William Leonard

Founded back in 2013, Ada Developers Academy is a nonprofit, cost-free software developer academy that is aiming to change the face of the tech industry. Their year-long coding school for women in gender-expansive adults has a 94% job placement rate and is truly empowering the next generation of software developers. Today, I sat down with the CEO of Ada, Lauren Sato to discuss all aspects of the program, the roadmap of expansion, which also includes Atlanta, and how Ada is empowering students to see over a 100% bump in salary in just over a year of going through the program. Also as the conversation unfolds, Lauren also lets us know how the local Atlanta stakeholders, investors, founders, and enterprises can help support their mission of diversifying the number of software developers in the world of tech. Lauren, thank you so much for joining me today.

Lauren Sato

I am so thrilled to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

William Leonard

There’s a lot that we’re going to talk about this afternoon on the podcast, but I would love for you to just kick it off and give our listeners the 90-second rundown on what Ada Developers Academy is, what you’re doing, and we can take the conversation from there.

Lauren Sato

Fantastic. Ada is a Software Development training program for women and gender-expansive people. We’ve been around since 2013. We are a one-year program and we teach full-stack Software Development. Students do six months in the classroom, six months in an internship with one of our corporate partners, and then land awesome Software Development jobs at the biggest tech companies in our country, startups, and everything in between.

William Leonard

Awesome. I love that. Before we talk more about Ada, the mission, and the origins, what’s your background? I know you’re relatively new to the CEO role at Ada. Can you talk to us about your background, your experiences, and how you ultimately became the leader over at Ada?

Lauren Sato

I actually spent most of my career so far in the startup space so I’m very excited to talk to you today. I’ve been in the nonprofit space, I’ve been in the tech industry at startups, and I’ve been in the impact investing space at startups. Coming to Ada was a real full-circle moment for me that kind of brought all of that together in this one organization where we’re a startup ourselves. We’re meeting the talent needs of a really fast-growing industry that’s needing a lot of innovation in terms of talent pipelines. Ada itself, in this moment, when they went to look for their next CEO, was so well-positioned to grow but didn’t have the muscle memory around it. Since that’s what I’ve been doing throughout my career,  growing startup companies, it was super exciting to see this opportunity with an organization that’s so well positioned to meet a really critical need.

William Leonard

That’s awesome. I was reading a bit about your background and you spent roles at startups as people roles, operations, roles, VP of revenue. You’ve seen the full cycle of the startup experience. I’m excited to talk more about that but equally want to dive into Ada more right now. Talk to us about the program. You said it’s a year program and you have these partnerships with enterprises as well, talk to us about the perspective of the students who are going through these programs at Ada.

Lauren Sato

I mean the need for Ada came out of an industry where the pathways just weren’t serving women and gender expansive folks and they certainly weren’t serving women and gender expansive folks of color. Our Computer Science degree programs are 19% Women, 4% Women of Color, and the industry itself is 25% Women in Software Development roles. Our existing primary pathway was actively driving representation down. Ada came into the space to address that problem. Our students have proven over and over again how much we all stand to gain when we create that kind of access. Our all-time placement rate is 94%. 94% of the students who start with us end up in Software Development roles. Right now, the average salary change for those folks comes in making 35 to 40k and they leave making an average of $125,000. 193% compensation increase for them individually, which we know when we get money into the hands of women and particularly women of color, their entire communities benefit and we see that over and over again. Ada exists to meet that need in addition to meeting the really significant talent gap in the tech industry. I think I just looked at it today and on LinkedIn alone, there are 261,000 open Software Development jobs. There’s this huge need that’s just not being met by our current pathways. We have an opportunity not only to meet the need but to meet it in a way that serves more of humanity than our existing pathways. We’re pretty excited about that. From our student perspectives, it’s a pretty dramatic life change over the course of the year. It’s a hard program, they can’t have another job, and very intensive but totally worth it in the end.

