Women Who Code CEO Alaina Percival: “Well-managed mistakes can lead to powerful learning experiences”

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. This is an important one for me, especially in a growing organization like Women Who Code. What I’ve found is that well-managed mistakes can lead to powerful learning experiences, which can change the organization for the better, and lead to growth. As a part of my series about strong female […]

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Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. This is an important one for me, especially in a growing organization like Women Who Code. What I’ve found is that well-managed mistakes can lead to powerful learning experiences, which can change the organization for the better, and lead to growth.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alaina Percival, Chief Executive Officer of Women Who Code, a global nonprofit dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers. Under Alaina’s leadership, Women Who Code has grown to serve more than 180,000 women in 20 countries and 60 cities across the globe. This thriving movement offers more than 1,800 free technical and leadership events, per year. In addition to her role at Women Who Code, Percival is an accomplished tech speaker, appearing at WSJ.d Live, CodeMotion Milan, Grace Hopper, Columbia University’s Social Enterprise, MIT’s Venture Capital and Innovation Conference and more. Alaina has been interviewed by Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Wired, and other publications across the globe to share her expertise on best practices for increasing diversity in tech.Prior to Women Who Code, Alaina worked at PUMA’s headquarters in Germany, as well as Riviera Partners, and, acquired by Yahoo. Alaina is also an angel investor, a Venture Partner at Valor Ventures, and CodePath Advisor.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have chosen women empowerment opportunities throughout my career, and that is something that has been really important to me throughout my life. I ended up moving into tech due to some opportunities that I took advantage of, but also because I saw the world-changing and every industry becoming a tech industry. With that move, I worked to deepen my technical skills, and as I did, I developed a passion for supporting the women around me and doing everything I could to help and inspire them to excel in their careers.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

 The most interesting stories are the stories of success that we hear from our community and our Leaders. Things like, the woman in Toronto who stepped up as a Women Who Code leader and in under two years she had moved from being an individual contributor to being a team lead, then a Director, and she is now a VP. There’s also the WWCode leader in Mexico who received a 200% increase in salary after less than a year of being with WWCode. Another woman was told by SpaceX that they were excited to talk to her during an interview, because of her experience with WWCode.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It’s not really funny, but it’s something that I found really interesting. When I moved from the corporate, for-profit world, into the nonprofit sector, I was under the impression that companies and clients would be more supportive of charitable causes since they were mission-driven. However, what I’ve found from my work over the years is that they actually just have higher expectations for nonprofits, while also expecting to contribute less. I had a potential partner tell me they expected a 5x return on any funds they contributed to us — I thought, ‘you are looking for a Ponzi scheme, not social impact.’

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Just one of the ways that I feel Women Who Code stands out is that we’ve given away more than $1.8 million in code school and university scholarships. Early on, this was simply an avenue to support people who were just getting started in tech, but it wasn’t really our main focus because our target demographic is women who are already in the industry. However, we quickly realized what a powerful impact that kind of support could have when one of the first people to receive a scholarship was a single mother that was living below the poverty line. Through that opportunity, she was able to make a career transition and today that woman is a software engineer at a major tech organization. That’s level of success is already something that will have a generational impact on the opportunities that she and her family will have in the future.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We just recently launched a series of Track Communities that are focused on creating and developing deep learning communities focused on important technologies. We also serve the community with virtual and in addition to in-person events and that expands our reach exponentially; allowing us to provide support and educational career development to far more people around the world.

We also have an endeavor called project Taara, in partnership with VMware, it is an initiative focused on reskilling 15,000 women in India who have left their tech careers to return to work. That’s in addition to the 1,900 free events that our local Networks across 20 countries host around the globe each year.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

It’s important to be able to step back and gain some perspective on your company. You also need to use the resources necessary to invest in your team, but that is important for all leaders, not just women.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Focus on empowering people to take on responsibility for different tasks and areas of work. As your team grows, your ability to be present with every issue that arises is going to diminish. That’s why it is important, even early on, to enable people to take on leadership positions, and to empower them to own various aspects of the organization.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people who have contributed along the way. I think one of the more simple, but most powerful messages I received was from one of our Board members, Lisa Calhoun. We were standing on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange after just having rung the opening bell, and we were taking photos of the occasion, while just being celebratory, hugging and laughing, and I asked whether we should take at least one professional picture. That’s when Lisa told me, “Alaina, you’re working to change the face of leadership. Be yourself.” I carry that message with me as I approach different challenges.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The entire goal of Women Who Code is to elevate the opportunity for women to be more successful in their careers. We are working to change the face of leadership to reflect the diversity of underrepresented and marginalized people not only in the U.S. but across the globe.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

When you are leading a company you have to be whatever that organization needs you to be. You don’t get to pick a single role that you find the most fun and have that be your career. This is especially true in an organization that is young and growing as fast as Women Who Code; adaptability is key. 
 Find the best people and empower them. You’ll never be able to do it all on your own. The strength and the talent of the people on your team are what will ensure that your organization is the best. 
 Develop policies for an organization that is ten times the size that it currently is. While you might not need a specific policy right now, it is important to put it in place, because once you do need it, it will be much harder to implement retroactively. 
 Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. This is an important one for me, especially in a growing organization like Women Who Code. What I’ve found is that well-managed mistakes can lead to powerful learning experiences, which can change the organization for the better, and lead to growth. 
 Stay focused. There are so many good opportunities that will come your way. But if you try to do too much then eventually you’ll start failing, or at least you won’t be succeeding in everything. You have to be willing to choose where to put your energy and focus. 
 You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to see an organization really move the needle and shift access to privilege and opportunities in our society. This can be addressed in many different ways, but cultural change is essential.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” — T.S. Eliot
 This is a quote that has really helped my mindset and allowed me to see through barriers, and move past moments that have been particularly challenging in growing a community and an organization.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’ve always been particularly inspired by Richard Branson and his unique path as a business leader across multiple organizations, as a philanthropist, and all while maintaining a love for life and a sense of adventure.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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