Lisa: Welcome to the Atlanta Startup podcast. This is Lisa Calhoun. I’m General partner at Valor Ventures. And today in the studio, have a fantastic Global Atlanta founder and entrepreneur, Alaina Percival. Alaina, welcome to the program.
Alaina Percival: Hi! Thank you for having me.
Lisa: I’m excited to dive right in. So, you’re the founder and CEO at Women Who Code. Tell our listeners all about it.
Alaina Percival: Women Who Code is the largest and most active community of technical women in the world. So, we are based here in Atlanta, but we, actually, are serving a community that is in over 100 countries and we have in-person events that take place in about 20 countries and 70 cities around the world. That of course, is a little bit halted right now. And so we’ve been doing a lot of pivoting. Women Who Code’s mission is to inspire women to excel in technology careers because we envision a world where women are proportionally representative across the executive level in leadership positions and technical leadership and, of course, as software engineers and founders.
Lisa: So how many women are involved? Are all of your members women?
Alaina Percival: Not all of our members are women. We do not discriminate based on gender, but I would say a vast majority are, and we have over 200,000 members now.
Lisa: That is a huge membership. How old is your organization?
Alaina Percival: We started off as a local community group in the Bay Area in 2011 and became a formal non-profit in 2013. So, we’re just a few years old and you know this mission has grown like wildfire, and it’s so needed and it’s needed right now. And in light of even everything happening in the world, it’s more important now than ever because what happens in economic downturns is women and people from marginalized backgrounds actually experience, you know, a higher level of hardship and so that we know that our community really needs that support right now.
Lisa: So, give me an example of some of the differences Women Who Code have made in the lives of members.
Alaina Percival: Some of my favorite stories are around Women Who Code leaders and, for example, one of our Toronto directors. After about six months of being a leader, she had been an individual contributor and sent us a message saying that she’d been promoted to lead at her company. And under a year later, she let us know that she was accepting a director role at another company. So she climbed two rungs in the ladder as a Women Who Code Leader in under one year. Our Mexico City director, let me know that in under one year, her salary had increased 200% since becoming a Women Who Code leader. And then, you know, there’s also the stories of our members, so, just recently, I heard from someone who had received one of our scholarships, and we’ve given away about $3 million in coding scholarships through our newsletter, and she is now at Slack, which is a pretty well-known company these days. And she made a very generous donation, you know, stating that the impact Women Who Code had had on her career, was so meaningful that she was ready to give back to the community. We also had another woman who had received a scholarship similarly, and she hadn’t lived above the poverty level as a single mother, and today she’s a software engineer at LinkedIn. Do you understand the difference? And, —
Alaina Percival: — what that means for her family and– — for her potential earnings over her lifetime. So, from a broader perspective, I’ve been taking a step back and thinking about, “Hey, what is Women Who Code really doing when I’m hearing these stories? What is the long term impact?” And, in serving our members, we’ve heard that 80% of them have already experienced a positive career impact through Women Who Code programming. And when we look at that, what that means is, if we’re increasing our members’ salary even by 20,000, which from an engineering perspective, might be 20% in the United States, that’s adding $3 billion to the global economy on an annual basis. So, this organization that’s really there for you, for the individual to help you see your next step, to help you stay engaged in your career, learn new skills, envision yourself as a leader, that global scale at that just one step back, It makes real impact.
Lisa: Right. I can really hear your intensity and focus on changing the lives of individual members. But I would love to hear, what inspired you as the founder to go on this journey?
Alaina Percival: Women Who Code started off for me, as just a passion project. As I mentioned, it was a community in the Bay Area, you know, I certainly wasn’t alone in it. And, you know, it was our little secret almost, this amazing community, and at one point, a couple of us took a step back and said “Hey, you know, this is actually important, and other people around the world deserve to have this too.” The conversation that was happening at that time was, you know, people are starting to say, “Hey, we need to teach girls to code, we need to teach women to code.” And our community was primarily people who were software engineers and one of the big biases that they needed to overcome was being viewed as more junior than they actually were. And so this amazing conversation that was happening in the media, in the world, was actually potentially risky to the women in the industry.
