From Peace Corps to Unicorn Founder: Suma Reddy‘s Entrepreneurial Journey

Suma Reddy headshot

When Suma Reddy decided to enroll in a coding bootcamp in 2014, she never imagined it would lead her to the White House. But just a year later, that‘s exactly where she found herself – presenting her startup Waddle alongside President Obama at the first-ever White House Demo Day.

Suma‘s path to that moment was anything but traditional. Her resume includes stints in the Peace Corps in Mali, microfinance in India, an MBA from Wharton, and co-founding a renewable energy startup. But through all of those experiences, she was searching for a way to make a direct impact.

"I‘ve always been driven by the desire to build things that solve real problems," says Suma. "But I realized that to truly bring my ideas to life, I needed to understand technology on a deeper level."

Learning to Code at Programming School

That realization led Suma to Programming School, an immersive coding bootcamp in New York City. Over the course of three months, she learned the ins and outs of full-stack web development using Ruby on Rails and JavaScript.

"It was definitely challenging, especially at first," Suma recalls. "But I found that I really enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of coding. It‘s so satisfying to take an idea in your head and turn it into something real."

In particular, Suma credits Flatiron‘s focus on pair programming and group projects with preparing her for the collaborative nature of real-world software development. "Learning alongside my classmates, troubleshooting issues together, was invaluable," she says. "That‘s how development actually works in the industry."

Founding a Friend-to-Friend Travel Platform

After graduating from Programming School, Suma wasted no time putting her new skills to use. Along with two friends, she began building Waddle, a platform for sharing and discovering travel recommendations from people you trust.

Waddle app screenshot
*The Waddle app allowed users to see their friends‘ favorite spots around the world*

To bring the app to life, the Waddle team had to tackle challenges like:

  • Building interactive maps using geolocation data
  • Creating a social graph to track connections between users
  • Implementing a recommendation algorithm to surface relevant content
  • Designing an intuitive interface for "collections" of spots

"Even though I had learned the fundamentals at Flatiron, building a consumer app was a whole different ballgame," says Suma. "But my training gave me the foundation to dive into new technologies and figure things out."

Suma also leveraged her non-technical background in the product development process. "Having an MBA, I understood concepts like customer development and lean startup methodology," she notes. "We were disciplined about prioritizing features based on user research and feedback."

Launching at the White House

In August 2015, just a year after completing Programming School, Suma had the opportunity to showcase Waddle at the first-ever White House Demo Day. The event featured a diverse group of entrepreneurs from across the country.

President Obama at White House Demo Day
*President Obama speaks at the first White House Demo Day*

"Presenting at the White House was surreal," Suma reflects. "I kept thinking about how just 12 months earlier, I barely knew how to code. It was a testament to how transformative my experience at Flatiron had been."

Beyond the excitement of the event itself, Suma appreciated the chance to connect with other founders and hear their stories. "There was so much positive energy in the room," she recalls. "Everyone was passionate about using technology to solve problems and create opportunity."

Supporting Diversity in Tech

Suma‘s White House experience also reinforced her commitment to championing diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. As a woman of color and member of the LGBTQ+ community, she knows firsthand the importance of representation.

"There‘s so much untapped potential out there," she says. "If we want the tech world to reflect the diversity of our society, we need to actively create pathways for underrepresented groups."

One way Suma supports this mission is through her involvement with Lesbians Who Tech (LWT), a community of queer women in technology-related fields. As the New York co-director, she helps organize events and mentorship opportunities.

Lesbians Who Tech Summit
*Attendees at the 2019 Lesbians Who Tech Summit*
*Source: Lesbians Who Tech Facebook page*

"Spaces like Lesbians Who Tech are so crucial because they allow people to bring their full selves to the table," says Suma. "When you feel supported and seen, you‘re more likely to take risks and put yourself out there."

LWT has also opened doors to partnerships with companies like Warby Parker, the socially conscious eyewear brand. In 2018, Warby Parker hosted an LWT event at their New York headquarters.

Warby Parker store
*A Warby Parker retail store. The company has made supporting diversity a key part of its mission.*

"Warby Parker has been a pioneer in using business as a force for good," notes Suma. "Partnering with them was a natural fit, given our shared values around inclusivity and social impact."

Mentoring the Next Generation

In the years since launching Waddle, Suma has continued to stay involved in the startup world as an advisor and angel investor. She‘s particularly passionate about supporting underrepresented founders.

"Only about 2% of VC funding goes to women-led startups, and even less to Black and Latinx founders," she notes. "There‘s clearly a need for more diversity on both sides of the table."

Some of the women and POC-led startups Suma has advised or invested in include:

  • Fiveable, an online education platform for high school students
  • FieldTrip, a marketplace for outdoor adventures led by expert guides
  • Quirktastic, a media company for "geeks, gamers, and nerds of color"

Suma also makes it a priority to mentor younger women interested in entrepreneurship and tech. She often speaks at schools and bootcamps about her unconventional career path.

"I want more women to know that you don‘t have to follow a traditional route into tech," she says. "There are so many ways to gain the skills you need to build something meaningful."

Looking to the Future

As for what‘s next in her own career, Suma is excited by the rise of no-code and low-code tools that make it easier than ever to bring ideas to life. "I think we‘re going to see a new wave of entrepreneurs who may not fit the ‘technical founder‘ archetype, but who have the vision and drive to create incredible products," she predicts.

She also believes that mission-driven companies will continue to gain momentum in the years ahead. "The most successful businesses of the future will be those that prioritize social and environmental impact alongside profits," she says. "I want to support founders who are thinking big about how to create positive change."

When asked what advice she has for aspiring entrepreneurs, Suma offers a few key tips:

  1. Focus on solving a real problem. "Don‘t just chase the latest trends or buzzwords," she cautions. "Take the time to understand your users and the challenges they face."

  2. Build a strong support network. "Surround yourself with mentors, collaborators, and champions who believe in your vision," she advises. "No one succeeds alone."

  3. Never stop learning. "The tech world evolves so quickly," she notes. "To stay ahead of the curve, you have to keep gaining new skills and knowledge."

  4. Embrace your unique perspective. "Your background and experiences are an asset," she emphasizes. "They give you insights and ideas that others might miss."

  5. Don‘t be afraid to take risks. "Starting a company is always a leap of faith," she acknowledges. "But if you‘re passionate and persistent, the journey is so worth it."

As for Suma‘s own journey, she knows it‘s far from over. "I feel incredibly lucky to have had so many amazing experiences and opportunities so far," she reflects. "But in many ways, I‘m just getting started. I can‘t wait to see what the future holds."

With her unique blend of technical savvy, business acumen, and mission-driven mindset, there‘s no doubt that Suma Reddy will continue to make her mark as a leader in the tech for good movement. And she‘ll keep working to ensure that the startup world is a place where anyone with a great idea – no matter their background – can thrive.

Did you enjoy this profile of Suma Reddy? For more inspiring stories of women in tech, check out our profiles of Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, and Tracy Chou, advocate for diversity in Silicon Valley. And to learn more about coding bootcamps like Programming School, visit our program comparison page.

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