“Did you know that there are more than 100,000 child prostitutes in the U.S., many of them girls under the age of 15?” Sarah Austin asserted as she approached me.
Sarah, an unassuming, somewhat soft-spoken yet firm woman whose powerful eyes are framed by straight blond hair, continued with conviction, “It economically makes sense for these girls to code themselves out of poverty and their unfortunate circumstances, whatever they may be. One, software coding provides a stable and higher paycheck than prostitution. Two, it has a much higher growth potential and earning ceiling. And three, coding drastically diminishes a girl’s chances of going to jail and being fined.”
Despite her young age, Sarah is a Silicon Valley veteran. She founded a few startups, including Pop17, which she grew to a community of 25 million people. She is also SAP’s Hacker of the Year, a Johns Hopkins University Certified Data Scientist, and a board member of the Central YMCA in the Tenderloin community of San Francisco where she also volunteers at Glide Memorial Church and the Boys and Girls Club. Sarah is currently focusing her efforts around fundraising for her stealth startup, which will provide web-enabled insight services for data driven decisions. She plans to launch it this September.
As intriguing as Sarah’s startup may be, her unwavering passion to address pressing social problems with technology is even more impressive. Recently, Sarah organized a panel, featuring women in venture capital, the proceeds of which supported CodingFTW, Sarah’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit that educates young girls in the Tenderloin and provides scholarships and hosts hackathon events. According to Sarah, CodingFTW provides an avenue for girls to engage in a self-paced productive activity, which in itself is satisfying and improves their self-esteem and self-worth. “We need more hackathons to inspire these girls and give them a chance to succeed in life,” Sarah declared with a firm conviction.
I loved Sarah’s message. It spoke to me personally because a long time ago during my brief stint as a Deputy District Attorney in San Francisco I prosecuted prostitution cases at the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street. I saw petrified girls appear in front of a judge for the first time before being arraigned. They were disturbingly under eighteen and visibly scared. The police report often revealed that they were picked up by a much, much older “John” or an undercover cop. Sarah’s message definitely brought back the moments when I asked myself how does a girl this young gets to the point of prostitution so soon in a city with so many opportunities, well-funded startups, and vibrant social life. San Francisco’s Tenderloin district is one of the top locations in the U.S. where child prostitution is a major problem.
And then, of course, Sarah’s message is timely. Coding is a way to democratize opportunities in an age where your alma mater or background is increasingly unimportant. It has a potential for closing gender, racial, and socio-economic gaps in technology and society overall. More importantly, it provides a viable second chance to many who desperately need it.
Sarah’s massage also had the potential to change the world for the better, moving beyond San Francisco to other cities and one day potentially put an end to child prostitution in the U.S. In other words, it is scalable.
In sum, Sarah’s message masterfully combines all the elements of an effective pitch and is worth emulating. Sarah presented a compelling problem, followed by a logical and realistic solution that stretches a listener’s imagination without crossing the line of the impossible, ludicrous, or improbable. The impact on the audience was indisputably inspiring and compelling. She had talented women coders signing up to volunteer in droves at CodingFTW. They were motivated and inspired to equip others to code themselves out of poverty.