And so we said, “Hey, you know, why don’t we elevate this piece of the pipeline as well, and really address that, “Hey, fewer than 5% of technical executives are women. We need to be changing that just as much as we need to be changing the number of girls who are choosing to study computer science and women who are choosing to move into the industry. Let’s really create the role models and make the change in the industry today.” And for me, it was just something that, you know, I was doing and I fell in love with.
And suddenly I said, “Hey, the world needs this, and it’s actually really important.” and so that’s why, you know, we went ahead and formalized it and, you know, worked on expanding with a global presence and, you know, realizing that we would be able to make real change if we just stepped up and elevated the needs of the women in the industry. And, you know, it’s become such a piece of the zeitgeist since that time, that it seems almost obvious today. But you know, we still actually have to convince people regularly, how important it is to still support the woman who is engaged in her career to continue being engaged and see opportunities for growth and be developed into leadership positions.
Lisa: You know, it’s such an exciting time one of my favorite benefits of my Women Who Code membership is the job board. You know, at Valor, we prefer posting our jobs first to the Women Who Code job board because there is a global repository of incredible talent that’s really combing through those listings. And a lot of times, they are the ones who want to move forward in their careers and have ambition and are really interested in taking on greater leadership. So, tell me a little bit about the job board. It’s a little bit unique and I think it’s really powerful.
Alaina Percival: We created the job board specifically wanting to address some of the needs in our community and so one of the things that we did in our user testing, and talking to our community is something as small as elevating the benefits that were available. We heard from our community that some of the benefits that come along with the job were as important or more important than the job itself, the company that they were at, salary that they were making.
Lisa: What do you mean by that?
Alaina Percival: So for example, paid leaves and flexible work hours. If that is one of the most important things to you, you shouldn’t go through five or ten or twenty hours of interviewing before finding out that that’s a benefit that is or isn’t available at the company. Those types of things should be revealed early on and help to drive your decision to actually apply for those companies. Some of the other things that we saw is, if you’re looking for passive job seekers, and specifically software engineers, they’re not necessarily going to have a built out resume that is exactly what you’d traditionally be looking for, in a candidate. So, creating an avenue for you to just express interest in a role and follow up in a different kind of way, we saw it really creating channels for our community to be able to apply for jobs or express interest in jobs that they probably would have just overlooked otherwise. And then it just goes back to our communities. You know, we’re the largest and most active community of technical women in the world.
Lisa: Sounds good!
Alaina Percival: If you’re looking, if you’re saying, “Hey, we need a more diverse pipeline”. If you’re even thinking about it, and you’re not posting on our job board, you’re completely missing the most easy mark that you could.
Lisa: So, tell me a little bit more about how things are now. I’m going to focus a little bit, kind of, in the weeds with a large community like this, and I’ve been so grateful to be involved the last few years. I’ve been into so many of the events conferences, the big annual event Connect, it’s just amazing. Women Who Code for me has become almost synonymous with some of the most uplifting, engaging and powerful events in tech. So, I’m curious and I’m sure listeners are curious. How are you leading through this COVID-19 pandemic?
Alaina Percival: This is a huge challenge for us. It’s not a moment in time where anything feels comfortable. We typically put on 2000 in-person events, so an average of five to six free technical events every single day. And that from, you know, one week to the next, went to zero. So, we have very quickly work to build out Women Who Code digital and in an average week now we’re producing over 20 free in-person technical events. This morning, we had an event specifically for our volunteers just to connect and stay engaged. We typically will have those events happening, you know, twice so that we’re able to address different regions of the world. And we’re also trying to be really mindful and recognizing that we’re a global organization. So, many of our digital events are going to be in Spanish versus English as the primary language. And so that, we’re still able to make sure that we are supporting and serving our global community and working to be inclusive in a normal piece of our organization.
Lisa: So, do you have any tips for founders who are also event-centric or looking at moving some of their events more online and any lessons learned because you’re working with a really large population?
