Jeremy Johnson never imagined he would be the co-founder of the first company to secure Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan as its lead investors. Then again, the 32-year-old entrepreneur never thought he'd be traveling back and forth to Africa, looking for and cultivating the next generation of top tech talent.
Johnson is the CEO of Andela, a startup that is based partly in New York City, partly in Nairobi, Kenya, and partly in Lagos, Nigeria. Andela's mission is to discover talented software engineers from all corners of Africa and give them the training necessary to program at a world-class level. Once trained, Andela fellows are paired with and begin coding for some of the top tech companies in the world, including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.
"We know at this point that brilliance is pretty evenly distributed around the world, but access to that talent and the ability for that talent to tap into the global ecosystem is very, very different," said Johnson, a serial entrepreneur who has landed on numerous who's-who lists in the world of tech, including Inc. magazine's 2012 30 Under 30. "Andela basically finds those exceedingly bright, driven developers around the continent and gives them the exposure they need to operate as full-time effective members of top-tier software development shops."
Using a coding training program that is personalized for each individual, Andela has developed nearly 200 African software engineers who are now programming for dozens of American tech companies. It's an achievement impressive enough to catch Zuckerberg and Chan's attention and land a multimillion-dollar investment.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, as the Zuckerbergs' investment vehicle calls itself, is leading Andela's $24 million Series B round. Along with CZI, the round includes investments from Google Ventures as well as Spark Capital, and it brings the startup's total funding to $39.5 million. This is also the first investment by Zuckerberg and Chan since CZI's formation late last year, and this marks the first time the Zuckerbergs have taken the lead in any startup's funding round.
"Knowing that this is Mark and Priscilla's first lead investment is humbling but also exciting," said Johnson. "It feels like a huge responsibility, but also an opportunity to work with one of the most impactful technologists of our generation."
Facebook has been a client of Andela's for about a year now, but that relationship did not play a role in the Zuckerbergs' attraction to the startup, CZI said. Instead, it's Andela's unique approach to coding education and its use of personalized training that wooed CZI.
"We live in a world where talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not. Andela's mission is to close that gap," Zuckerberg said in a statement. "Priscilla and I believe in supporting innovative models of learning wherever they are around the world -- and what Andela is doing is pretty amazing."
Johnson said Andela is not yet profitable, but it is generating significant revenue, though he does not yet wish to reveal that figure. Johnson also would not reveal the company's valuation. "It's nothing crazy. We're not flirting with having any special terms," he said, alluding to the recent explosion of so-called unicorn companies that are worth more than $1 billion.
The idea for Andela came to Johnson and co-founder Christina Sass after he visited Nairobi on his first trip to Africa, in early 2014. Johnson was giving a talk there on online education, the focus of 2U, his previous startup, but while on the trip, he was blown away by all the talented individuals he met. After brainstorming startup ideas with Sass and following a second trip to Africa, Johnson said he was restless and incapable of sleep just thinking about the possibilities of Andela.
Now, Johnson lives a back-and-forth life between New York and his company's two African headquarters. "I basically live on trains and planes," said Johnson, who estimates he's traveled to Africa a dozen times in the past year. "My fiancée is starting to wonder."
But as Andela grows in prestige and collects more funding, questions are starting to arise regarding its business model. There's no doubt that Johnson, a white man, cares about helping fix the tech industry's lack of diversity, but some experts wonder if Andela is simply enabling its clients to further ignore the local, and more expensive, diverse talent that is available here in the U.S.
"We know that Silicon Valley has issues tapping untapped talent at home in neighborhoods like Oakland and East Palo Alto," said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, executive director of ReadySet, a firm that helps tech companies hire diverse talent. "Why is it easier to hire a nontraditional Nigerian developer than a local boot camp grad? Closing the global opportunity gap is important, but how can you do that if you haven't figured out how to close the local opportunity gap?"
Johnson's answer to that question would be that he hopes to show his clients the value of female and minority programmers -- those who do not look like Silicon Valley's predominantly white and Asian male work force -- by exposing them to Andela fellows.
"Having the best engineer on their team be a 26-year-old woman from Nairobi is a really effective way to help [the tech industry] see that the world looks a little bit different than they may have imagined and that that's OK," Johnson said.
Finding these bright minds is an extensive process. Over its two years, Andela has seen applications from approximately 40,000 candidates. Those applicants are filtered out through automated aptitude tests. Top scorers are then invited in for in-person tests, and after that, the top 2 percent of candidates are invited back for the final round of the application process, a two-week boot camp. Only about a third of those individuals make the final cut, hence Andela's razor-thin 0.7 percent acceptance rate.
Accepted fellows move into Andela's campuses and begin their personalized training right away, which is a process that typically takes about five or six months to complete. "It was a pretty intense period because we're trying to learn as quickly as possible so that we can use it as quickly as possible," said Chibuzor Obiora, 29, an Andela fellow from Lagos who has been with the company since August 2014.
The training process may be difficult, but the payoff is well worth it. Andela pays its fellows from the moment they are accepted, and the company showers them with a multitude of benefits like health care, a MacBook, subsidized housing, and, as is standard for many tech companies, meals every day. Beyond perks, Andela teaches its fellows how to build tech at elite levels, Obiora said.
"It's a lot of work, no doubt, but it's worth it. If you really want to go out there and be a changemaker, then this is what you need to do," said Obiora, who for the past eight months has been working as a developer for The Muse, a New York City Millennial-focused careers website. (The Muse founder Kathryn Minshew, another past Inc. honoree, is married to Johnson.) is Obiora said he would eventually like to be hired by The Muse or create a startup to make his own impact in Africa. "Andela just really puts in all the screws and all the bolts in place to make sure that we go on and do the things we want to do."