Mariana Costa, Peruvian entrepreneur and Co-founder and Executive Director of Laboratoria, shares her story creating and scaling this organization that is transforming the lives of hundreds of women in Latin America through Technology…
An imminent return to the roots
Summer 2013. I graduated from a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York. I studied Public Administration and Development, I traveled to Kenya for three months, I learned that mosquitoes are the animal that kills the most people, and I understood why developing countries’ institutions are specialists in failing again and again their citizens. I made friends from all over the world and on the day of my graduation I went to pick my diploma up swelled with pride and complete certainty that, through my work, I would help making out of the world a better place.
It was clear to me that changing the world from the Upper West Side was a utopia that I did not want to repeat (I had already tried it for some years from nearby to the White House in Washington D.C). After almost a decade living outside my country and despite all my fears, this appeared to be my best opportunity to return to and try to do something for the place where I was born and where I grew up: Lima, Peru. Going back was a thought I had year on year since I was 18, when I went to study abroad. How will it be like to go back? Will I work in the government? All of a sudden, I was going to the mountains, I’ve always wanted to do something outside of Lima.
Herman, the Ecuadorian programmer and bass player I had met in Washington and who now is my life partner, was not entirely convinced. “Leave from here?” He told me one day with fear getting out through every pore of his skin. But what would I do in Lima? Herman had been working for several years as a web developer for various social campaigns in the United States. He had developed technology for movements aiming to increase humanitarian aid in Africa, and others advocating same-sex marriage in the United States. To be honest, I did not have much insight neither of what he could possibly do in Lima. During one of our long conversations in those months before going back, he came up with a proposal: what if we set something up ourselves? We could start carrying out technology projects with social impact. “Technology with social impact?” I thought. “Sounds pretty good,” I said. “You know something about technology, and I know something about impact.”
The days following the emergence of this possibility, I was happy thinking that I had convinced Herman to move to Lima together with me, but I was also quite scared to think that we would become entrepreneurs. I never thought I would become one. To be honest, I was more comfortable with the idea of having an impact working from Lima’s World Bank offices’ fancy convenience or something similar. Before I had time to abort the plan, appeared one of those once in a lifetime chances, Rodulfo, a Venezuelan triathlete, a friend of mine from my master’s degree, who sought me out because he was moving to Lima – his wife, Ana María, was working at P&G and, as a Marketing Director, she got sent to my country. I began helping him to look for a job, until one day with Herman we thought that he was the partner that we needed to dive in the pool (when you do not know how to swim, you are always less afraid to dive in group). “Rodulfo, what if you join the Ayu project together with us?” That’s how we ended up including him to our little digital lab. Now we always bother him saying that he doubted far too much, but the truth is that after a few days, he confirmed that he wanted to be part of the team and that is how he became the most loyal partner we could have dreamed of to begin the entrepreneurship adventure in Latin America.
Landing in Lima
On September 1, 2013, we arrived in Lima. I, at some point of brief lucidity, remembered that we had to live off something and I got a job at an American NGO based in Lima. It was flexible and allowed me to also be involved in Ayu, while Herman and Rodulfo dedicated all of their energy for it. Thinking about those first months today, brings me a mixture of nostalgia and tenderness. We did not really know anything about entrepreneurship. We spent weeks thinking about different ideas: a social network to share and discuss news, as if it would be easy to compete with Facebook and Twitter; or a platform to review employers, as if we had the necessary funds to sustain the project until it generates benefits. We quickly realized that we had nothing to live off, and that we had to figure a way out to have some income or this dream would end before it even started.
That is when we convinced a first company to hire our services to develop their corporate university’s platform. Then, my family helped us knocking on some doors and we convinced a hotel and an insurance company to let us create their websites. Thus, almost unintentionally, we became a web development agency in Lima.
Ayu: Experimentation lab
At Ayu we learned to sell without fear things we did not know much about, to survive the anxiety of having money on the bank account only until the end of the month, and to face the thousands of challenges of building a team. The latter cost us more than we had thought. We needed, above all, developers. We had little money to offer, and no name to give us credibility. We searched in social networks, universities and software communities. We quickly realized the enormous demand there was for this type of talent and how difficult it was to actually find it. Little by little, we were assembling our first development team which, to my surprise, was really diverse in terms academic background: two interns from San Marcos, a Mexican friend I met in a market who had learned everything he knew single-handedly, and another one who said that nothing he knew came from his university studies. The developers’ team was growing and had in common their heterogeneous academic background, and of course, their gender. They were all boys: in Ayu, and in all the other technology doing companies I had met at that time.
