Latin America’s tech industry is booming. In recent years, major investments in tech infrastructure and an explosion of startup activity have sent the demand for tech talent skyrocketing. For organizations, this means entering a competitive hunt for skilled talent in roles like software developers, UX designers, programmers, and more.
An even bigger challenge? Finding diverse talent. Traditionally, women in Latin America have been under-represented in the tech sector. But in 2013, Mariana Costa Checa, CEO and Co-Founder of Laboratoria, set out to change that.
Laboratoria is a social enterprise focused on empowering Latin American women with diverse backgrounds with the skills to build a career in tech. After an immersive, six-month bootcamp in which students develop key technical and professional skills, and receive mentoring and coaching, Laboratoria connects students with companies in search of such talent.
Through this effort, Laboratoria aims to not only close the gender gap in the space but also shape a more diverse, inclusive, and competitive digital economy.
“Laboratoria’s model of looking for talent where other organizations are not looking, as well as focusing on high potential talent has yielded impressive results. But their real success is not simply helping women get jobs. Laboratoria’s real success is that they are helping women build careers. And by leveraging technology, they have better insight into their operations and effectiveness, so they can continue to innovate for increased scale and impact,” said Charu Adesnik, deputy director of the Cisco Foundation, and manager of the economic empowerment investment portfolio for Cisco and the Cisco Foundation.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mariana. In this interview, she shares her unexpected entrepreneurial journey, Laboratoria’s current impact, and a forward look at what’s next to continue transforming the industry – one bootcamp graduate at a time.
How did Laboratoria first come to be?
Mariana: It was a little bit by accident. My co-founders and I started a web development company in Peru back in 2013 – and it was through that experience that we realized it was actually very hard to find tech talent.
Clearly, there were not enough women in the space due to a number of stereotypes that were very profound at the moment. In almost a year, we couldn’t even find women to interview for our positions.
So, we said, “If we need talent; if we want diverse talent; and we see this as an opportunity for social impact, why don’t we build a social enterprise that focuses on preparing more women in Latin America?” Women looking for better career opportunities; looking to build a better future for themselves and their family, and train them to become the software developers the market so badly needs… And that’s how the idea came to be.
“I fell in in love with the value proposition that Laboratoria meant. It touched many things that were dear to my heart – from women’s economic empowerment to diversity, to investing in people.”
What sets Laboratoria apart from other skills-to-careers programs?
Mariana: There are a few things that we’ve been very diligent about building since the get-go. One of them is our admissions process – we tried to go out and identify talent in places where often people are not looking. We thought there was so much value in that to identify potential, while at the same time, reaching women that need the opportunity.
The second is that we had a vision of being a program that challenges many of the limitations from traditional education.
“We wanted to build an innovative, world-class program for students that often could not afford that – and an immersive experience where they build not only technical skills but also crucial life skills.”
Finally, I think we’ve managed to start building a movement of Latin American women in Tech that feels powerful and connects women from different countries through this unique experience.
Today, we have over 2,000 alumni that have gone through the bootcamp with an employability rate of 83 percent. That makes us really proud because that’s part of our value proposition – that Laboratoria is not just a learning experience. Students come with profound ambitions of changing their future for the better, and we do our best to deliver on that expectation.
Another big accomplishment is that we have 800 hiring companies – we’ve managed to support companies big and small across every single industry in search for diverse talent.
What skills do you think are essential to succeed in the tech field – from your own work and what you hear from employers?
Mariana: Besides the technical, I think there’s a number of skills that have made a difference for our students. One is making sure that our students become lifelong learners – enabling them to discover and build the abilities to organize their learning journey as they see fit.
Another is teamwork and the ability to give and receive valuable feedback. Being an effective collaborator is one of the top skills in the workforce, but ironically, it’s not often taught in our traditional education spaces.
“Having a level of self-awareness, where they can understand what they do well, what they need to do better and providing that same feedback to their peers is so important.”
Finally, having a sense of high agency. Being empowered by everything you do, having ownership of the projects you’re engaged in, and seeking a way to find solutions instead of roadblocks.
As a Cisco nonprofit partner, what has Cisco’s support enabled Laboratoria to do?
Mariana: Cisco was one of our early donors and its support has continued throughout the years, first helping us fund the bootcamp and now the tools to help us build a more effective organization.
“With continued support from Cisco, Laboratoria was able to develop a student management system that helps our internal team of coaches have a better understanding of every student and their progress throughout the learning journey.”
Through this tool, our coaches can see every feedback session that a student has had; how is she feeling based on the most recent feedback survey? How do the coaches assess her? How do her peers assess her? What’s her own self-assessment? What’s her progress in terms of learning objectives?
This is critical for us to provide that autonomy and a personalized learning path for every student.
You’ve worked to develop an earned revenue model that enables you to scale to reach more people in a financially sustainable way. Tell us about your approach and how it is working.
Mariana: Today, we manage to cover one-third of our costs from our own earned revenue. Students, once placed in a job, pay back a subsidized fixed amount that contributes to cover program costs for future students. We also organize recruitment events where hiring companies pay a fee to get to know and interview our graduating developers and designers. Over the next three years, we aspire to grow our earned revenue to cover at least 50 percent of our costs. For the remaining 50 percent, we plan to continue partnering with donors committed to women’s economic empowerment and want to explore the setting up of an endowment fund to ensure long-term sustainability.
What’s next for Laboratoria?
Mariana: The pandemic pushed us to transition to a remote format and even though it brought its challenges, it has also opened many opportunities. One is geographic growth. Now we have students from the south of Chile to the north of Mexico, and we hope that soon we’ll be able to reach students in new countries. We’re also launching new programs, including a Full Stack track and a new data analyst program. Finally, we have a lot of plans to continue to support the growth and impact of our alumni community. In our vision, they are going to become the change agents that grow into leadership roles and take an active part in building the future of the tech sector.
What is your advice to women thinking about entering the tech industry?
Mariana: My advice would be to go for it! This is a space that needs more women – it needs our vision; it needs our skills; it needs our background and our experiences. I think the tech industry is one of the few spaces where you have so many opportunities for leadership and growth. It’s definitely a fight worth pursuing.
At Cisco, we’re proud to partner with organizations like Laboratoria making a difference in building a more inclusive and diverse future for our communities. Mariana was a guest speaker at one of our “Women Rock-IT en Español” events hosted in Latin America, a Cisco inclusion program – Watch her session here.
Learn more about Cisco’s Corporate Social Responsibility community partners.