When Anisah Osman Britton told her college teachers that she wasn’t going to try for a place at Oxford or Cambridge, she remembers them saying that she was wasting her life.
Within a year they were congratulating her for winning entrepreneurship awards. Today Osman Britton is making waves with 23 Code Street, a coding school for women where every paying student funds a lesson for a disadvantaged student in India. The business has earned Osman Britton a place among the finalists at the 2017 Precious Awards, UK business awards for women of colour.
“We’ve tried to make coding accessible to women,” Osman Britton says. 23 Code Street has payment plans from three to six months to help women who struggle to pay £1,500 for the 12 week course upfront. It also offers scholarships. A recent competition in partnership with Amaliah, a website and content agency run for and by Muslim women, offered Muslim women the chance to win a course at half price.
In 12 weeks, 23 Code Street promises to give students the foundation that they need to become developers. That includes teaching skills through exercises that put the principles in context, plus giving students the confidence to solve problems for themselves based on what they have learned.
Since the start Osman Britton and co-founder Tom Salmon – who invested their own money in the company – have aimed to send between 10 and 15 per cent of profits to India, to help women in the slums gain computer skills.
“In India we start with digital skills like how a computer works, how to switch it on,” Osman Britton says. “The goal is that in the future we will get to coding but right now we want to give women enough skills to get data entry jobs.”
Osman Britton was born in London but moved to Spain with her family when she was three and to India when she was 11. She remembers living in India as a rich experience with disturbing moments, such as when she saw a child the same age as her carrying a baby on her hip.
“I identified with that girl, she looked like me,” she remembers. “It really threw me, I cried for ages and ages. I remember my parents saying that I should stop crying about it and do something about it.”
The family returned to the Midlands, where Osman Britton studied for her GCSEs and then the International Baccalaureate at college before declining the chance to apply for the country’s top universities: “I realised that I wanted to start a business so I went to do internships around the world.”
Her parents helped her organise placements in Tanzania, Kenya, India and “a couple of European countries”. When she eventually got back to England she was so frustrated that her student friends had no money to do things with her that she started her first company, PocketMUni.com.
The platform, which won her the Young Entrepreneur Festival in 2012, matched students with people who need odd jobs doing, like gardening or translation. “I did that for a year, and finished it up when my grandad passed away,” she says. “I started it less out a passion but more because I wanted to start something.”
It was in her next role at The Bakery, a company that pairs brands with tech startups, that she worked out what she was really passionate about: the gender diversity problem in the tech world. “I realised that we were working with men all the time," she says. "Nine out of 10 people were men. I was like, where are the girls at?”
Over time she realised that the lack of gender diversity had far-reaching consequences, like the health app that was released without a period tracker on it. She started pushing for more women on teams at The Bakery and over time the gender split improved from 20 per cent female, to 30 per cent and later 40 per cent of the team. She was so convincing that when she came up with the idea of a coding school for girls, Tom Salmon, the founder of the Bakery, decided to invest.
They ran the first school in the UK in borrowed offices in the summer of 2016 with a teacher called Luka Alexander that Osman Britton found through mutual connections on Twitter.
Alexander had been one of four girls in her cohort on the software engineering undergraduate course at Cardiff Metropolitan University just a few years earlier.
“I liked my superviser, but there was a lot of sexism,” Alexander remembers. “He told me I wasn’t allowed to swear because I was female.” Another professor recommended she meet with a female lecturer, seemingly for no reason other than that they were the same gender.
None of the other women on the course ended up becoming developers. “They were quite demotivated by it.”
When Alexander was given the opportunity to teach at 23 Code Street, she set out to create a different environment for her students. “People learn at their own pace," she says of her classes. "We provide different kinds of activities for different people and we bring snacks. I make it informal so it feels like being taught by a friend. If people are anxious we got the extra mile to make sure they are not. We are trying to counteract the problems of learning in a male-dominated industry.”
Alexander says the biggest testament to 23 Code Street is that one of the first cohort of students came back as a teaching assistant.
Anja Vidma, the student in question, says: “To be totally honest, I’m still trying to get my head around how much coding has changed my life.”
Vidma had no plans to work in tech when she signed up to 23 Code Street. She saw it as a way to meet new people and fill an empty summer. But when the course ended, Vidma was invited back to sit in on the next cohort’s classes. By the third cohort, she had become a teaching assistant.
Some of the 50 students to pass through 23 Code Street’s doors – they now have a permanent base at the Tea Building in Shoreditch, east London – have since gone on to training roles in companies. “We’re not saying that we’re creating developer ninjas after three months," Osman Britton says, "but we give people solid skills so they can go on to keep learning.”
Setting up classes in India has been a more challenging task. Osman Britton has been working closely with Sneha, a Mumbai-based non-profit that concentrates on women’s health, to plan classes in the city, with the first classes planned for September 2018. One of the biggest issues is holding courses close enough to the slums so that women from lower classes aren’t endangered by having to travel distances.
In the meantime, 23 Code Street wants to create more courses in the UK and expand to other cities in Europe. Osman Britton notes a survey by Stack Overflow, a question-and-answer website for programmers, which revealed that 89 per cent of respondents from the tech industry were male and 74 per cent were white.
“People want diverse teams, they understand the importance of it,” she says. “There’s a massive opportunity.”
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