Meet Ilana Fried – Founder of Gynopedia

Ilana (Lani) Fried is a nonprofit founder, educator, and product manager, originally from San Francisco. She completed Hackbright’s Full-Time Software Engineering Program in Spring 2013, and worked as a product manager in the “ed-tech”/software for schools field for three years. She now manages Gynopedia, a global wiki resource on sexual and reproductive health care, which she founded in July 2016. 

What was your background prior to Hackbright?

After I graduated from college, I moved back to San Francisco (my hometown) and worked as a freelance writer and editor. I also supported myself by starting a tutoring business with an old friend.

In 2010, I moved to Istanbul, Turkey, where I worked as a teacher and aspiring entrepreneur for a little under three years. I say “aspiring entrepreneur” because I worked with some Turkish partners to start a language school in Istanbul. There were a lot of challenges, and we ultimately didn’t accomplish a lot of what we had hoped to, but it was an invaluable learning experience.

After that project dissolved, I grew interested in other opportunities, and that’s when I first learned about Hackbright.

How did Gynopedia come about?

A few years ago, I began planning an extended backpacking trip around Asia. When I began thinking about my travels, I realized that there were a lot of questions that I had about sexual and reproductive health care on the road.

For example, would tampons be easily available in most countries that I planned to visit? Where would I get my annual gynecological exam, if I wanted a trusted and recommended provider? And could I find my chosen birth control in the countries that I planned to visit?

There were so many questions – and, after the years that I had spent in Turkey and the USA, I knew that it could be difficult to find these answers if you’re not a local, or if you don’t feel empowered or safe, or if you’re dealing with a lot of stigma and shame. Meanwhile, I’ve always loved wikis and open-source software. So, it occurred to me that I could create a wiki, and people could freely share this information on a confidential digital platform. That way, users could share their wisdom and, hopefully, feel better equipped to make informed decisions.

It took me a while to actually launch the wiki – once I had been on the road for a few months and I had taken the time to think it through, Gynopedia was launched from a budget hotel room in Hanoi.

What impact have you seen from Gynopedia so far?

Gynopedia is still a new project, relatively speaking, but there’s been some dramatic changes already. When Gynopedia was launched in July 2016, it was a tiny project that was known by practically no one, except for some friends and family. This past year, I’ve begun to receive some media coverage, which is especially exciting since I’ve never contacted any journalists, don’t have any corporate sponsors or advertisers, and I don’t have a marketing budget or team. The whole project has been funded out of pocket and it’s been grassroots in approach. I suppose that the organic growth of the website, as well as the social media presence, helped draw some attention to the wiki.

This past year, I’ve seen a real uptick in terms of daily users, supporters, and even volunteer translators coming on board. It’s been great to connect with people through the website, whether they’re local women who want to confidentially share some information or SRHR professionals who work for NGOs. I’m so happy to know that more people are beginning to access this information on the wiki, and I look forward to the website becoming more user-friendly and accessible over time.

However, the wiki certainly has challenges! One of the biggest challenges is to convince women to contribute to wikis like Gynopedia. In fact, it’s estimated that about 90% of Wikipedia contributors are male and the “gender gap” of wikis is a long-standing problem. There are a lot of reasons why women may feel less comfortable or encouraged to contribute to wikis, but I hope that we can begin to see changes in the years to come.

What do you hope Gynopedia will become in the future?

More than anything, I hope that Gynopedia can help more and more people over time.

I’m also looking forward to seeing how the website grows in ways that I can’t yet predict or imagine. The beauty of wikis is that nobody truly completely owns them (and nobody should!), as is the case with Gynopedia. Also, no wiki page is ever really “finished” or “complete.” This allows for a lot of interesting and unexpected things to develop as wikis grow to become broader resources.

Since Gynopedia is pretty new, I’m still managing the majority of the content. However, I’m hoping that the readers can become more active editors and participants in the years to come, especially if we can find ways to chip away at the gender gap in wiki contributors. Overall, I’m look forward to seeing how people help mold or change the site over time.

What motivated you to learn to code?

After college, I was working as a freelance writer/editor/tutor – and like a lot of recent graduates during the early days of the recession, I felt unsure about my future. I don’t remember what first inspired me to pick up a book on HTML from the San Francisco Public Library, but I probably felt a general need to expand my skill set. There was no grand plan to go into the technology field or become a developer. But, when I began studying HTML, I really enjoyed breaking down code and learning, in a very basic sense, how websites were constructed. Shortly afterward, I decided to take a class on HTML and CSS at City College of San Francisco, and I loved the process of creating a website on my own.

I first heard about Hackbright from a friend of mine who was also from California. I wanted to learn more about web development, and when I had moved to Turkey, I had more or less stopped my studies.

