The Change Agent Abie Award honors an outstanding international woman (non-U.S. resident with an emphasis on developing countries) who created or expanded opportunities for girls and women in technology. This year’s winner is Mariana Costa Checa, Co-founder and CEO at Laboratoria. She will accept her award on the main stage at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC 18) in Houston, Texas.
Laboratoria is a social enterprise working to equip young women from economically underserved backgrounds in Latin America with the skills they need to build successful careers in the tech sector. With centers in Peru, Chile, Mexico, and Brazil, Laboratoria is training thousands of young women as software developers and placing them in tech jobs where they get to transform their lives and the industry.
Mariana has been recognized on multiple occasions for her work as a social entrepreneur. The BBC named her one of the most influential women in 2016, and MIT named her one of Peru’s leading innovators under 35. She also shared a panel with President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg at the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, and is an Ashoka fellow, recognized as a changemaker for the good of society.
We spoke to Mariana about the inspiration behind Laboratoria, and how this enterprise is changing the lives of numerous women in Latin America.
Tell us about your journey. What inspired you to found Laboratoria?
After receiving my undergraduate degree, I was working on projects in Latin America, trying to facilitate access to registration services for underserved communities. After that, I went to New York and received a master’s degree in Public Administration and International Development. I was sure I wanted to dedicate my life to doing work that would have a positive impact in the world.
During my time abroad, I got married. My husband was a software developer, and it was through him that I started learning more about technology. We were building software for a social advocacy base. When we went back to Peru, and we had a bunch of ideas. We wanted to start something of our own.
The two of us and a friend of ours (who had also moved to Peru) started our own software company. It took us a while to build our first team of developers, and as the team started growing, we came across another problem: it was so hard to find any female developers. It took us over a year to find our first female developer.
So that’s when we thought, “You know what? If we can’t find any women developers, then why don’t we go out there and build tech programs to make sure we get more women into this field?”
Do you think that your lack of a traditional tech background gives you a unique perspective in the work you do?
I think that coming from a different background helped me a lot. When we built our first software engineering team, all of them were guys, and they felt completely fine with it. They said, “This is the way it is — it’s always been this way.” But I had never been close to the tech world, so I had no idea that there was a gender issue. I said, “Something is not right here. There is absolutely no real reason why there are no more women in this space. I need to go out and solve this.”
I love what a mentor of mine once told me: “If women knew that, through technology, you can change the world, there would be so many more women technologists out there.” I want to make sure that more young women have this opportunity, because it’s so empowering.
How were you able to turn Laboratoria into such a successful enterprise?
Our mission is to go out and find talent in the world — specifically female talent — and prepare these women to become the most amazing software developers out there. By doing that, we’re also transforming the entire tech sector into a much more inclusive, diverse, and competitive one.
When Laboratoria first started, we were basically knocking on doors, trying to talk to people. It took us a while, but we formed partnerships with organizations who are also working with underserved communities in Lima. Through these organizations, we could get people interested.
We later started a pilot program (where I learned all that I know about coding, because I was with all of them in the classroom). As soon as we had success stories to tell about our students, things changed. We started having a lot of presence in social media. TV and big newspapers also helped us get the word out there. Now, we have thousands of applicants across Latin America. In such a short period of time, we’ve been able to spark this interest and this movement of women.
What are some success stories you’d like to share about your students?
In Latin America, we have very big businesses that sell cosmetics and makeup from catalogs. Usually, women from low socioeconomic backgrounds sell this makeup as a way to make a little income on the side. Many of our students sold these products prior to joining Laboratoria. Now we have a number of our students working in the development teams of the companies that own these beauty catalogs.
I recently spoke with a manager of one of these companies, and he said, “I could never ask for a better developer. She used to be my client. She was the one selling this makeup on the streets. Now she’s building the technology that we want these women to use.”
Another student of ours in Mexico was a mom with four kids, who never imagined that she could actually go into tech. She and her family were facing economic difficulty, and she had to go back to the work force. She said, “I’ll try Laboratoria.” She did amazing. Now she works for Accenture.
What is the Laboratoria application process like?
After that, we have a personal interview where we validate the applicants’ stories, and we try to see if Laboratoria is right for them and vice versa. And finally, we have a pre-admission phase where they take a week of classes. This really helps us to get to know them better. It also helps them understand what they’re getting into and if this is the right thing for them.
What’s the training process like for accepted students?
Students have a number of projects to work on, but they don’t all need to go at the same pace. Each project is usually done in groups of four to five students, though sometimes it’s done in pairs. There are some individual projects, too, but usually you’re part of a squad. We really try to promote a sense of community and cooperation instead of competition.
There’s so much prejudice around how groups of women are full of drama, and how women will stab one another in the back. We’re radically changing that notion, and showing that’s not the case at all. These women have all gone through a lot of struggles, and they’re all going to support one another.
Aside from starting Laboratoria, what has been a major highlight of your career?
In 2016, I received a call, and I was invited to share a panel with President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg [at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford]. I was in complete shock at the beginning, but I told myself, “I need to go. If I don’t go, I’m going to regret it.”
It was just such an amazing experience. That type of exposure and recognition has been amazing not only for us, but for every social entrepreneur out there working to build a better future.
What sort of change do you hope to see in the near future for women in tech?
I think that the tech sector will play a central role in our future. There’s talent out there, and getting them into this super competitive field is going to change things for the better. They’re going to be part of designing how the world will look in the future.
In the end, the things that we’re working so hard for in Latin America are so relevant here in the U.S., too. It’s not about a region — it’s about a worldwide movement of women working to have a space in the tech sector, and being part of this future. We at Laboratoria have a team of over 80 people that are working day in and day out to make this dream possible.
Meet Mariana at GHC 18 on Thursday, September 27 at 9:45 a.m. during our Abie Award Series, or on Wednesday, September 26 at 12 p.m. during Speakers Corner. See our full GHC 18 schedule for more details.
Interested in pre-registering for GHC 18 sessions? Click here to learn more.
Thank you to Microsoft for sponsoring the 2018 Change Agent Abie Award.