I have always thought it’s really funny/ironic (and I don’t know if funny is the correct word for that but I’ll use it anyway) that people only realize how wrong a situation can be when looking at it from a healthy and distant perspective. It’s like you could be living in hell and chaos and not being aware of it at all, so you continue living there like it’s Wonderland or something. You just realize how wrong it can be after a long period of not being actually there, and seeing how different (for the better) things are in other places. So, of course, you return with a completely different mindset than the one you had when you left the first time, and you return wanting to change it all, wanting to fix it all. This happened to me when I went to Europe for the first time and then returned to Perú. Luckily, I am not the only one.
I have to be honest. I can’t imagine any project that shouts INCLUSION any louder than LABORATORIA (at least in Lima).
Excluding my sister –a 15 year old social network addict- women in my family know even less than Jon Snow (and he knows nothing) when it comes to technology -and let’s say that we are a “privileged” family- and many women my age are the same. How can this be? Aren’t we all supposed to be Millennials? This is a real pity because by now we already know that technology can change so many things in someone’s life; yet in some countries like mine technology is not the common career path for women. This happens for a ton of reasons, including lack of opportunities, sexism, bias, stereotypes, etc. That’s why I find what Laboratoria does tremendously impressive and remarkable. Let me tell you their story.
Mariana is a Peruvian girl who studied in Europe for 10 years –now, I already told you what happens when someone studies outside Perú, especially in Europe, and then returns to the country, right?- and, of course, when she returned she realized there was something seriously wrong here. So after finishing her master in Public Administration and Sustainability, she returned home and decided she had to do something about it. That’s how it all started.
Let’s go step by step.
Identifying the need
When Mariana Costa returned to Lima after 10 years of studying abroad, she and her husband decided they wanted to open a web developing company because there was a great demand of that in the city. In the process of completing their team and making it diverse, they wanted to hire women developers. Soon, they realized how hard it was to find in Lima a girl who knew about technology and coding and the hard stereotypes around that industry. They thought there was something seriously wrong with that due to the characteristics and the development possibilities that the digital industry gives to people: it is much more pragmatic in terms of formal education and the opportunity to give jobs to others (education and quality jobs, both of which we lack in Perú). There is room for learning on their own and it is a field that challenges the professional education system, where matters more the ability someone has than his or her college degree.
Computer programming has been called “The work of the future”. Nevertheless, in Perú less than 7% of students in tech careers are women. 20% of Latin American youth neither study nor work and 88% of the youth from poor households have no access to higher education. These among other problems that could be identified by Mariana and her team gave them the idea of creating Laboratoria. They were willing to struggle to rescue all that lost talent using Technology as a chance that would transform the digital sector in an example of inclusion. They took their inspiration from similar organizations that already exist in the U.S. empowering women as future technology leaders such as Black Girls Code and Girls Who Code.
The rise of WomenPower
As I mentioned before, the greatest fact that makes me think the work Laboratoria does is especially impressive is the fact that it empowers women. In these times, women empowerment is a must. Globally there is a great demand for women in technology.
As it was written by Peter Diamandis in his Forbes blog post “Why we need more women in technology”: In 2012, women made up only 26% of the computing workforce, out of 3,816,000 computing-related occupations. In the same year, only 18% of computer science majors were women. Women hold only 11% of executive technical roles at privately held, venture-backed companies and only 7% of venture capital goes to women-owned businesses, and of those venture capitalists investing in startups, only 4.2% are women.
All this data makes me wonder why do “women”, “technology” and “business” are still not related concepts? Why is this still a problem in most Latin American countries while, on the contrary, in organizations such as the Singularity University the amount of women attendees increase up to 40% each year?
Anousheh Ansari (Co-founder and Chairwoman of Prodea Systems, former CEO of Telecom Technologies, title sponsor of the Ansari XPRIZE) said:
“As a female CEO of a tech company, I learned that even though I lived in one of the most advanced western societies, certain prejudices against women in leadership positions, especially in high tech, still persevered. However, my philosophy has always been to do my best in everything I set my mind to and let my work speak for itself. This has proven to be a most successful strategy and has turned many skeptics into believers and friends…”
Lynn Tilton (Business magnate and investor, CEO of Patriarch Partners, a holding company managing 75 companies with more than $8 billion in revenue) said:
“Our journeys, as women of industry, technology, or service—are lonely and fraught with obstacles unknown to men. We face a choice and consequent juggling act indigenous to our sex—the election whether or not to bear children and, if so selected, the split-of-self required to rear our young without losing the propensity of trajectory to our career paths. This unrivaled quest to ‘have it all,’ to ‘excel at both,’ or the unbearable compromise to ‘sacrifice one for the other’ should bind us and unite us in the awe and appreciation of modern womanhood. But instead, few of us find the support system, the sponsors, or the advocates to drive us forward when the darkness envelops us and the battles overwhelm us”.
Prejudices, stereotypes, lack of support. These are words that are often repeated when discussing this matter and this is something that should be unconceivable in the society we live in today. The Era of Collaboration, of Information, of Inclusion means women are now empowered with tools they didn’t have before for fighting ridiculous inequalities that have been raised out of ridiculous reasoning in a ridiculously old era. We are not there anymore and just as the women I quoted before, there are many others that already are changing the paradigm and standing out as successful business leaders and game changers. They will not be the only ones and Latin America doesn’t have to be the exception. For this to happen, we have a lot of work to do.
Mariana says that in Laboratoria they want to work with young people in a context of vulnerability and school dropouts that cannot access higher education quality; sadly the majority of these cases are women. They have worked with young women from very poor areas of Lima, such as Manchay, San Juan de Lurigancho and more. In their first class they had students who were helping their families taking photocopies, others who worked cleaning houses or were young mothers caring for their children. Their criteria is to choose women who are not yet engaged in a successful career and be the first door on their professional lives. In Perú there are hundreds of talented women who have not yet been discovered due to the mix of poverty and lack of education possibilities.
Diversity is the key
In my opinion, the key to counter the prejudices and helping to promote important initiatives of social inclusion such as Laboratoria is based on the concept of “Diversity for Prosperity” (I just made this up). Diversity is extremely important for innovation because it allows synergies that are achieved only by bringing together people who think differently and that have in their minds and their experiences totally different backgrounds. Each person represents unique knowledge, and all knowledge combined is a means to achieve goals. In this case, the major and global goal is social development and there’s nothing to be discussed about that fact. The rise of women empowerment around the world represents that society is hopefully advancing to that prosperous place. For us, Latin Americans, to get there, we need to boost and support more initiatives like Laboratoria.
I am proud to be a young Peruvian woman entrepreneur myself and to know that by writing this essay about Mariana and her initiative I am somehow helping her to spread the message. By now, Laboratoria has already finished its work with their first 16 students and now most of them are already working in tech companies or developing their own businesses. They have already started their expansion program outside Lima, having now presence in other cities such as Arequipa and other countries such as Chile. They will continue changing the lives of women around South America, for starters.
Remember that the concepts of Diversity, Inclusion and Prosperity come in a whole package that must not be separated, and us, women, are a critical part of that package.