Yesterday morning, founder of 23 Code Street, Anisah Osman Britton, talked to us about diversity in the workplace and how she is making coding accessible to women.

Anisah Osman Britton has been taking on the tech world since founding her own company at the age of 19, winning her the title of the IPA's Young Entrepreneur of the Year. It was then that she began teaching herself to code. When she started work at startup and innovation accelerator, The Bakery, she realised that she could no longer ignore the inequality and lack of diversity in the tech industry. With this in mind, Anisah set out to make coding accessible to women, founding 23 Code Street and running the first classes in the summer of 2016.

23 Code Street runs a 12-week course where students are taught the basics on becoming developers. They learn in an informal, inclusive environment designed to "counteract the problems of learning in a male-dominated industry." At the heart of 23 Code Street lies Anisah's belief that a diverse workforce, which is representative of our society, is necessary to breed "inclusive and accessible innovation".

Looking further afield, Anisah and her co-founder Tom Salmon (founder of The Bakery) send 10-15% of profits to India, to pay for women in the slums of Mumbai to be taught digital skills. The emphasis is on learning new skills, not necessarily to become a developer, but to open new doors and transfer those skills to other industries.  

Anisah joined us for for breakfast in the conservatory at Dishoom Carnaby, to talk about workplace diversity, and discuss her upcoming projects and goals for 23 Code Street.

Here’s what we learned.

Where it all began

YCN’s Ella Reynolds began the discussion by asking Anisah about where her journey in tech all began. Anisah went against the grain of the usual path to success that most 18 year olds follow after school, and didn’t go to university. Despite the advice of her teachers, she decided to she wanted to learn about business first hand, and went on to intern at Colgate in India and various other companies around the world.

 

This provided Anisah with the knowledge to start her first business. PocketMUni (pronounced ‘pocket money’) was sparked by the realisation that none of her peers were able to afford to join her on holiday, as they were all still at university and not earning. Developed on the back of a Ryanair napkin while on a trip to Italy on her 19th birthday, the business was a website designed for students to earn extra money while studying – a concept that won her the title of IPA’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year.  

 

The transition to The Bakery

PocketMUni was enough of a success that Anisah soon sold off part of the company, and following the passing of her Grandfather, she decided to move to India for two years for some time out. However, one week in, she received a call from Alex, one of the judges to whom she had initially pitched the PocketMUni business, asking her to join his team at the (then startup) marketing agency, The Bakery.

Hesitant at first, Anisah decided to return to London to join The Bakery as Operations Director, "I think grief is very good at showing you what you don’t want to do. And I think grief is a good time to realise that life is really short", she reminisced. "It had a really big impact on what I wanted to do."

"That was a massive experience", she continued. “What I found really interesting, and I think I’ve taken through the whole journey, is that your age and your experience doesn’t matter, it’s an attitude, and I had a bloody good attitude. I worked really hard, and to this day I still do, but especially then. I was there all hours. I just remember thinking, we’re doing something here. I didn’t know what it was but I knew that it was going to be big."

Battling business as a young female

Anisah confessed that many of the challenges she faced in the early days of working at The Bakery arose from the lack of certainty in what they were doing, and for the first two years, it was a case of learning on the job through trial and error. But one of the most significant challenges she faced was talking business as a young female.

"One of the biggest challenges I think, was going into places and people taking you seriously. For them [the others at The Bakery] it was really easy, they were all men, white over 40." Anisah recalls some of her first meetings where people would ask her if her boss was coming, and having to explain that she was the boss.

"That challenge has followed me throughout, but the one thing you learn on the journey, is be cheeky, because cheekiness gets people to lower their barriers." Ella asked Anisah where her confidence comes from, and she told us that, "seeing the confidence in the women of my family, sort of rubs off. Definitely having those women around you makes you not even question whether you can do something or not".