William Leonard

You mentioned life-changing statistics there. 193% revenue increase in the course of a year. That is a generational shift for people who have traditionally been underserved and just don’t have the resources to break into these career paths. As you all think about the program today, are you nationwide? Are you in a few select cities? I know there’s been an expansion into Atlanta, we’ll definitely talk about that, but what is the current state of Ada today?

Lauren Sato

It’s a really relevant question. We were a totally in-person program in Seattle for all of our existence until March of 2020 and at which point we had to flip the whole thing to a digital program. What we found in doing that was it created access for folks who otherwise would never have access to this industry. We’ve had students in Oklahoma City, all across the country, and spaces where the tech industry was never going to go to them. We’ve been able to create access where they can stay where they’re at, enrich their communities, and work for this industry that’s really, really growing. We’re going to keep the digital program and we’re bringing our Seattle campus back in person actually next week, which we’re super excited about. On our Atlanta campus, our first class of students started in March. They’re doing a digital learning experience but in-person internships in Atlanta, we’re going to do that for another cycle starting in the fall. And then in the spring of ‘23, we’ll open our in-person campus in Atlanta. In the fall of 2023, reopen in Washington, DC, and we’ll open in three additional cities for the next three years after that.

William Leonard

Awesome. It sounds like the program originated in Seattle and you all recently expanded to Atlanta. Why was Atlanta the next city for expansion? What did you all see as you all were assessing where we go next?

Lauren Sato

We did a really, really robust national search for our markets for expansion markets and Atlanta really quickly rose to the top. That’s because we were looking for this intersection of a diverse community and tech industry growth. Atlanta is just so clearly at the top of that intersection. The reason that we’re looking specifically at that intersection, as we’ve seen in Seattle, obviously, in San Francisco as well but because Seattle is our home that it’s what I’ve seen directly. The central district in Seattle used to be 75% black and now it’s 15%. This has been a direct result of the tech industry coming in, enriching a very small percentage of our population, and pushing everybody else out. At Ada, we see that we have an opportunity to shift how a tech industry impacts the community. We are really, really passionate about making sure that the wealth that the tech industry brings to a new city is benefiting everyone in the city and not just a select few.

William Leonard

You think about Atlanta, and I grew up here and have seen the positive impacts that enterprises relocating by bringing jobs here have had on the community and equally some of the negative impacts as well, namely, gentrification. Pushing a city that has been predominantly African American minority for decades now, pushing those people out to the boundaries. I was reading an article recently saying that Atlanta has officially become unaffordable in terms of cost of living. That’s due to tech jobs moving here. I love that you all are being purposeful in the cities that you all are choosing and the communities that you all are wanting to impact. As you think about the students who are participating in the programs, how do you qualify what are the criteria that you have to meet to be a part of Ada?

Lauren Sato

The baseline criteria are that we serve women and gender-expansive folks. There are a lot of pathways and programs that are working well for men across the country. We’re specifically focused on that subset of the population. We prioritize surveying folks from black, Latina, indigenous American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and the LGBTQIA+ communities. In addition to prioritizing serving low-income folks, I think about 77% of our students are low-income as well.

William Leonard

Got it. That’s awesome. You all have 94% placement rates. That’s incredibly impressive. As you kind of think about the evolution of Ada, you’ve been in the CEO role now for two-plus years, what is your vision for the program as you see it expanding to different cities and more enterprise brand partnerships?

Lauren Sato

We have a plan. We raised our growth round of funding last year. We created our five-year plan to support that. We have taken a pretty strong position on doing what we do really well and making sure that we saturate that need before we start to do other things. We get asked all the time to do adjacent markets, such as product management, UX, or data science. But the reality is, that there is such a massive talent gap in Software Development, and that’s the space where the compensation, the flexibility, and the benefits are the richest. There are still 1.5 million women who left the workforce during the pandemic who haven’t returned. There’s a clear market need for what we’re doing right now and in more places. That’s our plan for the next five years is to add a city every year, to work towards having national coverage, having a hub in each region of the country, as well as expanding our digital program. Maybe the one thing that we’re going to do differently as we’re adding a pilot program right now, for folks who have gone through other boot camps or other programs and haven’t been able to land a job, because we know that there’s a significant number of people who have spent their money on a for-profit boot camp or for-profit program that hasn’t resulted in employment. We have the ability to make that right. We’re building a pilot program right now to support those folks.