Alaina Percival: Yeah, so you have to start testing it out. You have to start somewhere and, you know, taking the time to kind of test things out in a smaller avenue, you know, really taking the time to dive in, learn or get better at the tools that are available. And forgiving yourself for the bumps that you encounter along the way because, you know, it’s not possible to react quickly or change quickly and not identify errors or improvements that you can be making along the way.
Lisa: Interesting. So, has there been any surprises for you in moving into a more virtual environment?
Alaina Percival: I think the surprises that we’ve seen is, I mean, I would say that, you know, we were putting on about 200 digital events, kind of online events per year, prior to this year. So, one of the things that, for us is important, is we always saw this as an important direction to take. We know that 200,000 is an amazing number of people to be serving with our programming, but our addressable market is over 6 million and in the United States alone, it’s about a million, and we’re not going to be able to reach the people who, you know, aren’t able to get childcare or who, you know, don’t happen to be close enough to the city that is, is having that machine learning event to be able to attend it. And so, it’s actually what’s been surprising is, it’s enabling us to reach a much broader community that completely fits within our target and, you know, really work together to deliver our program in a way that is unique but actually has potential to be even more powerful.
Lisa: That sounds amazing. So, if someone wants to become a Women Who Code member, what kind of budget do they need to be looking at?
Alaina Percival: Our programming is free. Our membership is kept free by the companies that sponsor Women Who Code. We are able to cover all of our operational costs through our job board and so, 100% of every donation is able to go to programming. And so there- there actually isn’t a cost and if you wanted to support free programming for Women Who Code members, all you have to do is go to womenwhocode.com/donate and donate $27. And that enables us to provide free programming for an entire year for one of our members.
Lisa: Well, you know, you’re an incredible social entrepreneur. I mean, to achieve a business of this scale, making these kinds of differences, in this kind of a cost structure, I really think you know, you’re really one of the finest working social entrepreneurs and, that’s my personal opinion. And, so I’d love for you to share, some of the things that would’ve helped for you on your journey and I realized, you’re still on your founder’s journey. It’s not like 200,000, like you say, it’s not that’s not the end by any means. But, looking back over the last few years, since you really launched in a meaningful way, what are some of the resources, some of the people, that you would recommend the other founders?
Alaina Percival: Yeah. So I mean, I think that it’s certainly an amazing place to be. But, you know, none of this would be here without the passion and our volunteers that are putting on these in-person events that are connecting day by day with our community that are listening, that are elevating up the needs of themselves and their community. And, you know, that’s the heart and soul of the organization, and we couldn’t be who we are with- without our volunteers, our leaders. And, you know, actually often when people ask me that question about, you know, who’s really helped to guide me and my answer often involves you, Lisa. One of my favorite very specific stories is, we had the opportunity to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and open it up one day. And at the end, we were all kind of hugging and taking photos and I said, “Hey, should, you know, should we take a serious business photo?” and you turned to me and said, “Alaina, you’re changing the face of leadership, be yourself.” And that has resonated with me kind of every day, of everything that I do and really realizing that we’re challenging the status quo, we’re changing the face of leadership. And just those words of, have remind me that I can look that to.
Lisa: You are what a leader looks like. It could not agree more. That’s a fun story. Thank you for sharing that. I’m completely blushing. Who else has been meaningful? I know you’ve had a lot of people, I mean, dozens of volunteers, hundreds of leaders. But as you were coming up this story, I know it’s kind of got legs in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, and then also legs in Atlanta. How have you kept a foot in both places? And what resources in various between those cities have helped you the most?
