Women have made great inroads into the tech world in recent years, but there remains a long way to go before we reach a truly equitable state of affairs in workforce numbers, remuneration and product development. An edtech startup called Entity Academy -- which provides women with training in areas like data science and software development, mentoring and ultimately job coaching -- has raised $100 million on the heels of strong growth of its business and an ambition to improve that ratio.
The financing will be used to help students finance their Entity Academy tuition, which typically costs $15,000. It's coming from Leif, itself a startup that provides financing services to edtech platforms so that they can offer their students income share agreements (otherwise known as ISAs, arrangements where students are not required to pay back tuition loans until they find jobs).
Jennifer Schwab, the founder and CEO of Entity, has built the business since 2016 on virtually no outside funding, but said that this latest financing is a precursor to the company working on its first, more traditional VC-led equity round.
Entity does not build e-learning content itself but aggregates online courses in data science, software development, fintech engineering and technology sales in "bootcamp"-style courses that range from 24 to 33 weeks in length, from providers that range from Springboard and Lambda School through to Columbia University (courses from the universities tend to be presented as created by the institutions, while the others are tailored by Entity itself to its students).
Its technology play is not just related to Entity's curriculum being focused on tech; as you might expect in an edtech startup, Entity also leans heavily on the data that it has amassed to build its strategy and its business.
That data is based not just on feedback from past and current students and student outcomes, but also other channels. Its "content arm" Entity Mag has quite interestingly gone viral on social media and has more than 1.1 million followers across Instagram and Facebook, which becomes another major channel for engagement (not to mention future students).
Entity uses all this to curate not just what courses it provides and what goes into the curriculum, but also how best to supplement that learning. Today, Entity courses also include targeted mentoring from people working in the tech industry, as well as career coaching en route to finding a job.
Entity's sweet spot is a bifurcated one, Schwab said in an interview.
It's women who are either new (typically aged 19-23) or those newly returning or rethinking their careers (typically aged 30-39, Schwab said). Women in both categories are coming to Entity because they would like to consider tech jobs or more technical promotions but have found their expertise lacking to do so. Mostly likely, they studied humanities or other non-technical subjects in college, and typically they don't have the support in their work environments to simply retrain to open the door to those more technical roles.
Added to this is the diversity mix among those women, which also poses a different kind of challenge for that cohort but also a great boost for Entity for helping them address that. Some 55% of the 19-23 group are women of color; as are 62% of the 30-39 group. Entity aims to provide its tools to address all of these women with all of their different challenges around breaking into tech jobs, in what it describes as a "wraparound" strategy.
"A number of our students would not have pursued STEM programs in the past," said Schwab, "so we are building skill sets from the ground up."
With some 80% of students on the courses taking some financing to pay for them, you can see why Entity is now ramping up the means to help them do that.
Since 2016, some 400 students, almost all women, have completed the course. But originally it started as a much shorter (six-week) program, was all in-person and cost $5,000. Now with a number of the courses lasting eight months and all virtual, that spells more costs and more people. Schwab said there are another 300 students going through the course, and it's on track to have 1,500 next year.
Entity's growth has dovetailed with bigger edtech and "future of work" trends. COVID-19 foisted a hefty set of expectations on the e-learning industry, with companies building tools to help teach people remotely suddenly finding themselves in unprecedented demand. That was not only because traditional learning environments needed to go virtual, but also because the pandemic led so many -- willingly or by force -- to rethink what they were doing with their lives, and online education was one key route for doing something about it at a time when little else could be done.
Entity's own story fits into both of those storylines.
The company was started originally in Los Angeles by Schwab on the back of her own experiences when she was an adviser at Ernst & Young early in her own career.
"My original goal was to change how women approach careers globally. How to mentor women better was the impetus because I did not have female mentors when I started at Ernst & Young," she recalled. Feeling "like you are on an island" is bad in itself, she said, but it was a quick evolution into education and job placement alongside that mentoring because "we identified these [as other reasons] why women don’t pursue tech careers."
The first incarnation of the company in 2016 was as a brick-and-mortar learning center housed in a 1920s building in LA -- appropriately enough, formerly a men's club. That was a compelling sell; with a shorter learning period and being in-person, it saw completion rates of 96% with jobs for more than 90% of the cohorts by the end. "There is a lot more accountability in person," Schwab said.
The pandemic, of course, forced Entity out of that model, but also became the lever for how it would scale. When it relaunched as a virtual program in 2020, from a new company HQ in Las Vegas, the numbers grew, the company extended the length of the courses, and it increased the tuition to reflect the longer engagements.
And yet that has had a downside, too, with completion rates dipping, something that Schwab said is a priority for the company to work on improving.
The mentors on the program are another aspect of the business that has scaled with the move to virtual. Originally, all mentors were unpaid volunteers who either just wanted to help more women get a leg up in the industry, or more opportunistically use their exposure to the students as a hiring funnel. That, too, is evolving with online engagement.
"Now we pay mentors, and we bring in professional moderators to keep mentor-led discussions at a decent pace," Schwab said. Often speakers will donate their fees to scholarship and childcare funds, she added. There are some 250 mentors in the Entity network now, with some focused on lectures to groups of students while others work individually with them, usually in connection to the technical subjects they are studying. That number is expected to double to 500 next year, Schwab said.
The job-finding aspect of the role is perhaps the least developed up to now -- you can find, in small print, that "job placement is not guaranteed" at the bottom of Entity's website, alongside the admonition that Entity Academy is a complement to, not a replacement for, traditional education.
But that also speaks to potential opportunities. In that vein, there are others, such as The Mom Project, that are eyeing up the opportunity of specifically targeting the female demographic, speaking not just to the huge female gap in the job market, but also the fact that there just hasn't been much built to address that. Thankfully, now that appears to be changing.