William Leonard

That’s awesome. You mentioned the growth funding that you all had. I believe one of the investors that you all have was Melinda Gates, that’s so just been named. It’s just incredible that she’s backing the mission and the vision that you all have. Definitely congrats there. I think about the partners that you all are helping to place the students in, can you share some of the partners that you all are working with?

Lauren Sato

Our students are as diverse as the population of this country. Not all of them want to be cogs in a big machine and not all of them want to be entrepreneurs. In terms of the corporate partners that we work with, we really aim to have partnerships and internships available, and that whole range between brand new startups and incubators to the biggest tech companies in the world. We do work with Amazon, Google, Microsoft, those really big organizations. And in Seattle, we work with a startup venture studio where students are getting the opportunity to work right from the ground up with brand new companies and then everything in between, small to mid-size, and then growth stage companies as well.

William Leonard

I was gonna ask about the angle of working with tech accelerators, startup studios, and things like that. Is that an area where you see an opportunity for student placement as the program continues to evolve?

Lauren Sato

Such a powerful opportunity. We actually just had a Seattle startup, hired one of our alums as their first CTO, and seeing her get in there and establish policies and practice practices that are equitable and inclusive from the start, has been so impactful. She’s hiring other Ada alums so that the founding tech team looks so different than other companies. What we know through our work with larger companies is what’s happening there in that startup is saving that company, so much work down the road in undoing inequitable practices and having to react to a work environment that’s not working for an increasingly diverse workforce. We’re super enthusiastic about that startup space, and getting folks in early who can have that decision-making power.

William Leonard

That’s huge to startups as well as you’re saving them time, energy, and effort, and really building a workplace, as you said, is equitable, that is comfortable for all the employees. I love that you all are taking that approach. Looking at Ada for 2022, being here in Atlanta, and getting ready to open up a physical location where I think you said in 2023, how can the city of Atlanta–whether that’s the VCs here, the universities here, or the enterprises that are here–how can this ecosystem of stakeholders be meaningful to the mission of Ada?

Lauren Sato

I love that question so much because there’s such an opportunity for impact. It’s not about Ada, it’s about the health of the ecosystem in the long run. The thing that I always ask of venture capitalists, incubators, accelerators, and startups, is to set expectations and goals from the beginning around equity and inclusion so that you’re not having to claw back and be reactive down the road. It really does save the business a lot of cleanup down the road. It’s just the right thing to do. It means that the whole ecosystem is going to be healthy because we know that when we distribute wealth in a community, it becomes more resilient and less prone to risk, less prone to significant problems. It’s not just good for the company, it’s good for the entire community. We all really benefit from that. 

William Leonard

That’s so true. All the stakeholders are going to benefit from the increased diversity and increased perspective that’s here in the region. As you think about the team at Ada, are you all having software developers and professors teaching the students the lay of the land? Who is practically the intermediary educating the students?

Lauren Sato

There are two sides to our student’s educational experience that are, I would say, equally critical. One is our instructors who are phenomenal. They range in backgrounds, from traditionally trained educators who learned Software Development, to software developers who decided to move into the educational space. I think having that variety of folks is really helpful because we get really strong pedagogy and we get really strong industry and technical knowledge. That’s one part that’s really, really important. And then the other equally important, and I would say to folks who are listening and are interested in getting involved, is our mentor and tutor program. Having folks from the community spend some time with our students, help them problem solve as they’re working through their projects, help them navigate the industry as they’re getting into their internship, and then looking for their eventual job upon graduation, that role that the community plays in coming alongside our students is so critical as well.

William Leonard

I love that twofold approach there to help the students get educated, get comfortable, and then get hired. That’s the goal. I love that. As we wrap up the conversation here, I think it’s important we know where the company is, and where Ada is today but learning the history and the origins of a program like this is really important. I would love for you to maybe just give us some brief history on how Ada came about.

