Karlie Kloss created a coding camp for girls, but the biggest takeaway isn’t how to code. It’s how to defy expectations.
BY STEPHANIE SCHOMER
THE VIEW IS stunning up here, from the 34th floor of this downtown Manhattan office building. Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, the day is bright and clear. But the 24 teenage girls occupying the space are over it. Their noses are buried in MacBooks, while a soundtrack of Disney hits plays in the background. There’s work to be done, after all: They’re students at a nonprofit coding camp called Kode With Klossy, and today’s assignment is to design and code an online photo gallery.
They’re so focused on the task, in fact, that they don’t notice when the camp’s creator and very famous namesake walks in.
“Hey, guys,” says supermodel, Project Runway host, and coding enthusiast Karlie Kloss, as she gives the students a friendly wave. The girls seem a bit too stunned to react. Eyes widen as they glance around at each other, quietly nodding with shared enthusiasm. But before they can do much of anything else, the 27-year-old Kloss is checking out their work, bringing her six-foot-two-inch frame to a squat so she can be eye level with her students and their screens. For the next 90 minutes, she asks questions about their code and their plans for the future— through conversation occasionally veers off to Harry Potter and chocolate chip cookies.
If it’s all a little surreal inside this room, it can look even more so from the outside. Kode With Klossy operates in 16 cities and this year alone gave almost 1,000 young women the (free) opportunity to learn a critical skill. It has attracted a wide range of support, though also the inevitable skepticism. Supermodels, after all, aren’t supposed to code.
Kloss has heard it before. And she has a straightforward response. “There are a lot of misconceptions about being a model, and how that directly correlates to your intellect,” she says. “Yes, I’m a model, yes, I’m a woman, and, yes, I’m interested in these areas. And I think a lot of other young women are interested in these areas, too, and they deserve the opportunity to learn about them and decide for themselves if they belong or not.”
Kloss is careful to never claim expertise in the world of computer science. She’s an enthusiast. She can code, but she considers herself a perpetual student of the craft—and a person not defined by others’ expectations. That, she hopes, is the sensibility her students will come away with. More than attaining any level of coding experience, she wants Kode With Klossy’s attendees to appreciate the power of curiosity and the willingness to ask questions. She owes her career to this instinct, she says. And she’ll continue to use it as her professional life evolves.
As Kloss makes her rounds at the camp, one young coder sings the praises of the instructors but sheepishly apologizes for asking them too many questions. “No!” Kloss says emphatically. “Do not apologize. That’s what they’re here for. You should always ask your questions.”
KLOSS GREW UP in St. Louis with her mom, dad, and three sisters. At 13, she participated in a local charity fashion show and was, as they say, discovered. By 15, she was walking the runway for Calvin Klein. In the years that followed, Kloss became one of fashion’s favorite faces, gracing countless runways and magazine covers. (To date, she’s covered various editions of Vogue 40 times.)
But by 2014, she wanted more. “I was 21, a bit of a veteran in fashion—it’s like dog years—and I just wasn’t feeling challenged,” Kloss says. “I was so in awe of what was happening in tech but a bit frustrated that I didn’t understand it. Why do certain people know how to scale businesses and ideas and problem-solving? What is it that certain people—primarily men, and primarily highly intellectual men, or at least men who are perceived to be super smart—are privy to that the rest of the world isn’t?”
To answer those questions, she signed up for a two-week coding boot camp at the Flatiron School in New York. Kloss was captivated by the experience. “The way I learned to code was very real-world applicable,” she says. “Being able to understand the building blocks of [technology]? It turns the lights on. It turned the lights on for me.”
In the months that followed, she kept studying. She struck up a friendship with Flatiron School co-founder Avi Flombaum, who helped her along. And as her fluency in code continued to grow, she started to think about how many other women could benefit from the same perspective-changing experience.
“I had an audience of young women paying attention to me on social media and in my career, and I wanted to connect them to opportunities that could really open their minds and open doors in their lives,” she says. “It’s not only a responsibility but a real privilege to be able to point someone in a direction that could be valuable to them.”
