Liliana Monge and Gregorio Rojas believe in second chances. Having both migrated to the US as children, they’ve experienced the struggle to make ends meet, of creating opportunities when jobs were scarce or denied them. Today, Liliana and Gregorio run Sabio, a coding bootcamp and degree program that gives people a fresh start who might not otherwise have had one.
Sabio rewrites self-defeating narratives: you’re too dumb, too old, you don’t have the “right” gender, sexuality, or background. Liliana and Gregorio strive to dispel these myths, stressing that anyone can launch a career in tech with the right attitude and determination. With alumni earning prestigious roles at AWS and Google, Sabio has proven its capacity for changing lives.
“When you mention software engineering,” Liliana said, “the first thing people say is, ‘I’m not good at math.’ But math has little to do with it – there are so many amazing tools that allow anybody to learn this skill. Yes, there are rules, but it’s not multivariable calculus. It’s about being logical, problem-solving, and learning the rules.”
How Imposter Syndrome Led to an Entrepreneurial Spark
Gregorio is the CTO at Sabio. Having migrated from Colombia to Massachusetts at the age of four, he worked his way through school to become an athletic trainer. Just one year into the job, he realized he wanted to do something else. No stranger to hard work, Gregorio enrolled in night classes to learn software engineering – a decision that would change his life forever.
“I’m like a lot of our students,” Gregorio said. “I went to school, and despite doing well, realized I wanted something else from life. So I went to night school and studied on weekends to finally get my first junior developer job. And like many of our students, I suffered imposter syndrome for a while, never sure I was good enough for the job .”
A few months into that first job, however, Gregorio’s anxieties crumbled beneath a bigger realization: the work wasn’t as challenging as he’d expected it to be. He worked on similar problems to those he’d been set in night school, problems he could solve using the same rules, tools, and tutorials. That got Gregorio thinking: why aren’t more people doing this?
“I started talking to Liliana,” Gregorio said. “I said, ‘Hey, you know this work I’m doing here? It’s not as hard as everyone made it out to be. Sure, it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. Why aren’t more people doing it? There’s a lot of opportunity here.’” Indeed there was – junior developers earn around $60,000 a year, almost double the median household income in the US.
Could a Startup Do More Than Sell?
Friends since college, Gregorio and Liliana married in 2003. Back then, Sabio was still just a seed, an idea. Then in 2013, a decade later, the seed finally germinated. Liliana had been working on several economic development initiatives, mostly in real estate, and inspired by Gregorio’s career change, saw an opportunity to help the underserved in their local community.
“I’d spent around ten years in real estate economic development,” Liliana said. “Then in 2013, I partnered with Gregorio on Sabio to focus on a more granular level, helping people switch to a career in technology. I still see it as economic development but on a micro level. We’ve always been outcome-focused, which is why our training leads to positive results.”
Sabio helps many of those whom the tech industry has left behind, specifically veterans, women, and people of color. While this is due in part to the diverse community of Los Angeles, whom Liliana and Gregorio were keen to represent, it’s also a reflection of the wider technology market. Big Tech is still composed “overwhelmingly of white or Asian men,” Wired reports.
“We wanted to serve our community,” Liliana said. “Los Angeles is exceptionally diverse so we’ve always had that lens. When Gregorio researched the tech landscape, we became aware of a massive shortage of women. And since the military is overrepresented by black and brown people, we figured working with the VA would help bring additional diversity to the tech industry.”
From Idea to Business
On paper, Sabio met an urgent need: to help people like Gregorio overcome their fear of technology to launch a lucrative career (an end in itself). But to develop a viable business model that also helped boost economic development, it would need Liliana’s grasp of unit economics. A born entrepreneur, Liliana recalls a childhood spent hustling to make ends meet.
“One summer when I was 15 years old,” Liliana said, “my mum bought this cooler of 100 Mexican cheeses for $4 each. The following morning, my cousin and I went door to door in the Texan heat selling each one for $10. By four p.m. we’d sold out. That experience has stayed with me. It was magical. We’d turned $400 into $1,000 with just hard work.”
One afternoon, Gregorio and Liliana sat down at Liliana’s kitchen table and hashed out a launch plan. It would require their complementary skill sets: Gregorio’s technical expertise and community network and Liliana’s advocacy and marketing expertise. The effort paid off. What began as an open day to explain their value proposition became their first cohort of students.
