Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a grassroots initiative in Chile working to use technology and leverage the opportunities the digital economy creates to lift young women from marginalized communities into the middle class. The program was the brainchild of a group of Latin American students at Columbia University. Laboratoria describes itself as a “social enterprise that empowers young women from low income backgrounds by giving them access to education and work in the digital sector.” But that short description doesn’t do the program justice.
It was amazing to witness firsthand the high levels of technology skills the participants possessed as they demonstrated how the websites and applications they were designing for client companies met business needs. I saw how bright, proud, and motivated these young women are. The United States government so passionately supports the expansion of Internet connectivity and the growth of the digital economy globally because we recognize the Internet is a tool that has the power to transform people’s lives.
This program takes young women between the ages of 18 and 35, from low-income backgrounds, teaches them to code in a six-month coding boot camp, and then helps place them into jobs in one of more than 400 partner companies in the technology sector. Laboratoria operates coding academies in Chile, Mexico and Peru, and in only two years has grown from 15 to 400 students, with a greater than 75 percent job placement rate for their graduates. The program is designed to become self-sustaining thanks to a requirement that graduates who gain employment give a small percentage of their salary to Laboratoria. This helps support future cohorts of women going through the coding boot camp. Laboratoria also plans to offer continuing education classes to ensure graduates can advance their professional development.
Laboratoria’s support system provided the right balance of cultivating the person as well as her skills. Students receive not only hands-on instruction from top notch teachers who are personally invested in each of them, but also social support to help participants build the self-confidence and interpersonal skills needed to succeed professionally. I was also excited to learn that English language classes will soon be added to the curriculum to help increase the graduates’ employment opportunities.
But in truth, this program and others like it, will only grow and succeed with mentorship and investments from industry veterans. For this program alone, more than 400 companies have signed on as hiring partners and several graduates are now working in places like Silicon Valley and Washington DC. And we need the continued support of these companies and others to ensure success — for the program and to grow women’s participation in the digital economy.
As my time at the State Department comes to a close, I was honored to be in Chile to speak at a forum on the digital economy, followed by a trip to Mexico to attend the Internet Governance Forum. My team and I have fought so hard over the last four years to preserve the Internet as an open, secure, interoperable and global platform so programs like Laboratoria can use it to fuel the engine of economic growth, to create opportunities, and to promote women’s inclusion in the work force. I am proud of how well Laboratoria is using technology as a tool for human advancement.