Transciption by Malin Claesson and Katie Farrell
Eric Hartman: Hello and welcome to Queen City Profiles, a podcast brought to you by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library. This is a show where we bring in prominent members of the Charlotte community for a conversation. My name is Eric Hartman and with me today is Mrs. Betsy Hauser Idilbi.
Betsy Hauser Idilbi: Hi everybody.
EH: Before starting Tech Talent South, Betsy ran a physical product developing company Little Idea which merged with a product development giant Inventis. Since starting Tech Talent South, Betsy has been named CIO of the Year by the Charlotte Business Journal, a leader under 40, one of the 25 people to know in Charlotte’s startup scene, named one of the 7 people to watch in Charlotte in 2016 by the Charlotte Observer, and honored by the Charlotte Business Journal as a 2016 Woman of the Year. She is also one of this year’s finalists for CBJ’s list of the most admired CEOs. Betsy holds a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her free time, Betsy loves hanging out with her husband and two kids. If she’s screaming at her television set, it’s probably over her alma mater, UNC Chapel Hill. She also digs jogging, scuba diving, all things Tar Heels, and is nothing short of dominant on a foosball table. Hello Betsy and welcome to Queen City Profiles.
BI: I’m excited, so Friday I get to watch my Heels in person right here in the Queen City.
EH: Excllent, excellent. We’re super excited as well. So, let’s start off here, pretty common question. Since it seems like no one is ever from Charlotte: where are you originally from?
EH: Okay, great! That makes things really easy. Where in Charlotte did you grow up?
BI: So, I read question number two and I believe it said “what brought you here” and I was ready to answer, well my mom and dad. Um, but, no, so I was raised in Charlotte. Um, and then I moved and lived in Chicago for a couple of years and Atlanta and then found my way home. It’s been really exciting to see all of the changes the city has had over the last 30-something years.
EH: It’s been pretty incredible even for the last 5 years that I’ve been here.
BH Look, I remember when I worked–when I was 16-years-old at Duke Energy over the summers and I could park for free.
EH: That’s pretty incredible.
EH: So, I know we’ve talked a little about it already, but tell me about your background.
BI: Yeah, so I obviously was a journalism major at UNC Chapel Hill. After school, I went to Chicago and I worked in PR, um, for the city doing event planning, etcetera. And then, um, following that, I really started developing my own products. Uh, and stumbled into a company here in Charlotte, I recognized my passion was helping people launch these ideas. And so, buddied up with a company here called Little Idea–little team of 6, engineers on staff, graphic designers, uh you walked in with an idea, you kind of name it, we helped you produce it. I always tell people we weren’t in the business of judging ideas, we’re in the business of executing them which, they are two wildly different things. Uh, it was an amazing ride and if I’m really honest, I still geek out more over a physical product, something tangible you can hold, than a digital one. That said, they are incredibly expensive to start and so I watched a lot of folks spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their baby idea that may or may not have legs. So we ended up merging with a product development giant based right here in Charlotte called Inventis. Very few people know it’s here. I believe that the CEO actually teaches some classes for Queens College, where we’re sitting right now, but we merged with them and I thought “well, this has been awesome,” but I had seen a lot of folks come through our doors with digital ideas. They wanted to build mobile apps, they wanted to build out a new web application, whatever it was, and I thought well one Little Idea wasn’t equipped to handle that and two, I’m missing out on this huge market segment, and three, wow, if I could empower folks with the skills to code they could build out new companies for the cost of host and domain–like 40 bucks. So it was like a great equalizer in my mind.
BI: So I jetted off to Chicago, abandoned my husband for a matter of months and slept on my buddy’s couch and went to one of the first code schools in the nation.
EH: So, that’s, that pretty much leads us right up to starting Tech Talent South. Can you tell me a little about process on getting that started and then just a little bit more about the company?
BI: Yeah, so while I was in Chicago–and it was an amazing experience I actually went to a code school co-owned by the guys at 37-signals and the product base camp was developed by them and, y’know, they roped the computer language rail, so I can’t even conceptualize what it’s like to write a computer language. But good people to learn rails from, and I felt that this was an amazing experience. What would have been a little bit better for me is having built that network where I wanted to live, right? Like I knew I was going up for this experience, but was coming back to Charlotte. And I thought that I could do something similar and I could have a more community focus, so six months later we launched in Atlanta, and then we boot-strapped the company, so we didn’t take on funding for four and a half years, by teaching kids codes camps. So we taught paid kid codes camps, which are now completely altruistic for us, even then folks would email in and say “hey I wanna code, but I don’t have the 500 dollars” and Richard, my co-founder, and I would look at each other and “Well this is karma that I am just not O.K. handling, so hooray, full scholarship for you!” That quickly became altruistic for TTS and now we’re focused on adults.
