Returnships: Helping Caregivers Reclaim Their Careers in Tech

Blog Post
The AppNexus Team

Replete with a B.S. in Mathematics from Carnegie Mellon, America’s top-ranked “STEMinist college,” where more women graduate in STEM per year than any other institution of higher learning in the U.S., it seemed Ellein Cheng was well on her way to an accomplished career in science and technology.

But, after several successful years working in Hong Kong as a Market Risk Analyst for Bank of America, as well as a Mathematics teacher in the New York public school system, Ellein found herself struggling to balance the stringent demands of the New York professional world with her role as mother to two young children.

Eventually, Ellein made the decision to become a stay-at-home mom, a choice she doesn’t regret for an instant. Raising young children is in and of itself a full-time undertaking, as any parent can readily attest to. That said, when it felt again like the right time to make her way back into the work pool, Ellein – despite her qualifications and chockfull resume – encountered extensive barriers. There seemed to her to be hurdles for caregivers looking to re-enter the tech industry, no matter that they’d left their previous careers for every right reason.

It was then that a friend introduced Ellein to Path Forward, a New York-based nonprofit group devoted to helping long-time caregivers reinvent themselves as tech-savvy professionals. Founded by Executive Director Tami M. Forman, Path Forward’s mission is to place caregivers in “returnships,” mid-career internships that provide them with the technological skills needed to reclaim their place in the workforce.

Partnering with over twenty companies including PayPal, ZenDesk, GoDaddy, and AppNexus, Path Forward had a statistical record that impressed Ellein: 80 percent of its “returnship” graduates had been hired by the companies they interned with and 90 percent in total are employed.

All things considered, it felt like the right choice to make, and Ellein applied to Path Forward. For her first four months, she served as a “returnee” at AppNexus, where she works as a Product Specialist, and where her outstanding background in statistics, mathematics, data analytics, and full-time caregiving all serve her well.

The 16-week Path Forward training course started in February at AppNexus. It provides a number of distinct advantages to those accepted (currently there are three Path Forward “returnees” working at AppNexus.)

First and foremost, Path Forward offers its participants the comprehensive, hands-on, vocational training they need to fill any knowledge gap they might have incurred when serving as caregivers. Given that people eligible for this program include those who have been out of the tech workforce for several years, that knowledge gap can often be quite substantial.

But AppNexus’ Path Forward program does more than simply prepare its participants for re-entry into the tech workforce; it allows them to re-acclimate themselves to workplace culture. Over the course of any given workday, Path Forward participants receive check-ins and personal encouragement from Path Forward staff members and AppNexians alike. They’re given time to have daily (and frank) discussions on how to best balance their job duties with the considerable demands of their personal lives. When asked how motherhood helps her thrive in a fast-paced environment like a tech company, Ellein can’t help but laugh. “It’s hard to list everything you gain from striving to be a good parent,” she says. “For starters, you gain time and resource management skills you never fully understood you had… It’s pretty much your full-time task to validate your children’s feelings, to practice kindness while instilling them with discipline. You also really learn how to break bad news to demanding customers!”

And what does Ellein make of the culture of AppNexus? “My vision [throughout college] was always to become a mathematics teacher. So the focus at AppNexus of ‘learning and teaching’ suits me well.” When asked to give a percentage breakdown of how much she’s taught versus how much she’s learned at AppNexus, Ellein again laughs. “I’d have to say that ratio falls somewhere along the lines of 10-percent ‘teach’ and… 120-percent ‘learn.’”

The day-to-day challenges of Ellein’s role as an AppNexian Product Specialist keep her fast on her feet. But with her experience in parenthood, it’s a speed she’s comfortable with. Moreover, with Ellein’s acceptance of a full-time job at Appnexus, where she’ll continue to work as a Product Specialist in our Customer Success department, it’s a pace she’ll be able to maintain with finesse.