While covering the VIII Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, the Global Americans team had the chance to talk to Mariana Costa Checa, CEO and Co-founder of Laboratoria, a social enterprise working to equip women with the digital skills they need to thrive in tech. With training centers in Peru, Chile, Mexico and Brazil, Laboratoria is training thousands of young women from underserved backgrounds as software developers and placing them in tech jobs where they get to transform their lives, building a more inclusive and diverse industry.
Costa began her journey when she, along with her two co-founders, decided to move back to Lima after receiving an MA in Public Policy from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and started a software developing company. After experiencing firsthand the difficulties of building a team and finding female developers—it took them over a year to do so—Costa came up with the new direction and new mission of the company. Influenced by other social enterprises like Black Girls Code—a program designed to train women of color in the United States as programmers—they created Laboratoria.
Although Costa never thought she would become an entrepreneur, once the opportunity to build something that would have a positive effect on society presented itself, she took it. Below, read our conversation with her.
Mariana, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. Could you give us the specifics of your day-to day at Laboratoria?
My roles have changed over time since I first started Laboratoria with my two co-founders. When we began, we were a small company and I was doing everything: getting our office ready, being our students’ social psychologist—something I didn’t know much about—working with our teaching team, hiring people, doing our PR, pitching our product companies. A little bit of everything, really. Then we started building a bigger team and I became the lead of our Peru office. I was leading our Peruvian training center for a while, and as we opened more centers and became a bigger company, I became the CEO.
Now, my days are split between focusing on how we construct not only a great product, but a really great company where people feel happy working and can thrive and contribute to the work we’re doing. I also like spending some time with our students, and I miss no longer being in the classroom.
And then, the more important role of branding. I do a lot of PR, fundraising, and representing Laboratoria at different conferences to make sure we build partnerships with the right type of companies to enable our growth.
Wow, that is a lot of roles. So today you will be participating in the Women at the Forefront of Economic Prosperity in the 21st Century panel as part of the civil society portion of the Summit of the Americas. How important is women’s empowerment in the tech world?
I honestly think it couldn’t be more important. It’s very urgent that we do something to change the representation of women tech. There are two mean issues here.
The first is that we live in a world where technology is part of our everyday life and it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Technology is consumed equally by men and women, but if we only have men building that technology, it won’t be able to respond to the needs of women in the same way. This will result in women living in a world we didn’t design. In order to have better products that can better serve the female half of the population it is crucial to have more women in tech.
Second, as the economy advances and we increasingly see an automation of a lot of jobs, the jobs that will be replaced will be lower skilled, manual jobs where women are overrepresented. Although we will see job creation due to this boom, it will almost entirely be in the hightech sector where women are a striking minority. If we don’t make sure to get more women to fill these new jobs, the disparity we already see will become even greater and women will become more negatively affected, both socially and economically, in the fourth industrial revolution.
Economically, how important is women’s empowerment? There are still people that believe the gender pay gap is a myth…
Bring me one of those people! It just doesn’t make sense on so many levels to not hire more women. If you take the majority of women who remain in the private domain and take care of their houses, children and older relatives—which is of course a critical role in society—you are looking at a lot of untapped amazing talent. Not just for tech, but for everything, including government and business.
There’s a ton of data on the positive impact of getting women working and building careers. They invest more in their children and on the health of their families, which breaks the cycle of intergenerational poverty. And I honestly believe the only way to make these changes permanently is to have more women at the design stage of everything we do. We need more people in leadership roles, who shape the future, to take into account women’s needs by building policies, regulations and circumstances that allow women to have equal opportunities and the same circumstances men have.
I agree. A large part of that is getting women into these positions, which is what Laboratoria is doing. What more do you think can be done—especially by big tech companies like Google and Microsoft—to empower women and bring them into the tech world?
I see a lot of things being done. Google and Microsoft are some of our main donors, and they are invested in supporting the type of work we are doing. There is definitely more that can be done, not just by the Googles and the Microsofts of the world, but by all major companies that are increasingly becoming tech companies too. As tech becomes a big part of their core, you’ll see more banks and retailers that actually end up being tech companies too. So what can these companies do? Well, I think there needs to be a very strong and serious commitment towards building a more diverse and inclusive industry. Not just because they get to check a diversity box, but because they are aware that diversity adds value and because it’s the only way of building a better world.
I would love to see bigger commitments in terms of their hiring practices. Companies should go out and look beyond their traditional talent sources to include women, to find the type of talent that maybe hasn’t had the same type of opportunities but has the same potential.
At Laboratoria, we train women in a thousand hour program. When they finish they have the technical skills to start contributing, but they are still junior developers. Companies need to foster the type of practices and work environment that will help them grow. I would love to see more of these companies actively and proactively investing and providing the circumstances for people to grow.
Right. So it’s not just hiring women, it’s also helping them move up into high-level positions for them to lead these companies. Laboratoria has expanded. You’re no longer just in Peru and Chile, but in Mexico and Brazil too. Has the program received any backlash as it grows?
I have to say that overall, it has been the opposite. I think we’ve had such an awesome welcome in all these countries. We don’t have a close relationship with the government in some countries, but in some places like in Chile, the government is one of our leading funders because they love the program and they understand that supporting what we do lines up with their own goals for Chile.
The private sector has also been super supportive of our work. That’s why we’ve managed to build such a large network of hiring companies. Of course we face some backlash in certain cases. Yesterday actually, we had a Facebook live in our office with the VP of Facebook for Latin America and this whole debate started on social media about why we were a discriminatory program because we weren’t training men. Stuff like that happens, but it’s something we have to live with. It doesn’t hold us back.
From the beginning you and your team have worked tirelessly to promote this movement, and you’ve received recognition. You’ve been named one of BBC’s Most Influential Women, received MIT’s recognition as one of Peru’s leading innovators under 35, and now you’re one of Global American’s New Generation of Public Intellectuals. How does it feel to be recognized for this work?
It’s a huge honor. Since we began, we have been working really hard and I never imagined we’d get this type of recognition. I knew we were working on cool stuff but I never thought we would get this far, and it has really been an honor to see these influential organizations recognize the work we are doing in Latin America.
I have to say that my rewards ar not just recognition for my work, but for our whole team and all our students and alumni and the companies that have partnered with us. I also think it’s nice that this type of recognition plays an active role in supporting the growth of a movement of social entrepreneurs. So many people come up to us now and let us know they love what we’re doing and that also want to start their own social enterprise. I think telling the story is part of inspiring other people as well.
I always say that if you get too much recognition and don’t have something solid behind it, it can actually end up working against you. In our case, we prepared for this and really focused on building a sound program that obviously has areas for improvement, but at its core it’s very solid.
A lot of companies are focused on generating profits as soon as possible instead of planning ahead. With social enterprises you may not see any results right away. Do you have advice for upstarts?
I think it all comes down to the reason you start things. In our case we started this to have an impact and to build something that can actually make things better. If one day all this hard work means we can build a great life for ourselves, then great. Maybe it won’t happen, but in the end, the reason why we do this is to have an impact on society. Our mission is a big part of keeping us here. If we just focused on trying to make money and receive recognition, our jobs wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling.
Thank you so much for you time. Good luck at the panel today.
Mariana Costa Checa is the CEO and Co-Founder of Laboratoria.
Jimena Galindo is Senior Editor and Research Associate for Global Americans.