Alaina Percival: Yeah, I find that the tech community and of course, technology today, and this is what I recommend to other people who asked me for advices. People in the tech community, because we are so connected and to be incredibly accessible. And really, if you have questions, if you reach out, the level of access that we have today is just unprecedented. And, when I have, you know, a burning question about how I can be better at building our partnerships team, you know, I can reach out to the local vice president of sales at Salesforce here in Atlanta. And you know, he actually took time to sit down with me and give me advice. And, you know, when I’m looking at connecting with people around diversity, equity inclusion, you know, I can reach out to the local, you know, heads of DEI at different companies here in the city. And it’s amazing just to be able to reach out and ask those questions and, you know, it’s, as I said, the advice that I give to other people is you don’t have to wait to be a founder to be in it, to have advisers and, you don’t have to have a mentor to seek out guidance. You know, people are accessible, and people have expertise, and people are incredibly generous with- with their expertise, and their time and it doesn’t mean that you know, you don’t want to be sure to be mindful of their time and, you know, come with specific questions and specific asks and, you know, really express the gratitude that people in the community are willing to take the time to work with you and give you advice. But,.
Lisa: I’m gonna ask you to share your secret of recruiting great advisors because I honestly think you don’t even realize this is one of your superpowers. Maybe you’ve worked on it, maybe you were born with it. I don’t know. But you had it when I met you. And somehow, you’re really extremely good at bringing people into your loop and doing just what you talked about. But when it comes to that initial ask, when you initially reach out, what is your way of framing it that really seems to get results?
Alaina Percival: Well, I will say that I’m lucky that I get to work on, you know, a mission driven organization, a nonprofit that I’m incredibly passionate about. And, I’m very passionate about the mission and the importance of the mission. I think that’s something that you can’t miss in the communication. But, one of the things that I do is I asked teams around me, you know, who they think they would help them for their expertise and their area of expertise. Because, the advisors for our organization don’t have to be exclusively advising me. Everyone on the team deserves to have experts around them and being able to connect with those experts is a growth opportunity for both me and our team.
Lisa: Sure. But what I’m wondering is, when you reach out, you just lead with mission first and really–
Alaina Percival: — yeah. I reach out and introduce who I am, what I’m working on. And you know, it’s rare that I’m reaching out and just saying, “Hey, would you be an adviser?”, you know, if they respond at least somewhat open and willing to connect with you, hear about your mission. And, if I can see that seeing women excel in their careers is something that is important to them, especially if they haven’t found a way to engage that to really give back, to really contribute. I know that, there’s actually an opportunity there for them to fulfill some of their own personal goals.
Lisa: So, I know you recently chosen to make your home Atlanta and tell me a little bit more about how you see Atlanta as it relates to Women Who Code as a headquarters.
Alaina Percival: Yeah. So in making the decision to move the headquarters from San Francisco to Atlanta, it was both an easy one and a hard one. We are able to have an incredible team here and the quality of the talent in Atlanta is really first class but the cost of living here is incredibly affordable. And so, knowing that, you know, my team is going to be able to afford housing is an important one. Atlanta also has a tremendous number of, you know, fortune 500 companies, of startups and tech companies. And, so really letting the board know that, “Hey, there’s this opportunity in Atlanta to reach traditional businesses that actually, you know, might be harder to reach in San Francisco in the–“
Alaina Percival: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, and so, in doing that, I said, “Hey, look, the Home Depot‘s agreed to come on, as one of our major sponsors.” And, you know, I think that we can find more companies in Atlanta that are willing to do that as well and, you know, help us to think outside of the Bay Area, which is an amazing place for technology, but Women Who Code is a global organization. And so, we also don’t want to be Bay Area-centric. We don’t want to be San Francisco-centric in our thinking. We want to be addressing our global community and you know, it’s a good time zone. It’s got one of the largest airports in the world and it, except for right now during COVID times, it certainly makes the world feel very accessible, as allowing us to have a more international perspective in serving our community.
Lisa: You know, I love that about Atlanta, too. One of the things that’s a topic of conversation with a lot of my VC friends. VCs are still mostly very concentrated, of course, in the valley, in New York, in Boston. And so, that’s where a lot of my VC friends are. And there’s a pretty active conversation about, will COVID-19 shift the nature of Venture Capital a little bit? It’s a slow moving industry, for sure. But I wonder your thoughts about San Francisco and New York and in places of extreme density in this world. Do you think that they’re going to be rising in favor which has been more or less the trend, or sort of lessening in trend and people might feel more comfortable working more remote? How do you, you’ve got to be here. What your intuition is on it?
