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Cracking the code

by David Silverberg | October 13, 2017

Melissa Sariffodeen, HBA’10, wasted no time on video games or chat rooms when she got her first computer at 11. She went right to work – producing an e-newsletter for her London, Ont., neighbourhood – even though it required self-taught graphic design and website maintenance skills.
Since those early days forced to train herself, she has opened the doors to tech world skills for those who have long be bypassed by it.

Sariffodeen is the co-founder and CEO of Canada Learning Code, formerly Ladies Learning Code, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to teaching Canadians technical and programming skills via hands-on workshops. Operating more than 80 chapters across Canada, the organization has taught digital literacy skills to 70,000 Canadians – learners as young as 8 and as old as 80 – since it began in 2011.

“We grow because of how accessible we want to be,” said the Toronto-based Sariffodeen. “People sign up who have no skills, or very few coding skills, because they want to learn how to do something they couldn’t before.”

Canada Learning Code offers workshops on programming languages, such as JavaScript and HTML, WordPress, photo-editing and custom-training programs. Some classes are tailored for women, others for youth. Every workshop is run by an experienced instructor, as well as volunteer mentors, and 60 per cent of instructors and mentors are women.

The group’s original name – Ladies Learning Code – was built on the premise that launched the founders’ mission: ensuring women in Canada are given the opportunity to learn the tech languages of the present and future.

According to recent data, women currently hold less than 25 per cent of all technology roles in Canada.

“I wish we could stop talking about this problem – but we can’t yet,” Sariffodeen said. “Until that narrative of ‘women in tech’ goes away, I want to see our country leading the way to give women, and youth, the opportunities to thrive in this economy.”

Giving Canada Learning Code the breathing room to operate is funding largely given by sponsors, such as Telus, Google and Microsoft. Around 35 per cent of the organization’s revenue comes from registration fees for workshops, which cost $55 for adults and ‘pay what you can’ for youth for full-day sessions. “But no one is turned away, unless there physically isn’t a seat available,” she added.

Sariffodeen quickly dispelled a misconception about the organization, which inspired their shift away from Ladies Learning Code. Men are welcome to attend, but they are encouraged to bring a female friend or partner “to expose someone new to the workshop.”

As CEO, her tasks vary day to day, but Sariffodeen is generally responsible for business strategy, hiring, brand recognition and the summer-long work to shift Ladies Learning Code to Canada Learning Code. In fact, the organization began as a week-long initiative and coalition supported by Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke, Version One Ventures’ Boris Wertz and Georgian Partners’ Justin Lafayette.

“We want to be that champion for coding and coding education in Canada,” Sariffodeen declared.

Such lofty goals aren’t unfamiliar for anyone who knows how ambitious Sariffodeen can be. Besides being named school president in Grade 7, she discovered her entrepreneurial spirit in her first year at Western, launching a side business to let students store their stuff over the summer.

She valued her Western courses that had her working with teams on projects that challenged and excited her. Most importantly, she was working with students the professor chose, which taught her “how to negotiate effectively and create a community focused on a goal where money isn’t a factor.”

After graduation, she dabbled in accounting but soon lost interest. “It just wasn’t entrepreneurial enough,” Sariffodeen said.

She then got a job at Freshii to quarterback their franchise expansion efforts, which gave her important experience that segued into her work at Canada Learning Code.

When she and three co-founders – Heather Payne, Laura Plant and Breanna Hughes – made Ladies Learning Code a reality, the first workshop sold out within a day. The buzz began circulating in the tech space. The second workshop sold out within seven minutes, and then the third one was completely full within 30 seconds. No hyperbole.

That kind of learner enthusiasm inspired the founding team to expand their operations, launch chapters in cities such as Vancouver and London, and begin hiring instructors in those cities to best serve their students.

On where Sariffodeen would like to see the organization in 10 years, she said, “We want to reach 10 million Canadians. We want to support the next evolution of Canadians who really know these crucial technical skills.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of Alumni Gazette
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