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Exclusive: Serena Williams-backed online academy raises $3M to teach tech jobseekers how to sell

Exclusive: Serena Williams-backed online academy raises $3M to teach tech jobseekers how to sell
[Photo: courtesy of Flockjay]

Coding boot camps are nothing new. People looking to get into the tech industry sign up by the throngs, but Shaan Hathiramani noticed a giant chasm in another area that’s vital to that world: tech sales.

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He also noted that sales isn’t something taught in college and that the people who did pursue careers in what Old Media might call “peddling” tended to be male and white.

Hathiramani decided to turn that upside down when he founded Flockjay, and it looks like a lot of people agree with him. Today, the online sales academy—which trains people from nontraditional backgrounds for jobs in tech—announced $2.98 million in new funding from a diverse set of backers who are 50% women and 50% people of color.

[Photo: courtesy of Flockjay]
The funding round included superstar backers like Serena Williams and Will Smith, in addition to a host of big-name investors: Microsoft chairman John Thompson; Airtable head of sales Liat Bycel; Gmail inventor Paul Buchheit; and former Netflix CPO Tom Willerer, among others. Lightspeed, Coatue, Y Combinator, F7, SV Angel, and Index Ventures also participated in the round.

“At Serena Ventures, we are strong believers that diversity in the workforce drives better results,” Williams said in a statement through a rep. “Flockjay is helping to add more diversity. It is helping make everyday lives of everyday people better by giving them the skill and opportunities previously not afforded to them.”

Flockjay’s mission is simple: Train people from nontraditional and underrepresented backgrounds via a 12-week online program. Make the tuition not upfront payments but 10% of alumni’s first-year salaries, meaning trainees can participate in the program for free and not have to pay up until they actually start earning a living.

“Digital fluency and human connection are two things every company is looking for,” Hathiramani tells Fast Company. “A great salesperson generates four to five times their revenues for the company, so getting someone great really matters.”

His idea seems to be working. Since Flockjay’s launch in January (it was in the Y Combinator winter 2019 batch), 100 people have completed the program, according to Hathiramani. Of those, 50% are women and 70% are people of color. Plus, 40% don’t have four-year degrees. He added that about 20% of students drop out in the first two weeks of the course.

Alumni include a broad cross-section of people traditionally excluded from the insular tech world, such as retail salespeople, bartenders, and aging vets.

The Flockjay curriculum includes lessons in multichannel outreach, sales tools like Salesforce and Zoom, building rapport through questions, and conference networking.

Elise Cox, a former Bojangles’ manager, graduated from Flockjay this summer. She’s since relocated from Georgia to Denver to be a tech sales representative for Gusto, a payroll and human resources platform company. She had earned $13 an hour in food service but now brings in more than double that—or when factoring in her benefits packages, almost triple.

“I enjoy being able to generate revenue for the company,” says Cox, a 41-year-old grandmother, whose five-year plans include a sales leadership role. “The revenue is the lifeblood of the company and being part of the team gives me sense of fulfillment.”

Hathiramani says the ability to sell is one of the most fundamental skills a person can have. For Flockjay, the bigger challenge is making sure those skills translate to the modern world. “We’ve been selling for thousands of years,” he says. “What has changed in sales is the complexity of what we’re selling and the amount of info buyers have.”

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