How a Startup Cofounder Empowers Women in STEM

By Leslie Lee

Translation by Sachi Kikuchi

Startup co-founder Yan Fan from Code Chrysalis has created many opportunities for women in coding in order to empower women in STEM.

As we become more dependent on technological advancements that streamline our lives, we fail to realize that many minorities are not represented in the production process, which will affect the users of AI/machine-learning derived devices. Women have been underrepresented in industries that make up STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math. While many corporations have taken to the gender disparity in STEM  by supporting empowerment programs and gender quotas, many small organizations have taken matters into their own hands. At Code Chrysalis, the co-founder Yan Fan has created many opportunities for women in coding and seeks to increase representation of women in coding.

What is Code Chrysalis and how did you start Code Chrysalis?

I’m the co-founder and CTO (Chief Technical Officer) at Code Chrysalis, a coding bootcamp based out of Tokyo. We provide software engineering courses for adults who want to learn how to code and for people who want to change their career. We also provide training for companies who want to train up their engineering team.  After university, I went into finance, and I ended up making a career switch to software engineering. As part of becoming a better software engineer, I ended up doing a lot of teaching for fun. I ended up teaching part time at a coding school and that led me to create a coding boot camp in the Middle East. And that led to me starting one in Japan.

What are some of the difficulties in starting a startup as a woman?

I think you have to prove yourself a lot more, and the standards are much higher. People will always doubt whether or not you’re a software engineer, even though my title is the CTO. With my title, I feel like I have to always follow it up with, “I was a software engineer in Silicon Valley before this.” I find that when I don’t explain myself, people will doubt my knowledge or technical skill set. My cofounder isn’t a software engineer but people naturally assume that he is an engineer and go to him for technical questions. This happens from both men and women. Women will make this assumption,  since many women don’t understand that they can also be a part of this system of oppression.

Do you think the previous problem you faced when people doubt your skills or assume you aren’t an engineer happens in a lot of places?

I think this is much more entrenched and common in Japan. I think it’s because of the low level of feminist education. There have been times when I’ve pointed out to Japanese women that something is discriminatory and their response is, “Oh, I didn’t know that!” or “Oh, shouganai.” It happens in other countries, but to a much lesser extent. When I was working in San Francisco, people wouldn’t doubt my technical skills. It would happen here and there, but definitely not the extent that it happens in Japan. 

How is Code Chrysalis empowering women to start coding?

I believe that we are the only program in Japan to reach 50% of women in our engineering classes. It’s quite a big progress, and it’s a very consistent and conscious effort that we make. It’s consistent in that we keep doing it, day after day and week after week. We directly encourage people to work with different organizations, write blog posts, and do outreach. It’s a conscious effort in which when we make an event, and we have 4 spots for speakers, we make sure that it’s an even representation in terms of sex. 

Is representation an important part of empowering women?

Yes. I think representation is also providing a space for women to be in. When we make an announcement for speakers, only men apply. It’s because we live in a world that doesn’t encourage women to step up and take the plate. Instead, we will reach out to a few women who haven’t spoken before and try to encourage them to do it, so we have some new faces in the speaker circuit. Giving women the experience is important so we do our part to have a more balanced representation in companies as well. 

Besides events, how can coding boot camps empower women?

I think coding boot camps are one of the best ways to empower women and bring inclusivity/diversity in tech. This is because we are targeting women who are consciously making a career change. After they finish our program, they end up in industry so the return is much higher than getting young girls interested in STEM. A lot of women like me missed learning STEM in university; a lot of women are too scared or intimidated to do something that is STEM-related. Coding bootcamps are great because we provide a tangible possibility for people to make a career change.

The pipeline to get women into tech is very, very leaky. Women are always leaking out, thinking, “Oh, this is one too many microaggressions.” We need to fix this pipeline, and coding boot camps do a great job in catching those who might have left the pipeline and bring them back in. I’m really proud to say that we are able to catch these women and say, “Hey, you do belong here.” 

Do you think the pipeline in Japan is much leakier than the one in Silicon valley?

Absolutely. I think the pipeline for women-anything in japan is incredibly leaky. There’s so many things in Japanese society that makes it really difficult to be a feminist. 

Do you have any advice for women who want to start a company?

Just do it. I think in general everyone just gets stuck talking about it and they’re too scared to do things, so I think it’s really important to do it instead of just talking about it.

What are some ways women get over that “imposter syndrome,” or feelings of self-doubt, when starting a company? 

We always have terrible things to tell things to ourselves. We always have this negative talk that we give ourselves, but I would like to think, “Would I say this to my best friend?” If you can’t say negative things that you tell yourself to other people, then you shouldn’t be saying it to yourself either. Checking yourself whenever you’re thinking about negative things  and whether you would say it to your friends gives you a good barometer to recognize whether or not you should say it to yourself. 

Also, think about what a guy would do. Would he be asking questions? Probably not. Go and apply for that job. Would they care that they didn’t fit everything? No, they would probably go and apply. If you were a guy, what would that expectation be? Understanding a lot of things that we place on ourselves is based on how we are raised, the things that we see, and the things that we are used to. Recognizing that and being aware of that makes it easier to step out. It takes practice.

What makes you want to be involved in female empowerment in STEM?

Technology rules the world around us. It nudges us to make particular choices; it creates outcomes that happen in our lives very intensely. This technology that controls us, that we rely on to live and to work, to find friends and to connect, sometimes to find love…this technology is predominantly made by men. With the rise in machine learning and AI, I really worry what might happen if we don’t diversify the creators of technology. It’s not like when we create an app, we think, “I’m going to make a discriminatory app.” People don’t go in with that mindset. But what can often happen is discrimination comes about. 

Last year, with Amazon HR bot, the way that machine learning is done is that they are using historical data to make decisions for the future. The problem: data is biased, and humans are generating that historical data. Often, machine learning perpetuates that bias and makes it larger and larger. Sometimes, it can be a small thing. For example, in car safety testing: they don’t test on women dummies. So there are a lot of cars out there that are perfectly safe for men but not all that safe for women. There are all kinds of things. We live in a world that is designed and built for men. As 50 percent of the population, as a woman I think it’s important to recognize that. 

What is some advice for women who may be interested in coding, but don’t know where to start?

Google. Whenever you search up how to code, there’s a lot of resources. Of course, Code Chrysalis. 

What’s one message for young women in STEM/coding?

Believe in yourself. Most of the time, with women, skills are awesome, but they don’t have any confidence and self-esteem. That is ultimately what hurts them.

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