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July 13, 2018

How one woman went from selling tortillas to front-end engineering

By ITU News

Pilar Figueroa Casas was working at a market in Mexico City when she first heard about Laboratoria, an organization offering digital bootcamps for women aspiring to work in technology.

Figueroa Casas had graduated with a degree in international business from the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City and then worked at a government office, a national bank, a drug store before taking the job at the local market. At the time, she felt her career was stuck, the 24-year-old says.

“I didn’t feel complete,” she says. “I felt that I hadn’t achieved my dream.”

After hearing about Laboratoria on the radio, Figueroa Casas decided to apply for the program, and a few months later, after a rigorous selection process involving exams and projects, she was part of an all-female class of participants learning the latest skills in front-end development and UX design.

‘Laboratoria showed me I could help people or do something great through code.’ – Pilar Figueroa Casas, front-end engineer, Crowdbotics

The experience would propel her from selling tortillas to working as a front-end engineer for a Silicon Valley-based technology company.

“I always knew I wanted to do something powerful in my life,” Figueroa Casas says. “Laboratoria showed me I could help people or do something great through code.”

Laboratoria’s mission

Laboratoria was created in 2014 to address the divide between a demand for high-skilled workers and the lack of skills of prospective employees in Latin America.

This disconnect is especially prominent for women. About 30 million youth in Latin America are not engaged in education, employment or training, and more than three-fourths of them are women.

“It is hard to be what you cannot see.” – Mariana Costa, co-founder and CEO, Laboratoria

The idea was to give women the chance to transform their lives and change the sector for the better, says Mariana Costa, co-founder and CEO of Laboratoria.

“It is hard to be what you cannot see,” she says. “If you really can’t see any reference, it’s difficult to connect with that opportunity.”

The organization, which has been praised by Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg, has programmes in Peru and Chile in addition to Mexico.

The six-month bootcamps provide project-based training in JavaScript, HTML, CSS and tools including the React framework. The programmes have an agile teaching approach that mimics the work environment, mixing digital skills with critical life skills such as communication and responsibility, Costa says.

laboratoria graduation

Pilar Figueroa Casas’ Laboratoria graduating class. CREDIT: Pilar Figueroa Casas

The organization also helps with recruitment and job placement. The programme, which costs about $3,000 per participant, runs on a repayment model in which participants only pay for it if they get a job, and then they pay 20 percent of their salary for two years, Costa says.

According to Laboratoria’s website, more than 80% of a recent cohort secured tech jobs that, on average, tripled their income.

Laboratoria’s lessons

Benefits of the Laboratoria bootcamp include its emphasis on self-learning and the collaborative spirit of the training, Figueroa Casas says.

“In school, everything is about competition,” she says. “Here, it was about community. If your partner is stuck, you have to work with her to achieve the goal.”

Laboratoria students

Pilar Figueroa Casas (left) and her fellow Laboratoria classmates. CREDIT: Pilar Figueroa Casas

But most important was the program’s focus on self-esteem and empowerment, she says.

Empowering women is especially important in Latin American countries, Figueroa Casas says, where society “tends to consider girls as weak.”

“This feeling that you’re not going to be good enough to do the work is the main reason we are avoiding these kinds of careers,” she says. “[Laboratoria] teaches us about self-esteem. That’s the most powerful tool for us.”

Pilar Figueroa Casas says she experienced the stereotype against women in tech first-hand when she and five other members of the program won third place in the education category at a hackathon where they were the only all-female group of about 80 teams. One of the judges asked them to explain their code to verify it was their work, she says.

“It showed us how difficult it is to be a woman in the tech sector,” she says. “It wasn’t normal that six girls were coding an app.”

Costa says she hopes Laboratoria can help inspire a systemic change in the industry and promote diversity and inclusion.

“As more women join these teams that are building the technologies that are more and more important for our future, they will have a huge influence on how those products look,” she says. “Hopefully they will build products that are better able to serve the needs of women.”

Today, Figueroa Casas lives in Mexico City and works remotely for Crowdbotics, a software engineering company. She recently won a competition to speak at Mobile Learning Week 2018 in Paris in March.

What’s her advice for other young women looking to change their lives?

Learn as much as possible, always try to achieve your dreams, and don’t be afraid to fail, she says.

“A lot of people in Mexico feel they don’t have the chances to do big things,” she says. “But there are a lot of opportunities out there.”

By Kirsten Salyer, @kirstensalyer

Editor’s note: Laboratoria and the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank have joined the ITU-ILO Digital Skills for Decent Jobs for Youth campaign.

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How one woman went from selling tortillas to front-end engineering

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