“Gregorio would stay up until three a.m. tweeting community organizations,” Liliana said. “We found a downtown location in Los Angeles with tons of free parking. To our relief, our first attendee showed up 15 minutes before the event started and the room quickly filled up. Thirty people came to our first session and four finished the 20-week program.”
Those four paid Sabio when they got jobs, proving the model viable and serving as success stories at future sessions. As Sabio scaled, the sessions moved online, and there’s been more money in the bank to pursue more traditional marketing channels. Graduate success stories continue to be a huge draw, which they share through their blog and paid social media ads.
“We run sessions several times a day, multiple times a week,” Liliana said. “We also have tons of content on our blog for people who’re looking to transition careers. Our YouTube channel features amazing success stories from our grads, like Nicki, for example, who got her first job through Sabio and is now a developer advocate for AWS.”
Overcoming Regulation and Funding Constraints
That said, scaling Sabio has had its fair share of challenges. The biggest constraint, Gregorio argues, has been funding. Despite projecting an astonishing $6 million ARR this year, it’s been a slow, meticulous slog to grow revenue. In California, education businesses like Sabio’s fall under intense regulatory scrutiny, where mistakes cost more than money.
“Our accreditation is still pending, so we can’t afford to make mistakes or pursue a bold acquisition strategy without lots of preparation,” Gregorio said. “We’ve been constrained by the revenue we generate. And although we have a good business and are financially responsible, lack of access to capital has been the number one thing holding us back.”
Gregorio and Liliaina’s funding woes might also be an unfortunate result of making their courses accessible to as many people as possible. Students who’re unemployed or on low incomes can defer course payment until they find a job for up to 12 months. While this has no doubt been a lifeline to many, it likely put ankle weights around Sabio’s performance in those early years.
At the end of 2020, Sabio raised a small friends-and-family round which has given the startup a financial springboard from which to scale: “Raising that small friends and family rounds let us pursue growth more aggressively. It’s one of those things that you always have to calibrate – how aggressive to be – but I think that people should err on the side of more versus less.”
That freedom to expand has also been a result of automation. In the early years, Sabio’s teachers spent a lot of valuable teaching time just managing the virtual learning environment. Today, however, Sabio develops in-house tools that make the process much more efficient. This way, Gregorio argues, Sabio can teach more people without needing a lot of new teachers.
“The company is very tech-enabled now,” Gregorio said. “We can scale without increasing headcount. We’ve built a bunch of IP over the past eight years that now allows us to be training 200 or so people at the same time. Before, we needed lots of teachers and a few employees for support and assistance, and now it’s the opposite. We’re a much leaner business.”
What Has Sabio Taught These Co-Founders about Entrepreneurship?
It’s easy to imagine Gregorio’s trepidation when making that career jump. Expecting to fail but discovering not only a profession but a business. Great entrepreneurs are risk-takers. That first step into the unknown is always the hardest, but once on the other side, you can surprise yourself. And this is the lesson in Sabio’s story: self-belief and courage changes lives.
“I can’t imagine ever working for anyone ever again,” Gregorio said. “The freedoms you enjoy as an entrepreneur are incredible. It’s very rewarding. It’s fun. It’s exciting. And what I love about software development is that it’s life-long learning. You just keep learning and applying things in new ways, maybe to a different business. I think I would get bored just doing one thing.”
Great startups, Liliana argues, arise from passionate founders. Without passion, founders lose their sensitivity to the world around them. Their entrepreneurial edge dulls. She and Gregorio spent eight years building Sabio into a force of positive change in the community as well as a seven-figure business – and with little outside help. How? Because they’d lived the problem.
“Founders should work on problems they’re passionate about,” Liliana said. “Founders should listen to their insights. You solve a problem because you’ve gathered data points that indicate there is a problem, usually through experience, which is what happened with Sabio. We understood the problem and created this dynamic process that leads to exceptional results.”
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Gregorio and Liliana’s story is that they’ve turned community empowerment into a multi-million-dollar business. Not only are they successful entrepreneurs, but mentors to a new generation of builders who might themselves also start businesses, thereby giving back to the communities that welcomed them so many years ago.
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