EH: Oh, good. Great. I noticed that Tech Talent South is a little bit different from the rest of the bootcamps about learning coding around the city and maybe in other areas. Can you maybe tell me a little more about the application process for students? What are you looking for when students apply to Tech Talent South?
BI: Yeah, that’s a wonderful question. So we’re not looking for pedigree. We don’t need your SAT scores or, you know, your ACT. What we’re looking for is drive and proof that you’ve been wanting this. So when we do an interview we typically look for have you been tinkering around online already? Do you really want to build something and have you been working towards that? Are you already in tech working in some capacity maybe you’re a product manager or you’re in sales and you sale these things and you really want to understand tech better. You want to understand web applications better so that you will be advantaged in your job. So those are some of the stuff we look for.
EH: Great. What drew you to learn code?
BI: Well, I love product development. So, as you might imagine I had a million things I wanted to build too so I’m definitely one of those people who has a notebook of ideas. I wanted a mobile app with this and a mobile app with that. And then, of course, like I said having my experience in product development at Little Idea, the concept that if I could teach people how to code, they really could build out all these ideas for essentially nothing. I mean, and you know, a 13-year-old can launch a company, that’s so incredible to me.
EH: That is, yeah. Absolutely, especially with all the opportunity with apps. What kind of issues/problems have you run into when running Tech Talent South?
BI: Oh my gosh, I mean, look, any entrepreneur would tell you, if they could see the future they probably wouldn’t start at all. A lot of differenthing things. One, I didn’t know that code would become so hot. So, when I started I had a genuine interest in, you know, building my own application and helping other people do so, but I don’t think the whole “everyone needs to learn to code–” it just hadn’t hit mainstream yet. So all of a sudden, I found myself in the middle of a bunch of press–both good and bad. And that was something that I wasn’t mentally prepared for, I would say. And also, it changed the game on our students’ side. So, it opened the doors for some folks applying who maybe didn’t have the right motives. Right, like, they heard an NPR story that if you learn to code, you’ll make a lot of money. Well, we can all manage some expectations there. You don’t sit in a class and become Mark Zuckerberg, y’know, there’s a lot of hard work and a lot of kicking down doors and a lot of breaking applications before you get there. So, we really had to focus our attention, y’know, at the beginning of the company, I felt like a lot of our energy was spent telling the general public what the heck is a code school. And, as we evolved, and as code became this hot topic, it really became managing expectations. You’re gonna learn the foundations, man you have a long way to go after that and you need to come in understanding that.
EH: How do you see Tech Talent South evolving in the future?
BI: Yeah, that’s a great question, and it probably scares my employees all the time ‘cause I definitely go out on tangents about what we should be doing in 5 years. There are a couple of things we’re doing in the immediate future. We’ve done a lot of partnerships. So we’ve written some curriculum for universities and run some co-branded programs with them, which that’s pretty exciting. We’re also looking to launch, do some digital courses. So, we have never stepped into the online world and we are going to now with a couple of partners. But, long term, I don’t really understand or respect the reason why this has only been code. Code schools came to be in this like immersion learning, but there are a lot of other things that can be taught in the same way. And it could really disrupt education and it should.
EH: Are you thinking also about potentially hardware as well?
BI: Hardware–I always use HVAC as an example and I actually heard an advertisement for, oh I’m still blanking on the name of the company and they just fixed my HVAC and they were amazing. Do you guys know the big HVAC company here?–Morris-Jenkins!
EH: Okay, yes!
BI: Fantastic customer service! I will plug them right now, I was blown away.
EH: Okay, good, all I could think about was the two guys sitting in the van at night.
BI: Aw, yeah, Bobby. But they are launching a program to teach HVAC repair internally. Makes so much sense to me, that you could go in, you can take–I don’t know how long their program is, but let’s say it’s three weeks–you learn this skill set and then you’re back in the job market versus scheduling courses over a two-year period potentially taking you out of work and delaying the time until you start a new career.
EH: Do you, you know as we see Raleigh being this new research triangle, do you vision Charlotte somehow fitting into that at some point.
BI: Yeah, I think Charlotte has been moving into that direction rapidly. I’ve certainly seen the tech seen evolve significantly since I was at Little Idea. You know folks like Dan Roselli and Packard Place stepping in and giving a central spot now I feel like all the co-working spaces have really impacted that too. I will say, we don’t have, you know we have a lot of schools around here, we do not have 7, so that is an unfair advantage. But what we do have are amazing places recruiting talent down here that we should make sure when folks leave the banks and leave Duke Energy and go out on entrepreneurial ventures that we’re supporting them. And that we create an ecosystem that really, truly does. And I think we’re working on that. I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.
