Lan­tera Labs on bold mis­sion

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


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.


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