What inspired you to start Laboratoria?
We started Laboratoria when I moved back to Lima after living abroad for many years. Before venturing into this, my two co-founders and I actually started a web development agency. It was through that experience that we realized there was a lot of demand for software developers, but that there was a big shortage of talent in that particular area. There were also very few women in that sector so there was a huge gender gap. Even in our team, we had 10 developers and all of them were men. We were puzzled by this disparity in a field with so many job opportunities. In contrast to other sectors, the field of software development is quite flexible in terms of the requirements for qualifications. Many talented individuals working in web development did not necessarily have degrees in computer science from prestigious schools. Some did not even have a degree at all. It is one of those fields where you do not necessarily need an actual degree to find a good job. With all this in mind, we saw the opportunity to create a social enterprise that would train young women in this skill set, and especially women who have not been able to access higher education due to their financial situations.
How did it all come together?
We started Laboratoria as a pilot project and we wanted to keep it very lean and focused. We created a curricula, secured a loan and partnered with two non-profit organizations in two different parts of the city to select a group of students to launch the programme. Our goal was to validate the idea and prove that we could actually teach coding skills to women who had no previous contact with technology and help them build a better future. We learned a lot after the initial pilot. Many of the students performed really well and we hired some of them in our agency and we placed others into other companies. We also realized that there was a lot of interest from the hiring companies who were impressed by the talents and they started reaching out to us. After the pilot, we decided to refine the project and in 2015, we turn it into a full-time, six-month bootcamp training programme with nearly a thousand hours of training to build not only the technical skills of our students but also the soft skills that are needed in the professional world. It has been a long process of adjusting and improving our programme to better prepare our students to make them globally competitive software developers. We have also been working with the hiring companies to create a smooth transition for them after their training. The average income of our graduates has been multiplied by three. We started in Lima, and we have already expanded to Santiago (Chile), Mexico City, Guadalajara (Mexico) and we are now setting up in São Paulo (Brazil). We managed to prove that our model was strong in terms of social impact and that it can be scaled to change the lives of young women across Latin America. To date, more than 580 students have graduated from Laboratoria, and they have been hired by more than 200 companies across the industry.
What is the recipe for a successful social enterprise?
It has been years of very hard work! And there is still so much more to be done. The most important thing for us was the focus on learning. Learning as much as we could, following a methodology to continuously improve our work. We are very focused on gathering data to monitor exactly how the programme is performing and to keep improving it. That is what has enabled us to track and improve our work in such a short period: we have built a culture around learning and we try to attract people who share the same mindset to work at our company. And we want to make sure that we do that with excellence by forming the best junior developers who are competitive in the global job market.
How can the digital and gender divide be tackled?
The digital divide and the gender divide are two issues that are of critical importance. As the economy is shifting and becoming more automated, we are seeing the depletion of many low-skilled jobs. And that is usually where women are overrepresented. But in high-skilled professions, particularly those related to tech where there are many job opportunities, women are underrepresented. Unless we urgently do something to change that ratio, women are going to be left out. The private sector needs to know that diversity adds value, not because they need to check in a box, but because their products will be better by having people from different backgrounds and experiences: it will ultimately benefit the companies. Accountability is a key factor, particularly from education institutions. They must ensure that they are training people with the right skills that are needed and that are relevant to succeed in today’s and tomorrow’s economy. Properly analyzing job prospects is essential because a diploma on its own is not going to do anything. As for governments, they should be enablers of the private sector and of civil society by putting the right incentives to help initiatives that tackle these issues and encouraging companies to be more diverse for a better use of technology.
What is your advice to young women – and young people in general – in today’s hyper-connected economy?
We are living in an era of unprecedented opportunities because of Internet, connectivity and the immense access to information. The most valuable skill-set is to know how to learn by yourself. Be curious to go out and take responsibility for your own learning process. That is what we teach our students at Laboratoria as well. Education is being challenged in all sorts of ways because the future of work is still being defined. People need to take advantage of the opportunities of access to information in order to shape their own paths.