Female Founder Feature: Yasmin Ali – Skillspire

Yasmin Ali is the founder and CEO of Skillspire, an education startup that offers technology boot camps and specifically targets immigrants, refugees and women. Skillspire launched back in April 2016 and is headquartered in Bellevue, Washington. Since launching, Skillspire has five employees and classes are largely taught by part-time instructors who work in technology and also immigrated here.
•Tell us a little about Skillspire? What inspired you to start the company?
We keep hearing about the shortage of skilled talent in the tech industry. Companies go out of the country to pay big bucks for talent. At the same time, right here in our backyard, we have communities of people like African Americans, Latinos, refugees and immigrants who come to this country in search of a better life. We characterize them as under-represented communities, who are eager for opportunities, but do not have the right connections or the resources to get into the booming tech sector. Skillspire was born out of this need to bridge the opportunity divide in the tech sector and under-represented communities. We want to provide an affordable path to anyone who is passionate and hungry about entering the tech industry.
I was fortunate to get my MS in Computer Science and work for about 10 years, after which I took a break to raise my kids. During that time, I was very involved in several community activities and projects. I was instrumental in starting an evening school in Redmond, that continues to this day. As part of the Education Committee in a local non-profit org., I had the opportunity to work with people from different walks of life. When a good friend left Microsoft after almost 20 years to start his own startup, he observed the demand for skilled talent. This lead to the genesis of Skillspire. Why not train people locally and place them in the local tech companies!
• How is Skillspire in making a difference?
Skillspire’s model is to partner with various community organizations that reach different ethnic populations. We are making a difference in the lives of very ordinary people. One of our students came to us from Congo. With a diploma in Computer Science from his country, he had no other choice but to take up a warehouse job. With a great attitude and humor, he said “I have been using my physical strength since the time I came here. I am eager to use my brain.” There are plenty of people who come from various countries and people here locally, who are great candidates because of their work ethic, loyalty and gratitude. Our hope is that companies will give them a chance, though they may not have a 4 year degree.
• What are some challenges you’ve faced?
Learning coding or other new technologies is hard work. Especially when the student comes from a background where there is not much support from family or community. If the student is not prepared to put in the time and commitment, it can be very challenging. When this happens, we see some students drop off halfway. With life challenges and lack of grit, students feel overwhelmed and drop out. Though we have setup a buddy system, with the instructors available outside of class, some students shy away from utilizing these resources.
Another challenge is the lack of financial resources for the students. We, at Skillspire, have consciously kept the fees very affordable. But the target population still has a lot of challenges in paying the fees. We do help them with monthly payments, but still a challenge.
Third challenge is that most job listings in the tech industry ask for applicants with a college degree. However, this requirement can be prohibitive for candidates with enough motivation and aptitude to succeed in the industry, but who lack the financial resources to pay their way through college.
• What’s been your biggest win?
Our biggest win is when our students close the loop by finding a job in the tech industry. And reading their thoughtful messages about how it has changed their life is very rewarding and humbling. We are just getting started, and constantly looking at ways to improve and increase our offerings. We are very fortunate to have some of the most dedicated instructors who truly believe in the mission of empowering under-represented communities, minorities and women. Most of them have changed career paths at some stage in their life and gone through coding bootcamps that they have a lot of lessons learned that they impart to our students.
• Who is your role model?
I have to say that it is my Dad. My Dad came from a very modest background and worked his way up the ladder. He used to constantly mentor students about the value of education and stressed it to everyone around him. There are plenty people who come up to us (my brothers and me) and tell us stories about how our father had helped them. Of course, we didn’t realize all this when we were growing up. He also started a foundation for education and single women. My dad passed away 12 years ago due to cancer. My siblings and I continue to run this foundation to this day and have been able to help several students and women. So, his legacy continues to this day.
• What has been your experience been with FFA?
I have been with FFA for only about 3 months, but it has been a huge help and support. Access Media event, for instance, was fantastic. We live in a male-dominated society. Its’ ironic that we, as women, have to deal with this in the 21st century. We see the bigotry everywhere. But if we, as women, don’t have the grit to make this work, we should not be a female founder in the first place. Being a Muslim, woman of color from a minority community, the odds are stacked against me. But I am determined to do what I feel is right for the under-represented community that I work with. I strongly believe that my mission is more than my startup and I want to do my small part in this world. And I do need allies like FFA who can make this path a little less painful.
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