Elizabeth Lindsey has always been an advocate for the transformative impact of education.
Growing up in a financially unstable household, she was the first in her family to go to college, an opportunity she never took for granted. It makes sense then that her career path should lead her to a role where she helps others realise their potential, by offering greater access to education.
Elizabeth is now Executive Director of Byte Back, a nonprofit organisation that provides free tech courses and career advice for unemployed adults in DC.
She spoke to us about the growing gulf in class in the US and how her past failures led her to her dream job.
Why do you think Byte Back has made such an impact?
We’ve always really understood that the world of tech and IT provides opportunities for people without college degrees to move into life changing careers – that’s always been our focus. We’re one of the only organisations in the country that you can go to when you have zero tech skills. We work with our students at that very beginners level and help them into more advanced training and living wage careers. We’ve developed our curriculum to support these people who haven’t had the opportunity to go to college.
What’s been the biggest evolution in your company to date?
We’re much larger than we were 20 years ago – we were operating out of a house as a small community initiative. We now have a budget of over 2.5 million, we have 17 staff and we teach over 700 people a year. That’s been really huge for us.
From an industry perspective tech has become more ingrained in our society in a way we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago – before smartphones, uber or Facebook. Every moment we’re using tech, whether it’s helping your kids with their homework or applying for a job. Even jobs we may think of as low skilled jobs now require some use of tech – it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to survive – let alone thrive – in society without technology.
Do you think tech advances in education have created more opportunities or widened the gulf for people from a disadvantaged background?
I think the answer is both – across the developed world we’ve seen a big gulf between those who are highly educated and those who are not.
In the US it’s near impossible to move into the middle class – more and more jobs require medium to high levels of digital skills.
Reports on the digitalisation of our workforce show that in 2002 there were 28 million more jobs that somebody with low tech skills could get – now those jobs require medium to high levels of skills.
On the other hand, with training it’s possible for someone to move into the middle class or a computer based career. So even though that gulf between low skilled and high skilled workers has widened, with some training people can really progress and that’s exciting.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you?
Running a nonprofit organisation is always a challenge because of resource constraints. We always want to do more – there’s 100s of 1000s of people across the country who could benefit from our services but it’s finding the resources to make that happen.
How do you think companies can nurture better diversity in the tech sector?
I’m in the interesting position where I run an organisation in tech in DC in the nonprofit sector which is naturally much more diverse than a private tech company in Silicon Valley.
I think people are generally really comfortable hiring people who look like them – I don’t mean physically but people who come from the same background, who talk the same way who come from the same types of families and I think that’s really a challenge for us getting Byte Back students hired.
The tech sector really needs to figure out ways to value different experiences and backgrounds because the current situation isn’t working. Women and people of colour are more likely to hire diverse people so until we change the C-suite it’s not going to improve. Another challenge is that a lot of American employers don’t want to train people anymore. We create these barriers such as you have to have a certain level of education.
Someone could have core talents and the ability to learn really fast but if you’re saying from the get-go that you need to start with a high level of skill and companies are unwilling to invest in training then we’re just replicating systems of oppression, inequality and limited access.
If people are unable to access that level of education before because of the community they come from, the income level they come from, their socioeconomic status then they’re never going to be able to get into the job at all. I think companies really have the responsibility to provide training if they’re serious about building a diverse workforce.
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What do you think has been the biggest factor in shaping your career?
Failures are the things that really drive me and drive us to do better. At my previous organisation we had to lay off some of our employees. I had just started and I wasn’t asking the right questions and I wasn’t really paying attention to our financials like I should have been. I found out too late that we weren’t in the financial position I thought we were and we ended up having to lay off some of our staff which I obviously found really difficult. That really drove me to learn nonprofit fundraising and financing in a way I hadn’t before. It’s the reason I got my current job because I had to develop that skillset. It drove me to be a manager who asks better questions which I think is really important.
What does the future hold for Byte Back?
We are really excited we are going to be finalising a growth plan so that we can really take these resources and excitement about us and expand beyond DC and the DC suburbs. As I said earlier there’s so many people who could really benefit from Byte Back whose lives could be transformed and move into careers and diversify the tech sector. It’s amazing that we had people who were homeless who are now in full time IT positions. Quite frankly we wouldn’t be able to plan to the level we are without the resources from WeWork and the Creator Awards.
What was your dream career as a child?
I had a lot of dream careers! I really wanted to be a teacher, I used to play class with my dolls where I would do out a lesson plan on Egypt and the pyramids and stuff. I was a really nerdy kid – well I’m still a really nerdy adult but I just loved teaching my dolls. I don’t think I’d love to be a teacher now – I love what I do but I love that part of what I do is support teachers – facilitating teaching. I loved school.