Jump Start: Lift Up MKE helps women return to tech workforce

Jennifer Ketz and Patricia Cabral-Mercado
Jennifer Ketz and Patricia Cabral-Mercado Credit: Jake Hill

Milwaukee-based startup Lift Up MKE is working to hack the tech industry’s male-dominated employee pipeline by reskilling and upskilling women with backgrounds in tech so they can reenter the workforce.

According to a National Center for Women & Information Technology study, 25% of the computing workforce was female in 2015. However, Lift Up MKE founders Jennifer Ketz and Patricia Cabral-Mercado have set out to diversify the tech workforce one student at a time.

Lift Up MKE offers a 4- to 6-week intensive course that retrains women who left the workforce, still have foundational tech skills and are looking to get back into the game. While getting women involved in tech is important, it’s just as critical to support women who are already in the industry, Ketz said.

“These are women that come from professional experience and have been around the tech field so they have a foundation behind them,” Ketz said. “We provide that bridge of where they were and where they need to be to step back in because it’s not like they lost their intelligence or their skillset.”

Participants receive career coaching and are trained in technology and leadership. The course covers a variety of topics, from UX and data analytics to programming languages like Python.

The workload is approximately 80 hours of in-class instruction and 80 hours of out-of-class work, not including pre-coursework, Ketz said.

“It’s a financial commitment, time from the participants, a lot of work and a lot of learning happening very rapidly,” Cabral-Mercado said.

Ketz and Cabral-Mercado together have 38 years of experience in technology and leadership. While they teach the course, Lift Up MKE students are also instructed by professionals from local universities and Fortune 500 companies.

Lift Up MKE’s first cohort, a class of six, graduated in February. The next cohort will begin in the fall and can accommodate up to 15 students.

Lift Up MKE courses are funded through sponsorships and revenue generated by its annual “Hack a Pipeline,” an all-women and non-binary hackathon.

Ketz and Cabral-Mercado said there is a need for their course beyond Milwaukee. They plan to offer more than two cohorts a year and hope to bring Lift Up MKE programming to other cities.

“We’re seeing that there’s a backlog of women who want to take our course and get back in tech,” Ketz said. “So, we would love to be able to offer more courses beyond this cycle.”

Lift Up MKE

Location: Milwaukee
Founders: Jennifer Ketz and Patricia Cabral-Mercado
Founded: 2017
Product: Classes for women returning to the tech workforce
Website: liftupmke.com
Employees: 2
Goal: To provide women with the skills necessary to reenter the workforce
Experience: Ketz and Cabral-Mercado have 38 years of combined experience in technology senior leadership roles.

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Brandon covers startups, technology, manufacturing. He previously worked as a general assignment and court reporter for The Freeman in Waukesha. Brandon graduated from UW-Milwaukee’s journalism, advertising and media studies program with an emphasis in journalism. He enjoys live music, playing guitar and loves to hacky sack.

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