Overlooking the Bay Bridge on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill there is an apartment filled with coders who tap away throughout the day on their laptops in hopes of building the next great tech company. This unit is like many other coding houses scattered across the Bay Area, with computer chords and MacBook laptops strewn all over like pieces of dirty laundry.
At the apartment, the team has just finished its first professional photoshoot -- a must for any startup with a respectable amount of funding. But quite to the contrary of other coding houses, this one is also riddled with little pink cupcakes and chocolate covered strawberries. The treats are ignored by the programmers, who are so busy working that they’re still in their photo-shoot getup. They’re not wearing hoodies or suits or anything you might expect from the typical brogrammer culture of Silicon Valley. These coders are in sparkly, messy dresses like they just got back from prom. Think “Girls” meets “Silicon Valley” with a dash of Vanity Fair.
“Yes!” yells Nicki Klein after hearing the description of her startup’s photoshoot.
Klein, 26, and co-founder Melissa Hargis, 33, have just begun work on their startup, Betagig, and recently made their first hires. All three of the interns happen to be female coders, creating a situation not often found in Silicon Valley: a coding house and startup made up entirely of women. And these women have no intention of hiding their personalities or trying to fit the Silicon Valley culture of bros and nerds.
“I am who I am, and it’s OK if I’m bubbly or if I don’t have the personality of a male,” said Hargis, a mother whose short curly brunette hair at times feels at odds with her numerous arm tattoos and her penchant for using curse words.
For Hargis and Klein, conforming with Silicon Valley stereotypes has never been part of the equation. The two, for example, are graduates of Sabio, a coding bootcamp based in Los Angeles that focuses on teaching women and people from diverse backgrounds. The same goes for two of their interns while the other intern graduated from the another coding bootcamp.
The entrepreneurs did not set out to exclusively hire women, but that’s what happened when they tapped into their network of coding bootcamp graduates. Klein and Hargis are open to hiring men in the future, but for now, they’re enjoying the perks of working on an all-female team. That includes not feeling any pressure to “play fucking video games,” as Hargis puts it, and enjoy listening to music not often played at other tech companies, such as Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift or the entire country genre.
“I like all music, but it’s nice to be able to play the girly music and rock out to it and not care,” Klein said.
Among many traditionalists in Silicon Valley, coding bootcamp graduates are often regarded as less-than when compared to software engineers from established computer science programs. Hargis and Klein, however, quickly put any questions about their education and coding abilities to rest.
After receiving countless rejections from investors, the pair decided to fund their ideas by winning as many hackathons as possible, and it didn’t take long for the plan to succeed. After just two Hackathons, the duo raked in $255,000 in prize money -- a quarter of a million coming entirely from winning San Francisco’s prestigious Launch Festival hackathon in March. As Klein and Hargis tend to do for all of their hackathons, the pair attended the LAUNCH competition dressed up in costume -- all part of their plan to throw off their rivals who are not used to seeing women who code, let alone women who learned how to code at coding bootcamps.
“We walk in and the place is full of dudes, of course, because that’s what the engineering world is like, and we know this and we use it to our advantage,” said Hargis, describing the 15th century queen outfits she and Klein wore. “We walk in in these ridiculous costumes, and everyone is like ‘Oh my god, who are these clowns.’ And then we end up…..” Hargis tails off as she raises the index finger on each of her hands and boastfully whispers, “first place.”
Betagig, their winning idea, is a service that lets users pay to book appointments so they can shadow professionals for a day. It's an idea that's aimed at high school juniors and seniors as well as college students who are trying to determine what career paths to follow.
"We are monetizing Take Your Kid To Work Day," said Klein, still wearing a full-length gold gown.
At the moment, Hargis and Klein are busy signing up businesses and colleges that have expressed interest in Betagig while also finishing up the code for the app. Hargis and Klein are hoping to launch this summer in the Bay Area. For about $99 or so -- the price is still being worked out -- students will be able to book a shadowing gig.
“You’re going to try before you buy. Before you pick a major, you go job shadow 15 times and figure out, ‘You know what, I really loved accounting,’” said Klein, explaining that the service will also guide students on the best course of action to their dream jobs that way students don’t accumulate a ton of debt if they don’t have to. "Steve Jobs never graduated from college. It’s not necessary for everyone.”
The pair came up with the idea for their web app just days before the hackathon. The two entrepreneurs were on a stroll through San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in search of their queen costumes. Haight-Ashbury is famous for being a hippie destination filled with interesting characters -- spotting someone wearing nothing but a crotch sock, for example, is an everyday occurrence -- and that got Hargis’ mind wandering.
“I go ‘Wouldn’t it be so great if there was an app where you could beta test someone’s life … you could take a tour of their life for a day,’” Hargis said. “And I was like ‘No, but for careers!’” Klein chimed in.
The idea and their execution impressed the judges at the Launch Festival Hackathon and earned Hargis and Klein a spot in the latest cohort of the Launch Incubator. “They have the intelligence, the drive, they’re very enthusiastic and eager to work on this,” said Ashley Whitehurst, chief of staff at Launch.
Already, Betagig has drawn interest from the likes of UPS, IBM and other companies, according to Klein and Hargis. For them, the benefit in working with Betagig is that they would be instantly connected with students who have already expressed interest in the jobs their companies offer. “It’s well established that what you do in your academic life does not necessarily mirror what you’re going to do in your professional life, and that gap needs to be bridged,” said Liliana Aide Monge, CEO of Sabio. “Betagig is bridging that gap.”
Betagig success thus far is a testament to Hargis and Klein’s coding bootcamp education as well as women’s abilities to code and be entrepreneurs as successfully as any male Silicon Valley nerd, Monge said.