If She Has Her Way, the Next Bill Gates Will Come From Lagos
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s massive talent and massive demand — and Christina Sass is playing matchmaker.
Electronic music is blasting, and in the dim green light you can barely make out the hoodies and startup scruff. The vibe at TechCrunch Disrupt, an annual Silicon Valley geekfest where the shiniest new startups compete for glory, is pretty male, pretty hacker and very trade show. All of which makes the next speaker quite the outlier. Crisp, eloquent and attired for the boardroom, Christina Sass is an island of poise in a sea of techie awkwardness.
She’s got to be. Unlike most of the other entrepreneurs at the event, Sass has an extensive career in nonprofit education work, and she’s not trying to sell anyone on the latest gadget or software solution. Rather, Sass is selling talent — to the tech founders, recruiters and HR managers who can’t seem to hire enough, or good enough, developers. Her company sources “world-class talent in untapped markets,” she says through her mic headset. That untapped market? Africa.
Sass, 37, is the cofounder and COO of Andela, a two-year-old company with outposts in Nairobi and Lagos and a very grand plan: cull the best and the brightest throughout a continent where even electricity is still sparse and, over four years, turn these developers into the next cadre of CTOs and global tech leaders. While plenty have tried to bring coding academies to developing countries, Andela stands out, and not just for its infinitesimal acceptance rate: In June it was handpicked by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to receive its first major investment, leading a round that totaled $24 million. Now sprinkled with Zuckerdust, Andela has turned from high-potential startup to veritable tech darling.
Andela isn’t based on principles of naive do-gooding, Sass insists. It’s “unabashedly for-profit,” with a business model that puts its fellows to work, full-time, within their first few months — remotely, and usually for the likes of name-brand companies like Google and Microsoft. Companies pay Andela a fee for each fellow. By graduation, the plan goes, the developers have learned a combination of coding and softer skills and are free to work wherever they want. Judging by the competition for spots, it’s a good deal for them: Two years in, some 45,000 applicants have vied for about 200 positions, an acceptance rate of less than 0.7 percent.
The idea of making money while doing good is not, of course, new. But in the realm of social entrepreneurship, Andela has a leg up — thanks largely to off-the-charts demand for software engineers, whatever their provenance. Already the ranks of top-flight companies in Silicon Valley are filled by engineers from China, India and Eastern Europe. Why shouldn’t African coders be there too?
It’s lunchtime at the “Dojo” in Nairobi, Kenya, Andela’s second African hub. The low-slung concrete building has brightly painted walls and conference rooms with names like Narnia, Hogwarts and Oculus (a new addition: fingerprint entry systems, to keep crucial IP safe and secure). In an outdoor courtyard, 66 fellows sit down at long wooden picnic tables to take the meal together, as they do every day. One woman, in her twenties, stands up to give a PowerPoint presentation about her passions (in this case, her family and cooking), to the cheers and teasing of her peers.
But beneath the smiles is pressure to perform. Every fellow will have his turn at the lunchtime presentation — it’s part of a philosophy that prizes emotional intelligence. After all, software developers work in teams, often remotely, which requires extreme attention to detail and to teammates. Should fellows fail to “level up” into a new skill set, even a soft-skill set, by a certain time, they’re cut. Andela is not a charity, after all.
The summer-camp gloss, though, is signature Sass — an effusive onetime teacher and camp counselor whose first job out of college was at the YMCA in Athens, Georgia, heading up youth programs. She spent the ensuing years working in schools in southeastern China and the Palestine territories, and even when she served as a high-powered foundation official in New York, she hung a sign inside the door of her Brooklyn apartment that read “How does this decision help young people?” Says Joshua Neckes, a friend and Andela adviser: ”In speaking with her, you’re able to connect with a part of you that wants to be driven by your virtue.”
Which is one reason those close to her believe that Sass could be headed for even bigger things: politics, heading up education policy or running a billion-dollar foundation. She’ll have “many more chapters, adventures, careers ahead,” says Reeta Roy, head of the MasterCard Foundation and Sass’ mentor. For her part, Sass says she plans on building Andela for “years and years and years.”
Sass cites her late father as the inspiration for her career; he was a German immigrant who came to America with $200 in his pocket and a single suitcase, and he spent 30 years working for IBM. He propounded the value of education to Sass and her brother, arguing it was the best investment they could make for themselves and for others. “It’s come full circle, because now IBM hires Andela developers,” she says.
