Episode 39 – Ariel Lopez

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Founder of 20/20 Shift



How did you get involved with General Assembly?

I’ve been here [General Assembly] for about a year now. I was always familiar with them since their inception, but my background is in recruiting and talent acquisition. I had gone to an event maybe about a year or so ago. One of the guys, now a former colleague, worked there. We met. When my role became available, he reached out to me, and he said, “This sounds a dope role for you. Would you be interested?”

I said, “Yeah, that sounds like right up my alley.”

I’m a career coach. Essentially, that means I lead our students to ‘career happiness,’ as I would like to say. I do that through different programming and workshops. I teach everything from resumes down to interviewing and negotiating. Then, I also have one-on-ones with all of my students. That’s my time to have my therapy sessions with them and figure out what motivates them, what drives them, what they hate, what they need to work on and just give constructive advice on how can they be successful in their job search.

I would say GA, as a whole, is awesome. It’s a great company. They’re growing so quickly. It’s insane. I think looking into next year and figuring out what does that look like because 20/20 Shift is starting to take more over my life than expected.

Tell me about 20/20 Shift. That was very interesting when I saw that. I was like, “Look at this. A tech recruiter for the underrepresented, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Yeah, with my background being in recruiting I always knew that I wanted to do something, just to help out underrepresented individuals, being on the opposite side and sitting down with hiring managers and having these conversations and being the one to say, “Hey, we should interview this person. Why are they not getting a callback?”

I saw the disparity firsthand. I think it got to a point to where I realized, “This is bad.”

That key point was when Google released their reports last year. I had time to kind of process the data, and I was just like, “Oh my God. This is way worse than I ever thought. It’s barely top 5%.” I think Apple has 17% or 18%, but that’s because they are counting for retail. I’m like, “Come one guys. Let’s not do that. Let’s not fudge the numbers.”

I looked at the landscape. I knew diversity in tech was going to be what it is. I noticed that most of the initiatives were code and STEM-focused, which is great. We need black engineers. We need women engineers. We need people everywhere else. That’s what 20/20 is about. We focus on educating people about these hybrid tech roles within technology. These are things like project management, user experience design, digital marketing, anything you can do at a tech company and not be a programmer.

What people don’t know is that there are a lot of these jobs. Over 250,000 of them have been created in the last year alone. The number one tech hub for these opportunities just happens to be New York City. They’re abundant. They’re everywhere. It’s probably a lot easier to attain one of these roles than it would be to pursue something on the engineering side. I’ve hired a ton of programmers and I have to say, the best developers I’ve ever found are people who have been doing it for a while. People who just love coding. They love solving problems and being in it. There’s only a particular type of person that can do that. Not everyone can do that well.

We need people on the marketing side. When I think about what black people do naturally well, we are salespeople. We sell water to whales. We make lemonade out of lemons on a daily basis. When you look at all the content that we produce, specifically on channels like Twitter, we are the demographic that uses Twitter the most. For me, it’s like, “Why do we have these companies that do not reflect the consumers that support it?” Which is why diversity is so important. It’s also thinking of it from a holistic perspective. In order to really to change the workforce, we need to change all of it. We can’t just change one department and say, “Oh. We went to a few HBCUs and looked for CS majors and we didn’t find anyone. Oh, well. I guess we’re only going to hire five black people this year.” No. No more excuses. There are plenty of opportunities within these tech companies that people don’t know about. For us, how can we provide visibility around that and then also provide actual access to these opportunities?

Wow. How did you get involved in tech then? Was it through General Assembly? Were you into tech before?

Yeah. I fell into it through recruiting. When I first moved to New York, I was recruiting sales executives for a really shady company. It was like, “Okay. This is not it.” Then, I started working with a company that specifically worked with SAP. I used to place contractors at Fortune 5 companies on SAP projects. That was my first intro to tech. It was way too techie. I didn’t want to understand SAP. All of the fundamentals were too much for me. Then, I ended up at a staffing agency and they focused on digital media and technology. That was the first time I ever got a chance to really look at the landscape and figure out, “Oh my God. These are all the companies that we use on a daily basis.” These are companies that change people’s lives. All these companies make a ton of money. When you see the type of deals that get done in tech… Tech is everything. It’s the only industry that touches every other industry; no other industry can do that.

I think it is really inspiring to be that messenger; to be able to witness that and see the wealth of opportunity and how much potential is available within the tech industry. I always tell people diversity to me is: I went. I saw the pot of gold and now I have to go back and tell everybody, “There’s gold over here. In case you didn’t know. You may want to come and get some of it because it’s awesome.”

