Melissa Sariffodeen is the co-founder and CEO of Ladies Learning Code, which has taught over 100,000 individuals skills in HTML, CSS, WordPress, Python, Ruby, artificial intelligence, web design, and more. Her impact was recognized with the 2017 Social Change Award at the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards — an accomplishment she humbly credits to the work of her team.
When you speak with Melissa Sariffodeen — one of the four creators of Ladies Learning Code, and current CEO — you would never know she’s received several accolades for transforming the tech world for women. She’s so humble, in fact, that when you ask her about one of her most recent recognitions — the Social Change award at Women of Influence’s prestigious RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards — she draws attention to the work of her team instead of her individual accomplishments.
“For me it’s really meaningful because it draws attention to our community — male, female, the team,” says Melissa. “I’m so proud that I — we — can show others what’s possible. What we’re doing in our programs and the skills and experiences people end up learning from us — anyone can do that. They can grow and learn.”
Melissa started the incredible force that is Ladies Learning Code with three other women (Heather Payne, Breanna Hughes and Laura Plant) seven years ago. The organization initially sought to bridge the technology gap between men and women by offering workshops, courses and meetups to adults and children who wanted to learn about all things digital. Today, they offer programs and tutorials on things like HTML, CSS, WordPress, Python, Ruby, artificial intelligence, web design, and the list goes on.
“I’m so proud that I — we — can show others what’s possible.”
“I took computer science in Grade 9 and started to learn code when I was 11. When I finished university and was immersed in the tech world, I wanted to do more with code,” Melissa says of how the charity came to be. “I wanted people to be passionate about what I was and to grow within the tech industry.”
At first, the organization sought to attract women who were already in technical roles. Melissa says these individuals knew a bit about digital trends, but used the courses to beef up their resumes and get ahead in their respective industries. Then came interest from women who were in fields that had nothing to do with technology. They wanted to feel more savvy and confident in corporate environments that were rapidly changing because of technology (a good example is journalism). Women — program graduates and mothers — then began asking for programs that would help their children develop the skills they would need to get ahead in high school, university and beyond.
Today, Ladies Learning Code has taught over 100,000 individuals. They recently received $8 million in funding from the Canadian government to teach children code (Justin Trudeau even took a tutorial with the organization to learn the digital language), and some 12,000 people have acted as mentors for those who want to learn about new technology across the country.
“By 2030 almost 85 per cent of the jobs won’t be created now because technology is rapidly changing, so for us — and many of our students — what we do now is about future proofing lives and careers,” she says. “We want [people] to be confident and not fearful. We want everyone to know they should be able to participate equally in this change if they want to.”
That equality now extends beyond professional women and children in big urban centres to those in Canada’s most remote communities. Thanks to state-of-the-art mobile coding units, Melissa and her team just finished their first course in an indigenous community about digital literacy; it was the first training and formal education some women on the reserve had ever received.
“We want [people] to be confident and not fearful. We want everyone to know they should be able to participate equally in this change if they want to.”
“It was heartwarming to know that we could offer [these women] a life-changing experience — not just by helping them develop new skills, but to do something that would empower them,” she notes. “Some of these women had never graduated anything before. Giving them that confidence is important to their future well-being.”
So what’s Melissa’s advice for anyone who is intrigued by coding, but is intimidated by what it means? “Just get started. Try it. If you’ve never seen a line of code or never plan to use it, no problem. The confidence of being able to build something from scratch is empowering.”
She adds: “I feel really inspired all the time — I have the best job in the world because every day I see the ‘aha’ moments of women who work with us and for us. Anyone can feel like this if they believe they can try and excel at a new thing.”