But how? Kloss decided to start with what she knew. The summer after she learned to code, she partnered with the Flatiron School to underwrite 21 boot camp spots for young women. She publicized the opportunity on her social media channels and was surprised by the response. Thousands of applications came in.
This got her thinking about what it would take to reach more women. The first step, it seemed, was to build something herself— something she could eventually scale nationwide. “I had no idea how, or even the intention, to build a nonprofit or anything in this realm,” she says. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
But then again, she didn’t know anything about code until she threw herself into the boot camp. “It’s just been about figuring it out as you go,” she says.
KLOSS CALLS HER camp “my nights, my weekends, my day job, my baby.” But at the very beginning, it was just her puzzle. She had no experience building something like this, but she did have an enviable professional network. She counts Diane Von Furstenberg and Anna Wintour as mentors and has longstanding business relationships with brands including Adidas and Carolina Herrera. So she made some calls and got some direction.
“Like with any business, you focus on an area you understand,” she says. “And as you grow, identify who else out there is doing good work, and figure out how you can align to better accomplish your goals.”
That became her approach. She had a vision; now she needed to piece together the right operational elements. She assembled a team of what would become five full-time staffers, and at first, they simply expanded their partnership with the Flatiron School. In 2016, Kode With Klossy launched as a standalone nonprofit, hosting two-week camps for girls ages 13 to 18 in New York, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. In 2017, the program expanded to 11 cities. By 2019, it was in 16 locales.
As Kloss and her tiny team have taken on more and more of the logistics and backend operations, they’ve required additional partners. The Turing School of Software and Design now helps craft a technical curriculum. Teach for America has also signed on, tapping into its network of teachers, and, with an assist from Kode With Klossy, is teaching them to code, and then training them to teach code.
Students—which the program calls “scholars”—apply for a coveted, completely free spot at one of the camps, which aims to select students who otherwise wouldn’t have easy access to these kinds of opportunities. Those accepted spend two weeks learning code, attending workshops on topics like career paths and financial literacy, and building various projects until “Demo Day,” when they pitch their completed websites or apps to their teachers, fellow students, and parents. Past projects have included an app that connects students with peer tutors and another that helps users locate public gender-neutral bathrooms.
As the guts of the program have become increasingly well-oiled, Kloss has relied on her existing network to make Kode With Klossy’s offerings as robust as possible.
As a brand ambassador and face of Estée Lauder makeup, for example, this summer Kloss arranged for the cosmetic giant’s female engineers to speak to scholars and created an exercise that allowed them to explore the back-end design of a new digital campaign for the corporation. The partnership provided summer internships at Estée Lauder for two Kode With Klossy alumnae.
Kloss also aligned with Away, the travel startup, which she’s invested in. (Her growing portfolio includes the female-founded brands Lola, which makes feminine products, and skin, a collagen-infused tea.) In 2018, Away launched an exclusive collection of luggage in new colours, designed in collaboration with Kode With Klossy. Sales benefited the coding organization.
Kloss herself isn’t able to visit every camp—she tried at first, but the endeavour has simply grown too big. So she appears where she can and makes sure to FaceTime in with the rest. As she does, and as she’s talked to the girls who attend, she’s come to realize that her program is providing something that she herself lacked as a child.
“I wanted to become a teacher or a doctor because that’s what I saw: My dad’s an ER doctor, and I had amazing teachers at my public school who really helped me love learning,” she says. “But those were the only avenues forward I saw. So now, for example, we have one scholar who’s a really gifted artist, and when she tells me she wants to go into game design, I’m like: ‘Yes! That is a great application of both of your passions.’ ”
For Kloss as well as her young scholars, coding boot camps become a portal to a bigger world. For the supermodel, it was an awakening that led her to create one of her own. And now, for the students at that camp, it’s a beginning that can lead anywhere.
IN SPRING 2017, Valeria Torres-Olivares was wrapping up her junior year of high school in Princeton, N.J. She’d taken a couple of computer science classes and loved what she learned but found the experience to be isolating.
