Arlene Mulder solves the digital skills gap

WeThinkCode is a tech institute which provides tuition-free software development training to young South Africans. Founder Arlene Mulder wants to close the digital skills gap. Here's her story and a story from a recent Yoco intern.
Arlene Mulder, cofounder of WeThinkCode_.

Economic inclusion and equality of opportunity are the cornerstones of the Yoco vision. In our mission to support young South Africans in reaching their dreams, we formed a partnership with the non-profit organisation, WeThinkCode_, a tech institute which provides tuition-free software development training to young South Africans between the ages of 17 and 35.

Why WeThinkCode_? 

Well, that’s easy: Because they’ve been totally committed to their principles and unafraid of shaking things up. Because they’ve fearlessly disrupted the education sector by providing hundreds of young South Africans with tuition-free training, hands-on work experience and a path to employment into software engineering jobs in leading South African companies. Because their co-founder, Arlene Mulder, is a brilliant and extraordinary innovator with an unwavering passion for democratising education and solving the digital skills gap. Because they speak the same language as us: Education, opportunity, equality. In fact, we love them so much, we’ve written a story about Arlene’s journey to WeThinkCode_ success. Here goes.

Because this is something I really believe in, it keeps me going no matter what the challenges are.

The start of big things

Arlene Mulder is a powerhouse of a woman, whose courage and determination are in equal proportion to her astounding intelligence. Growing up in Pretoria, she developed an early love for Mathematics and went on to complete a Masters Degree in Business Mathematics and Informatics at the University of Potchefstroom. She was then recruited into the graduate programme at Rand Merchant Bank (RMB), where she spent her first two years building credit rating models. Thereafter, she joined their Corporate Finance team as a Deal Maker.

It was during her time at RMB that Arlene truly began to comprehend the power of coding and it’s remarkable ability to solve business problems. While tasks like compiling comparable models could ordinarily take up to 3 days, Arlene realised that simply coding a couple of plugins could reduce the task to 3 seconds.

“That’s the thing about coding,” she says excitedly. “You get to design and create anything you can imagine. Contrary to popular belief, coding is extremely innovative and creative.”

Arlene’s path took an interesting turn when RMB asked her to speak at their Day 1 Conference. The topic was ‘The Competitor Landscape”, and she explored the premise that their biggest competitors were no longer other banks, but rather tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook.

“I interviewed various CEOs and business heads as part of my research, and quickly noticed how many of them were grappling with questions on how new technologies could potentially disrupt their business,” says Arlene. “All of them were asking the same question: ‘Where are we going to find the talent we need to execute on these new digital strategies?”

Confronting the digital skills gaps

More and more, Arlene felt drawn to solving the digital skills gap. She met her co-founder, Camille Agon, and they began to research global solutions in education. Soon, they discovered a groundbreaking, tuition-free computer programming school in France called 42. Inspired by their peer-to-peer learning model, Camille and Arlene flew to France and negotiated exclusive rights to 42 in Sub-Saharan Africa. By January 2015, at just 30 years old, Arlene had left her corporate job and co-founded WeThinkCode_.

“Camille and I shared a very clear vision to democratise education. This vision is based on the premise that while aptitude is equally distributed, opportunity is not,” says Arlene. “More than anything, we hoped to unlock the potential of smart young people and expose them to employment and business opportunities.”

Intern story

Philip

Philip is one of the first interns who joined us from WeThinkCode_. After starting in animation, Philip found himself in code. A couple of months later he got the chance to intern at Yoco. Here is what he had to say about the experience.

“From the first week it’s been a great experience… In the first week we got a good overview of the business. Then I joined the back-end team with Nick and I was learning Scala. After that I moved to the Online team for a little while, which involved front-end and some back-end work. The amazing thing is that I was working on actual production code that was going live. The most interesting part overall was the backend work where we were creating endpoints for FICA information and proof of delivery information. I did not expect to be working on core assets, so that was a highlight for me.”

The principles of WeThinkCode_ were clear from the start

Tuition must be free to students. “Only about 10% of students who start Grade 1 get the opportunity to go to tertiary,” explains Arlene. “And only 2% obtain a degree. In the first year of WeThinkCode_, I did a survey with our students, asking them whether they would’ve been able to study elsewhere if WeThinkCode_ had not existed. 89% of them said ‘no’.”

Peer-to-peer learning would replace the traditional teaching model. The benefits of this were twofold: On the one hand, Arlene and her team believed this to be the most effective model to learn to code and prepare students for the workplace . On the other, it benefited the business by eliminating the overheads of teachers’ salaries.

Education would be skills-focused. Students would do internships at their partners’ businesses to gain hands-on work experience. “Our measure of success is our students’ success,” says Arlene “Of the 200 000 applications we get, we find the students who truly want to be there. We take everything into account, from their aptitude through to their resilience, passion and motivation.”

Making a business of it

These seemingly idealistic principles converged to form the perfect business model: Effectively, WeThinkCode_ now had access to the highly skilled talent that businesses so urgently needed. Arlene then set about persuading corporates to give funding to WeThinkCode_ in return for access to that talent.

It’s been almost five years since WeThinkCode_ was founded, and the organisation continues to flourish and grow. Hundreds of students have earned a free education, and gone on to employment opportunities at the end of the two-year training programme. The organisation has partnered with both corporates and start-ups like Yoco, in an effort to diversify their partnerships and provide their students with more opportunities. WeThinkCode_ continues to thrive under its new CEO Nyari Samushonga, while Arlene remains passionate and involved as a board member.

“People said it was impossible, but we are doing it. We are enabling free education. And more importantly, we are providing the link between young people and the workplace.”

At the end of August, WeThinkCode_ launched WomenThinkCode=, a three-year programme aimed at attracting more women to join the WeThinkCode_ programme. The initiative aims to address the under-representation of women in tech by embarking on active steps to recruit more women, ensure retention of women over the two years they are enrolled in the WeThinkCode_ programme and successful absorption into the industry.

Advice to entrepreneurs

The WeThinkCode_ journey had many challenges along the way, but Arlene’s commitment to her vision afforded her a single-minded resilience that meant no challenge was too big. “Because this is something I really believe in, it keeps me going no matter what the challenges are,” she says.

Her advice to young entrepreneurs? Simple:
“Do something that you are really passionate about and believe in. You are going to give this business your heart and soul – you must be passionate about it. And trust your gut. The times I questioned my gut or ignored it, it was always a mistake. And then: Be slightly naive, and just go for it!”

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