Alexandra Clare never imagined that a law degree would see her become a social entrepreneur in the Middle East, but that’s exactly what happened. Two years after graduating, she moved to New York to undertake a Masters in International Affairs, with the plan to pursue a career in humanitarian advocacy. Time spent working with the UN however, exposed Clare to youths affected by war and ongoing conflict. It was somewhat of a catalyst for Clare, who, along with her co-founder and husband, went on to painstakingly build Re:Coded, a coding bootcamp for youths living in these war-torn locations. While the initiative comes from humble beginnings, these days, it has seen over 400 youths trained in coding, affording them safe employment options, and better pay.
Vogue was fortunate enough to talk to Clare about Re:Coded, in particular her leadership advice, challenges in business, and how she plans to scale over the coming 12 months. See the full interview below.
Where does your passion for empowering disadvantaged people through tech come from?
"In 2016, I had an opportunity to travel to Iraq as part of a peace-building initiative linked to my Masters program at NYU. There, I witnessed millions of Iraqis fleeing Mosul in the wake of ISIS, compounding the worst humanitarian and displacement crisis of our time. At the time, only three per cent of displaced youth had access to education, while dignified employment opportunities were scarce, poorly paid and highly exploited. Yet so many of the people that I met who had been displaced had advanced university degrees. I started to question, ‘how do you connect people affected by conflict to skills which enable them to find a job, whilst the economy around them was collapsing?’"
"At the same time, I was curious about how technology was changing the way we live and work. I became fascinated by the fact that coding bootcamps were quickly upskilling people in the US and Europe and enabling them to work remotely. So I did what any crazy person would do and decided to adapt the bootcamp model and found Re:Coded. The mission was to prepare conflict-affected youth to enter the digital economy as software developers and entrepreneurs."
So how did you go about building Re:Coded with your co-founder, Marcello?
"In 2016, we launched Re:Coded as a pilot program incubated at NYU. We wanted to focus on preparing youth for the future of work through high-end technical skills and imparting a life-long learning mindset. Coding also happens to be a skill that enables youth to transcend geographic boundaries with just a laptop and an internet connection and work remotely in the digital economy."
"But our ultimate goal when we started Re:Coded for our students to become leaders in their communities. And that is the most powerful multiplier effect.
What's your working relationship like with your co-founder?
"We are also husband and wife, so it’s a unique relationship. We’re together 24/7 which wouldn’t work for a lot of people but for us, has been a blessing. Marcello and I also have very different skill-sets, which as co-founders is such as asset. Marcello is extremely detail-oriented and analytical and I’m much more big-picture. We take on different roles based on our individual strengths."
What was one of the biggest hurdles you’ve faced?
"There were so many challenges when launching – from funding to implementing a program in a highly volatile context. However, I’m a big advocate for embracing failure as a way to learn. Working in countries affected by conflict also teaches you to get creative. For example, last year, the Iraqi army took over a city that is located an hour drive from our training centre, potentially putting our students at risk. We had to quickly come up with a contingency plan should the physical integrity of students be compromised. Thankfully it wasn’t necessary, but working in an uncertain environment has required us to adopt a flexible approach."
What's been your proudest moment to date?
"We are now the largest coding and startup program for conflict-affected youth in the Middle East. My proudest moments always come from seeing a student get their first job as a developer or launching their business. The success of our students feels like our success."
"I’m also very proud that 85 per cent of our students seeking employment are now working as software developers, earning at least three times more than what they were earning before. Over 40 per cent of our students are females too, ensuring that we are also bridging the digital gender divide in technology."
You've recently launched Re:Coded House – how did this project come to be?
"We’re committed to building tech ecosystems in an effort to bring long-term sustainability to our activities. In the last couple of years, we’ve created an incredible community of developers and entrepreneurs in Erbil but there was no place for them to convene, connect and grow together. We launched Re:Coded House to be that place. It’s an amazing space equipped with a state of the art training space, co-working space, meeting rooms as well as a makerspace. It is also where we’ll run our programs, encouraging the community to grow and learn alongside us."
What else is on the horizon for Re:Coded - any exciting projects in the works?
"There are so many exciting initiatives in the works! We are expanding our programs across the Middle East and Africa by refining our model to scale fast, but sustainably."
"We are also launching a new business vertical - Re:Coded Labs, our own digital agency. Re:Coded Labs will offer five services to purpose-driven organisations from website or app design and development to branding and content strategy. For the agency, we will hire the top talent coming out of Re:Coded programs. Moreover, part of the profits from Re:Coded Labs will be donated to Re:Coded, so we can continue to train more youth in countries like Iraq, Jordan and Yemen."
As a CEO, what’s your best tip for getting it done?
"I’m not sure that you can ever feel like everything’s all done running a startup! We work long hours, but I also believe it’s essential to create some boundaries. I’m dedicated to my morning routine which usually starts with a stretch, coffee, scrambled eggs and reading something just for pleasure. I also try to make some time in the day to move my body – whether that is going for a quick run or having a stretch at home.
"In terms of productivity, my biggest lesson has been to understand where I’m most essential as a leader, stay focused on that and not feel like I need to do everything. When you’re starting out, you tend to be involved in everything, but this year has been about learning to delegate. It’s definitely hard but it also gives other team members the opportunity to grow into new roles."