A few of my clients were Amazon, PayPal, and early stage start-ups like Adaptly. You start to understand how these companies work and people that support them. When you see the current picture that is technology, it’s, “Wow. Why does it look like this? We need more people like us in the space.” That was my first introduction.

Good. What was your perception before getting into tech and what is your perception now?

That tech is this thing no one really understands. It’s like, you know it’s a thing and you know it’s an industry. You hear of companies like Apple and Google and you don’t really think about it from a larger sense. For me, understanding that Spotify is not just an app on my phone. They actually have a business model, and there’s a way that Spotify makes money and communicates with their consumers. There are engineers and project managers that work together to make Spotify what it is. It’s a process that’s really amazing to see. I would say that awareness was the first thing. Maybe the biggest thing that was different from before I was in tech to where I am now.

I would say, when you think about the lack of diversity, you have to look at how companies are founded and how they get started as well. I think, from being an outsider, you realize, “I have to get funded or I have to move to Silicon Valley. I have to meet with investors and VCs in order to start a company.” Now, being in this space, although that is partly right, you realize that’s not all there is to it. Sometimes all it takes is just getting the skills or meeting someone, which is why that networking piece is so important. It’s really big for us. For the past year, we’ve been really focused on producing these events to make sure people are getting in the doors.

The thing about how tech companies get founded, yeah, some of them are getting these multimillion dollar deals from the Sequoia Capitals of the world, but some of them are just like a [inaudible 00:10:06] that works at Google who met someone at a bar who works at Facebook. They talk and, “You know what? Screw this. Let’s quit our jobs. Let’s go out on our own and start our own thing.” I feel like not enough people know that story about tech as well, which is something that is really right for us. Make sure that you’re networking and putting that network first because it really has a lot to do with the success that you see within your career and within the industry.

Awesome. 20/20 Shift. Is that funded or backed by anyone or is it still bootstrapped?

We’re bootstrapping. It has been self-funded. We are to the point where we’re starting to make money, which is exciting. This is just via sponsorships with some of our employment partners. We are having early conversations around funding right now. We’ll see what 2016 has to hold. Yay! Takes money to make money. That is where we stand at the moment.

Then, with that, what obstacles have you faced, either within funded 20/20 or just personally?

Oh, man. So many obstacles. I think one of the reasons it is important to share my story is because I am the person thatis n’t exactly supposed to be where I am. I grew up in North Carolina. I went to school in North Carolina. I dropped out of college at the end of my junior year. I decided to move to New York. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, although I advise people [inaudible 00:12:00] your Master’s and graduates from Ivy Leagues, “This is what you should do in your life.” I think it’s being able to come from nothing and move here and build something. My entire network has been filled off of hard conversations and being aggressive and hitting people up on LinkedIn and them not knowing who the hell I am. There’s no one speaking for me. It’s not like I moved to New York when I had this network waiting for me. I really had to hustle and I really had to grind. I feel like that’s an important story to share.

People don’t understand the work that goes into really being successful. It’s not an end point. It’s not a destination. It’s a journey. You really have to trust the process and know that things are going to build on one another and that everything will make sense in time. I remember there have been some opportunities that I thought were perfect for me that didn’t come through. Now looking back, it made 100% sense why that wasn’t the move for me. Even looking into the future, I think it’s really about having that faith and having that perseverance. Keep moving forward even when you don’t see the light. There were a few times being in New York, I was very close to saying, “Oh, well. I’m just going to move back home and figure it out because rent is expensive. I came out with this…” I feel like there are people who go through that but then they give up. They stop pursuing whatever their dream is.

The people who actually make it and the individuals who win are the people who never gave up. I feel like that’s something that people really need to understand. Sometimes, it’s going to take a little bit longer than we think and it may not come in the form that you think it’s going to come in. If it’s meant for you, all of your hard work will pay off tenfold. You just have to trust the process and keep going. All of that to say there have been a ton of challenges. I would say, as a minority, I think the most difficult thing is being the one person. Every place that I’ve worked, I’m usually the only black person or the only woman. Then, I’m black and female and I’m also Latina. I’m a triple minority.

I feel like sometimes it’s hard because you’re seen as the representative of those communities. When Mike Brown happened, having those uncomfortable conversations, “Did you hear about the Mike Brown case? What do you think?” “Of course I heard about what happened. Do you think asking me over my latte is the right time for this conversation?” I feel like being the token, it’s so hard sometimes. It’s like, “No. I don’t want to do this today.” You have to go through those situations. I think being a woman, just being told not to be that aggressive. I love giving negotiation advice because I always tell people, “You should go for at least 5-10k more than what you even want. Just assume you’re leaving money on the table.” I think as women, we’re not taught to do that. We’re taught to sit back and let fate play and wait around for that promotion. “No. We will not let fate take control. You have to take control of your career and what you want. Be really aggressive about it.”

