Karlie Kloss is sitting in a glass-walled SoHo office holding court with five teenage girls. Over video chat with several more, they are brainstorming how to support scholars of Kode With Klossy once class is out. The teenagers are all graduates of Kode With Klossy summer camps, an initiative by Kloss’ education nonprofit that aims to teach girls the basics of computer programming.
In her off-duty uniform of a Planned Parenthood T-shirt, black jeans and Gucci loafers, the 6’2″ supermodel listens intently. One young woman wearing a white Kode With Klossy top suggests a custom app for students to communicate through. Kloss nods and encourages more ideas. Perhaps Kode With Klossy could upload lesson videos for scholars to look back on, or start a newsletter with events and internships. Another girl in glasses says she posts tricky coding problems on Snapchat and scholars from her camp offer solutions.
As the meeting concludes, Kloss hugs the girls before rallying them to put their hands in for a cheer. “Klossy Posse!” they shout in unison.
A 36-time Vogue cover girl is an unlikely candidate to launch a charity that has taught more than 500 young women how to code. But the 25-year-old has leveraged her giant social audience – some 12.6 million followers across platforms – to grow a burgeoning nonprofit that aims to balance the scales of software engineering’s gender disparity.
“I didn’t go into this with the plan to build an education nonprofit,” says Kloss, a member of the 30 Under 30 Class of 2018, over vegan cupcakes and cookies in her Manhattan office. “I really went into all this out of my own curiosity of wanting to learn what the heck coding was, because it was building massive enterprise value for people in a short period of time.”
Her first taste came in 2014, when she signed up for a two-week boot camp at adult-education company the Flatiron School in Manhattan to learn the basics of computer programming. “I didn’t actually know who she was,” says Avi Flombaum, cofounder of the Flatiron School, who taught Kloss’ class. “She was the best student in that group and I was surprised by how enthusiastic she was.”
Kloss covered the basics of Ruby on Rails, a popular web development framework. But she quickly noticed that her classes weren’t gender equal, an imbalance that mirrored the tech workforce. “I was curious, why are there not more women in this space?” recalls Kloss. An idea for how to help took form: “I realized, here I am with this platform and reach to young women across the country and around the world,” Kloss explains. “If I could just help a handful of girls that would be really meaningful.”
In 2015, Kloss spent more than $20,000 to personally underwrite 21 scholarships for teenage girls to the Flatiron School’s two week pre-college coding class – the very class she had taken the year prior (Flatiron School matched the donation).
But she was itching to do more. Last summer, Kloss took the initiative in-house, launching her own two-week summer camp for teenage girls aged 13 to 18 in New York, Los Angeles and her hometown of St. Louis. Kloss helped pick candidates, design the curriculum and select teachers; its graduates have gone on to win hackathons and land places at Ivy League universities. In June, the program expanded to 12 cities across the U.S., with plans to grow further.
Adults are also included: Last July Kloss launched a year-long online scholarship with the Flatiron School that selected one woman every month to enroll in its full stack web development course. And while other nonprofits with similar missions, such as Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code, are far more established, Kloss’ reach brings her objective to millions.
To date, funding for Kode With Klossy programs has come from Kloss herself and the brands she poses for. According to a familiar source, Kloss has personally contributed into seven figures to Kode With Klossy since 2015. She has also redirected a slice of her modeling contracts with companies such as Adidas, Swarovski and Express to fund and support Kode With Klossy. Ford’s STEAM Experience — an initiative focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines as well as the arts, part of the car maker’s philanthropic arm — lent additional support to this summer’s camps.
Such initiatives are sorely needed. Half a million more jobs related to computers are expected to be added by 2024. Though 74% of high school girls are interested in STEM, women only earned 18% of all undergraduate computer science degrees in 2015. That impacts employment, especially among minorities: Women made up just over a quarter of the tech workforce last year, though African-American women comprised a mere 3% and Latina women counted for only 2%.
“There are so many young women who really could change the world with this kind of opportunity, girls who self-select out because they don’t see others in the industry that look like them,” says Kloss.
The daughter of an emergency room physician, Kloss’ favorite subjects as a child were math and science. Had she not been discovered at a charity fashion show in a mall, aged 13, she might have become a doctor or a teacher, she says. Instead, she booked her first advertisement in 2007; that same year she landed her first major runway show, walking for Calvin Klein.
Her career quickly took off, but it went into overdrive with the advent of Instagram. Thanks to social media, says Kloss, “I could be seen as well as heard.” As her followers swelled, her fees increased. She premiered on Forbes’ highest-paid models list in 2014 banking $4 million pretax; this year, her contract earnings soared to $9 million in the 12 months prior to June 2017.
“When social media arrived, models came back into the spotlight because now everyone could see what was behind the velvet rope,” says Maja Chiesi, SVP at IMG Models, the agency that represents Kloss. “The next evolution is brands wanting the full, 360-degree sense of who these women are… They want women with a voice.”
Enter Kloss, who has long presented herself as more than just a pretty face. In 2012, she started a charitable cookie line called Klossies with Manhattan dessert spot Momofuku Milk Bar; the treats donated to meals for children with each purchase. After taking the odd night class at New York University, in 2015 she enrolled (mentor and supermodel-turned-philanthropist Christy Turlington wrote her recommendation letter). With her busy schedule, she has opted for approximately one class a semester, so far notching credits in creative writing and feminism.
She is eager to expand her platform through a YouTube channel, launched in 2015, that documents her travels and baking forays. Next up: A talk show, Movie Night with Karlie Kloss, airing on the Disney-owned Freeform in December.
All of it serves to raise awareness for Kode With Klossy. As she focuses on the nonprofit, she has pared down her modeling contracts to the most lucrative partnerships. Today, says Kloss, she works with “partners that really are excited to work with me because of not just what I look like, but because of what I stand for.” It makes sense that her bookings have shifted from conventional beauty and fashion to tech; she can be seen in recent advertisements for electronics giant Samsung and website builder Wix.
For now, the aim is to grow quickly and cost-effectively. “I’ve been thinking about Kode With Klossy like a startup,” says Kloss. The nonprofit’s team is lean, with Kloss, her manager, business partner and SVP of SB Projects Penni Thow, five full-time employees and consultants plus help from three members of her management.
And, Kloss says, she is just getting started.
“I plan on building a big business at some point, too.”
Startups, you’re on notice.
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