YWeb Career Academy celebrates success at Forward Festival

The five-year-old employment service program trains women and people of color to become web developers and designers.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Forward Festival, the now eight-day festival in Madison (Aug. 22–29) that celebrates entrepreneurship and innovation.

However, that’s not the only milestone being celebrated during the event. It’s also the five-year anniversary of YWeb Career Academy, an employment service program that trains women and people of color to become web developers and designers.

As a part of the Forward Festival activities, YWeb Career Academy is hosting an alumni reunion from 7–9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23 at 100state. It’s especially gratifying for Rasheid Atlas, the instructor at YWebCA and a web-centric designer, developer, and consultant, given the successes the program has achieved in a short time.

YWebCA has graduated more than 120 students over the last five years, notes Atlas, 57 percent of whom are women, and 76 percent people of color who face real barriers in life. The average YWebCA intern makes about $33,280 per year, while the average full-time employee makes about $53,180 a year once they’ve graduated from the program.

“We are currently operating at an 82-percent retention rate and now are in our 10th cohort,” says Atlas. “About half of our students go into tech employment or internships. The others tend to go into non-tech-specific employment or further their education. At least 12 students are currently freelancing or running their own business successfully.”

It’s not just employability that results from completing the YWebCA program. A number of students have gone directly from interning with local companies into full-time jobs with the same organization, earning between $40,000–$65,000 a year.

“These salaries are lifting families out of poverty,” explains Atlas. “In a conversation with a past YWebCA graduate, we learned that she [recently] purchased her first home. This was especially inspiring because this woman had experienced homelessness as a child.”

Breaking down barriers

Carolyn Pao, one of the reunion organizers, is a YWeb alum and a current employee at Curate Solutions in Madison.

A former teacher, Pao credits YWebCA for being the support system she needed to make my career change happen in less than a year. “Without the academy or YWCA, I would either be still looking for a job in the tech field or substituting for my old school district just to make ends meet.”

YWeb Career Academy instructor Rasheid Atlas, program graduate Carolyn Pao, and YWCA Madison CEO Vanessa McDowell.

Pao’s stint in the YWebCA lasted about three-and-a-half months, during which time she learned to code in various programming languages. More than that, the academy also included tours of local tech and startup companies, as well as professional development opportunities like mock interviews with professionals and programmers in the field; networking opportunities; entrepreneurship sessions on topics like budgeting, management, business plans, and website development; and one-on-one sessions with mentors and advisors to build on personal goals and provide resources.

These kinds of activities play a major role for many of the YWeb students landing a job, explains Pao, and such was the case for her. During her time at the academy, Pao’s class participated in a tour at 100State, the local nonprofit coworking space, and through them she met Taralinda Willis, CEO and co-founder of Curate Solutions, where Pao now works as a project assistant.

Pao’s YWeb experiences also led to the creation of All Around Music Online Lessons, a startup that Pao and her partner, Christopher Pinon, began because of the opportunities presented to both of them while she was a student at the academy.

“The YWeb resources are not only exclusively for students, but also their families and loved ones, as well,” notes Pao. “My partner and I felt supported, empowered, and encouraged to become part of a growing industry. When I asked for help, there was always someone at the YWCA who was willing to provide aid, whether it be in coding, managing my business/career, or practicing my elevator pitch. I felt like I mattered at YWeb and I wouldn’t be here without them.”

That’s the sort of support that Atlas says makes YWebCA unique.

“I don’t know of any programs that have targeted the same demographic and provide the same services,” Atlas says of YWeb’s programming. “Over the years, as we’ve seen some success, we’ve watched many organizations try and duplicate something similar. We offer a very unique and critical component that many others cannot — the barrier removal — which allows our participants to train and know they have access to what they need, while feeling confident that they can complete the program and do well after.”

Removing barriers doesn’t just benefit YWeb students who find new careers after their training, continues Atlas. “If we don’t broaden the [pool] of tech employees, we won’t have tech that serves us properly. The technology, products, and teams are only improved by adding these people who’ve been overlooked in the past. In addition, if we don’t start training in our communities, we will always have to look outside for employees, forcing companies to leave because of the lack of trained candidates.”

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Local companies and organizations like Ten Forward Consulting, TASC, American Family Insurance, the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association (WFAA), and CUNA Mutual Group have all been regular employment partners for YWebCA over the past five years, though there have been many others, as well.

Ten Forward has repeatedly supported YWeb by continuously providing employment opportunity to participants, says Atlas, who they’re able to train and shape into the ideal employee through on-the-job training. “Others such as AmFam have shared that they’ve received better results and impact from some of our YWeb participants than they receive from some of their overseas vendors.”

For Pao, it was also important that YWeb gave her and her classmates opportunities to participate in workshops that altered their approach toward racial and restorative justice. “They gave us a chance to express our experiences in the workforce and how the community could uplift minorities in the tech industry. Adversity was something I had always carried with me, but YWeb gave me that extra confidence to stand up for myself and seek out opportunities I wouldn’t normal apply for.”

Forever Forward

Forward Festival is marking its 10 years with a number of returning favorite events, along with a variety of new activities looking at the future of technology and culture.

Since the festival began in 2010 with five events, it has seen an increase in yearly attendance to more than 4,000 participants. This year’s edition features more than 50 events, 37 of which are new.

“Since the start of Forward Festival, we’ve really expanded our definition of entrepreneurship and whom that includes,” Laura Strong, festival board member and clinical development director of Exact Sciences, said. “What makes this festival unique to Madison is that it’s run by our community. The events and what they reflect are meeting the needs of the community right now.”

The festival’s main event is the Forward Technology Conference, which takes place Aug. 26 at the Wisconsin Union. The keynote panel, featuring Lisa Calhoun of Valor Ventures, Donnel Baird of BlocPower, and Archna Sahay of Sahay Consulting, will discuss how to open access to venture capital funding to more diverse audiences.

Another key event this year is the Aug. 28 roundtable discussion on how to make Madison the best location to start and grow a business, hosted by Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.

Strong says there are a number of new events centered on diversity and inclusion, such as Attracting Diverse Employees and Retaining Them Through Inclusion, co-hosted by Madison Women in Tech, and Capital Challenges: Victories and Roadblocks in Access to Capital for Minorities and Women, hosted by American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact.

Another new event is Social Media for All of Us: Making Content Accessible and Inclusive, hosted by the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired.

In the area of social good, Forward Festival features a returning favorite, the Social Good Summit, as well as new events such as Business for Good, Code.forGood(), and Networking for Good.

Other returning favorites include the Badger Startup Summit on the first day of the festival, along with Parentpreneur, which brings together entrepreneurs who can share their experience as parents with others in the startup ecosystem.

“We also have our three pitch events back this year,” notes Strong. “The 5x5x5 is hosted by Doyenne and showcases five women-owned businesses that compete for $5,000. The Forward Festival Startup Showcase gives the community the opportunity to learn about up-and-coming companies that you may not have heard of yet. Finally, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce will host their Pressure Chamber, which provides startups looking to raise capital the chance to win a trip to Silicon Valley.”

A detailed listing of these and other events taking place during Forward Festival can be found at www.forwardfest.org.

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