“I was one of the only girls in my classroom, and I was the only Latina in any of the computer science classes at my school,” she says. “I felt almost unqualified to ask questions like I should be able to figure them out for myself. That can spiral into a lot of self-doubts.”
So she decided to apply to be a Kode With Klossy scholar and encouraged her little sister Kyara, who was 13 at the time, to do the same. (“I wanted her to be exposed to code, but in a different environment,” she says.) They recorded a joint video application and were accepted. The experience changed everything.
“I had never been in an all-female STEM environment before, and I expected some sort of weird competitive vibe to be happening,” she admits. “But it was one of the best learning environments I’d ever been in. My sister and I both fell in love with how collaborative it was. No one was afraid to ask what might be labelled as ‘dumb’ questions.”
Torres-Olivares went all-in after that. She spent the next two summers with Kode With Klossy—once more as an attendee, and then as a paid instructor’s assistant. And like Kloss, she immediately knew she wanted to share her knowledge.
With her little sister, Torres-Olivares approached her local library and offered to host and teach free coding classes for kids. That kicked off a new organization, Code Equal, which she launched in Princeton in 2017. It has since served more than 200 students and held workshops at Fordham and Rutgers universities. This year, Code Equal will launch classes in Detroit and Omaha.
“Kode With Klossy has an amazing network of students and instructors, and we have massive group chats where people are always supporting each other,” says Torres-Olivares, who is now a sophomore at Princeton University, where she’s studying computer science with plans to create a custom major that blends the craft of code with public policy. “Because of that, we’ve been able to expand our mission.”
For Kloss, these are the stories that prove the organization’s success—not because former scholars are choosing to commit to code, but because they’re choosing to create their own path. Next, she wants to dedicate more resources to empowering that budding alumnae network and has her eye on programming for girls younger than 13 and for women older than 18.
“In the grand scheme of things, a Kode With Klossy camp is a short two weeks,” Kloss says. “But our scholars take it and run with it. We’re at a point in this organization where we’ve only just scratched the surface, and it’s time to look at what’s working and innovate and scale. But being able to see the impact in even one person? It’s so much bigger than I ever imagined.”
We asked the model and entrepreneur to identify the women whose work, businesses, and the impact she admires. Here’s what she had to say.
Founder and CEO, education platform VIPKid
“I deeply admire Cindy’s dedication to democratizing access to education through technology. Her platform gives rise to the foundational tools that shape people’s lives, perspectives, and futures.”
YouTuber and founder, Unicorn Island Productions
“I am such a fan of who Lilly is as a person and the message she stands for. Nothing’s more powerful than a network of strong women who encourage each other, and Lilly is a huge driver in spreading this idea, inspiring women to support one another.”
Co-founder and CEO, beauty bar Detroit Blows
“Nia has built a business founded on accessibility and community. Aside from being a success in her own right, she’s using the platform she’s built to help advance the entrepreneurial aspirations of other women.”
Co-founder and board chairman, nonprofit AI4All
“AI has the power to transform every industry, but it requires a diverse set of perspectives. I admire Fei-Fei’s commitment to ensuring that everyone can influence AI, from education and research to development and policy.”
Co-founder and CEO, software engineering company Hamilton Technologies
“Margaret Hamilton’s work in computer science is revolutionary and undeniable—her innovations impact every programmer. She’s expanded the limits of what’s possible in science and engineering.”
Athlete and founder, Serena Ventures
“The world knows Serena first as a world-class athlete, but the work she does off the court is equally impressive. She empowers young women to explore, showing them that we can be many things and pursue a variety of passions.”
Jen Rubio and Steph Korey
Cofounders travel brand Away
“Jen [left] and Steph [right] have differentiated Away [luggage] from the rest of the industry through their unique approach to design. By combining fashion, technology, and travel, they’ve built a smart, innovative brand.”
Co-CEO and President, Ariel Investments
“Mellody is a true trailblazer, the type of woman and entrepreneur I aspire to be. She’s pushed boundaries and defied expectations at every step of her career, opening doors for businesses across the country.”