EH: Great, great. So, if someone came up to you today and said “I want to get into coding,” besides applying to your program, what advice would you give them for a career?
BI: One, I would say you need to play around online first. There’s an abundance of free resources out there and you should take full advantage of them and see if you like it. Once you, uh, establish that you do, you have a couple options. I mean, obviously you could go back and get a four-year degree or you could come to a bootcamp, but you should really evaluate those it’s a big investment no matter what you do. Or, you know, some people really can teach themselves online. I certainly tried that before I went to a bootcamp, props to those people, I felt very frustrated and I really wanted to talk to someone and work through my questions. But there are so many resources. There are also local groups like Girl Develop It that run shorter classes. We run a lot of workshops that are free and open to the public, so we do a “Women Wine and Design,” “Beer and Bootstraps” you can kind of test around and the meet-up community in general you can find a mentor and be plugged in.
EH: Ok, good, great. So, thank you for answering questions on Tech Talent South, I appreciate that. Switch gears a little bit, we’re gonna talk about the city we all love so much. What do you feel is your vision for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area?
BI: That’s a big question, Eric.
EH: Oh, I know.
BI: You know, I think it’s changed over time. I have two kids now. So, my kids are growing up and I’m a public school kid, so I probably went to Cotswold Elementary. I certainly want my kids to have the benefit of, you know, the option of living in an urban environment with great schools too. And I want an ecosystem that truly supports entrepreneurs and doesn’t just talk about it. Can we talk about accessibility?
BI: Oh, I really want more Linx and more–I want to be able to bike places.
EH: I totally agree.
BI: I tell you, when I lived in Chicago, I would, so I lived in Wrigleyville, I would bike all the way downtown ‘cause I just biked on the water–10 miles. Amazing. Never had to step foot in a car–fantastic. And I think we should really push to have–keep extending the Greenway and make it more accessible for everyone.
EH: That sounds great. Well, I do know–I don’t know if it’s open already, but I believe the Blue Line extension should be opening soon, if it’s not open yet. Do you know?
BI: I think it is open.
BI: So, my husband and I lived in NoDa for years, we bought before it was official so that’s a good time to buy. And then, of course, we moved right when it was nearing completion, so unfortunately I didn’t get to take advantage of it. But I’m very excited for what it’ll do for the city and the connectivity between UNC Charlotte and Uptown is going to be amazing.
EH: I have seen city plans–they do plan to do a line from center city to the airport and then another one from center city to the Matthews area. Of course budget, y’know, budget considerations.
BI: I would love Lake Norman to make that mix too.
EH: Right? Right, yeah. So, we’ll see about that.
BI: 77 is a different story right now.
EH: Right. So, so we talked a little bit about your vision for the city–what do you feel is holding us back from that besides just accessibility.
BI: Yeah, and I think there’s been a big conversation about economic mobility as well. And making sure there are opportunities for all, um, obviously I think TTS plays a role in that especially within tech talent and, you know, we offer scholarships and we’re–you don’t need a four-year degree to become a developer which is a really great thing. But I think that, we have that luxury of one, that report, brought a lot of attention so I’m glad we were at the bottom because now we’re going to do something about it. And similar with Amazon, everyone’s talking about tech talent–it’s almost a benefit when you lose out because I think you work harder to improve the things that people have said that are a downside to your community.
EH: Well, and that kind of leads to, you know, there’s, you know, with tech talent there’s been a lot of talk lately with women in the tech world having some issues. Have you noticed any of that adversity yourself?
BI: I’ve only really had one moment where I really felt like I’ve, folks were discriminating against me because I was a woman. It was early on at Tech Talent South and I’ll never forget it. So my cofounder and I both RSVP’d to a meet-up. It was for developers only and the organizer promptly responded to me and said, “I’m sorry, this is for developers only.” And not to my co-founder, and I quickly responded back and said, “Not only do I know how to develop and can I program in several languages, but also I train folks. I do that.” And I never heard back from her and I, to this day, very much regret the fact that I didn’t go to the meet-up. But outside of that, I feel that it’s a great advantage to be a female in tech right now.
EH: Oh, absolutely. So many opportunities from even from a couple of years ago and–
BI: And company’s recognize, you know, when we’re making products for all people we need the voices of all people contributing to those products.
EH: That diversity, absolutely. When you’re creating, coming up with ideas for your company, where do you find inspiration?
