Richmond Times-Dispatch

Lantera Labs on bold mission

It aims ‘to democratiz­e technology’ via affordable classes in digital age

- BY JOHN REID BLACKWELL

The startup venture Lantera Labs has a small classroom — just big enough for around 10 people — but the ambition behind it is big.

The mission that drives Lantera Labs founder and CEO Aneesha Rao is to spread knowledge and skills in technology.

The startup, founded in 2018, started offering low-cost or free technology classes this year, with a primary focus on working adults who might not otherwise be able to afford or access the sort of tech training that has become increasing­ly essential in the job market.

“The intention of the entire organizati­on is to democratiz­e technology,” Rao said. “Which is to say, we want to make sure that technical skills are accessible to everyone.”

Rao describes Lantera Labs as a hybrid organizati­on. It has a forprofit arm that provides a menu of consulting services in marketing and technology to business clients.

The other arm of the venture, for which Rao is seeking nonprofit status, has an educationa­l mission. Backed by a $10,000 grant from Capital One, Lantera Labs has contracted with several instructor­s to teach classes.

Those classes are designed to provide foundation­al training in such tech skills as computer software coding, enough training so someone who completes the courses could pursue further education or perhaps get an entry-level position in the field.

“Once you have that foundation and you are confident in it, you can build on it yourself,” said Emilie von Unwerth, the head of content for Lantera Labs.

Lantera Labs started its first round of tech classes earlier this summer. The six- to eight-week courses, held in the Lantera Labs office at the Work Studios co-working space on West Broad Street, included a class on front-end developmen­t and a class on digital marketing.

Richmond resident Monica Wilson took the front-end developmen­t class. Wilson, 29, studied environmen­tal science at the University of Virginia and works as a consultant on environmen­tally sustainabl­e building projects.

Wilson took a coding class at UVA years ago, but considers herself a novice. She wants to gain more tech skills to integrate into her career.

“The reason why I wanted to take the course was to build skills that were not directly related to my profession,” Wilson said. “I am focused on building science.

“The tech piece for me would be to utilize software that makes sustainabi­lity more easy for everyone to understand.”

Richmond resident Mel Jones works as a freelance copywriter and as a manager for a co-working office. She has a “smattering” of tech skills in coding and user design.

“I did not have a cohesive way of putting those skills together to allow me to leverage it for a specific project or goal or business,” Jones said.

She heard about Lantera Labs from a friend and decided to apply for this summer’s digital marketing course.

“I realized I had a gap in my knowledge, so when I heard about Lantera and that they were offering these courses, especially the one on digital marketing, I jumped at the chance,” Jones said.

Wilson and Jones were accepted to Lantera Labs as “scholarshi­p” students, with their costs covered.

Lantera Labs is seeking donors for its nonprofit mission.

Going forward, the managers of Lantera plan to tweak the financial model so that some students may pay an affordable fee for courses while others can get scholarshi­ps based on their income.

The goal is to make the courses free for anyone who earns less than a living wage amount, which is about $13.50 per hour in the Richmond region.

Rao and von Unwerth especially want to open the courses to low-income and minority population­s.

“It is really about getting into those communitie­s that are often

underserve­d or neglected by the tech sector,” von Unwerth said.

Rao grew up in Northern Virginia and attended UVA, then worked in the tech industry in San Francisco for about five years, including a stint

with internet search giant Google.

She returned to Virginia and settled in Richmond in 2018. Her profile on the social networking site LinkedIn describes her simply as a “dreamer.”

Creating a technology education startup “is something I have always wanted to do,” Rao said.

“My exposure to the environmen­t in San Francisco served both as an amazing introducti­on to technology — I worked for companies I am so grateful to have worked for — and yet it also served as a harbinger of what could come if access to technology is not more democratiz­ed,” Rao said.

Rao said she worries about the skills gap in technology contributi­ng to socioecono­mic inequality: “A small group of people becoming inordinate­ly wealthy and everyone else being left behind,” she said.

The gap not only exists within communitie­s but also between communitie­s, she said. Richmond has lagged other major metro areas in technology talent, she said.

“Why should we look to Washington D.C., or San Francisco or New York for talent?” she said. “We can have the talent right here.”

“I think I’m a dreamer, but I think more people should dream bigger, change more and not accept things as they’re given,” she said.

Lantera’s current

roster of instructor­s include Rao, web developer and graphic designer Liz Swain, web developer Regina Battle and schoolteac­her Tori Filas. More instructor­s and courses are being planned for another round of classes scheduled to start in September.

Classes are held in the evenings or weekends.

“I think Lantera is offering an opportunit­y where students have some flexibilit­y,” Swain said. “They can take these classes along with working full time.”

The first round of courses this summer graduated nine people in front-end developmen­t and seven people in digital marketing.

“For our first round of courses and doing all the marketing ourselves, we are really proud of that number,” von Unwerth said.

At the end of the first round of courses, Lantera Labs sent out questionna­ires to get feedback from the students.

“One student’s response was that he had not gone to college and he said college is not for everyone, but education is,” Rao said. “I thought that was lovely. You have the socioecono­mic barriers where college is not affordable for many people. We can create this space where people are learning and the cost is bearable.”

 ??  ?? Lantera Labs founder and CEO Aneesha Rao helped a student during a class at the startup last month. Rao said she worries about the skills gap in technology contributi­ng to socioecono­mic inequality.
Lantera Labs founder and CEO Aneesha Rao helped a student during a class at the startup last month. Rao said she worries about the skills gap in technology contributi­ng to socioecono­mic inequality.
 ?? JOE MAHONEY/TIMES-DISPATCH ??
JOE MAHONEY/TIMES-DISPATCH

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