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InfoQ Homepage News Creating a Startup outside of Silicon Valley - Q&A with Rachel Carlson of Guild Education

Creating a Startup outside of Silicon Valley - Q&A with Rachel Carlson of Guild Education

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At Develop Denver 2019, the keynote speaker, Rachel Carlson, spoke about her decision to create a tech startup outside the expected location in San Francisco. Although the idea was initially met with resistance by her investors, she believes having the headquarters for Guild Education in Denver, Colorado, has provided many benefits. Specifically, she sees the active developer community in Denver as a model of how technologists are using their skills to create solutions that help everyone.

Guild Education was founded in 2015 with the mission to "unlock opportunity for America's workforce through education." They help employees take advantage of tuition benefits offered by employers. As a Certified B Corporation, the for-profit company has a clear goal of providing a positive impact to the community. Carlson said colleges spend money buying ads on Google and Facebook to recruit students, then pass the cost along to students in the form of higher tuition. She believes technology can be used to improve this situation, and other inefficient systems, and that Denver can be the city where the tech community takes the lead in addressing societal problems.

InfoQ met up with Ms. Carlson to discuss her experience founding a tech startup away from Silicon Valley, and her thoughts on diversity, inclusivity and community at tech companies.

InfoQ: When most people think of tech startups, they assume the companies are based in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Did you consider starting your company on the west coast?

Rachel Carlson: We originally founded Guild on Stanford’s campus, but as it was time to hire we picked our heads up. We were committed to building Guild in a town that had the technical talent to build a high growth technology company mixed with a mission-driven community where prospective employees would be motivated to join in Guild’s mission. We made the choice to move the company to Denver in 2016 as a result. We firmly believe Denver is a town where ambitious, motivated leaders can pursue a high impact, high growth career without sacrifice.

InfoQ: What made you chose Denver, Colorado, in the middle of the country for your headquarters? Where else did you consider?

Carlson: As a Colorado native, I knew that the talent pool in Denver was equal, if not better, than comparable cities. I also knew Denver’s entrepreneurial spirit and knew it was a place where a budding business could thrive. We did consider some other cities initially, including Portland, OR and Austin, TX, but the talent pool in Denver and the ability to attract new talent to Denver became obvious pretty early in our search.

We posted job descriptions for our first big hire - director of engineering - in a number of cities, and found Jessica Rusin, the absolute best candidate, in Denver which helped persuade our board on the move, too. She (yes - our head of eng was also a female leader!) is now SVP of engineering at Guild, having scaled the team to over 40 in three years. 

InfoQ: When choosing a city to start a tech company, what do you believe are the important factors to consider? What trade-offs, good and bad, do you have to make because you're based in Denver?

Carlson: We are fortunate that Denver is a city where people can have all the benefits of coastal cities - great jobs, the outdoors, amazing people - minus headaches like crippling traffic, lack of high quality childcare and schools, and a high cost of living. In the earlier years in 2015, it was challenging to convince our early investors why we wanted to move out of Silicon Valley… But that’s now changed as our investors are now encouraging startups to launch outside the Valley, pointing to places like Denver! 

InfoQ: Can you describe Guild's "double-bottom line business model" and how you, as CEO, balance sometimes contradictory goals of making a profit and making an impact?

Carlson: At Guild, we are committed to providing an opportunity for the 64 million Americans who don’t have a college degree or credential. We believe that all people deserve the opportunity for a better future -- an opportunity provided, in part, by education and lifelong learning. More importantly, we believe companies should not have to make the tradeoff between margin and mission. In working with us to offer education benefits programs, Guild’s employer partners have recognized that they can do well by doing good for their employees - meeting business goals and creating valuable employee experiences. 

InfoQ: What challenges have you faced as a female founder of a tech company? Have you seen anything improve over the years?

Carlson: We are proud to have an incredibly diverse group of individuals working at Guild, with a close to 50/50 male / female split and a leadership team that is majority female. This has given us a unique perspective on how to create a diverse workforce where everyone’s voices are heard and incorporated in decision-making processes. 

InfoQ: What advice can you give to other women and underrepresented people trying to lead a tech company?

Carlson: At Guild, we believe talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. 

As entrepreneurs, we have been lucky to work with investors who believe the same. This has been incredibly important as we scale the company and I encourage other founders to seek out partners and investors who believe in the company’s values as much as the value of the investment! 


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