Digitally scaling a social movement with Anna Brailsford, CEO of Code First Girls

Anna Brailsford, CEO and Co-Founder of Code First Girls

Organisations need to stop talking about getting more women into Technology and start acting. Anna Brailsford, CEO and Co-Founder of Code First Girls explains how you can start making actionable change today.

Code First Girls has taught 100,000 women to code. They are an organization that provides girls, women and non-binary people with free coding training and development. Their degree program pairs partner companies with outstanding female talent, so they can invest in their education and gain diverse, outstanding female talent, either as graduates or as they move from other roles and industries. Find out how your company can get involved.

In addition to being CEO, Anna Brailsford is a board member of the Institute of Coding. Before joining Code First Skills, she was the CEO and co-founder of Founders Factory Incubated, Ed Tech Startup Frisbee, and previously the Commercial Director of Linda.com and LinkedIn.

When LinkedIn acquired Linda for 1.5 billion in April 2015, she became part of the fourth largest acquisition Social Media history, contributing to the creation of LinkedIn Learning.

Listen to Anna’s interview on our podcast – Creating Futures by Salt

Introducing Anna

I’m Anna Brailsford. I’m the CEO and co-founder of Code First Girls.

How would you describe what you do?

My role on a day to day level is incredibly varied.

I always say in a single day I can wear about 30 different hats. Hopefully not the same hat at once, but sometimes that can happen.

A large part of my job is obviously leading the performance of the company. That goes without saying. We have to hit our revenue metrics. We have to hit, our KPIs around the number of women we’re teaching to code and of course the number of women we’re putting into employment opportunities.

But the other part of my job is very much around being the public face of the company and getting the word out there and hopefully inspiring generations of women to move into technology.

What is Code First Girls’ Mission and what has your experience been as CEO?

Code First Girls over the next five years will teach or provide over a million opportunities for women to learn how to code.

We estimate that the conversion rate of that from, women moving from education directly into jobs will add over 1 billion pounds worth in economic opportunity in women joining the global tech workforce.

To date we’ve trained a hundred thousand women. And what we do is we provide them with the skills completely for free to be able to take a job either as a software engineer full stack, or it could be a data scientist, all of the very difficult roles to fill where historically there is a very low representation from women.

We have about a hundred company subscribers and those subscribers essentially pay us, and in return they can get the very best talent from the program whilst also investing in their local communities through education programs.

How has your previous experience in Ed Tech shaped what you did as CEO of Code First Girls?

I never sort of sat down as a child and, and I’m going to go into Ed Tech. That really wasn’t my dream when I was little.

But my mom had an Ed Tech company. I used to come home from University and learn from her. I used to learn about product. I used to learn about PNLs. And no surprise really that my first proper job outside of the family business was going to be in Ed Tech and education companies.

I suppose I became known for helping companies shift from a B2C revenue stream towards a B2B revenue stream within Ed Tech and a company at the time that really wanted to do that in earnest was Linda.com which was a household name in the States, not as well known in Europe.

I was asked to become Commercial Director of a very fast growth company. And that company ended up being acquired by LinkedIn and subsequently became the LinkedIn Learning platform.

That was the first time really an Ed Tech company had been acquired for that amount of money. It was, at the time, the fourth largest acquisition in social media history.

That really put Ed Tech on the map. It moved from being that technology that’s left out at a party to very much being front and centre of investor’s minds. So, it represented a big shift really within the industry in terms of, of what I learned from that. Obviously, I started to learn about the investment landscape.

After that I did end up going into numerous consultancy roles within private equity as well, looking at different acquisition and investment targets. That taught me a lot about investment. It taught me a lot about product, and it taught me about scale as well. You can’t create something unless you scale it, and you scale it digitally.

And that’s one of the first things when I came to Code First Girls that I decided to do, dramatically scale what we were doing by offering a digital offering.

What are your proudest moments with Code First Girls so far?

It’s always, always the women. I derive an immeasurable level of satisfaction and purpose from watching the women land those jobs and watching their lives utterly transform.

That may sound like a cliche, but starting salaries in tech are typically much higher than any other industry.

Effectively what we’re providing for women gives them almost 10,000 pounds worth of free education. And on top of that, by the time they get to that stage in their education process they are pre-aligned with the jobs they get, their job offered before they start, and they get to pick the companies that they would most like to work with in our portfolio, and they receive a hundred percent of their pay.

There’s no penalty for using something like Code First Girls. When I’m at graduation ceremonies and I see just how happy these women are, that is when I’m at my proudest.

In a couple of years’ time, what we’d like to see is that the women we’ve put into these organizations become future leaders, future CTOs and really start to influence their organization as well. Start to seed and start to say, Do you know what? This was almost an act of paying it forward, right? Code First Girls is an act of paying it forward. Our organization should be doing more to facilitate that as well.

What have been some of the lessons for you and the organization? Were there any challenges in the role of CEO that surprised you?