Bringing in women

Throughout Anisah's career so far, there has been one problem should has struggled to ignore: the lack of women in the tech workplace. From events and workshops to workplaces and offices, she expressed a frustration with the industry as a whole: "I went through this wave of loving, loving, loving tech, then getting to this point where we were meeting every tech startup that ever existed in London – we were seeing hundreds of people every week – but I realised that I actually wasn’t seeing any women".

"That was a big moment of realisation, asking myself actually, what have I done to make this better? The answer at that point was "Nothing". What I found challenging within me, was the question "Why didn’t I notice that sooner?"".

For this reason, in her second year at The Bakery, Anisah turned her focus to bringing other women into the company, and in particular, women of colour. Anisah highlights that "this made a difference in how people saw the company, and also in the people who were attracted to the company. Bringing in these different types of people, we were then exposing brands and cooperates to these different types of companies – and that has such a knock-on effect. We worked with Unilever, a team of men who went on to hire a woman, which led to more women going to Unilever. I realised that a single person can have a really big impact”.

The birth of 23 Code Street

After feeling like there still wasn’t enough women around, Anisah's goal was to get more women with a technical understanding in the room. "We need more developers, but actually right now we could do with a lot of people in industries having technical understanding," she explained. "Women generally don’t get into the room, because if you can’t have a conversation about a product or a service that’s going to change the world, then why are you going to be in that room?"

This led to her next venture, 23 Code Street – "a coding school on a mission to give more women the tools needed to build our future".

 

Why women only?

Anisah explained that the idea of women-only spaces – also for those who identify as women and non-binary – often confuses people and raises the question that it is only excluding women more by giving them their own silent space. Anisah disagreed with this sentiment: "What were not doing is creating a women-only school, then women-only jobs in a women-only industry. The idea is creating a safe environment for women to learn in, or any other marginalised group for that matter. It gives them a space to get to that standard where they then feel confident in walking into rooms and having these conversations. That’s our ethos.""

Ella went on to ask Anisah if she thought that men have a role to play in this change. "Yes!" she replied. "We’re not a woman-only company. We have male teachers, we have male advisors. Men open doors, it's really important to have that there. Also, men have experience and we should be using that. Men play such a big part in supporting the work that we are doing."

Giving back and enabling change 

Following her time spent in India, Anisah's aim when starting up 23 Code Street was to also work with non-governmental organisations that are working with women there who are disempowered and disenfranchised. "We are always incentivised, because we always want to make money. But because we are incentivised, some of that money also goes to India. The money here, actually makes a really big difference in somewhere like India." Located in hostels or safe spaces where women can come to learn to become independent, in places that have a growing tech scene, 23 Code Street work with NGOs to fund teachers, equipment, build curriculums and go through the hiring process.

Anisah’s raison d'etre

Fuelled by the issue itself, Anisah told us that "this conversation shouldn’t exist. I shouldn’t need to create a company to get more women into tech, and that is what inspires me. I just want to create more opportunities for people to get to where I am, and further – whether that be through money or education, because those are the things that are going to make big change."

Educating the women of tomorrow

One of our guests prompted the question: "what ways can women from lower income families get into the industry, including those who are often not aware of the sort of opportunities available to them or are not given the chance to train for a digital or tech role?" Anisah replied that there are not enough internships at companies and that would be one step in tackling that exclusivity.

She added that "the key word is networks. Right now, it is about going in to schools and colleges and telling people that these opportunities exist. Children from low-income families are in institutions where we can open doors and networks for them. I think what we need more of is these bigger companies going into these smaller places". Once the awareness that these opportunities exist, it is about creating scholarships and training that enables a bigger diversity of people get into tech, and create that bridge for people from marginalised parts of society to navigate.

What's next?

As well as looking into Venture Capital and finding more funding, Anisah revealed her plans with 23 Code Street to do more coding courses online, as a bid to reach out to more women across the country. This is aimed to provide for women "who are so talented but don’t have the infrastructure that we have here", and to help diversify their currently London-centric business. Anisah also wants to offer more advanced and specialised courses for those who have already learnt how to code and want to develop in certain specific areas of interest.

 

All photography David Townhill.