Alice Bentinck - co-founder Entrepreneur First and Code First: Girls
Tech is changing the way we work, live and play. The way we raise money for charity, keep in touch, even the way we find love. And what's really exciting is that this change isn't being driven by big old companies, it's being led by 1 or 2 people founding startups, that have now grown into companies that are impacting millions, if not billions of people around the world.
Who wouldn't want to be part of this revolution? Surely this is what every young person dreams of – the chance to have an impact on the world? To really make a difference? And potentially make a lot of money?
Who wouldn’t want to be part of this?
Women don’t want to take part in this revolution.
I left my cosy corporate job to build Entrepreneur First a couple of years ago. We take very talented graduates, straight out of university and spend a year with them building their startups. We take individuals, before they have a team or an idea and we focus exclusively on tech. This probably sounds pretty risky, and it is, but it is totally possible to build a big startup straight out of uni. The 11 startups we built last year are now valued at over £22m. Not bad for a year’s work.
We’re doing well, but what frustrates me is the roll call for that cohort. Only 3 of the founders were girls.
This was reflected in our applications too, we only had 20% applications from women, none of which were technical.
Broadly this reflects the tech startup scene. I was patted on the back for getting 10% women on the programme as that's in line with the current proportion of female founders.
Stepping back, do we really believe that for every 9 guys out there who are capable of building startups, there is only one woman? Do we really believe that 50% of the population are not cut out for this?
As the startup world is still relatively young, and now is booming, it’s important that we don’t allow this to be the ingrained norm. There is an opportunity to change this and we need to change this now, not in 10 years’ time. There are fantastic initiatives at the school level, upskilling girls (and boys). That’s ace, but it’s not going to have an impact on the workforce for some years.
So why aren’t young women joining the tech revolution?
Through my experience recruiting women for Entrepreneur First, there seem to be 3 things that are holding them back:
Awareness – many young women aren’t aware that tech and programming is something they can get involved in.
When I was 17, tech was something my brother did, building computers and playing games in his bedroom. This wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for my friends. I went to an all girls school and this wasn’t something any female I knew was interested in.
Fast forward a decade or so and tech has become a fundamental part of my career and my life and whether you realise it or not, it’s become a fundamental part of your life too. How many of you are sat with a phone in your hand, or your bag? A laptop? A tablet? Can any of you remember the last time you were more than 10 metres away from a device? I can’t.
So why hasn’t awareness changed among young women, even though they interact with tech everyday?
What do you think the most common answer to this Entrepreneur First application question from women?
"What's the most impressive thing you've ever founded, built, sold, hacked, hustled or designed?"
Can you guess?
That’s THE most common answer from women. It may be the way our question is phrased, but this is an example of how through application and interview we find young women are not projecting themselves in the same way as their male peers.
This lack of confidence on the application form is also shown in a lack of confidence talking to those from a technical background. Not being able to properly interact and communicate with technical co-founders, or team mates can become a massive barrier.
The confidence problem is tricky as it means that those who are aware of the importance of tech, don’t always feel confident enough to take the plunge to learn more about it.
Lastly, skills. If you want to build a tech startup, you need to have some sort of understanding of tech and this was where many young women struggle. Unlike their male peers, they often haven’t been interacting with code from a young age, they have probably been consuming and contributing online content, but very few are actually producing and developing it. Only 16% of computer scientists at university are women.
So, what did we do about this?
With my co-founder Matt, we decided to come up with a programme that would directly address those problems.
We came up with Code First: Girls – an all female introduction to web programming. Over the summer we ran a pilot course with 30 female graduates and undergraduates in London at Level 39. Over 8 weeks, they had 4 hours of programming tutorials per a week, alongside talks from female role models and personal impact coaching. We taught them a mix of front end and back end web development, with a competition for the best app at the end.
The impact of Code First: Girls was two fold:
First, it increased the number of female applicants to EF significantly. We went from 20% female applicants to 40% female applicants. We also saw the quality of the female applications go up and we made offers to 20% females, rather than 10% in our first year.
Second, it had a real impact on the career choices of the young women that took part.
30% of the participants are now building their own startups
27% are now working in a startup
And what I’m most pleased about,
17% are now training to become junior software developers.
These are girls who hadn’t been interested in startups beforehand, most of them already had offers for typical graduate jobs or hadn’t considered tech as a career path.
For example, I met Nadia a year ago. She was just about to graduate and had a very good job at a bank, but was interested in learning to code. She joined Code First: Girls and since then she has turned down her graduate job and has almost finished 12 weeks of full time programming education with Makers Academy.
Based on this success we are now rolling out Code First: Girls to universities across the country. We are already in UCL, Oxford and Cambridge and are looking to be nationwide by the end of next year. In the next couple of years we want to see thousands of university level young women learning to code and becoming more confident to work with tech when they graduate.
Looking back on what worked, I wanted to briefly touch on what it was that made Code First: Girls so successful.
The fact it was just for girls.
By labelling tech and coding as something for young women and by directly targeting them with our marketing, we found that it made them look up and take note that this could be something for them. It also meant we concentrated all our resources into searching for and finding amazing young women. A similar course at one of the universities we work with had 3 female applicants and 28 male applicants. Our Code First: Girls course in the same university had 28 female applicants.
Once on the programme, 80% of the girls felt that being an all girl environment allowed them to be freer to ask questions and “not feel stupid”.
The fact it wasn’t just programming.
We debated for a long time about the course content and the majority of the time during Code FIrst: Girls was learning the basics of web development. In no way was the course watered down, it pushed them to create both the front end and back end of a web app and the course moved at a fast pace.
That said, we knew that this wouldn’t be enough to convince young women to join the world of tech. Role models would end up being one of our most powerful weapons in converting them to a tech career path. During the course we had a number of amazing women who either worked as developers in a startup, or who had built their own tech startup.
We also focused on building their confidence – partly through upskilling them technically, but we also focused on developing their personal impact, the way they communicated and the way they presented themselves.
The fact it built a network of bright interesting young women.
This was an unintended but wonderful outcome from the programme. The 30 young women that went through the summer programme have formed theirown tight knit network. They meet up at weekends and help each other programme, they advise each other on what startup jobs are around and they follow each other’s progress.
Tech has lots of boys clubs, whether it means to or not. Code First: Girls is now its own girls club, a network of ambitious young women who are all interested in the same space. In the way guys build a network through gaming, hackathons and geek nights, the Code First: Girls have built their own network that will see them through their tech careers.
We are by no means done changing the gender imbalance in the tech startup world. We still have a lot to learn and iterate, but I’m delighted to have helped shift the needle, even if just a little bit, to get young women seriously thinking about joining the world of tech.
Alice gave this talk at TEDxUCL Women
Code First: Girls