Sass cofounded Andela after years of searching for the “right” way to do education, she says: “The idea was to find who was doing it best and who overlapped with my passions and skill sets.” After teaching all over the world, Sass worked on education for the Clinton Global Initiative for three years; then she moved to the MasterCard Foundation, where she spent two years working with African entrepreneurs and CEOs to rethink education. But at the “50,000-foot level” those foundations gave her, Sass failed to find what she was looking for. So, she says, she decided to help create it herself.
The sub-Saharan tech landscape barely existed a decade ago; today its features are made and remade every day. The first African “unicorn” is a Nigerian e-commerce company, and the country now has the world’s second-best Ruby developers, after Finland and above Switzerland, according to HackerRank. Zuckerberg just completed a whirlwind tour of Lagos’ tech hubs; Y Combinator is incubating three Nigerian startups. For Sass, Andela is a catalyst and beneficiary of all this movement, which, she hopes, will “lead to the equitable, responsible spread of the internet across the continent.” Already, the internet, and new jobs in coding, are erasing traditional employment barriers and knocking out some of the earlier prerequisites to the middle class — i.e., a traditional university education.
Case in point: Tolu Komolafe, a petite 26-year-old whom Sass calls Andela’s star developer. We meet at Philz Coffee, in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco. Komolafe recounts how she graduated university with a degree in computer science, but like many CS programs on the continent, it was heavy on theory and very light on coding skills; she was told she didn’t have enough experience to land jobs at mega-corporations. She applied to Nigerian startups too, but the CEOs asked her about her relationship status instead of her CV.
But at Andela, Komolafe excelled: Within three months, she had leveled up enough to start teaching the incoming cadres. The startup where she worked remotely as a developer invited her on-site, in New York, to help with a major code push. (The customs agent at JFK couldn’t believe that a tiny Nigerian woman was a coder, Sass and Komolafe each tell me, separately and pointedly.) Now, back in Lagos, Komolafe runs She Codes, an all-women outreach group at Andela to change perceptions of female coders. And, of course, to recruit.
Sass envisions a sort of exponential self-perpetuation, where Andela graduates like Komolafe become agents of technological growth. They’ll work to scale Andela, or advise government ICT ministries, or lead tech companies, or launch their own startups. Some believe that over the long run, Andela could spawn a massive pool of African tech talent, spurring tech giants to open engineering offices in Africa, not just sales offices. The coders seem to believe in Sass’ #culturesofexcellence and big dreams. “You’re looking at the next Bill Gates, the next Sheryl Sandberg,” says John Kariuki, a 23-year-old Nairobi-based fellow, gesturing toward himself and another fellow seated next to him.
And yet, some in Lagos’ burgeoning tech scene feel deeply disappointed about Andela: Even though it was launched in Nigeria and cofounded by Iyinoluwa “E” Aboyeji, a sort of startup king in Lagos, Andela is based in New York. Listen more closely to these concerns and you hear something like injured national pride, a barely missed opportunity to claim that Mark Zuckerberg invested in a Nigerian startup. And even beyond the nationalism, you’ll hear an anxiety about the effects of Andela’s money and connections on Lagos’ nascent tech sector. It’s great that African talent is getting exposed to the “global startup standard,” says Oo Nwoye, the Nigerian founder of Fonebase Labs, a Twilio for Nigeria. But there’s also “this worry that we would not be able to afford our own home-based talent. Right now we’re competing with the U.S. for our own talent,” he says.
Then there’s the problem that nearly every startup struggles with: retention. Four years is a long time in the startup world, and Sass worries that as fellows acquire more skills, they’ll be tempted to jump ship for Silicon Valley and its even higher salaries. To be sure, Andela is a great gig for a young Nigerian; he or she can make an income comparable to what the top global consulting firms, like KPMG, pay in Lagos. But it’s pennies put next to averages in Palo Alto or Mountain View or London. For now, Andela’s retention rate is around 88 percent, but the first class of Andela fellows doesn’t graduate until May 2018.
Of course, Andela’s draw to fellows isn’t just salary or the promise of social mobility; it’s also the camp camaraderie that Sass creates. As in Silicon Valley, the structure is flatter, more collegial and more meritocratic than at traditional corporations. For some, it feels much more like a community or a family than a job. Komolafe describes Andela as “a company where everyone believes in you and your ability. People are looking after you and making sure you are growing,” she says.
So Sass, for now, will keep moving among Nigeria, Kenya, New York and Silicon Valley. Soon, Andela will open another academy, in Ghana, Uganda or South Africa. The longer term raises different questions: “Is she going to be in politics? Run a foundation? Be a high-powered executive running a for-purpose company? It doesn’t really matter,” says Neckes. Whatever she’s doing, he says, Sass will probably still be asking: How does this decision help the next generation?