Amali de Alwis
Posted on September 02 2015
This week's Wednesday Woman is Amali de Alwis, CEO of Code First: Girls. Amali was previously a Thought Leadership Manager at PricewaterhouseCooper and worked on secondment at World Economic Forum (WEF), where she managed and launched a WEF project to explore the dynamics of trust in business and the role it plays in a company’s success. She is also a mentor to several startups.
Newnham: What were you like growing up and what career aspirations did you have?
de Alwis: I was a really curious child, and grew up between London and Sri Lanka with parents who really encouraged me to explore whatever took my interest. These interests ranged from playing with my Meccano and electronics sets to painting and making dresses for my Sindy dolls. I also read a lot, and have always been in love with science and technology (my first love being dinosaurs and then space exploration in my teens!)
This left brain vs. right brain tension meant career wise my focus varied too although, thinking about it, it always came down to careers where I could be curious and creative with new ideas and build things (whether that meant working for the space agency or as a designer).
Newnham: And now you are CEO of Code First Girls . How did you get involved?
de Alwis: Code First: Girls has a really simple mission (simple to say, not simple to achieve!) - we work with companies and young women to increase the proportions of women in tech and entrepreneurship.
It was started by Alice Bentinck and Matt Clifford as a programme in Entrepreneur First about three years ago, and with help from some fantastic sponsors (Bank of America Merrill Lynch for example has been one of our long term supporters), grew to the point where it had enough traction to spin off as an independent company last September. I then came on board as the new CEO in January.
As far as how I got involved, I had been working around digital and strategy for a number of years, as well as getting more involved in mentoring and advisory. So when I saw the role advertised on Escape the City, it was just the perfect way to combine my love of tech with my growing passion for helping others to achieve.
Newnham: How important is mentorship in nurturing the next wave of entrepreneurs?
de Alwis: Mentorship has a really important role to play in being an entrepreneur, although I've never really differentiated between mentors, coaches and advisers.
For me it's just been a case of finding people who can help me think about specific things, whether that's in my career or my work. Sometimes that's as a one-off, sometimes it's become a longer term relationship. It's always been fairly organic, as personal fit plays a big part, and I've needed different people at different times of my life.
Newnham: How do you think we can get more girls and women interested in tech?
de Alwis: It's really simple - inspire them, ideally as young as possible!
We need to expose more girls and women to science and tech and get them excited about it. We need them to see more of the amazing contributions that women have made to the world, and not just the historic ones, but the younger, more recent, ones too, and help them to see it as something that they can relate to.
And there are so many programmes and events that you can get involved with at any age. Obviously we at Code First: Girls think we're doing fabulous things, and also organisations like Stemettes, Apps for Good, Stemnet and Young Rewired State for school age kids, as well as programmes like Mums in Tech and Google Campus for Mums & Dads for parents who want to learn how to code or become entrepreneurs!
Newnham: And who / what inspires you?
de Alwis: So many people in so many different ways! A few public figures that come to mind - Elizabeth Holmes from Theranos, Brandon Stanton from Humans of New York, Cher Wang from HTC, and Thomas Heatherwick from Heatherwick studios. They're all such inspiring individuals. They do very different things, but you can just see how passionate and connected they are to the work they do.
I also get incredibly inspired by the members of our Code First: Girls community. They're phenomenal young women, and range from handbag designers to astrophysicists. I truly feel like I meet people every day that are going to change the world, which makes it a pretty awesome job to have.