Alaina Percival: Yeah. I mean, this is going to change everything, at least for several years. And I think it’s going to open up opportunities for cities like Atlanta. Do I think that San Francisco Bay Area is going to stop being the venture capital of the world? No, I don’t. But I do think that, we are becoming accustomed to working remotely. I think a lot more employers are going to be willing to have their employees work remotely, not just now but for years to come and I think it’s a big opportunity for cities other than, you know, as you mentioned, San Francisco and of course, New York and Boston as well to capture some of those funds that might have been a little bit more difficult because, you know, right now everybody’s having their meetings remote with venture capitalists. So, being able to walk in that door, you know, from one day to the next versus kind of taking trips is just just as easy making being connected is just as easy for someone down the street from you as, you know, 3000 miles away and so I do think it’s going to be a big opportunity for Atlanta founders.
Lisa: I think is a fascinating opportunity myself and also just for the world, because if we just reduce a little bit the footprint of all the driving and all the flying. If everyone just reduced their own personal footprints in the first world 20 – 30% say, which we’re all now down to like a lot more reduction than that. It’s a big environmental impact and I can’t help but, you know, live that and hope for the world for the best, that we find a better balance kind of prompted by this pandemic. It’ll be interesting. But Alaina, I should ask you, what are you most looking forward to?
Alaina Percival: So, right now one of the things I’m most looking forward to is Women Who Code is putting on our first ever digital conference. And so, we have amazing conferences that we’re putting on around the globe every year and this year, that’s not an option. So, June of this year, we’re going to be doing Connect digital and that’s going to be three days. It’s going to be happening over a three-week period, separating it out to focus on a day where we’re really going deep in technology. So, it’s the type of talks that you would see at a typical Women Who Code conference where you’re really going deep on the different types of technology whether, you know, it’s data science or mobile talks, and then we’ll have a day that’s more focused on, you know, leadership and your career, and then a broader tech for social good. So, you know, we always have a few keynotes that are more focused on what’s coming next in the tech industry, you know, what’s good and we can’t think of a subject that’s more important in these times than tech for social good. Just to add a little bit of uplift to a time that’s, frankly, hard for everyone.
Lisa: That sounds really fun. I mean, connect in person is hundreds of attendees. How many people do you expect?
Alaina Percival: You know, we’re talking about that right now and kind of going around and saying, “Hey, how many can we expect?” So we definitely expect more than at a in-person event and we’ve added digital aspects to some of our Connects in the past. And so you know, we’ve seen 800, 900 people joining remotely and so, right now it feels to us like a shot in the dark. How that we’re-
Lisa: –that expecting the world needs to know.
Alaina Percival: Having an intimate experience is very important to us like we keep our conferences under a thousand and we do that intentionally, because we want you to be able to actually get your question answered by the speaker, for you to be able to recognize some faces and we’re going to want to do that. So, what we’ll probably do is in some spaces, limit the number of attendees and then of course, and some more keynote type spaces. We expect large numbers of attendees but keeping to the Women Who Code.
Lisa: So, how do we stay in touch? I’ll post a link because I’m sure people will be interested in, perhaps registering, at least reviewing the amazing content. It’s always top notch.
Alaina Percival: Yeah. We’ll be available at womenwhocode.com and you can also sign up there if you’re interested in receiving our newsletter where we give away our $3 million in scholarships and where you can learn other ways of engaging our community. And, you know, getting to be part of this amazing mission.
Lisa: I highly recommend the newsletter. It is uplifting every single week and sometimes some of the best stuff is buried down toward the bottom and it’s like the shout outs, the coding tips. It’s like, “Huh, even if I’m not going to code it, it’s fascinating to know, and it’s really just such a great summary.” I love the work you do, Alaina. Thanks for taking a moment to share it with the program. Appreciate you being here.
Alaina Percival: Thank you very much, Lisa.
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