This is probably a well-known fact, but when I first joined Code First Girls was a campaign.

I joined in summer of 2019. And my feedback to the board was, you know, a campaign doesn’t make a business model.

So, I had about a year of runway. And we still had to meet our very public targets, right? To create essentially a product. We had to create product from scratch. We had to create a business model.

I was also super eager to rebrand, and I was eager to rebrand because I don’t want Code First Girls to be a business. I want it to be a social movement.

In order to achieve that, your brand is absolutely integral to the growth of your company. So the three things I wanted to focus on when I relaunched in November of 2020.

I had no idea how it was going to be received. I mean, I was actually initially very, very nervous. I felt like I got something right. I felt like it was going in the right direction but until the market actually starts buying, you don’t really know if you’ve got product market fit.

The market and our clients just reacted in the most fantastic way. And within a very short space of time, we 10x-ed our revenue and we 10x-ed our user base.

I think the moral of that story, and going back to your original questions of course there was a massive challenge and that involved big risks as well. But if you, if you get that correct, you know, my God, does it pay off in the end!

Was there anything that helped get your vision across to people and allowed them to buy into that risk and take that chance?

I think that the, the biggest lesson I would say to any was that any founder, right, or any business owner that’s going out there with a new product to try and get product market fit:

If you don’t believe in it, nobody else will. So the biggest asset you can have for getting anybody to buy in is yourself.

I always say if a founder can’t sell, they probably shouldn’t be in business. So, if you can get buy in right from, from organizations and get buy in from the community of women, and if you can do that with a level of authenticity where people trust you and people think, You know what, I’m going to take a chance on her, because it’s worth it. Because even if this does go completely pe tonk, I believed in what she was saying and the vision of what she’s trying to create.

It just so happened the vision of what I was trying to create coalesced with actually a fantastic product. And when that happens, magic occurs.

Listen to Anna’s interview on our podcast – Creating Futures by Salt

What’s next for you and Code First Girls? What are you working on now and why?

We’re working on a lot of things. There’s a lot of things we’re doing. The first thing that we’re doing is we are introducing two new products that we’re going into consultation at the moment with our clients.

  1. The first is a mid-career accelerator. So, Code First Girls is known in the early career space. I got this from we go for socials with our ambassador team. The ambassadors are usually women with two to three years’ experience that are alumni of Code First Girls.

    And this particular social, I was doing karaoke with the ambassadors and I had one ambassador turn around to me and say, Why can’t you create a product for someone like me? And I was like, Isn’t that fascinating? And then I started to look at it from an organizational perspective, and I started to realize actually organizations are really struggling to find women with that sort of two to five years’ experience, and they’re really struggling to retain them.

    So if we could create product that specifically looked at that group, I think we will be doing something for the industry at large to help women and organizations.
  2. The second thing we’re looking at is a subscription to help women once they’ve been placed. A technical subscription, so a coach on the job, which organizations can purchase for as long as they want.
  3. And then the final thing that we’re looking at we’re working on the back end, which is not ready for launch to the market. We want to get even better at creating things like algorithms in the back end of our website so that we can create better matches between companies and women and use our data in a more sophisticated way so that we can basically get more from it and deliver more to women.

What can companies and businesses do to support Code First Girls’ Mission?

Very simple answer to this, subscribe. If you want to make a difference, subscribe to our services.

What I say to every single company that gets involved is not only are you guaranteed to fill these incredibly difficult roles you can do that on a regional basis, but at the same time, we directly show companies, okay, if you pay for this level of subscription, you give us this amount of money, we will directly reinvest that money back into local communities of women through education programs.

The very, very best will rise to the top and take the jobs. So, I think for companies it’s quite a compelling proposition.

Not only do we demonstrate return on investment, which are not words that frequently paired with diversity and inclusion initiatives but simultaneously we can actually quantify what they’re doing in local communities as well.

That’s very, very unique as a proposition for companies. So yeah, big call to action, get involved, subscribe.

Code First Girls in the last year have gone across seven different countries. We operate across lots of different European territories. We’re also in the US as well. If there is enough demand from clients coming through there’s no territory yet that we’ve not been able to replicate the code First Girls formula.

Typically, when we enter a new geography, we’re around about a hundred percent oversubscribed for the educational places within the course of two months. Even though we don’t have a brand presence there yet. The community is increasingly global in terms of what we’re creating.

The clients that we deal with have global requests. They want to be able to attract, select, train, and hire women in a globally consistent manner, but they also want data to support and understand how women at a local level think, behave differently and, and, and might want different things.

At Code First Girls, we can effectively supply both to organizations to, so that they can fill the roles, but they can also understand on the ground what’s going on and why things might be different from one geography to another.

What’s important for hiring managers and employers to consider if they want to diversify their workforce in tech?

The first thing I would say is do not close your mind off to talent by labelling around what you think you might want.

