After years of navigating grad school and having to leave one position because of sexual harassment, Allison Esposito finally landed a dream job working as a content manager at Google Play.
Her hard work had paid off and she had the career to show for it.
But even while making six figures at a company she says "really takes care of their workers," she couldn't ignore the many obstacles faced by women in tech.
Often, women weren't being hired at all. According to a study by the group HiringSolved, women comprise only 19.6 percent of the staff of the top 25 tech companies.
Esposito, who describes always having had an "entrepreneurial streak," knew she had to do something. The best way to start, she figured, was to bring people together.
HOW IT BEGAN
In 2014, she started a coffee meet-up that expanded out from dozens of friends and acquaintances to hundreds in just a week. With a rapidly growing number of members, including those outside of New York, the group developed an online presence including a newsletter and job board.
Before Esposito knew it, Tech Ladies had grown to include over 6,000 women.
WHAT IT DOES
The group connects women so they can expand their networks and learn the kind of negotiation skills that women have traditionally been discouraged from using.
"There's a networking gap for women," Esposito says. "If your network isn't strong, you'll suffer in your career."
The organization aims to get more women into tech jobs and, once they're there, get them the salaries and respect they deserve. Where the work world can pit women against one another, especially creating divisions between younger and older employees, Tech Ladies seeks to bring a diverse continent of female employees together in order to help them all succeed.
"This is what we're building with Tech Ladies. It's not just a job board, and it's not just a community. It's both, and that's our secret sauce."
Esposito can list countless stories of women who have turned to fellow members for advice and have gotten results. In one case a member who had never before asked for a raise got a $6,000 salary increase using negotiating skills she learned from Tech Ladies.
"I learn a lot myself from reading [about interactions between members]," she says.
There's still one big hurdle women in tech face that has nothing to do with negotiation skills or networking: Sexual harassment. An industry report last year found that 60 percent of women in tech have had to deal with it.
"Part of the reason I started Tech Ladies was because of the stressful work experiences I had in my career. The funny thing is most of this happened to me before I was in tech," says Esposito. "I had to leave a past job because I was being sexually harassed by a boss."
Esposito hasn't publicly spoken about her experience with sexual harassment, but it informs the Tech Ladies mission. The group offers an anonymous forum to which members can submit questions about difficult situations and from which they can get advice.
"The reality is, this is happening to women all the time. It's way too expensive and career crushing to sue your employer, so what do most of us do? We suffer as long as we can, and then we move on," says Esposito.
Tech Ladies attempts to fight these conditions on a micro level, both by increasing diversity at companies and giving women the connections they need to get out of bad situations.
"When you're in that position, a few things are key. You need to have a super strong network and you need to have access to great new job opportunities," says Esposito.
WORKING WITH TECH COMPANIES
The group asks tech companies to make a concrete commitment to their values by listing openings on its job board, HireTechLadies, and including a direct contact so members can avoid the HR slush-pile.
Tech Ladies also tries to steer women into jobs that make them feel welcome, in which there's a company culture of gender equality and emphasis on benefits like family leave. Esposito says the group has seen interest from companies including The New York Times, Warby Parker, Jet and more.
The most eager companies, however, are smaller start-ups committed to building a positive workplace from the ground up.
"A lot of what I see is smaller start-ups who are maybe just two guys who just got funded who are trying to build a diverse culture from the start," says Esposito.
TURNING A SIDE HUSTLE INTO A FULL-TIME JOB
While Tech Ladies started as a passion project, after launching the Hire Tech Ladies website six months ago, Esposito found that the project was taking up more free time than she had.
"I had so many [requests] coming in, I was working till midnight every night for three months," says Esposito.
Esposito knew she was ready to make that leap once she found herself turning down opportunities she would have otherwise said yes to. Once she felt that the organization couldn't thrive without her full attention, she knew she had to make a change.
"It's definitely a big leap to make your side project a full-time job," says Esposito. "Only leave your full-time job when you feel like your project can't live without you."
Esposito is bootstrapping the project in lieu of seeking out investors, but she says putting herself through grad school as a nanny prepared her for the hustling and sacrifice required to build her own company.
"On a daily basis, I see people making connections," says Esposito. "It's really interesting when you see something become bigger than you."
Tonya Riley is a freelance technology and culture writer based in Brooklyn.