Monica Sarbu, co-founder and CEO at Xata.io, has more than 15 years of experience working at tech companies. She never had a mentor to help her navigate her way inside the organizations where she worked, but she saw how some women and other historically underrepresented people struggled to find their way. She began thinking about how she could help more people succeed inside tech companies, and after much thought, she formed a nonprofit mentoring company in 2020 called Tupu.io as a side project.
She initially considered writing a book, but she concluded that there is really no one-size-fits-all advice and it would need to be tailored to the individual's situation. "I had this idea to build a mentorship program that would give [people] a custom solution designed for their own needs because most of the time, people come to you for mentorship in general when they have a problem," she said.
She sees these problems usually falling into one of two categories: They either have a specific issue with someone in the company or they feel stuck in their careers and have grown depressed or fallen victim to imposter syndrome. She felt a program like Tupu could help.
According to career site Zippia.com, just 25% of engineering jobs go to women. That means they are on average outnumbered 3:1, and it's often worse than that. That can sometimes lead to a hostile work environment, whether that's intentional or not.
"We have so many things that we can do to advise technical content companies to be better and create a more healthy environment because, in the end, this is what kind of makes you feel like you don't want to be part of a tech company anymore. It's the culture of the company," she said.
Throughout her career, she has spoken at conferences, first primarily focused on women, and then later more general events, trying to articulate what it was like to be a woman inside an organization with mostly men. Through her speaking engagements, she was able to raise awareness and even empathy even among the mostly male audiences.
"I began the talk by asking them to try to put [themselves] in the shoes of a woman for a second [inside a tech company dominated by men] and then I tried to build a picture around this about what it feels like," Sarbu told me.
She received a lot of positive feedback from men who hadn't understood what it's like to be one of a few women on technical teams. At that point, she wanted to do something more, and the idea for Tupu began to form in her head.
She said that most programs like this charge by the mentee, and this usually limits the number of people who could be involved to the most promising employees, who in her experience have the least need. Her idea was to do this for free, putting in her own money initially while asking for donations from companies to help support the program and match more mentors with folks who need them.
"Our model going forward is to go to tech companies of all sizes and help them with supporting diversity in their organization by offering mentorship to their employees," she said. "The companies are not forced to choose the most 'promising' employees to sign up for a mentorship program (as is happening at the moment) and they are able to encourage everyone to sign up for Tupu.io, whether mentees and mentors."
The program currently has 57 mentees for 128 mentors. The mentors are men and women who have experience working in tech companies. She said that the platform has been able to attract these users to this point with little or no publicity or advertising.
Sarbu, whose day job is running Xata.io, a startup building a serverless database for the Jamstack environment, wants to make the site self-sufficient through donations from participating companies while making the process of signing up and matching mentors with mentees more automated. The company is working on a more automated version of the site and expects it to be ready soon.