Afton Vechery and Carly Leahy
Cofounders, at-home fertility testing startup Modern Fertility
“Afton [left] and Carly [right] have leveraged technology to improve women’s lives and give them greater agency. Their work will impact so many families.”
Founder and CEO, at-home workout device and platform Mirror
“Brynn has completely forged her own path, sitting at the intersection of fitness and technology and setting a new standard for her industry.”
Writer, director, and producer
When the FX series Pose premiered in 2018, it made history and won fans for its authentic depiction of the 1980s New York ball culture scene, a subculture composed primarily of LGBTQ people of colour. With it, Janet Mock also made history—as the first trans woman of colour to write and direct for a TV series. This June, she signed a multiyear development deal with Netflix, yet another historic milestone for Mock and the communities she identifies with. “Niche is the new universal, and I’m so glad I’m existing and working and creating at a time in which people are eager and hungry for these stories,” Mock says. “I hope [my work] becomes a beacon for anyone out there, like I was, seeking and searching for reflections.” And while she’s ready to develop her own ideas and projects, she knows that she holds a responsibility greater than simply making entertainment. “It’s to bring people in and empower from within: underrepresented voices, bringing them to the writer's room and the crew, casting authentically,” she says. “Those are the pillars in which I work and create.”
Cofounder/ Wana Brands
What happens when you add penny candy to a dime bag? Some $25 million in gross revenue this year. A marketing whiz, Nancy Whiteman launched Wana Brands in 2010 and slowly but surely has turned her cannabis-infused gummies into the top-selling edibles company in the country. But what started as experiments with pot in a 135-square-foot test kitchen (“infused Nutella is really good,” she says) has become a business so booming, it now happens in a facility more than 100 times that size. The company continues to, well, grow like a weed (its three-year growth rate is at 269 percent), thanks to Whiteman’s aggressive moves into new markets. When she considered expanding to vapes last year, she says, “People told us, ‘The world does not need another vape brand.’” But she didn’t listen, and nine months later, those vapes make up 10 percent of the business. This fall, it’s spinning off a new company, Wana Wellness, to make hemp products. “Our first offerings,” she says, “of course will be hemp gummies.”
Co-founder and CEO/ Canva
Canva, the Australia-based graphic design platform, was created in 2013 to help anyone, anywhere—with any level of design knowledge—create and publish beautiful, professional materials. Six years later, CEO Melanie Perkins and her cofounders have made strides. Canva has raised more than $140 million, is valued at $2.5 billion, and has 15 million active monthly users around the globe. “We’re now in 100 languages, and a goal for the year ahead is to bring access to every single market,” Perkins says. “We’ve done less than 1 per cent of what we think is possible—we’ve got .56 per cent of the world’s population on the platform, but we want to empower the entire world.”
Co-founder and CEO/ The Wing
When Audrey Gelman launched The Wing in 2016 with cofounder Lauren Kassan, she wanted to bring women-focused coworking spaces to cities around the globe. Three years later, The Wing has locations across the U.S., will open its first international outpost in London this fall, and plans to launch a LinkedIn-style platform to help members post jobs and hire each other. One factor driving The Wing’s success? Its in-house design team is made up of women and mothers who use their own experiences and member feedback to inform the spaces’ amenities, lactation rooms, and even café menus. Eighty per cent of its furniture is custom-designed with the average proportions of women in mind, and now, New York area developers and landlords are calling on the company to help design female-friendly spaces outside The Wing. “It’s really important as an extension of our mission,” Gelman says, “to take design into our own hands and to do it on our own terms.”
THE BIG QUESTION ABOUT DECISIONS
If you could go back and change one business decision you made, what would it be?
“I would be more confident in my own knowledge of the market. Anytime I listened to investors or partners who had not operated in Africa but were strongly advising me on switching direction, the company faltered. Our local knowledge is our strongest advantage.”