One day, reading on the Internet, I got to know about the North American boot camp model: a new intensive way to train developers within a three months’ time, to cover the huge demand for talent. Besides that, I learned about Black Girls Code story, an organization that teaches programming to colored girls in the United States. In Lima, I discovered a new species: social entrepreneurs. Young people like Vania, Juan Diego and Irene were building social transformation models through dance, community intervention and recycling. That’s how, without thinking too much, I realized that we had the best idea in the world in our hands: we could build a social enterprise that would train young people as developers, to supply that enormous demand, that would specifically focus on women, since there was such a need to bring gender diversity to the sector, and that we would take advantage of the market’s flexibility to train women who had not yet been able to start a satisfying professional career.
Not being able to sleep thinking about nothing else than how to give life to this idea, I decided to give up my job and completely jump in to the pool together with Rodulfo and Herman. My dear Lilita, my grandmother, lent me (and then never charged me so she actually gave me) the money to pay my rent for six months, until we could have an income that would allow us to live. Happily, we had learned something from our previous failures and were better prepared to start again, now being much leaner. We were able to borrow a classroom in the coworking space where we worked, got laptops donated, and convinced a group of 15 young people we reached through friendly institutions to sign up for the program. So, in a matter of a few weeks, we started our first web development class. Without realizing it, we laid the foundation of what would become a Latin American women’s movement in technology.
That first pilot was a life-changing experience. I fell in love with programming and its transformative power. Watching our students coding and take pride in showing their products convinced me that we were dealing with something that could really change the world. A lot of things went wrong in that minimum viable product, in fact, only three of our graduate students were able get formal work as developers after the program (many were still under 18). However, in four months I learned more than I ever thought could be possible. We realized that Laboratoria was not for everyone: we had to find women who wanted to get ahead bigger than themselves, willing to persevere to build a career in technology. We had to be innovative on how to facilitate their learning, managing to make the time spent at Laboratoria similar to what they would do once in the labor market. We began to get to know the market better, to understand companies’ needs, and to become their main tech talent source.
With each boot camp we improved every part of our process. Our swift classrooms, our mythical employability Hackathons were born, our team was growing, and we were giving form to the organizational culture we dreamed about. We quickly knew that things would not be that easy. We were creating a new, intense way of learning for our students and team, giving the best we could. We were encouraging companies to go for a different source of talent than they were used to. At the same time, we were trying to raise the necessary funding to survive while we were thinking about how to generate a business model that could lead us to sustainability without damaging our impact. Ana Maria, Rodulfo’s wife for whom he moved to Lima, joined us in leading our operations. We made the difficult, but healthy, decision to close Ayu. Running two companies was going to kill us and we thought there already were thousands of agencies, however we were the only ones doing something like Laboratoria.
In the midst of this hectic pace, two of my best friends from my master’s degree, Gabi and Marisol, who respectively were in Mexico and Chile, came to visit us in Lima and in the same way I did with the pilot, they fell in love with the project. Being people I trust in, we decided to take the risk to try our luck in Santiago de Chile and Mexico City. Looking back, it’s probably one of the most irresponsible decisions I’ve ever made, but when you haven’t scaled a business yet, you have no idea about how difficult it will be. Taking Laboratoria to new markets when we had so much to determine still, wasn’t easy and I think it almost killed us. However, it ended up making our model and institution much stronger. We improved it based on the experience in each of our headquarters, trying different things and multiplying our learning speed. Today I believe that, despite all the challenges, we grew at the right time and that has been a fundamental part of bringing us where we are now.
Today and tomorrow
During the past years, as startups do, we have lived on the roller coaster that takes us from maximum happiness every time we see our graduate students’ career taking off and when our team does incredible things, to absolute depression when we fail to get them the best jobs or think we will run out of money at the end of the month. Today we are more than 80 people in four countries (we even took the leap to Brazil!), and we have more than 800 female graduates making careers as developers in global companies. They have begun to change the meaning of being a programmer in Latin America, and today they inspire thousands of women to follow their path. We supply talent to more than 300 companies, contributing to more and more women being creators of technology and part of designing our future as a species. We managed to find allies to finance our growth, to open new business lines that give us hope, and form a team and an organizational culture that I am proud to be part of.
That’s four years that seem like 20. Sometimes I get tired and think about how much more time we can keep with the same rhythm. I feel so proud of what we’ve built, and at the same time there’s so much left for us to do and improve. The other day, I was talking to a group of students who had been three days without sleeping in order to deliver a coding project. “Mariana, we have lost the notion of time. Lab is very intense!” I always tell them I feel the same. Happily, when I stop for a moment and think about the fact that four and a half years ago, nothing of what we are today was existing, I realize that, despite the thousands of challenges, this is the best possible way we could have chosen to change the world.