Startup Institute offers professional jump-start, future in tech

By Andrew Deck

Malaika Nicholas was working a minimum-wage retail job before her time at the Startup Institute New York.

“I was paying off my undergrad student loans through retail, but I couldn’t afford a master’s degree,” Nicholas recalled. “I didn’t have many options, but I needed a change. I thought about how I could get out of this situation, not get paid minimum wage, and reach my full potential.

“The Startup Institute was the door to that new life,” she added.

Nicholas enrolled in the eight-week summer session of the Startup Institute, a “career accelerator” located in the Financial District that teaches students the technical, cultural and networking skills to succeed in the startup world.

“I wanted to make a dramatic move that would get me five steps ahead,” Nicholas said. “I moved to New York with 100 bucks in my pocket, not knowing anyone, saying, ‘This is it.’”

Nicholas joins the ranks of more than 1,000 Startup Institute alumni worldwide. Whether it is a 20-something looking for a career jump-start, like Nicholas, or a seasoned professional looking for a career pivot, students at the Startup Institute’s campuses in Boston, Chicago and New York are all seeking a path to employment and success in the startup world.

Making the switch

Nicholas’ desire to start fresh professionally is shared by many in the current economy.

Job stability — the amount of time it takes for an employee to change jobs — has increased in the past few years, according to a 2014 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many attribute the increase to employees’ post recession fear that they will not be able to find better employment.

Even though workers aren’t as quick to change jobs, many are still unhappy in their current positions. According to a January 2015 Gallup poll, 51 percent of employees are not engaged at work. And 80 percent of job seekers are looking for positions outside of their current industries, according to a report by Indeed Hiring Lab.

When the Startup Institute was founded in Boston in 2012, its founders recognized this professional disillusionment.

“The initial impetus for the Startup Institute was a combination of two factors,” said Shaun Johnson, co-founder and New York City program director of the institute. “That individuals wanted to find careers that they cared about and that there was a dearth of talent and employees who could get the job done for high-tech companies.”

Since its founding, the Startup Institute has cultivated a network of 1,000-plus alumni, who have left jobs in a range of industries, including finance, consulting and retail, for a place in the startup-tech ecosystem. Some have even gone on to found their own startups.

LendLayer, a company that offers student loans for accelerated learning programs, such as coding boot camps, was founded by Startup Institute alumnus Steve McGarry and recently acquired by PayPal CTO Max Levchin. And Fooze, founded by Boston Startup Institute alumnus Lisa Wang, is riding the one-tap food-delivery app boom with the promise of “late-night munchies.”

Most of the institute’s alumni, however, find success in software development, marketing and account positions at burgeoning startups and major tech companies, including Twitter and Spotify.

A day in the life

“The first week at the Startup Institute is considered a boot camp,” Johnson said.

“It’s about acclimation to working in a startup, thinking about your career and thinking about what track you want to enter,” he added, referencing the four concentrations the program offers: technical marketing, Web development, Web design, and sales and account management.

When the students come in each day, “practitioner teachers” — who are entrepreneurs or people in the tech industry — instruct them on how to thrive in the startup community as well as teach specific technical skills in their chosen track.

“Practitioner-led educators are not the [traditional] elbow patch, professorial type,” Johnson said.

Rather, they are part of a mutually beneficial arrangement, where teachers train students who they may later hire.

“Our mentors get to see our students evolve inside a petri dish and get first dibs on the talent in exchange, and our students learn lessons that are ineffable, that you can’t grasp from reading a textbook,” Johnson said. “They also may find their next boss or their next mentor.”

Coming from an undergraduate environment, Nicholas felt the difference in her interactions with teachers. “I’m used to college where it’s like, ‘I have office hours. Don’t bother me,’” she said.

Nicholas even found mentorship from her peers. 

“Lauren Stewart is also a black woman doing the program, and she understands what it’s like to be in the tech space,” Nicholas said. “She understands me on a different level. She really became a big sister to me, offering support and feedback. “

“Partner projects” give students the chance to learn from each other. Students are broken up into teams with students from every track, and each Thursday, they spend a day working on a project at a local startup.

One team this summer was assigned to Krossover, a New York-based sports statistics startup that faced a surplus of data and no digestible way to communicate that data to their users. The team was tasked with creating a website and UI that presented Krossover’s stats effectively. By engaging with local startups and facing real-world deliverables, the Krossover team applied their technical skills and received on-the-job training.

After the Startup Institute

Eight weeks culminate in a demo day, where students pitch themselves as employees to 100-200 startups and prospective employers.

“It’s an opportunity for them to get on stage and tell their story, to crystallize the narrative that they’ve had inside,” Johnson said.

For Nicholas, demo day was an opportunity to show how much she has grown.

“I wanted to show how confident I’ve become in the last eight weeks,” she said. Following her presentation — a talk about the women of color who have inspired her to be a better writer, a better innovator and promote diversity — Nicholas had employers lining up to meet her.

Now two months after Demo Day, Nicholas is working as a talent consultant at Dashlane.

“Basically I’m tech recruiter in training,” she said. She is also applying her social media and marketing skills part-time to a recently founded startup. Nicholas says the position in recruiting wasn’t expected, but she is excited to have a personal hand in diversifying the tech industry.

Looking back, Nicholas is grateful for the new start the Startup Institute gave her.

“I was stuck before. I was in a hole. I didn’t know what to do, how to grow,” Nicholas said.

“Who would’ve thought that I would go from a freelance writer working a horrible underpaid retail job to a writer, marketer and advocate for diversity in the tech space in less than three months,” she added. “The Startup Institute was the place where I reinvented myself.”

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