When Elizabeth Lindsey showed up to compete at the first WeWork Creator awards in the spring of 2017, she didn’t even know how much money was on the table. It almost didn’t matter. As the executive director of Byte Back, a nonprofit that provides computer training and career-preparation services to underserved Washington, D.C.-area residents, she figured that any funding would help.
Then she and Byte Back won the top prize of $360,000. At the Global Finals in early 2018, they won $360,000 more.
“I’m tearing up thinking about it,” she says. “It was one of the most amazing nights of my life. It totally changed the trajectory of our organization.”
Byte Back has a successful 20-year history in D.C. On average, the nearly 10,000 adults who’ve completed the program earn $24,000 more per year after training than they did before it. “We’re helping people who don’t look like stereotypical tech workers move into a career that’s not just a job,” Lindsey says. “But a career that enables them to breathe, and to support their families, and to be intellectually stimulated.”
While the organization has always had a lengthy record of effectiveness, it had never been able to cobble together the resources to think strategically about how to build on that success. “We invest most of our money into actually serving our programs,” Lindsey notes. And for every minute that someone at Byte Back spends applying for grants—and then filling out the reports most of those grants require—“that’s time and resources that are taken away from our students.”
But the $720,000 it netted from WeWork had no strings attached: Lindsey and her team could spend it on whatever they felt would most directly benefit the organization and the people they serve. They decided their priorities were expanding their programming to a second site in Baltimore and creating a strategic plan for the future.
As they expand, the team is focused on making sure their mission—what they do for their students—doesn’t suffer. “We’ve received all this incredible support and investment to grow, but we also want to make sure that we’re making an impact in the best ways we can,” Lindsey says. “We have the resources to do it, thanks to WeWork—and it’s really rare, and really appreciated.”
What she received from entering Creator goes beyond cash value: Before that first evening at the regionals, Lindsey had never pitched before in her life. “Learning how to pitch is invaluable,” she says. “I now use that experience all the time: to be able to articulate in an exciting way what’s unique about the work we do, and the impact we make.” The experience she had on stage, as well as at boot camps held by WeWork to help regional finalists prepare for the global competition, has paid off: Byte Back recently received $1 million Canadian dollars from TD Bank Group, which will also go toward its expansion efforts.
Lindsey’s passion for educating others springs from her own experience as the first person in her family to attend college. “I grew up in a very financially unstable home,” she says. “I’m lucky that my parents and teachers understood how important getting an education was. Since I was very young, I knew that I wanted to give back and give other people similar opportunities.”
At the Creator Global Finals in Los Angeles on January 9, Lindsey is looking forward to watching this year’s finalists get the opportunity to expand their own passion projects. Her advice to them, she says, is to “really dream. Use not only the money, but the amazing relationships you’ll build as a result of this experience to invest in things that will bring your companies and your organizations to the next level.”
She knows they can do it. “The fact that they’re even at the Global Finals means they’re some of the best creative innovators and entrepreneurs in the world,” Lindsey says. “And I’m just really excited to see what they do next.”
Growing from a few to a few hundred employees takes strategy and the right space.