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Women in Business Q&A: Vanessa Hurst, Co-Founder, Girl Develop It

17/02/2016 16:13 | Updated 17 February 2016

Vanessa Hurst is the founder and CEO of CodeMontage, where coders engage in open source projects to improve their skills and the world. Vanessa co-founded and advises Girl Develop It, a nonprofit that empowers women to learn software development by providing low-cost, judgment-free learning opportunities and a supportive community. Girl Develop It teaches over 1,000 women per month in person across 50 chapters and has built a community of over 50,000 worldwide since its founding in 2010. Vanessa also co-founded WriteSpeakCode, an action-oriented conference for women developers to improve their careers and visibility in thought leadership. Previously, she founded and ran Developers for Good, a meetup of technologists and social impact leaders in NYC. Vanessa is a TEDx speaker and frequently speaks about open source, data, and technology for social change. She holds a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Virginia.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I moved around a lot as a kid, so I learned to be friendly and I always joined the local Girl Scouts. I'd been in nine different Girl Scout troops by the time I reached high school. What the Scouts all had in common was a commitment to learning new things, working with others, and helping people at all times. Those are still pretty much the principles I live by today.

By the time I got to college, I knew I wanted to help people with my career. I thought being a doctor or a teacher were the only ways to do that, until I discovered computer programming. Learning to code was the most empowering feeling I'd ever had! I wanted to share that feeling, so I co-founded Girl Develop It to offer judgment-free coding classes for women.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Girl Develop It?
I started my career as a database developer, and my experiences at work in the technology industry led me to start Girl Develop It. A few major observations drove my career to where I am now and influenced my position at Girl Develop It: 1) technology requires continuous learning to be successful, 2) software is really about humanity, and 3) women are underrepresented in computing for no good reason.

Software knowledge is a moving target. Tools and languages and platforms change very quickly, and anyone who stops learning inevitably falls behind. This keeps things interesting, and it's one of my favorite things about working in technology. By the same token, it's never too late to get started in tech, and Girl Develop It helps women who feel like they've missed out on tech to jump in and learn coding skills, at any age, in a supportive community.

There are no justifiable reasons for the dearth of women in tech: it's a bug. The lack of gender diversity in tech is caused in part by cultural misperceptions and the false notion that women simply don't like computing. We founded Girl Develop It in 2010 because we thought more women would want to code if there were affordable, encouraging opportunities for them to learn. Since then, almost 60,000 women have taken Girl Develop It classes in 54 chapters across the US.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Girl Develop It?
Leading Girl Develop It has been full of highlights, beginning with our first class - it sold out in less than 24 hours! There were also times in the first few years of bootstrapping that we would almost run out of money, and we'd question if the whole idea could ever really work. We were tired of talking about the lack of women in tech and wanted to make something happen, but there's a big gap between teaching a class and building a lasting organization. We knew Girl Develop It needed a sustainable revenue model to work long-term. It has taken a lot of patience to build a model that keeps our classes affordable, allows us to expand our impact, and also keeps us accountable to the women we serve above anyone else. We are now sustainable, and in 2016, we're celebrating more than five years of operation and teaching 60,000 women to code.

Working with smart, kind people who do whatever it takes to create learning opportunities for women who've been left out of an important industry has been the ultimate highlight for me.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
Share your vision and your challenges as widely as possible, and let people help you. Everyone wants a better world, and if you're nice, everyone who matters will want to see you succeed. Also, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It's not." - Dr. Seuss, The Lorax.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Terribly! I love my work too much and I don't rest enough. I think as long as I'm struggling for work worth doing, it's okay to be a little off balance. I also try to follow the lead of Benedict Carey, an expert in how adults learn who said, "I think of sleep as learning with my eyes closed."

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The Second Shift, or society's failure to acknowledge women's labor in the home as what it is: work.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've been fortunate to have some incredibly brilliant people mentor me. I value most when they share their experiences, their realities and not just the public-friendly version of their stories, so I try to do that when I mentor as well. I'm also a fan of co-mentoring, which my friend Natalia Oberti Noguera champions, where people of different ages and career stages are able to help each other with different challenges rather than establishing a top-down mentor-protege dynamic. I've had a great experience mentoring a high school student with iMentor in NYC. It really helps put things in perspective to try explaining your entrepreneurial challenges to a teenager.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Cindy Gallop, founder of If We Ran The World and MakeLoveNotPorn. I love that she's not afraid to take on unpopular problems or to call out the entire advertising industry for its ridiculous treatment of women.

Nancy Lublin, Founder of Crisis Text Line and Dress for Success and former DoSomething.org CEO, is an inspiring social entrepreneur who's also really down to earth and pragmatic. I love how she's serious about the business of making social good happen.

Hilary Mason, data scientist and founder of Fast Forward Labs, helps companies explore the recently possible in data-related technology. I love that she's passionate about imagining the world we want to live in and using our technical skills to create that world.

What do you want Girl Develop It to accomplish in the next year?
In 2016, I'd love to see Girl Develop It surpass 100,000 women learning to code. We plan to expand our full-time staff, which supports all of our 54 chapters, and bring on more local leaders to launch chapters in new cities. In 2015, Girl Develop It increased our impact and reached 100% more students with only 12% more chapters. We are excited to continue improving our impact relative to our organization size in 2016. We're also planning to keep investing in our community, and I look forward to seeing more students become teachers and more technical women take on visible leadership roles in their communities.

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