The Atlanta Non-Profit Foundation offers a path to success for women in technology

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In January 2020, Kelly Gilbert felt as if her life was on hold.

The new mother was suffering from postpartum depression. She had just quit her seven-year security job, unable to stand the pressure. To make extra money, she started driving for ride-sharing companies, but had to take her baby daughter. As she struggled to make ends meet, she faced eviction from her home.

“And I was overwhelmed. I knew I couldn’t give up, but I knew I didn’t have the energy to continue to have a brave face,” said Gilbert, 32. I didn’t have the quarrel inside me.”

Then a friend told Gilbert about a new program from the Atlanta-based nonprofit Women in Technology (WIT) that could help her launch her career in IT. The application was due within four days, so Gilbert contacted her sources, asked for urgent recommendations, and submitted the application in a timely manner.

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During the interview, she was sure that the commission would not take her seriously.

“How are you going to do this when you just left your job?” asked one of the team members.

“I’m going to show my daughter that she can do whatever she wants,” Gilbert replied in tears.

A few days later, while she was driving for Uber, Gilbert got the call. She was offered a place on the programme. “I felt like I had hope,” Gilbert said. “I said, This is your light.”

In a matter of weeks, a global pandemic will drive unprecedented numbers of women out of the workforce, making way for the lowest level of female labor force participation in more than three decades. Men have recovered all their losses in the workforce since February 2020, but there are still nearly 1.1 million fewer women in the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest monthly jobs report.

Thirty years ago, a group of women launched Women in Technology because they hadn’t seen other women in leadership roles. At the time, they were mostly interested in networking, said Patty Desmocks, chair of the WIT board of directors.

When they thought of ways to get more women into preparation, they formed programs for girls in middle school and high school with a career interest in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. Eventually, they would expand into college, but two years ago, they realized that in order to build on their mission, they would need to rethink how women entered the field.

Job growth in STEM fields has increased 79% since 1990 while total employment has grown 34%, based on data from Pew Research. In 2022, women are expected to hold 25% of technical roles at large tech companies despite representing 32.9% of the total workforce, according to Deloitte Insights. Women seem to lose out in the world of technology.

“Everyone fishes from the same pond and colleges can’t educate and graduate people fast enough in IT,” Desmaux said. “We have to look differently at how to provide talent.”

In partnership with Emory University, the Institute of Technology and Technology has launched a program geared toward getting more than 300,000 single moms in Georgia out of low-paying jobs into technology. Gilbert was among the first 20 mothers to graduate from the program.

Gilbert’s car was restored because she could no longer make the payments, but she was excited. Every Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Gilbert would take an Uber to Sheltering Arms where caregivers looked after her daughter while she was nearly in class. WIT covered the cost of Uber and daycare. The organization also provided laptops and Internet access to all attendees and distributed food vouchers to ensure that the women got a meal.

Gilbert, who was previously interested in information technology but has little formal experience, said the course was sometimes overwhelming. The teachers and her classmates all collaborated to make sure she understood the concepts they had learned. Each week she completed several homework, and if she was not able to complete the labs during class on Saturday, she had to make sure it was delivered by Sunday evening.

A week after completing the 12-week course, she interviewed six companies.

Desmoux said her entry into IT was a fluke but that she was good at solving problems. At WIT, she knew she could help change lives. The single mother program was so successful – 100% of the 40 women who graduated were placed in jobs – that they launched a new program that follows a similar pattern but has a broader scope. Career Connexions is a virtual program and targets women nationwide who are changing careers, re-entering the workforce, never earned a college degree or want to increase their income and leave low-paying jobs.

It starts with a 7-week introductory course on IT fundamentals before moving on to a 12-week internship in cybersecurity or data analytics. Women accepted into the program after a two-step interview paid $500 in tuition fees. They must maintain grades of 80% or above, attend all classes and agree to accept the job. Partner companies pay a placement fee of $15,000 which covers additional training costs. The last date for applications for first grade is April 9.

“We’re bringing in unconventional candidates, and if you don’t start thinking about unconventional candidates, you’re going to be left behind,” Desmaux said. “Finding a job is the hardest thing. We want women to understand that it is not just about getting a degree, it is ensuring that we will connect you with the right companies to get the jobs.”

When Gilbert was paired up with Equifax, she called it “Divine Intervention.” The job aligns with her skill set and goals, she said, and within 12 weeks she’d gone from just a cost to getting a 400% salary increase.

“Sometimes I feel infidelity,” she said. “You don’t think you deserve these blessings, but when you get them, you realize that you deserve them.”

Her daughter turns three next month, and Gilbert, who works remotely, has been able to move into her house and trade in her car.

She moves forward with the firm belief that even when setbacks seem to discourage you, you can find the light that keeps you going.

This originally appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is published here in partnership with Press Exchange Solutions.


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