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Yasmin Ali Talks About Skillspire and the Future of Work

Yasmin AliYasmin Ali is the CEO and Founder of Skillspire, Washington-based social impact organization. Yasmin worked in various technical roles till 2002 before taking a break to raise her children and serve as a leader at her faith congregation, the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS). Rather than return to the tech field, Yasmin chose to launch Skillspire three years ago. Yasmin recently joined AI and Faith as a Founding Expert. We asked Yasmin about her new work and engagement around training technology workers.

Q:  Yasmin, tell us a little more about how you entered the high tech field and how you see the world has changed from your original work experience and the state of tech workers in our region today?

Yasmin:  I was fortunate to complete my BS in MIS and MS in Computer Science. At that time, I did not really notice that I was the only woman in a room full of men. Now with the influx of immigrants from all parts of the world, we see a lot of issues emerging. Companies realize the need for diversity in the workplace and the advantages it brings to tech world and beyond. But at the same time, companies are still grappling to find concrete ways to build diversity in the workplace.  It is unfortunate that we still have to talk about gender equality and pay in 2019!  In a positive note, there is a recognition and we see efforts to engage young girls on tech with coding bootcamps, something that did not exist when I entered the tech field.  But it does require concerted focus to have visible impact.

Q:  Yasmin, what was the need you saw that caused you to launch Skillspire?

Yasmin:  We pride ourselves on being a nation of immigrants, and our country has a long history of successfully attracting people from all over the world. The integration of immigrants contributes to our economic vitality, our vibrancy and ever-changing culture. We have offered opportunities to immigrants and their children to better themselves and to be fully incorporated into our society and in exchange immigrants, foster technological innovation and enriching everything from the nation’s cuisine to its universities, music, and art.

We are currently facing a global refugee crisis. As the UN High Commissioner of Refugees states clearly in its 2018 Global Compact on Refugees, enabling refugees to earn incomes is far better than giving them aid, as it creates self-reliance and choice. To enable these, there needs not just social programs and services but effective targeted programs to help push them to achieve more.

Q:  What is Skillspire’s mission?

 YasminSkillspire’s mission is to advance the careers and futures of underrepresented talent: women, immigrants, and people of color.  We envision a tech sector that better reflects the population it serves by training and supporting diverse, historically underrepresented communities in their journey to enter technical careers. We believe that every individual – and especially those from underrepresented communities – should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams in the tech sector.

Skillspire exists because the tech sector’s current talent pipelines will likely never achieve the diversity that properly represents our communities without a hub for training and mentorship that specifically focuses on underrepresented communities. What started as a simple coding bootcamp is expanding into a dynamic, multi-layered community engagement, professional development, and training center that is changing lives. Our growth has been driven by the mindful design of our educational experience and the fact that our community members are talented, hardworking, and eager to solve the labyrinth of navigating professional circles from which they have traditionally been excluded.

Q:  Are there things about our tech community that especially drive your mission?

 Yasmin:  Tech companies often outsource talent from various countries around the world. With ever tightening immigration rules, we see increased demand for local skilled talent. And these tech giants in Seattle’s backyard can shift the narrative for the whole industry and are looking for diverse talent. The Seattle region has the second largest foreign-born population in the country: over half a million. Many even come with prior tech backgrounds and degrees. Without pathways into our ecosystem, they end up in low-paying jobs: warehouses, airport, rideshares.

The people and voices that are so crucially underrepresented in tech are here in spades. They’re industrious, ready to learn, eager to work, and loyal employees. Investing in them is a solid investment not only in one’s company, but in their collective contributions to our regional economy and community.

Q:  Tell us more about who Skillspire trains and how you do it?

Yasmin:  We recruit hard-working, bright candidates who have the grit to succeed in the tech sector. Our focus and outreach are reflected in our students, who represent our local Latinx, African American, immigrant and refugee populations and women. Over 90% of our students identify as non-white.

Skillspire’s approach is innovative because we are improving tech diversity by harnessing the diverse – but underutilized – talent that is already here. With their diverse backgrounds and daily challenges in mind, we provide affordable and accessible technical upskilling while coaching, mentoring and training on the soft skills to navigate our tech ecosystem. Our programs are:

  • intentionally affordable at 1/5th the price of similar coding bootcamp programs;
  • intentionally flexible, to allow community members supporting families to continue working full-time jobs; and
  • taught by instructors who are working in industry, who our students can also relate to, as the instructors also come from underrepresented backgrounds.

Skillspire is unique because we partner with community-based organizations to source diverse talent, and incorporate mentorship and professional training, to help students navigate networks and promote themselves in ways they often haven’t been exposed to. These people deliver back to their communities. By investing in underrepresented groups through community organizations, we know that we are disrupting the old system and creating pipelines for representation for the future.

Q:   What sustains your energy and inspires you to keep going in leading Skillspire?

Yasmin:  Our goal is for our local tech sector to look more like the populations it serves. We want to see gender parity in tech, and a much higher percentage of people of color in the local tech sector.

We are excited about the opportunity to invest more deeply in the Seattle region’s diversity and beyond in the years to come. Through word of mouth recruitment, designing our courses with underrepresented populations in mind, and grassroots outreach to community-based organizations, Skillspire has already graduated over 80+ students across King County with one in four placed with local tech employers. That paired with our growing network of businesses and community partners committed to diversity and harnessing talent in the region have allowed us to begin building out employment and apprenticeship partnerships.

Q:  What is it about AI and Faith’s mission that caused you to want to sign on?

Yasmin:  In light of all the conversation these days around immigrants, the economy, and job creation, we want to get the word out about ways to support immigrants and our workforce here in our region. At Skillspire, we are training immigrants and other underrepresented populations to fill tech roles, and we are growing. We’d love to meet people who want to get involved or support our work, and we hope that AI and Faith’s connecting function will highlight our work and help expand the community we serve.  We’re eager to attract both trainees and financial supporters!

Q:  One of the topics AI and Faith is exploring is how to manage and plan for human work replacement by AI-powered robotics.  Do you see a role for Skillspire in this area?

Yasmin:  This is something that is very dear to my heart. My faith teaches me that a white person has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over white except by piety and good action. We see the racial bias that exists in some of the AI-powered technology around us. Minorities and people of color are targeted innocently. And the companies that are building the AI-powered robotics need the diverse employee population, who can design the products keeping in mind the population that they are trying to reach. At Skillspire, we are training these diverse population so that they will be the innovators of these AI-powered technologies.


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