It suddenly occurred to me that I could study development in an intensive environment that was designed for beginners, and I was really drawn to the fact that it was a program for women. It was a bit of a risk at the time – there wasn’t very much information online about Hackbright back in 2013 – and I had to piece together a vague sense of the program from my apartment across the world. In short, there were a lot of unknowns. And yet, I had a really good feeling about Hackbright. So I decided to take the leap and apply.

What did you do after graduating Hackbright?

In the last few weeks of Hackbright, I began to seriously consider what I wanted to do with my new skills. I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to be a developer, or if something else seemed to suit me better. When I thought about my long-standing interest in entrepreneurship, and when I remembered how much I had enjoyed developing basic websites at CCSF, I began to consider a career in Product Management. I loved that PM work was so interdisciplinary, and I was drawn to the fact that the job’s responsibilities varied from company to company. The more that I researched Product Management, the more it seemed to be the best fit for me at the time. So, right after I graduated from Hackbright, I began to apply for PM positions.

Following Hackbright, I worked in Product Management roles in San Francisco and New York. In both cases, I worked for companies that focused on education (one company created management software for schools, and the other created assessment software for young learners in schools). My background in education helped me break into the field, but my time at Hackbright was a crucial part of that career change too.

What is your advice to women, men, and those who are gender-diverse, who are considering a career change (to tech)?

Think of how you can connect your past passions or skills to your career change. Right now, we’re living in a time of immense hype and excitement around the field of technology, but in the process, we may often downplay or minimize the years of experience that we had in different fields. Just because you previously worked in a field that isn’t as valued in our culture, or in a field that doesn’t pay as much, or have as many benefits or special perks, doesn’t mean that you’re coming in as a blank slate.

In fact, technology should be developed to help real people with real problems, so the realities of your life are crucial and valuable. Of course, when we learn new skills, we should keep an open mind, and it’s great to make major shifts and even leave our old lives behind (I’ve done that many times!). But it also can be very exciting and empowering to remember that our previous careers/lives can help us in unexpected ways.

Also, while the majority of Hackbright grads may decide to be software engineers, there are also some people who may choose to become product managers, designers, entrepreneurs, or other non-engineering career options. No matter the path you choose, it’s incredibly useful to learn about software development, and there’s so many ways to apply this knowledge.

What are you working on now?

A few months ago, I returned back to the States from a year and half of backpacking around and living in Asia. My biggest focus right now is Gynopedia, but I don’t make actually any money from the wiki. I support myself by working online as an ESL teacher.

In the last few years, I’ve tried to restructure my life so I work entirely online, which gives me the ability to travel the world or at least have a more flexible work schedule. This also lets me devote a greater amount of my time to my personal projects, like Gynopedia, since I can set my own hours and work outside the traditional office structure.

When I’m not working, I do a lot of reading and traveling. I’m also in the Bay Area for the next few months, and I would love to connect with other Hackbright grads, including the ones that I haven’t met yet!

How has your life changed since Hackbright?

When I started Hackbright, I was really trying to figure out what the next few years of my life would look like. I knew that I needed a change, and I thought that that change may involve technology, but I didn’t really know how or in what capacity. Since that time, I’ve learned a lot about what technology means to me (though I’m still learning!), and I’ve begun to see in what capacity I can be useful.

In the last few years, I’ve also been really lucky to travel, live in different environments, and take my interests in some unexpected directions. Since Hackbright, I’ve been able to first find a stable career path and then, after I gained some skills and confidence, I’ve begun to forge my own path, to a certain degree. But it’s still a huge journey, and I’m still figuring things out!

Anything else you want to share?

I would love to encourage any member of the Hackbright community – alumnae, mentors, friends, family, and supporters – to contribute their wisdom to Gynopedia!

It’s super easy (you just click “Edit” to add info), and you can edit under your username or under your IP address like other wikis. Everyone has information they can share, whether it’s the best place to find low-cost contraceptives in your city, or a recommended free clinic, or a gynecologist who made you feel safe and respected.

Also, if anyone would like to help me develop the website, there’s lots of work to be done, whether it’s improving the UI and design, developing new Mediawiki extensions, conducting research, moderating content, or translating pages. So, please do reach out to me via email, Facebook, or Twitter if you would like to get involved – and, if you have ANY information to share about ANY information in the world, please share your wisdom on Gynopedia!

Finally, thanks for this interview – it’s wonderful to see how the alumnae community has grown over the years, and it’s exciting to know that people are working hard to make it even more sustainable, supportive, and fun. Thanks!!

Want to get in touch with Lani? Follow her on TwitterLinkedIn, and Medium, and follow Gynopedia on Facebook and Twitter.

Interested in learning more? Check out our upcoming Part-Time Prep Course and our immersive 12-week full-time or 24-week part-time Software Engineering Programs. Hackbright Academy offers a deferred tuition program to select, eligible students.

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