This Unique School is Helping Women and Minorities Break into the Tech Industry

NEW YORK —  A startup computer programming school here is breaking new ground among women, African-Americans and Hispanics, and graduates are getting snagged for high-paying gigs with marquee brands like Google, Etsy, Intel, and KickStarter. Flatiron School’s even taught coding to supermodel Karlie Kloss, People magazine’s “Model Of The Year.”

Leaders of the Flatiron School — named after the iconic Flatiron Building in the heart of Manhattan and site of the school’s original neighborhood — report that 99 percent of graduates receive job offers within six months of graduating at an average full-time salary of $74,000 (compared to the national average of college graduates at $45,000). Millennials are struggling with mounds of student debt, many obtaining degrees with little relevance to the job marketplace. Yet the young founders of the Flatiron School are helping creative students — from musicians to writers and photographers — see that tech and coding aren’t just for stereotypical, quantitatively-oriented, left-brained types.

The Flatiron School seeks to offer an full immersion in coding while increasing the diversity of an industry long dominated by white males.

Launched in 2012, today the Flatiron School has taught some 350 students through its full-time immersion programs including Ruby and Javascript Web development and iOS. The realms of technology startups and computer coding have traditionally appealed more to white males, yet among students graduating this month,  Flatiron School reports that women represent 45 percent of the entire class and 54 percent of the web development class. And among the inaugural class of a special, full-tuition, coding fellowship program, 57 percent were racial minorities. The fellowship program was launched in partnership with the City of New York (former mayor Michael Bloomberg tweeted about it) and starting next year is open to students ages 18 through 26 without college degrees. The fellowship also includes paid apprenticeships with tech firms in New York City like Buzzfeed, Microsoft, AppNexus, Betaworks, and DoSomething.org.

Co-founder Adam Enbar told Opportunity Lives that he and his business partner are passionate about helping their students find a “third option” beyond traditional college or just completing high school. The School’s annual report points to statistics showing the cost of its program is just $15,000 for 16 weeks compared to nearly $63,000 for a four-year degree.

“I became obsessed with the ROI of education,” said Enbar. “Most students don’t graduate with the relevant skills needed to pay that [debt] off. These people are in a really bad position.”

Enbar argues that college-or-bust societal expectations can dissuade young adults from finding success through non-traditional educational or vocational pathways. He himself took the traditional 4-year Bachelor’s Degree route and obtained an MBA, yet his fellow co-founder and school dean Avi Flombaum dropped out of college and became CTO for a hedge fund, eventually helping manage $60 million in assets. Enbar said Flombaum started teaching people how to code “for fun,” before they met and launched the school, which initially had just 19 students in a small rented office space in the Flatiron District.

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Source: The Flatiron School, via data from National Center for Education Statistics 

In March 2013, the Flatiron School was one of five companies highlighted by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which awarded the school a $250,000 grant to move to Lower Manhattan. The school also has a campus in Brooklyn. Through its success in its self-described motto of “A School for People Who Love to Create,” this spring Flatiron School attracted a $5.5 million investment in a Series A investment from Charles River Ventures, Matrix Partners, Box Group and various private angel investors.

Flatiron students won Hack of the Month at New York Tech Meetup, when after just nine weeks of programming, four students presented BikeWithFriends in front of the largest Meetup group in the world. Though the School is not currently accredited, “maybe someday,” says Enbar, who argues that Flatiron School in many ways is better preparation for real-world jobs than a traditional college program. This is evidenced, he said, by what he calls a “non-trivial” number of students who enroll at Flatiron School even with a 4-year computer science degree.

“That to me is a really, really big deal if you look what a college degree costs and what a college degree does,” Enbar said. “We compare that with the results of our program. It’s a really dramatic difference. While college is amazing … the reality is that it’s not the right choice for everyone. There should be options besides this one path.”

” While college is amazing … the reality is that it’s not the right choice for everyone. There should be options besides this one path.”

Brooklyn resident Natacha Springer graduated this past August from the Flatiron School fellowship program. Born and raised in France, she moved to the United States to pursue a career in biotech engineering. She married an American man and exited the workforce for several years to raise her two children, now ages 6 and 4. She told Opportunity Lives that when she tried to re-enter the workforce she found it difficult to obtain job interviews because of what she felt was stigmatization for leaving the workforce.

“It was really hard for me to find a job,” Springer said. “It was clear I would have to restart my career all over again.”

Springer said she began to teach herself coding online “while my kids were napping” when she heard about the tuition fellowship for Flatiron School, which reports it now accepts just 6 percent of applicants for its full-time programs.

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Natacha Springer (fifth from right, bottom row) and her graduating class in August of 2014.

“I’m extremely lucky I got this chance with the Flatiron School,” Springer said. “The commitment is to learn. They taught us how to learn, really. They are so passionate about what they are doing, and they really know how to transmit that passion.”

At age 37 and a mother, Springer said she was the oldest person in her class and at first felt a bit uncomfortable around her much younger classmates. But she said the coding language unified members of the group, who came from many different walks of life. She said the school is highly team-oriented, which lends itself well to helping women feel comfortable in the tech community. After graduating, she returned to the job search during a fellowship at a New York company called Fog Creek Software.

“It was like night and day,” she said of her pre-and-post Flatiron job search, which eventually ended with her accepting a full-time job she began three months ago at The Wall Street Journal, where she said she makes nearly $94,000 a year as a software engineer.

“I don’t feel like I’m working,” she said. “Then I get paid for it, and that’s awesome. I had work before, but I never had this feeling before. I was amazed at what I could do. The things you can do with computers are just amazing.”

Carrie Sheffield is the Senior Writer at Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield.

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