This Peruvian Entrepreneur’s Startup Is Teaching Young Latin American Women to Code

At the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, Peruvian Mariana Costa Checa sat beside brilliant young creators Mai Medhat, Jean Bosco, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. President Barack Obama, who served as one of the moderators, asked the entrepreneurs to introduce themselves, and when he got to Costa Checa, she charmingly expressed her disbelief. “I’m still trying to get over the fact that you just introduced me. I’m so happy,” she told Obama, before describing Laboratoria, a social enterprise she co-founded that’s changing the lives of women in Latin America. “What we try to do is go out and find talent where nobody else is looking for it, so we try to identify young women who haven’t been able to access quality education or job opportunities, because of economic limitations, and train them to become the most awesome web developers they can be and connect them with employment opportunities in the tech sector.”

“[We] train them to become the most awesome web developers they can be.”

Laboratoria began two years ago, and now has more than 100 alum and a 70 percent employment rate for its graduates, but getting to this point has been a long and empowering road for Mariana. In her native Peru, there are eight million people aged 15 to 29, and according to MIT Technology Review, many don’t have access to higher education. Up to 20 percent of them don’t study or work, which means that because of lack of opportunities, there’s an untapped talent pool. At the same time, there are many unfilled roles in the tech sector and Costa Checa wants to help it move forward through new talent. In the United States (where some Laboratoria alums have gotten jobs), there’s more than half a million unfilled jobs in information technology across different fields. There’s similarly a need for software engineers and designers in Peru. Inter-American Development Bank projects that 1.2 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean will work in the software development industry by 2025. Given the striking gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers globally, Laboratoria aims make the tech world more diverse by teaching women between the ages 18 and 28 how to code.

Laboratoria launched in Peru in 2014, with its first class comprising of just 15 students. Their six-month intensive codeAcademy requires that students dedicate eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. There, they learn everything from content management systems, javascript, and jQuery to HTML5 and CSS3. A few weeks in, they can create websites and games. Laboratoria works with hundreds of businesses to make sure the course material remains current. The program develops these young women into skilled coders, but it’s also concerned with their self-esteem. The participants consult with Laboratoria’s psychologists as part of the training. After a rigorous six months, the women are ready to enter the job market.

The startup is funded in three ways: venture capital (Google and Telefónica), governmental agencies (Innovación Tecnológica de Perú), and by offering coding services to businesses. In 2015, Laboratoria only covered 20 percent of scholarships through this service, but it hopes to eventually cover the cost of the classes entirely through this method. The program also encourages alums to pay it forward. Those who have graduated and successfully found tech jobs end up making three times as much money, and they’re expected to give back 10 percent of their salaries for two years to help fund the program for future students.

“At the beginning, people were like how are you going to train people in months and get them a job?”

In two years, Costa Checa and her team have expanded Laboratoria to Mexico and Chile. They’ve also built a company that’s adaptable and forward-thinking, but it hasn’t been easy. At the summit in June, she admitted that sometimes it’s been a struggle paying her team members, and that some doubted this company could work. “I think there’s been many challenges along the way,” she said. “In our case, we try to disrupt many preconceptions. At the beginning, people were like how are you going to train people in months and get them a job? How are you going to get a young woman who went to a public high school that’s not very good to actually become competitive in the labor market? I think, luckily, we’ve overcome those, and we’ve proved that they are incredibly talented, that you can learn in months instead of years. And most of the companies that hire our developers actually rehire, you know, so they realize that they’re great. And they’re as competitive as anyone else who comes from a different background.”

The company is also making waves. In February, the Inter-American Development Bank – which provides technical and financial support to Latin American and Caribbean enterprises – invested $1.8 million so that the program can train 800 women from Chile, Mexico, and Peru in the next three years. However, this venture has already started making a difference in places like Mexico. Last year, Katherine Flores Díaz saw a flier inviting women to enroll in a free coding program in the dining hall of Prosoftware, a technology company in CDMX, where Katherine worked as part of the custodial staff with her dad. She didn’t think much of it, but her dad encouraged her to apply. The program sounded too good to be true, and she already had to cut her education short just months before graduating. Perhaps, she also felt unnerved because she had never used a computer, but she got in and joined the first class in Mexico. By September – two months before the end of the program – she already had job offers in the industry, including at Prosoftware, Expansión notes. She decided she didn’t want to jump right into work, and instead opted to go back to school and learn even more coding.

Mariana believes motivation is everything, and if anyone exemplifies that, it’s Gabriela Javier, who participated in the project last year at age 21. Every day, she left her home in Ancón at 5:30 a.m. and traveled three hours to get to the classes in Miraflores. Currently, she works as a front-end web developer for a telecommunications company, which may have seemed unlikely after her first day of classes. When the professor introduced her class to Scratch – a free programming tool that can be used to create games, animations, and interactive stories – she felt overwhelmed. “When I first saw Scratch, it seemed charming, but I didn’t understand what it was saying,” she wrote on Medium. “While trying to make my first game and following the professor’s example, it was difficult for me trying to understand the codes for the game so that it could have animation. I couldn’t do it. I arrived home thinking this isn’t for me, but in spite of that, I returned to class the next day.” She continued to come in day after day, documenting it all along the way. The same words that she heard the first day of class have become her own life motto: “Ningún sueño es imposible.”