Monica Powell is the co-founder of Athena Digital Design Agency. Conceived at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York, Athena Digital Design Agency employs a team of 45 with the mission of empowering women to code. The web development company teaches students how to build simple, beautiful websites for businesses.
Athena Digital Design Agency services enable clients to take their small business or project online while supporting the next generation of female technologists. The company launched the inaugural website for the Malala Fund, founded by internationally renowned Malala Yousafzai.
Monica is a senior at Barnard College, Columbia University where she is studying psychology. Her interest in empowering women in technology led her to join the founding team of the Athena Digital Design Agency. In her free time she loves exploring New York City and also enjoys volunteering for organizations and causes such as Black Girls Code, the There is Hope Campaign and STRIVE.
Monica shares how she balances running a business with school and what drives her to help young women to enter the tech sector.
How did Athena Digital Design Agency get started?
Athena Digital Design Agency was inspired by other student-run businesses at my school, such as Barnard Bartending Agency and Barnard Babysitting. The students and faculty were disappointed with the retention rate of women studying computer science at Columbia. Women are definitely interested in taking these courses but studies show that they’re turned off by the tech sector culture due to implicit and explicit messages indicating that women are not welcome, as well as institutional practices that dissuade women from technical careers.
On average only 12% of the U.S. engineering population is made up of women. Therefore, the tech sector, including educational institutions, is failing to serve half of the population. The Athena Digital Design Agency emerged to empower more women, from all disciplines, to explore coding.
Technology is becoming crucial to every industry and its role in every business is often taken for granted. From the beginning, it was important to us to empower women regardless of their academic discipline to engage with web technology to create and assist small businesses.
Athena Digital Design began training students in January 2014 and then we launched the public-facing agency side of Athena Digital Design in January 2015.
Did you always know you would become an entrepreneur?
I have always been interested in running my own business as my mom is a business owner and has always encouraged me to pursue my dreams.
What happens during a typical business day?
I don’t think there is a typical day at Athena Digital Design. For example, there is always a lot of communicating via email, record keeping, reviewing our marketing and outreach and making decisions to come up with more projects in line with our mission. A few evenings out of the week we run our classes and occasionally offer workshops.
You’re currently a senior at Columbia University, how do you balance studying with running a business?
I definitely became more serious about time management when I began college and started using my iPhone iCal regularly. However, balancing studying alongside a business can be challenging because there is a lot that goes into a business that falls outside of pre-scheduled time blocks, such as responding to time-sensitive emails.
I really appreciate the rest of the founding team and student advisory board of Athena Digital Design because they are always there to jump in and offer additional support if somebody needs to temporarily prioritize school.
Tell us more about the coding training you provide for female web developers, how do you recruit coders for your agency?
Students on campus have been eager to get involved with Athena Digital Design since the beginning. On average every semester we have been able to offer training to at least 50% more students. We recruit students for our classes via social media, word of mouth and by reaching out to deans.
We have a “no experience required” approach which has encouraged students from a wide range of backgrounds to take our classes. Our previous students are eager to come back for additional training, as we add to our offerings each semester.
Tell us more about the #GirlBoss Foundation – how did you get involved and what impact has it had on your business?
I came across information regarding the #GIRLBOSS foundation while I was looking for internship opportunities because its focus on creatives overlapped with my search criteria. I eagerly applied for the #GIRLBOSS grant as soon as I learned about the foundation. I was super excited to find out in April that a decision had been made to award the grant to me.
The #GIRLBOSS grant has helped me to better balance being a student entrepreneur. The grant has also enabled me to be able to provide more resources and support for our students and developers which is critical as we begin to take on a heavier load of clients and expand our class offerings.
What strategies have been the most successful for securing clients?
Athena Digital Design’s mission has attracted a lot of Barnard alumnae and university affiliates to reach out to us regarding the opportunity to create their websites.
What has been your biggest achievement so far at Athena Digital Design Agency?
Our inaugural client was the Malala Fund, founded by internationally renowned Malala Yousafzai, and ever since then we’ve really grown.
We have consistently been able to increase the number of students that we are able to teach each semester. In January 2014, we had one web development class full of eager students and now we are currently preparing to offer four classes this semester!
If you could be mentored by any entrepreneur, who would it be and why?
I really would love to be mentored by Angelia Trinidad the creator of the Passion Planner because she is a young entrepreneur that has really able to leverage crowdfunding and social media.
I was really inspired by Angelia’s story of creating Passion Planner in the midst of her post-grad frustration. I always look forward to checking out Passion Planner’s latest post on Instagram because they’re always so fun and colorful. Because of her awesome branding and marketing all three of her projects on Kickstarter have exceeded the target goals that she set.
Angelia is also eager to give back and offers a free printable version of her planner to student and other programs to offer physical versions of her planner to those that may not be able to afford one.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering launching a startup while still at school?
Be aware of how time intensive launching a startup is and be 110% committed. It’s very important to form a team that you can depend on day in and day out because there is no roadmap or blueprint for every possible situation that may come up.
What‘s next? What goals are you working towards?
I am currently finishing up my last year of college and I am looking forward to securing a job in web development or user experience research.
At some point, I would like to launch a D.C. based consulting agency that focuses on providing businesses with guidance on optimizing the experiences of their users both digitally and physically. I am also interested in starting a not-for-profit tech bootcamp that focuses on educating people that are underrepresented in tech, especially women of color!
Is there any other information you’d like to share?
I would like to share this video of Jordyn Simmons, one of our developers speaking about her experiences in tech. Jordyn was admitted to the first cohort of students at the Athena Digital Design Agency. Our students were asked to share their personal stories of what ADDA means to them. This is Jordyn’s story.