Good. What resonated with me on what we just said was about the salary thing. I always tell my friends and my family: think of it as how much you’re worth. What is your value? Write down what your value is, and if they’re not matching that, then they’re not saying that you’re valued as much as you thought.


Then you can decide then.

Exactly. It’s not like they’re going to do it for you. Even in the job search, a lot of people will make the mistake of thinking, “I applied for this job and if they don’t get back to me, I guess it wasn’t right for me.” No, you have follow up because no one’s checking their email and they probably didn’t even see your application in the first place. You really have to take control over your destiny and create the life that you want. I feel like a lot of people just wait for life to happen to them. You can’t afford to do that, especially in your career. I’m always happy to give negotiation advice, by the way. If any of your users that are interested, let me know. I can hook you up. I hop on calls all the time to tell people how to negotiate offers. It is really important. You have to go after what you deserve. They’re not always just going to give it to you. Most of the times they don’t. If you don’t ask for it, the answer will always be no.

That’s really good advice. How long has 20/20 Shift existed so far?

We just hit one year in September.

That’s wonderful.

It’s definitely been a crazy one year. I think within that year, we’ve really gotten a chance to understand the needs of people. Talking to students, talking to young professionals… For us, it’s really important to let people know when we say minority millennials, we don’t just mean 22-year-olds. We mean people 25-34. You’ve been working. Sally Mae is calling your phone probably once a week because that’s usually when she calls me. It was important to create something for us. Everyone on the team are minority millennials. We go through these struggles. We want you to pay back your student loans. Part of our job is to help you figure out how to do that. I think what people have said and what’s resonated with us is that lack of experience. They feel like they can’t land a job in tech because they’re lacking the skills that they need.

On the employer’s side, just asking them, “Hey, Mashable. Hey, Yelp. What is your biggest challenges in finding diverse talent?” From speaking to them, sometimes it’s been hard to find people with the right experience. All of that to say, next year we’re actually planning to launch a training program to get women and minorities into the classroom to teach other women minorities these skills to make it a lot easier to access these opportunities. We’ll definitely keep you posted on that. We’re looking to launch probably spring of next year. I think it was important to have those conversations to make sure that we’re doing the right thing.

I always tell people, if I could go back, I wouldn’t have launched a website. I wouldn’t have told anyone about 20/20 for six months. I would have just done hard research and development and then launched it. It’s really important to make sure. With your business, you’re solving a problem. That problem is not just about you. A lot of people have a good idea. “Oh. Let me go make this thing.” Then, no one buys it. “Oh, I guess that didn’t go as well as I thought.” Maybe if you talked to the people, your users, you would have a better understanding of what their needs are.

I feel like we’re at a point now where we’re focused on creating the right products and offerings to give to our audience. It makes it easier for them to be successful in these opportunities. We can’t just say, “Here’s a product management role at Complex. Good luck.” It would be nice to know what product management is or what Complex’s business is and what you need to know to work there. Working on stuff like that.

What is, I guess, your advice for someone who would want to build their own start-up company? What’s the one important thing that resonates with you and that they should do?

Done is better than perfect. If that’s the one thing I will say that’s resonated with me over the past couple of years. I’m a perfectionist in a sense. It takes me a lot of time mentally to toy over things before I feel like they’re ready for the world. That leads to procrastination and procrastination leads to complacency, which leads to no progress, which means that you’re going to be in the same place tomorrow that you are today if you don’t move your ass and do something about it. I feel like any aspiring entrepreneur, it’s really important to execute. We can plan all day long and that’s where I am with the diversity conversation. I am tired of talking about the numbers. We can have conferences and sit on panels for 20 years to speak about the figures. What are you doing to get people jobs? If you’re not talking about that, then remove yourself from the conversation.

Seriously, at this point, it’s about execution. The same thing goes for any aspiring entrepreneur–you can’t let things sit in your head. Definitely write them down on paper. I’m a very visual person. If you walk into my room, you will see my vision boards posted up on my walls. I have a ‘Being Mary Jane’ thing going on. One of my walls, too, has little post-its. I feel you do have to have those reminders, but even that’s not enough. You have to take action. Definitely, the biggest advice is don’t wait for stuff. You have an idea, get started today before it’s too late.

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Ruth Mesfun

Co-Founder and Blogger for POCiT. She is also piloting the first Computer Science curriculum as a teacher at Excellence Girls Middle Academy in Crown Heights. She was selected for the CS Educator Fellowship at the Flatiron School and is also a member of Teach For America-New York's Ambassadors Program.

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