were hiring our talents were startups, right now they are mostly big international non-tech companies, like banks, retails, factories. They start to realize they have to go digital. Women getting jobs there receive a salary 3-4 times higher than they used to. They would never be able to get this level of salary without a formal, paid education. We were a bit afraid that companies wouldn’t hire them, considering their life situation and background, but that was never the case. If they can code well, that’s enough.
How do you manage to prepare them so well in just half a year?
We work at close contact with companies to develop our curricula. Each 6-month boot camp we organize is at least 40% different than the previous one. We adapt to what companies need today, so our students can get a job. Our goal is to employ them, not teach. If companies start to use a different technology, we will teach that.
Classes happen every day?
Yes, for six months, Monday to Friday. They usually have 5 hours classes per day. We work on their technical skills, but we also collaborate with psychologists to empower them and develop their soft skills, like communication and team working. Today you are not anymore working isolated as a programmer, you have to know how to work with clients, under time pressure, etc. We develop projects in the Agile way, made up of small teams, very horizontal, not much hierarchy, short term objectives. We don’t plan for all 6 months, we do small projects of 2 weeks or a month, then evaluate, improve, measure and come back. The Agile method is also commonly used by companies, their feedback has been amazing: “We don’t have to teach your participants our culture and tools, they already come in with that, which is not typical for university students”.
How do you finance yourself?
We are registered as an NGO in Peru, Chile and Mexico. In the first years we run exclusively on grants, we applied for them in each city, regionally, but we also collaborated with big companies like Google or Microsoft. We became an NGO because our social mission was clear, and our business model was not. We want to be sustainable, though, we are constantly trying to develop our business model and this year we finally got a clear path. Each chapter tries to develop its own revenue. One source is paying for the experience. Participants don’t pay for the 6-month course, but once they get a job, they pay us back monthly, depending on their salary. A second source is a company fee on recruiting. We proved that we provide what they want, so now they can pay for it. And lately a new idea came up about training for companies on digital transformation. It was initiated by the businesses themselves. They said they want more of that in their company. We created a course on digital leadership, which is about how to use technology and innovation to be more efficient and add more value to the client. We had a pilot last year in Peru and now we work on it in Mexico and Chile. By 2021 we want to be fully sustainable.
What’s the big plan for the near future?
We are hoping to help 5000 women by 2021 in around 8 centers in the main cities in Latin America. We work in the main cities because that’s where the jobs are. We also want to make sure we keep being in line with companies, that we teach the best we can, our partners are always the best, we have the best team possible, etc. Right now we have 80 people, it’s growing really quickly.
What keeps you motivated?
I had good opportunities in life, just because I was born on the right side of the town. And I always wanted to provide those opportunities to people from the other side of the hill. The place you are born in shouldn’t decide your future. I’m glad Laboratoria came to life and helped me fulfill this dream. It’s intensive work but the most rewarding.
What got you there, to be so successful?
The capacity to learn. In a world which is changing so quickly, if you don’t have this ability of learning permanently and adapting to new things it’s really hard to survive. Our project is completely different from what it was three years ago. Then, perseverance. So many times we thought we wouldn't make it. And falling in love… not with the idea, because the idea may change when you see what people need, but being in love with the purpose, in our case: support women to fulfill their dreams.
More about Laboratoria: laboratoria.la