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Skillspire students working together. (Skillspire Photo)

Despite his background in computer science, one of Yasmin Ali’s students had been stuck working warehouse jobs.

The man is an immigrant to the U.S. from Congo. His tall, fit stature told employers at a glance that he was qualified for physical labor, but as he explained to Ali, “I want to use my brain.”

So he signed up for classes at Skillspire, a Bellevue-based startup launched in 2016 that offers technology boot camps and specifically targets immigrant and refugee students. Now he’s interviewing for positions in the tech sector.

“Once they get to the other side, to a job, it’s extremely rewarding,” Ali said.

Many immigrants end up driving for ride-sharing companies, working low-paying jobs in health services and performing other physical tasks — even when they have computer skills from their home countries or U.S. tech programs. So Ali has been reaching out to Latino, African American, East African and Muslim community and religious organizations to find students eager to transition to tech careers.

Skillspire has five employees and classes are largely taught by part-time instructors who work in technology and also immigrated here. About 30 students have taken courses.

Skillspire is currently offering classes in two tracks: data analytics and full-stack web development. The courses run between 12-16 weeks and cost $2,000. Classes are held in the evening and weekends to accommodate people who are working. There are no scholarships available at this point, but Ali said the price can be discounted depending on an individual’s needs.

There are many other boot camps offered in the Puget Sound region, including Apprenti, an initiative of the Washington Technology Industry Association; Code Fellows and Ada Developers Academy.

Ali says that Skillspire fosters a special camaraderie given the students’ shared experiences, even when they’re from different countries. The program offers personal support for the students, including advice on job offers, practice with white boarding for interviews and help creating LinkedIn pages.

The students “are very comfortable. They ask questions and are very open in talking, and I am constantly in touch for any sort of mentorship,” Ali said. That has even included fashion advice for job interviews.

Over the next year, Ali says she will be building a network to connect with apprenticeship opportunities and she’s also working to bring more female students to Skillspire.

Ali is herself an immigrant, moving to the U.S. from India nearly 30 years ago. She has degree in computer science and worked for Boeing and startup companies.

“I wanted to bring to light that these people have struggled their whole lives and have reached [the U.S] and they are willing to do anything to make a good life for themselves and their families. They are so hard working and very loyal,” Ali said. She is troubled by the anti-immigrant messages and policies that are increasingly prevalent in the U.S. “Given this political climate, that is one of the biggest reasons I wanted to focus on this particular area. It is very near to my heart.”

We caught up with Ali for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Yasmin Ali, Skillspire founder and CEO. (Skillspire Photo)

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: Skillspire is bridging the opportunity gap that exists between diverse communities and the tech sector, thereby promoting diversity in technology companies.

Inspiration hit us when: A good friend of mine who left Microsoft to launch a startup mentioned the need for more skilled talent in the Seattle area. With the local tech industry clamoring for employees, we realized the potential for training local talent from diverse backgrounds. Why outsource our work to other countries, when we can effectively train students from under-represented communities here in the U.S.?

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Bootstrapping as much as we can. It would be great to setup a scholarship fund from local tech companies that can help people who cannot afford training fees.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: The personal mentorship and support that we provide for our students. The target population whom we deal with needs a lot of support building their confidence and they need help navigating the options and opportunities available in the tech industry.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: Building relationships with various organizations that work with different ethnic communities. By establishing trust with these groups and students, we have been able to build support within the community.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Not instituting an initial assessment of students. Going forward, we are strict about enrolling students with focus, commitment and the necessary grit to get into the tech sector.

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: I strongly believe in the “compassionate capitalism” that Bill Gates advocates. We need big tech companies to be willing to take our students and provide an apprenticeship or on-the-job training so that our students can get real world experience in the fast-paced tech sector. By giving a chance to nontraditional candidates, the companies gain access to a more diverse pool of employees. We need companies to meet these students halfway and help them grow technically, which will result in loyal employees in the long term.

Our favorite team-building activity is: Reaching out to various communities and educating them about the opportunities in the tech sector. This motivates my team to give back to the society in a meaningful way. And the impact it makes in a person’s life keeps them very motivated.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: People who believe in our mission to empower students from under-represented communities, minorities and women. They should be able to work with a diverse mix of students.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: If the work that you set out to do comes from a place of passion, followed by commitment and a “never give up” attitude, it is very rewarding.

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