Ruthe Farmer, co-founder of Last Mile Education Fund

Photo of Ruthe Farmer

Ruthe Farmer works to facilitate diversity and inclusion in technology and engineering in the US. After receiving an MBA from Oxford’s Saïd Business School in 2008, Ruthe went on to build and scale up NCWIT Aspirations in Computing, a multifaceted programme for women and girls in computer science, while serving as Chief Strategy & Growth Officer at the National Center for Women and IT (NCWIT). She later served as a senior policy advisor on tech inclusion for the Obama administration, and as Chief Evangelist at CSforALL. Most recently, Ruthe has co-founded the Last Mile Education Fund, an investment-focused scholarship programme for women pursuing tech and engineering degrees who are at risk of dropping out of university for financial reasons.

Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
I see myself as an intrapreneur. I have launched multiple programmes and initiatives, but I lean heavily towards leveraging existing infrastructure. Everybody wants to create their own thing, but when it comes to education, no amount of creating new, one-off interventions is going to match the volume that you can reach through what exists already. Nearly all kids are in school, and many kids are in the out-of-school infrastructure: the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, 4-H, the Boys and Girls Club. That infrastructure covers something like 30 million kids. That makes it important to be intrapreneurial and collaborative in getting things done at scale.

What made you decide to become an entrepreneur/intrapreneur?
Last Mile Education Fund Logo

I guess I just want to solve the problems that I see in front of me, especially for women and girls. A big moment for me in making this leap from being somebody who ran a programme to being somebody who created a programme came when I was working at the Girl Scouts of the USA. I was sitting there thinking, ‘Look at this massively underleveraged infrastructure. You have millions of girls meeting once a week with adults. If there is any way we get tech and engineering to girls, it’s here. This is how we do it. They are already here.’ That was my motivation. But it wasn’t until I was at the White House that I actually convinced them to do it at the national level.

How did you know when you had an idea worth developing?
Usually all you have is anecdotal evidence; you don’t have hard data to show that your solution is going to work. But if you have anecdotal evidence and your idea resonates with others, that’s a good sign. I knew it was right to scale Aspirations in Computing when I announced the plan and had corporations like Apple, Google, and Intel run up to me saying, ‘We want it for this area!’

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I think it’s a mindset of looking for solutions and believing that the status quo is not the only way to get things done.

What would you say are the top 3 skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur/intrapreneur?
First, you have to be tenacious– it took ten years to get the results I wanted out of the Girl Scouts. We see stories in the media of entrepreneurs who seem to achieve instant success, but the reality is, there was probably a lot of network-building and thought and research and time that went into it. Success doesn’t just magically appear overnight. That’s not how the world works.

Second, you have to have a little bit of ‘woo’ in your personality, a bit of an evangelistic streak, the ability to inspire others and paint a picture of what you can achieve if you all work together. This is especially important if you work in social impact. When you’re tackling big, intractable problems, you spend a lot of time focusing on the deficits. But if you can keep an abundance mindset– the idea that there is abundant opportunity, possibility, potential in people– you can flip the script. If 80 percent of low-income students are not graduating within six years, we can bemoan all the reasons they aren’t graduating, or we can think of it as a massive opportunity– because these students are already in college, we just have to help them graduate.

And third, you have to be agile– that is, be willing to change course if you need to. Sometimes people are so attached to the original version of their idea that they can’t iterate, and that is literally the death knell of success.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman innovating in this area?  If so, how have you overcome them?
The tech companies I approach to raise money are typically male-dominated. I think there have been times when either the topic I’m working on (gender inequity, or inclusion in general) and/or my own gender have meant that I got punted to a part of the organization that was less prestigious or well-resourced, like the philanthropy team or the ‘women in tech’ network. Sometimes men can make a similar pitch and get a different response because they are seen as peers.

I try to point people in these companies to the numbers: if over 50 percent of kids in K-12 schools in this country are non-White, and 50 percent are on free lunch, the talent pipeline of the future looks really different from the people sitting in their offices right now. This isn’t charity; this is a business imperative. Failing to incubate the talent around you is a strategy for business failure in the long run. Given the changing demographics of the US, if you don’t figure out how to pull in talent from diverse backgrounds, you won’t have much of a pipeline.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur/intrapreneur?
One of my favourite things is when I meet someone who tells me all about Aspirations in Computing but doesn’t know who I am. I just saw an eight-minute news story from Maine that was all about it, and I didn’t recognize anyone in the video! You know you’ve won when there are people that distant from you evangelizing on behalf of your programme.

How have you funded your ideas?
Anytime I’ve wanted to do something, I’ve raised the money to scale it up, even when working within an organization. I’ve submitted unsolicited grants and proposals, but most often it’s a matter of sharing the idea with the right people within an organization.

The key to getting philanthropic funding, corporate or foundation-level, is being a good spender. If someone invests in you once and you deliver, they will invest in you again. It’s been critical for me to focus on stewardship and relationships, because people fund people– my funders have followed me everywhere I’ve gone, across organizations, because they know I will deliver.

Another thing: no one ever waits for a report from me. You never want your funders to write the check and come back to you a year later wondering what happened. It is important to share the little victories as they come.

Have you, as an American working mainly in the US, been able to take advantage of the resources that Oxford University offers to aspiring entrepreneurs? If so, which ones?
I have stayed closely in touch with SBS. I’m collaborating with some faculty and I’ve come back to give talks. I haven’t yet applied for any of the venture funds, though I have considered it. What I’m doing right now won’t necessarily generate a financial profit, so it isn’t as good of a fit.

Oxford has done a lot for me. The MBA taught me the nomenclature of the business world, which is where I go for funding, and the Oxford name carries clout in with the faculty and academic institutions with whom I often collaborate.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Honestly, I’d send them to an improv class. Building your network in an authentic way is the most important thing you can do. I tell students, ‘You should network like you’re an improv actor. In improv, you always say, “Yes, and…”’ Because networking should be a two-way street: you need to either be the resource or offer the resource. You either say, ‘I am what you’re looking for’, ‘I want to be that; can I give it a try?’, or ‘My friend does that’. People are sometimes too self-centred or focused on their goal when trying to network, and it causes others to put up their defences. But if you can show that you are a resource, over time you will build trust.

Any last words of advice?
Important people want to help you, but you have to make it easy for them. I tell the young people I work with, ‘Send me an email that I can forward on my phone without any further action’. If the person you’re contacting has to write something and create context and explain, it’s not going to happen. So keep it concise. Never ask for more than two things in an email. Make it so easy they don’t even have to think about it. Also, follow through. You are asking someone to expend valuable social capital recommending you, so you need to live up to that recommendation.

Any advice for women in particular?
Be squeaky! The squeaky wheel gets the grease. People don’t know what you aspire to do if you don’t tell them.

Also, for women who are in a stage of life without many responsibilities outside their job, try to take advantage of the pandemic work context to surge ahead. There’s still research being done on this, but I think remote work is potentially helping gender equity in the workplace. In a typical workplace environment, women are often left out of informal conversations that ultimately lead to deal-making and advancement. But those water cooler conversations that have perpetuated the “boys’ network” are not happening as easily anymore– can you imagine someone scheduling a Zoom call just to self-promote? Now, your work is the first thing people see, and everything is being physically documented in emails, video and Slack channels, so it’s more clear what you’ve contributed.