Valerie Witt could have stayed with what was familiar and comfortable for her and continued to work as an elementary school teacher.
After going through a divorce last year, though, and facing how to provide and care for her three young children as a single mom, Witt said she felt like “there was more out there for me.”
“It is a really scary leap to take,” the 34-year-old who lives in Layton said, but trying something new was “absolutely worth it.”
Witt now works as an area partnership manager with the Provo-based company Skill Struck, which provides a computer science education platform to schools. This move wouldn’t have been possible, she said, without a new program in Utah called Tech-Moms.
The culture in the tech industry “hasn’t always felt welcoming to women,” said Robbyn Scribner, one of the co-founders of Tech-Moms. Meanwhile, tech companies have realized they need more diverse talent and are looking to hire more women. Tech-Moms serves as a bridge, she said, helping women transition into those careers.
Last fall, Witt was among nearly 30 participants who went through the program’s first two cohorts. This spring, Tech-Moms is running two more groups in Ogden and Lehi, in partnership with Weber State University and Utah Valley University. They are also working on launching Tech-Moms Latina, Scribner said, as well as an online version for Utahns who live in rural parts of the state.
Scribner and her partners, Mikel Blake and Trina Limpert, began working on the program in 2019. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Scribner said they sat down and asked one another, “Can we still do this? Is this the right time?”
”The more we thought about it, we realized it was actually the perfect time,” Scribner said, because so many families and women’s careers “were hit so hard” by the COVID-19 economic downturn.
“One of the main reasons that women come to us, in addition to better pay and opportunities, [is] women are really looking for flexibility,” Scribner said. Trying to balance work and caregiving responsibilities is not a new issue, she said, but the pandemic definitely exacerbated it.
‘Capable of anything’
Generally, there are two groups of women that come to Tech-Moms, Scribner said. Either they’re women who have taken a career break or never had a job, who realize they need help getting into the workforce, she said, or they’re already working in a different industry and want to transition to tech.
Del Yarisantos, of Riverton, was working in sales in the food and manufacturing industry when a tech startup reached out and offered her a job. She took the gig, and “these guys were teaching me a lot of things that I didn’t realize that I was capable of,” she said.
“It made me realize that I was the only person that was really stopping myself,” the 31-year-old said.
Yarisantos dreams of becoming a sales engineer, and she said she wants to show her daughters, who are 5 and 9, “that they’re capable of anything.”
“In order to be that example, I have to kind of go after the things that I want,” she said.
When Witt started with Tech-Moms, she said she remembers one of the founders telling them “this is going to be an emotional journey.” That rang true for her.
Growing up, Witt said she was raised with the expectation that she would be a stay-at-home mom.
“Doing something beyond that wasn’t even a possibility for me, culturally,” Witt said, and getting past that mindset has been one of the hardest steps in moving toward her new career path.
“That’s not something that happened overnight, and it’s not something that happened from just taking this class,” Witt said. Although, Tech-Moms “was a huge piece of it.”
“You have to have that mindset that you’re going to work hard and overcome things,” she said. “But it also has to come with people [telling] you that it’s possible, … helping provide you the tools.”
She’s found it helpful to think about why she took this leap and pushed herself.
“For me, I’m doing it for my kids. I’m doing it for myself,” Witt said, as she became emotional. “I’m doing it for other women who wouldn’t have these opportunities” if there weren’t people “blazing the way and telling them that they can do it.”
How the program works
While it’s called Tech-Moms, participants don’t have to have children to join, Scribner said. “You just need to identify as a woman,” she said.
The process begins by filling out an application on the program’s website, she said, followed by an interview to go over the person’s background and how the program works.
“We’re not a full coding boot camp,” Scribner said. Rather, Tech-Moms helps people take the first steps toward additional education or entry-level jobs.
The program is for six hours every Saturday for nine weeks, with day care available for people who need it. By the end, participants create their own simple website, Scribner said.
Paulette Grunwald, of West Valley City, created a self-care website, which she said she hopes to keep up with. The 47-year-old signed up for Tech-Moms to freshen up her skills, as she works as a temporary information technology specialist in customer support at the VA hospital. She’s also joining a software developer camp at Western Governors University.
“The Tech-Moms experience basically is helping me get into the 21st century because coding is so high in demand right now,” she said.
Part of what made Tech-Moms affordable, Grunwald said, were the scholarships and sponsorships that helped cover the costs. While students generally pay about $400, the program is actually closer to about $3,000, Scribner said.
“Even women who can’t afford that $400, we work something out with them,” she said. “… We don’t want an inability to pay to be the reason that any woman does not do our program.”
They also have laptops available for those who don’t have a computer, she said.
After women finish the program, Scribner said they have an ongoing Slack channel to share job leads, scholarships and trainings. They can share their resumes or practice for an interview with one another.
“We tell our students, ‘Once a tech mom, always a tech mom,’” Scribner said.
Tech jobs are mom jobs
According to Scribner and her partners, “tech jobs are great mom jobs” because they generally offer higher pay. The industry is also growing quickly in Utah, “so there is really a lot of opportunity for women,” she said. Plus, these roles offer more flexibility than other jobs might.
When Witt worked as a teacher, she’d have to scramble to find a sub when her children were sick. But with her new job, her 5-year-old slept on the bed next to Witt while she worked from home earlier this month.
Through Tech-Moms, Witt learned “there are actually jobs out there that will meet your needs.”
“If you want a job with X, Y and Z, you make a list of the things that you want in your dream job, and then you go after those companies that have those things,” she said. “And so that’s what I did.”
“We take this massive industry called technology, and we shorten it into half a word and call it tech and say, ‘OK, everybody gets it,’” when, really, “they don’t,” Limpert, CEO of RizeNext, told attendees at a virtual Women in Tech panel on March 12.
With Tech-Moms, “we really have to demystify this industry and explain what the opportunities are and give them enough of an understanding of the tech industry to be able to find their right fit in it,” she said.
And while there are similar national programs, Tech-Moms was created specifically for Utah women, Scribner said, who tend to have some or no college experience and are more likely to work part time.
“One of the major challenges that we have is we have all these companies coming to us, saying, ‘We need diverse talent. We want women,’” Scribner said. But they’re only looking for upper-level talent.
Scribner said she explains that if you want a senior software developer, you needed to hire a junior software developer five years ago. And if you hire women at an entry-level position, you can train them into these higher roles.
“If they want to diversify their workforces, they need to meet those potential employees where they are today and create those roles and then promote and develop from within. That’s how we really grow a robust, diverse workforce,” she said.
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.