So, case in point, your candidate has to have a STEM degree. I mean, just blow STEM right out of the water, number one. Number two has to have a degree. Really, Do they? Do they actually have to have a degree?

What we say is that actually, you don’t require either. What we look for us the potential and the aptitude.

By the way, a vast majority of our community do have STEM backgrounds or degrees. And that’s a fantastic and a wonderful thing.

But I think when you are looking for the very best talent, keep your vision as wide as possible, because actually in Technology, in labelling around what you think you want, you close yourself off sometimes to something absolutely fantastic.

So a lot of the companies we work with, we almost go through an education process. And again, it’s that classic, trust me, try it and see. Try and for once place a non-STEM graduate. I mean, God forbid, someone like me. There might be a humanities grad who is also fantastic at Technology. Give us a go, give a humanities or an English literature grad a go. God, it sounds like a company name that, doesn’t it? Give an English Literature grad a go.

Do you know what the English lit grads at the career switcher level our highest level of conversion. Companies absolutely love them. And teachers’ also have the highest level of conversion, again, from the career switcher level. This talent also comes with a plethora of other skills, right? You’re not just talking about technical talent, talking about the ability to communicate, the ability to analyse, the ability to critically reason using your words, not just through coding language.

So, there’s a whole wealth of things where actually all of a sudden employers are waking up and saying, these are incredibly valuable groups of women.

So, don’t close yourself off and don’t label people because it gets you nowhere.

Secondly, don’t talk about it for forever.

There is a really big cliche around women in technology where organizations just want to look good, or they want to be seen to be doing the right thing and they want to talk about it. I mean, the number of panel discussions I’ve been on is quite frankly mind boggling.

I say to every organization that gets involved with Code First Girls, when you’re getting involved with us, you’re not just talking about it as a problem. You’re not just paying lip service. You’re not just making yourself look good. You are actually acting.

I think there’s a very big difference between talking and acting.

So that’s another piece of advice. Act. Don’t just talk about it because there is a classic cliche about diversity and inclusion where you basically you’ll be in a meeting for an hour and a half in some organizations, talk about all these wonderful things, and then nothing ever gets done and that’s not okay and it’s not acceptable anymore.

Organizations need to change and it’s everyone’s responsibility to act now, not just talk.

What’s some career advice you wish you’d heard at the beginning of your working life?

It’s not going to end like you think it will and it’s not going to pan out like you think it will. And that’s okay because that’s part of the joy of the journey.

I wish I paid less attention to the types of labels that were given to me as a teenager. Or were given to me when I was say studying at school or went into a level and did my degree. I have the absolute luxury of doing my degree because I loved my subject, right? I was passionate about my subject.

But simultaneously, when you heard career advice at the time, both from schools and from universities, it was very much, oh, you’re a woman that’s done English literature. You know that means one of two things. You go into publishing, or you end up on the scrap heap of life… That’s what I was told.

Nobody ever said to me, Do you know what? There was an alternative career in Technology. By the way. It’s the fastest growing industry in the world. It will take you all over the world. Nobody ever posed that as an option.

There was never any alternative for me because quite literally, I think as a society in our education systems push these labels to the point where women start to believe it and start to absorb it.

All of our research shows us that women come at Technology slightly later when they’re at university, when they’re in their job. And when I came to this role, I was like, Wouldn’t it be amazing if we created the vehicle to say it’s okay for a woman to change her mind. It’s okay for a woman not to be labelled. And you know what? We’re going to celebrate you for that. We’re not going to denigrate you for it.

What’s been the biggest learning moment for you in your career so far?

I think my biggest learning moment at Code First Girls has probably been the raising process.

Raising investment which is an absolute mind field, and statistically if you’re a woman raising, these are well known figures, right?

All female founded teams receive 1% of all funding in the UK . So what that quite literally means for women when they raise is they have to work a hundred times harder.

Having said that, additional data shows us that if you do decide to invest in a non-female led company, you are you make a 60% higher return.

So what that says to me is that the women that do get through and the women that do make it through, you know, there is a massive level of prejudice, there’s a massive level of trying to prove yourself. If you do make it through that, you probably are the horse to back, so to speak. And therefore you’re going to make much higher returns for your investors.

But learning to love the word no and learning to pick yourself back up and learning to almost do a pitch in your sleep and listen to a whole wealth of feedback, some of which is not useful, some of which is deeply grounded in prejudice, deeply grounded in in false beliefs and subjectivity, which actually you can’t really do anything about, because it’s part of the status quo, it’s part of the problem itself. And just say, You know what? I’m still going to keep positive and I’m still going to land this. And it’s going to be amazing. So that was probably one of my biggest learning curves.

It’s a real baptism of fire. But I’m very glad I did it because I learned so much from the process.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a fighter pilot because I watched far too much Top Gun and I literally wanted to be Maverick.

Listen to Anna’s interview on our podcast – Creating Futures by Salt

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Anna Brailsford, CEO and Co-Founder of Code First Girls

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