Co-founder and CEO, BitPesa, a platform that uses blockchain to make financial transactions in frontier markets faster, cheaper, and easier
“I spent too long doing the safe thing—the ‘right’ degree, the job I ‘should’ take—instead of following my natural talents. I would have made the jump from professional services into business sooner. When I finally made the leap, I got a job working for a CEO who let me run loose, and I found the power to back myself. Now I don’t hold back.”
Partner, BBG Ventures, an early-stage fund for tech startups with female founders
“There are mini moments that come to mind: I wish I’d fought harder when people wouldn’t pay me, pushed back on contract terms, be more demanding of my expectations and needs from the get-go. As a young entrepreneur, you can tend to back down. But you have to have the confidence to get your seat at the table.”
Founder and CEO, Create & Cultivate, a platform and conference series for professional women
“When building a two-sided marketplace, you’ve got the supply side (in our case, restaurants) and the demand side (business professionals buying catering for meetings). It is a chicken-and-egg problem. Which do you have to sign up more of first? In hindsight, I would have prioritized building the supply side first and attracted a small number of customers on the demand side. Once they’re rabidly loyal, then you have a business.”
Co-founder and CEO, ezCater, a $1.25 billion online catering marketplace
“The most valuable use of my time was when I invested in recruiting and retaining great people. If I could go back, I’d literally double down: double the time I spent making sure we have and keep the incredible people that help our business be successful and grow.”
Founder and CEO, Stitch Fix, the $2 billion personal styling service
“I would make my mental and physical health more of a priority. Growing a company means investing emotional energy, time, and sweat, and too often I put the opportunities and needs of the company ahead of my health. But overall health is the key to success, and a company will thrive with a leader who can effectively balance both.”
Co-founder and chief curator, Soko Glam, the Korean beauty marketplace
“I would have found ways to monetize sooner. As a social entrepreneur, I was conflicted with my desire to create change while ensuring the sustainability of my venture. I would have conducted a better assessment of my expenses, identified my goal revenue needs, and had a better understanding of how to price and grow a company. It’s hard to give to others when you have a model that burns out you and your bank account.”
—NATALIE MADEIRA COFIELD
Founder and CEO, Walker’s Legacy, a platform and collective for women of color in business
“I wish I would have hired more senior leaders to help the business grow in parallel. I identify as a builder, so I’m always going to prefer to be in the trenches with the team as we scale, when my time might be best spent focusing on what moves the needle. Having senior leaders enables me to have strategic leverage.”
Co-founder and chief revenue officer, Credit Karma, the $4 billion personal finance brand.
Brand experience officer/ Macy’syears, Rachel Shechtman’s
FStory was the darling story of retail. Her never-ending rotation of themes in her New York store showed how fun brick-and-mortar could be. Then in 2018, she sold her brand to Macy’s and joined the giant as a brand experience officer. This April, Story popped up in 36 Macy’s stores nationwide as a themed shopping space that changes every two months. The first theme—colour—was sponsored by Crayola and MAC cosmetics. But Shechtman’s work at Macy’s is just beginning. “I think of my team as a holding company,” Shechtman says. “Story was the first business in our portfolio, and now we’re developing new businesses outside the Macy’s ecosystem and launching them inside Macy’s. Our goal is to create businesses that can scale.”
Founder and CEO/ Portfolio
Thirty per cent of affluent men have invested in entrepreneurial companies; less than 1 per cent of women have. That’s why, in 2014, Trish Costello launched Portfolio, a platform that aims to bring women into investing. The portfolio has since launched eight funds with up to 249 member investors (who can commit at least $10,000). Each is led by an expert team; videoconferences keep communication open within the far-flung network. Funds focus on a range of markets, from active ageing to women’s health, and Portfolio currently has 14,000 more women waiting to join its network, eager to make their first investment when the right fund launches. Costello expects to have 100,000 women actively investing by 2022. “Data shows that men like to invest in novelty, and women like to invest where they’re experts,” Costello says. “And that’s what makes women great investors.”
Founder and CEO/ Kendra Scott
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October - November 2019