María del Mar Vélez, Founder, Crack The Code

Maria studied Economics and Business at New York University and minored in French. During her studies, she worked at Peruvian Development Group, a NY-based Perufocused private equity fund, in the acquisition of a microfinance company in Puno, Peru. After graduating from college, she worked for 6 years as an Analyst and an Associate at JP Morgan in the Asset Management & Alternative Investment groups. Maria then moved to Lima, Peru, and founded Crack The Code, a Computer Science school for kids and teenagers. Since then, the firm has had over 4,000 students in the in-person and online formats from all of the Latin American region.

Crack The Code was born with hopes of having a more competitive Latin American region, one with human capital that will enable growth, productivity and innovation, and hence, more prosperity for its population. Crack The Code is a computer science online academy for kids and teenagers in Latin America.

I founded it after having spent six years working in Finance at JP Morgan in New York. 5 years prior to that, I worked as an intern at a fund that acquired a microfinance company in Puno, Peru, which is when I realized that someday I wanted to have a business that had the potential of having social and economic impact. Founding an Edtech firm in Latin America has definitely been one of the biggest challenges of my life; I  have grown to understand our culture at a different level, our areas of opportunity and our immense potential. Crack The Code has the power to educate a young generation that will in turn make our region grow at a faster pace. We teach boys and girls, but we have a special focus on girls because we want to make sure they know that STEM careers are an alternative for them.

That female representation in technology is extremely important. It has been 3 years since we started working towards this and we can confidently say that we have already started to achieve our objectives. Latin America has huge contrasts  in terms of access to basic services like healthcare, education, and internet, even within a same country or city. After a lot of research, something that stood out as a need that hardly anyone had access to was digital education for younger generations. Even though we are living in a digital-dependant world, it is surprising to see that there is hardly any focus on K-12 education to computer science or programming courses. Being a completely new field of study for kids, schools in the region have not undergone the exercise of re-evaluating the traditional “computers” or “IT” course and integrating important hard and soft skills that are indispensable nowadays like: computational and critical thinking skills, problem solving, teamwork and creativity.

After much research, I started working on Crack the Code’s business model and in December 2017 we officially launched Crack The Code, a computer science academy for students aged 5 through 18 focused on developing student’s digital skills. Our goal is for students to become technology creators, innovators, instead of only being technology consumers. We want students to develop key skills that will allow them to be more competitive worldwide, to innovate and create products and services that will improve our quality of life. When we launched Crack The Code, we thought that it was going to be relatively simple to get students subscribed in our courses, but the reality was that it was our biggest challenge.

Coding for kids in Latin America is still a new concept, parents and even educators don’t really understand what itis or why it is important. There has also been a stigma towards students learning online and the amount of time on screen that they should have. With Crack The Code we want to show parents and students that technology can be used productively, that they can use it as a tool to create whatever they imagine and to develop key skills for their futures. In order to educate parents and educators, we organized public events for parents and their kids, corporate events for employees and their families, school fairs on what coding is and what you can create with it,  and even teacher professional development programs so that they learn about how technology can be used productively. We were, and currently are, opening a completely new market in Latam-ex Brazil. We are tearing down stigmas, changing parents’ points of view, demonstrating them that their kids are able to have a positive impact with tech in spite of their young age.

Crack The Code started off being a 100% in-person solution for students aged 5 through 18 in Perú. We achieved a lot during our first two years: +3000 students enrolled in our courses, + 15 courses developed, YoY growth of +110%, +8 partners schools, partnerships with important firms like Scotiabank, Lenovo, Samsung and Microsoft. We were able to fund our non-for-profit activities with the income from our for-profit classes: we truly achieved being a profitable, fastgrowing
start-up that has as its core objective having a positive social impact. Six months ago, on March 13th, 2020, our firm had to adapt to the new COVID reality, this meant changing all of our classes to a 100% virtual format. Parents who
had been against virtual learning, all of a sudden embraced this alternative. Crack The Code became an online computer science academy that provides live classes to Spanish speaking students, and now we were able to reach every single country in Latin America.

Six months later, we have had over 500 students enrolled in our classes from more than 15 different countries. We have launched a scholarship program in Colombia, a partnership with Google Latam on Digital Citizenship, a six-month program with Samsung for state school students in Lima. We have managed to grow our team to over 20 full-time and part-time members who are located in different countries of Latin America and are truly passionate about our mission. This pandemic has given us the ability to have a stronger, faster, impact across our region. We are able to scale faster, reach more students, and change lives at a faster pace. Our students are developing their own videogames, web pages, cell phone apps. They are having fun while they are learning, they are realizing that they are not too young to create, that knowing how to code is a secret weapon for them.

Another one of our core objectives has always been to increase female representation in STEMfields. Latin America has a strong stigma towards girls in technology. For some reason, society tends to link STEM fields to boys and men: we are on a mission to change this. Approximately 27% of our students are girls, while the other 73% are boys. On a daily basis, we try to tear down this stigma: we speak with parents who think “their daughter would never enjoy coding”, or all-girl school teachers who say “girls should learn ballet and be in art classes, not tinkering with computers”. It has not been an easy task, and from our experience, the main culprits are the societal expectations and pressures in place for boys and girls, women and men. We have dedicated a lot of our efforts to creating computer science programs tailored for girls hoping to get them to like the field and to realize that it is an alternative for them and their futures. We still have a long way to go on this front, but we can confidently say we are on the right track. Crack The Code is here to stay, we will not stop until Latin America’s younger generations are prepared to gear our region to growth, innovation and productivity. We are excited about the positive milestones we have achieved but we are even more excited by what is to come. Programming is the language that we should all be learning, and with our strong work, we will make sure Latins realize this and start working on getting there.

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