Lauren Sato

Back in 2013, our two founders, Scott Case and Elise Worthy were entrepreneurs, folks who are exactly like folks who are probably listening to this. They were building new companies and looking at the talent pipeline. Not only were they very concerned about the lack of diversity in the talent pipeline, but it is also just really hard for a startup to compete for top talent with the big behemoths in the industry. I mean, in Seattle, it is just like a running theme, how do you compete with Amazon to hire software developers? And so connecting with alternative pathways like Ada solves both that diversity problem and just the access to talent problem. But back to Scott and Elise, they were entrepreneurs themselves looking for talent, saw the challenge, and started asking around about different program models. Actually, a funny small world connection, I was at another program called Year Up at the time, which is similar. A year-long program, six months of classroom, and six months of internships. I sat down with that with Scott and Elise when they were thinking of Ada and just gave them the Year Up program model like this is how this works. That ended up being the model that Ada followed. I was able to know Ada and see Ada when it was just a glimmer in their eyes and then watch it develop over the years, which has been a real privilege, particularly because I was on the hiring side at tech companies and was really seeing this bias around boot camp grads like we’re not going to hire boot camp grads, they’re not good enough. But over and over again, I was hearing, “There’s this one program called Ada. We’ll hire from them like those are the quality grabs.” It was really awesome to be a fangirl of the program over the last almost 10 years and then to have the opportunity to join right at this moment where my experience as a startup growth person and Ada’s trajectory really intersected? 

William Leonard

I’m very familiar with the Year Up program. I have some friends here in the metro Atlanta area who have actually gone through the program. I love that you all are really increasing the diversity in tech. That’s what this is about, changing the lives of the underserved, to really empower them, in a sense, through technology and through meaningful pathways like this. I’m excited about what you all are doing. I’m incredibly even more excited that you’re in Atlanta as your next city. I think I tell people this all the time but I’m incredibly biased, Atlanta is the best city in the world. You think about the commerce that happens here through the world’s busiest airport, you think about the university talent that you have here, you think about the startup ecosystem, and the enterprise is here. There’s so much to love about Atlanta. I think the thing is that we’re just beginning, we’re still at the infancy stages of the blossoming of our tech scene here in the city. Really excited that Ada is going to be a key contributor to that growth here in Atlanta. Appreciate you joining me today, Lauren, hopefully, we can have some positive things come out of this conversation. Some of our listeners are executives at enterprises, lots of VCs, and a lot of startup founders as well who are going to be looking for talent to hire. We’re hoping for the best and I’m sure this conversation will yield dividends for Ada and the founders as well.

Lauren Sato

Phenomenal. It’s been such a privilege to have this conversation and agree with you. Atlanta is incredible. We’re just super excited to be able to be a part of it and hopefully, do our small part to make sure that it stays phenomenal and doesn’t get diluted or materially changed as tech grows in the city.

William Leonard

I love it, Lauren. Thank you again for joining me today. I’m excited to continue to see Ada here in the city.

Lauren Sato

Awesome. Thanks so much for having me.

Lisa

We’re thrilled to have you as an Atlanta Startup Podcast listener to help you get the most out of the experience. Let me invite you to three insider opportunities from our host Valor Ventures. First, want to be a guest on this amazing show. Reach out to our booking team at atlantastartuppodcast.com. Click on booking, It’s a no-brainer from there. Are you raising a seed round? Valor definitely wants to hear from you. Share your startup story at valor.vc/pitch. Are you a woman or minority-led startup valor sister program? The Startup Runway Foundation gives away grants to promising startups led by underrepresented founders. The mission of the Startup Runway Foundation is connecting underrepresented founders to their first investors. Startup runway finalists have raised over $40 million. See if you qualify for one of these amazing grants at startuprunway.org. You can also sign up for our next showcase for free there. Let me let you go today with a shout-out to Startup Runway presenting sponsor Cox Enterprises and to our founding partners, American Family Institute, Truist, Georgia Power, Avanta Ventures, and Innovators Legal. These great organizations make Startup Runway possible. Thanks for listening today and see you back next week.