This month we're speaking with Alexandra Clare, one of the co-founders of Re:Coded, a coding bootcamp for youth in Iraq and Turkey. I first heard about Re:Coded in August of last year and immediately reached out to Ali. I'm obviously familiar with bootcamps after spending four years at General Assembly, but wanted to learn more about their model and mission. Read on to hear her thoughts on building a mission-driven business.
Tell us about Re:Coded. What were you doing prior to starting Re:Coded and what made you decide to start it?
Re:Coded is a coding bootcamp for conflict affected youth in Iraq and Turkey, who would not otherwise have access to first-rate resources, mentorships & employment opportunities. In partnership with Flatiron School and Udacity, we teach our students mobile and web development, how to build new projects & accelerate their journey to becoming a working developer. However, we see ourselves as more than just a coding school. Our students have the potential to create incredible things, so we help them check the boxes to get them ready for the road ahead. Students learn business communication, teamwork, agile project management & UX/UI. The last 8 weeks of the bootcamp is dedicated to a real-life client simulation when they develop a working prototype application in teams. Upon graduation, we help place students in the digital job market, where they can build a career & earn above-average incomes. Bootcamp graduates become role models in their communities, signaling opportunity in an often hopeless environment.
The idea for Re:Coded came about after I (Ali) first traveled to Iraq in June 2015 to implement a peacebuilding initiative where I witnessed millions of Iraqis fleeing Mosul in the wake of ISIS, compounding an already dire humanitarian crisis. At the time, only 3% of displaced youth had access to education, while dignified employment opportunities were scarce. I set to work interviewing over 400 youth to understand what skills they dreamed of learning. When 98% responded “technology”, the idea for Re:Coded started to form. Meanwhile across the globe, Marcello was discovering his own passion for Education in Emergencies working with conflict-affected youth in West Africa. After returning to NYC, Marcello and I decided to team up and create Re:Coded - an organization that was founded with a different DNA - for it was not about building yet another nonprofit. It was about inspiring the people it serves and putting innovation at its core to create life-changing opportunities for its beneficiaries.
What were the biggest initial hurdles you faced while building Re:Coded and how did you overcome them?
Working in a country like Iraq, we face immense challenges. Most recently, the Iraqi army took over a city that is located an hours drive from our training center, potentially putting our students and staff at risk. We had to quickly come up with an evacuation plan for our staff members and develop a contingency plan to shift our program model from a blended approach to an online approach should the physical integrity of students and staff become at risk. Luckily we have been able to continue operations as normal, but working in an uncertain and complex environment like this has required us to adopt a flexible and adaptable approach to program design. We also had to fundraise very quickly even before wrapping up our pilot and without proof of concept. In less than three months we secured almost $500K for four programs. We believe our passion, transparency, innovative ideas and frankness about the way we work helped us gain the support of organizations who now believe in our mission.
What has been your biggest success?
Seeing the transformation of the students coming out of our programs is when we feel most successful! We’ve now graduated over 80 youth and 250 children from our programs and all of them have gone on to achieve incredible things. Growing our team from 2 to 12 in the last six months and expanding our bootcamps to 3 locations has also been very rewarding!
What's the best advice you've ever received?
The best advice we’ve received is also probably the simplest - keep doing what you’re doing and learn from your failures.
How do you create a positive work environment to attract global talent and effectively manage a remote team?
Early on we realised that for our mission to succeed our team would be our most valuable asset. Having previously worked for dysfunctional organizations we knew that we had to behave differently, especially given the complex environments we work in. We researched how to run a purpose driven organization that supports teamwork & overhauled everything, from our interviewing process to our day-to-day management & operations. We’re active listeners & try to be inclusive in our approach to leadership.
Here are 3 examples of team strategies we’ve implemented to encourage focus, accountability & growth: (1) we work in team sprints & retrospectives that enable us to reflect on weekly achievements, challenges we faced & how the team could collaborate more effectively; (2) we have bi-monthly feedback sessions with each staff member to identify areas of professional growth and (3) we empower our staff members to set their own learning goals & support them to achieve these with a tailored plan. Tools like Slack, Google Docs and Zoom have also been essential for us to manage a remote team effectively.
What do you know today that you wish you would have known before starting your first company?
I wish we had known more of everything! We’re not technical and basically started with a big idea to transform the future of education in conflict affected countries but we were by no means experts in the day to day operations of a coding bootcamp or developing an effective pedagogy. We’ve basically learnt everything on the job and continue to improve every program that we run. One of the hardest lessons we’ve learnt (and continue to learn) is also how to build a great team, develop an organizational culture that you love and also scale operations in a complex environment!
What inspires you to keep going?
Seeing the impact of our programs on the lives of the people that participate. One of the best things for us is actually seeing the transformation of someone from beginning to end.
What three books do you recommend every entrepreneur read?
We are huge fans of the podcast and book, Radical Candor, which has enabled us to reflect on best practices for leading a team effectively. For us, management is one of the hardest skills to master as an entrepreneur and something that can make such a huge difference to the culture and internal success of your team.
These are not necessarily books but we also love to read advice from other startup founders on First Round Review and The Heartbeat which is a bi-weekly newsletter published by Know Your Company which focuses on leadership, company culture, employee engagement and employee feedback. I am also keen to make my way through some of the books on this list!