Alaina Percival: Women Who Code CEO. Grassroots leader. Hiker.

Women Who Code CEO Alaina Percival talked to TechRepublic about keeping women in the tech industry, growing a startup into a nonprofit, and learning new tech skills.

Alaina Percival, the CEO of Women Who Code.
Image: Alaina Percival

Alaina Percival was the leader of Women Who Code long before she officially accepted the title. She brushed it off for two years because she felt like an imposter, in a way. Though she had worked and volunteered with the global nonprofit since its beginning, and she was the go-to person for almost all questions, she didn't have a technical background. She was still relatively new to the tech industry.

Then she convinced herself of something important: if an engineer was leading, she wasn't out in the world, being an engineer. By taking the lead and becoming CEO, Percival was keeping the mission of Women Who Code -- inspiring women to excel in technology careers -- strong, and she knew how to do it. She incorporated the organization, filed for a 501(c)3 status, and trademarked the name. She started talking to press and expanding their reach.

"It exploded from that point of saying, this can actually be something bigger," Percival said. "I realized that if I was willing to step up and be in the spotlight, I'd be able to make everyone else around me much more powerful as well."

Originally from Atlanta, Percival graduated from Georgia State University, and then earned a fellowship in Germany. At the end of that year, she got a job at Puma, the German footwear company.

She was the niche product manager there for three years, before leaving to go back to graduate school at Georgia State University's College of Business, where she focused on luxury brand management. After grad school, she realized she missed the sports industry and got a job at small women's footwear company called Nfinity.

It was an empowering position, where she launched the first women-specific basketball and volleyball shoes. She was able to see the disparities in sponsorship agreements for men and women, and how major shoe makers weren't making proper shoes for female volleyball players, a sport that was overwhelmingly female. It was a scrappy company, and her biggest competitors were Nike and Mizuno.

"I had to be thinking outside of the box, and that lended well to my next step, which was moving into the tech industry."

She wanted to work at an early-stage startup, but didn't have much experience beyond marketing or branding. So she started learning how to code, and that was when she joined Women Who Code to network with other women in the industry.

It was right as the organization was getting started, before it had even had its first event. Percival got involved on the leadership side after just a month in. While volunteering with Women Who Code, she worked for a few tech startups, one of which was acquired by Yahoo. She felt like she was really earning a career in the tech industry.

Her next role, as head of developer outreach for Riviera Partners, a top technical recruiting company, allowed her to really bring in her work with Women Who Code, which she had started with in 2011.

She saw that about 65% of VP and CTO placements for funded startups were through her company, but less than 5% were women. The skills, the networking, the jobs -- there was a theme to these low numbers. She started pulling that information and focusing the mission of Women Who Code around helping women stay in their tech jobs and leveling up their skills as they moved through their careers.

Much data has since been released about this topic. According to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, 56% of women in technology leave mid-career.

"These kinds of things really started to show this was the right move to make," Percival said. "A lot of people are talking about teaching women to code but there's not a lot of action around keeping women in their careers, getting women in career paths, helping them make it to the top of the industry. And thats what Women Who Code is focused on."

Women Who Code is event-driven -- there are more than 500 free tech events annually in 15 countries, with more than 20,000 women attending. As part of the organization, about 100 women around the world are leaders and directors in their communities.

Last year, Women Who Code expanded into 40 new cities. They had to slow down their growth mid-year -- the same time that Percival left her day job to become CEO full-time -- to make policies and manuals and standardize processes. Suddenly, they weren't just a five-person startup team anymore -- they were a full-blown nonprofit organization with an expanding global impact.

What Percival is starting to see now is the organization's influence on the 100+ companies that are supporting it.

"The easier I can make the explanation of what's going to be better, the more things they're going to do. They will probably do everything that is easy and tackle a couple of the things we suggest that are hard," Percival said. "Going forward what I want to do is educating the companies that support us and work with us so that they can be even better."

The main mission of Women Who Code is to build leaders. And many of these women are being called leaders for the first time in their careers. Percival's hope is that, when it comes time for their managers to make promotions, they will see that these women play important roles with Women Who Code, and choose them for the job.

"I don't want to think at any point we're hitting the ceiling. So, everything good that happens is one more stepping stone," Percival said. "That's good for continuing to have that drive to do more."

In her own words...

How do you unplug?

"I love to read. I love to hike. I love to travel. I like eating at cool restaurants. Hanging out with my friends. I usually have to just relax for at least two hours before I go to sleep, so finishing event or really stopping working by about 10 so that i can get to sleep at a reasonable time."

What type of books do you like to read?

"In the mornings, if I'm commuting or something, I like to read business books or leadership books and, in the evenings, I like to read mysteries or historical fiction. My two favorites. I hadn't really been a mystery fan until probably the last 12 months, and then I started getting into it."

Looking back, what is advice you would give yourself?

"Tell younger Alaina to start coding a lot sooner. Really, always be thinking about my career -- my next career step. And, start working towards those things as one, two, or three years before I was ready to take those steps. I think that when I was younger -- I'm often still guilty of this -- [it was] hard to picture what you want to be doing five years from now. Also don't worry if you're wrong. Just pick something, and take strategic steps toward that goal. Then, you're able to do it in a more authentic way."

What has been one of the most exciting times in your career?

"When we decided to expand. For the first year, Women Who Code was our little secret. We didn't try to expand, didn't really try to get the word out about us. It was still such a great community, and we were happy for that time. It created a culture we have. [But then] we realized hey, other people around the world deserve this. We talked about expansion and set a goal of expanding [to one new city] per month. At first we reached out and asked people to get started in [their] area, but literally the first two cities we went to, it just started to snowball. It was clear that around the world, and around the US, women really wanted this community and this network."

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