How Latin American women are cracking the code to the tech sector
A roomful of three dozen young women sit in hushed concentration tap-tapping on their laptops, oblivious to the glint of the Pacific through the window of the eleventh floor office. On the walls motivational messages such as “Keep Calm and Code On” urge them to conquer their self-doubt and overcome the perception that tech is not for girls. From 9am to 6pm, including some evenings and weekends, they are taught Java Script, CSS3 and HTML5 for $10 a month.
is a social enterprise giving young women in Peru a five-month fast-track course in coding, readying them for a job in the country’s burgeoning tech sector where demand for their skills exceeds supply but fewer than 10% of professionals are women.
“The tech sector is moving and growing and it desperately needs more talent,” says Mariana Costa, co-founder and CEO of Laboratoria, a savvy 30-year-old Peruvian who studied at the London School of Economics and New York’s Columbia University and has an impressive track record in social entrepreneurship.
While working in website and software development, she realised there was a huge demand for developers, so she set up a social enterprise to train the talent from diverse backgrounds. “There’s an increased awareness about the need to have diverse teams and also for women to take advantage of all the opportunities that tech represents,” she says.
Software development is Latin America’s fastest growing career. By .
Although just 400 women have graduated from Laboratoria since it started in 2014 (with a job placement rate of 77% in companies such as Google and Microsoft, ), the project has expanded to Peru’s second city, Arequipa, and outside the country in Mexico City and Santiago in Chile. Next year a programme will open in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“Everywhere that we operate we have more demand from companies than developers ready for work, which is a good problem to have,” says Costa.
The potential impact of the project has been noticed around the world. Costa has a place on the , a list of this year’s influential women. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg mentioned her in a keynote address to the in November. Barack Obama praised her social enterprise as “wonderful” at .
Costa, who comes from a privileged background, is motivated to give women from low-income backgrounds greater opportunities. “It’s bad luck that you were born on that side of town. There are incredibly talented people there who just are never even aware of their talent and potential because they don’t have the opportunity to discover it,” she says. “Taking advantage of a field that’s growing so fast and provides so many opportunities seemed a creative way to solve this social problem.”
The course was a lifeline For Ariadna Eyzaguirre, 19, who had to leave university after her parents separated and her tour guide mother could no longer afford her fees. It is a 5am wake-up and several bus rides from her home in San Martin de Porres district to Laboratoria in upmarket Miraflores, but she is excited about the future.
Women aged 18 to 35 (there are some exceptions for over 35s) can apply to the training. “We offer a career in web development. Not just a course,” . After a six-month intensive boot camp, Laboratoria continues to provide 18 months of education around a job.
Once the women are working, their continuing education is paid for through their salaries. Costa says she is working towards a model of self-sustainability for the programme, but they have received investment funding from the Inter-American Development Bank, Lenovo, AT&T, Telefonica, the government of , Citi Foundation, Microsoft, MIT and Peery Foundation.
Costa plans to expand the programme by connecting graduates to job opportunities in the US. “Our vision is to train 10,000 developers in the next five years, and become the leading force of female tech talent from Latin America to the world, using tech as a powerful social transformation opportunity,” she says.
Laboratoria’s current students are aware that if they weren’t learning to code they’d be working low-paid, low-skilled jobs (or no job at all). Andrea Maucaylli, 25, supported herself and her younger medical student sister with an online shop after they moved to Lima. She says the teaching style at Laboratoria keeps her motivated: “Instead of being told what you got wrong, you’re told how you can do it better and that motivates you to keep pushing forward. If we could replicate this way of teaching, there’s nothing we couldn’t do. There are so many kids out there whose talents are going to waste.”
The selection process is rigorous, says Costa, but it is tailored for the job market. “We try to spot talent where nobody else is looking for it,” she says. “They don’t only get a job and a better income, they get to also start a career. It’s like the first step in a whole new world which really has endless opportunities.”
Peru has one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America but one in five young people in the county neither works nor studies. .
“Laboratoria at its heart is about empowerment and transformation. Coding is the means of how we get to the end,” says Costa. “The end is to make sure that the women who come through the programme are able to build a future that they want for themselves.”
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