BI: Oh gosh, that’s a great question. I mean my students. Certainly, I look to–my employees are amazing. I still have, my very first salaried employee’s our CTO now. So, he’s very plugged in to the tech community and always looking for trends as far as what we’re teaching in class. The other thing we do to test new ideas for TTS–we run free programming. So we’ll use, in Charlotte specifically, we have 3,500 members of our public meetup group. So, if we’re thinking we’re gonna launch a big IOT class, we’ll start running some little free programs that are like “hey, program your Alexa” and we’ll see how many people show up–is this something that really has legs? And then we’ll go from there.
EH: What would you say is the most underutilized resource in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area?
BI: Should I, uh, formally say the library? I feel a lot of pressure here, Eric!
EH: You don’t have to say that, but we’d love a plug.
BI: My kids go to the library every week, so, there you go. Um, I’m a working mom so they don’t go with me so that’s, that makes me want to add a little “womp, womp” at the end, but my family utilizes that heck out of the library. The most underused resource…I think it’s the people. So, I recognized early-on, and one of the great advantages we have in Charlotte, over like Chicago and San Fran, right? The reason I wanted to have TTS here is because you can make very strategic connections in a very condensed amount of time. You can find those five people who are going to help you get where you want and all you have to do is send them an email and 9 times out of 10 they’ll grab coffee with you. There is that southern hospitality and they will help you get to the next place. That is atypical and we should utilize that–everyone looking to move up or move on should be very comfortable reaching out and networking within this community.
EH: Excellent. Getting a little retrospective now here. If you could write a letter to your future self, what would you say?
BI: Oh my gosh, wow, why didn’t you go to like Pharmacy school or something?
EH: I hear that field’s not as great as it sounds.
BI: I know, I say that to my mom all the time. She’s like, “You would be so bored!” I’m like, “No, it looks so great.” I’d get to talk to people and make them better…I think I would’ve taken advantage some of the situations I was put in. I realize I grew up and had an amazing family and was given all the opportunity and there are a lot of folks that don’t have that and I do think, you know, when you’re 15 you take a lot of things for granted and I think I did too. Even at UNC, I think about all the programming they offered and the extracurriculars and I don’t think I was as focused on that as much as I was a blue cup of “He’s Not.” And so I wish I could tell myself “hey, look around you and see all the awesome stuff that’s happening and participate” earlier on.
BI: And don’t have two kids within the first four years of having a company.
EH: So, Betsy, what would you say is the most life-changing piece of advice you’ve ever received?
BI: I don’t know where I read this, it’s probably really cliche and everyone has seen it, but surround yourself with folks that are smarter than you. I recognize, I’m humbled all the time, with TTS and I recognize I’ve never taken a company from x million to x million, but there are a lot of smart people that have and I want them all around me telling me what I’m doing wrong.
EH: Absolutely. I find it encouraging myself. It kind of gets me motivated to do more. Yeah, absolutely.
BI: For sure.
EH: Strive to the next level.
BI: Yes, so very grateful for my team, they’re amazing.
EH: Thinking back over the books and articles you’ve read over your adult life, what book or article has made the biggest impact on you?
BI: That’s a great question. So, I can only think about within the last week or two because I have two toddlers. So I am sleep deprived at all times. So, I only think within kids books at this point. And I think I referenced this, maybe even in my bio, but I sing this song in my head all the time. So there’s a book Pete the Cat and Pete the Cat–
EH: Very popular.
BI: Oh, it’s amazing! So he’s just, you know, he’s walking along, singing a song and he just steps in all kinds of stuff. And at the end of it, at the end of every page, you know, just everything is groovy, keep going, keep moving and I have that running through my head all the time. Like, there are always gonna be bumps in the road, but you just gotta keep trucking.
EH: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, Betsy, I wanna thank you again for your time here today. Just kind of one last question here for you. How can listeners learn more about you and all that you’re doing?
BI: I assume, probably, the best way is to follow TTS. I, nicely, have kind of pushed myself out of social media. I think you have to give up something when running a company, so I’m terrible at updating my own Twitter account so you can follow me, but it won’t be exciting. And of course, you know, I’ve talked a lot about networking–if you’re really interested in TTS or me personally, you should email me. I’ll grab coffee with you.
EH: Great, excellent. Well, thank you again. Betsy, thank you so much for being a guest on Queen City Profiles. This has been a great talk. If anyone is interested in learning more about Betsy or Tech Talent South please visit their website at techtalentsouth.com. Thank you everyone for listening to this episode of Queen City Profiles. To learn more about this or any other podcasts, visit our website at digitalbranch.cmlibrary.org. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/cmlibrary or on Twitter @cmlibrary. I also want to thank the Knight School at Queens University for their assistance with putting together this podcast and for also lending their equipment and other assistance. Thank you again, see you next time.