A non-profit dedicated to making technology more diverse finds a permanent home to echo its welcoming vibe.
You don’t expect to smell freshly baked muffins at a computer-programming hub. But for Learning Labs founder Heather Payne, spaces for technology should be welcoming. “My sorority at Western [University] was really comfortable and it felt like a home,” said Payne, pointing at firm, comfy couches and a decked-out kitchenette in the lab’s brand new Queen West office last month where the sweet treats were indeed baking. “That’s sort of what we’re trying to make here.”
At 26, Payne (pictured below) has already created the non-profit Ladies Learning Code and a newer business called HackerYou, both of which aim to generate more equality in the tech world by encouraging and empowering women to get into computer programming. Under the banner of Learning Labs, the two ventures moved into 483 Queen St. W., just west of Spadina Ave., on Jan. 22—it’s their first permanent site.
The entrance was easy to miss, with only two narrow banners marking Learning Labs’ location directly above an Urban Outfitters. But upon exiting the elevator, I was welcomed by a front desk reminiscent of Apple’s Genius Bar and an open space with dozens of tables. A wall of windows lit up the exposed brick and white floors of what denizens call “The Lab,” which boasts an ample selection of power outlets, a 3-D printer, and even a pair of Google Glass specs. Approximately 50 young people—about one-fifth of them guys—were chatting, coding, and, yes, baking throughout the 6,800-square-foot floor.
After finishing her business degree in a tough 2009 economy, Payne launched a personal website and fell in love with the coding process. She landed a corporate marketing job, though after a year realized she was more at home with tech start-ups.
But Payne knew that female developers have to face a “bro culture,” where they’re often unwelcomed. She said many young women don’t consider computer programing—arguably one of the most employable skills—for many reasons, including the incorrect perceptions that programming requires strong math skills and that women don’t have them.
In May 2011, Payne took a business trip to Los Angeles, where she learned more about start-ups and came across a female-focused coding workshop. “I saw these groups in the States dedicated to getting women into technology, and I tweeted that we should have the same thing here,” she said, which prompted an enthusiastic response. “It just sort of took off.”
Meanwhile, Payne launched HackerYou, a for-profit business with a progressive, equality-focused mandate that specializes in more advanced programming. Thanks to HackerYou’s profits and a private investor, the newly established Learning Labs is home to both groups—though the office also hosts networking events and rents out classrooms. Payne said there’s already a group of students who spend their Friday nights “coding, chilling, and bonding for hours.”
On the Friday morning I visited, 20 young women and six men were three weeks into a HackerYou bootcamp. Sharon Chan was learning the fundamentals of front-end development on her laptop. “It’s a supportive environment where you can learn a lot without having to go back to school,” said the 30-year-old graphic designer, who hopes to move into web development.
Steps away, two young women took a break from their individual coding projects to take the muffins out of the oven. “It’s really great to see people come in here with ideas and make them become a reality,” said Payne. “Muffins are also a nice touch.”