As we gear up to celebrate the 50 top innovators in the D.C. metro area, DC Inno is taking some time to sit down with a handful of our 50 on Fire winners to see what exactly makes them “on fire” in our DC Innovators series. Join us Nov. 1 at the National Union Building for the celebration.

When Shanaz Chowdhery graduated from college with a sociology degree, she knew she wanted to dedicate herself to education. The plan was to participate in Teach for America for two years and then go to law school with a focus on education advocacy.

Shanaz Chowdhery

Life didn’t go as planned. Once in her assigned Southeast school, she struggled with classroom management. “I failed so miserably that they fired me a month into the role,” Chowdhery said. “As a 22 year old who has no idea what they’re doing and what their voice really is, it’s really hard.”

But it’s difficult for school districts to actually fire a TFA participant, so instead she got switched from her seventh grade classroom to a fifth grade one, with students who might be more forgiving and kinder, given their age.

That, of course, didn’t really help. Chowdhery was balancing her classroom, the school district’s policies, her TFA obligations and working towards a Masters in Education from Johns Hopkins University when it finally clicked: what she was doing wasn’t working for her.

She started looking at other opportunities, and this is when she stumbled across General Assembly. In March 2014, she was brought onto General Assembly D.C.’s admissions team. Flash forward three years and Chowdhery is now calling the shots at the D.C. location as its regional director.

DC Inno caught up with Chowdhery following her 2017 “50 on Fire DC” win to chat about General Assembly’s continued dominance in the region, her love for education and more.

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As we gear up to celebrate the 50 top innovators in the D.C. metro area, DC Inno is taking some time to sit down with a handful of our 50 on Fire winners...

In the past few years, how has your role grown and changed as General Assembly’s presence continues to grow and become even more recognizable in the D.C. region?

I think over the last two years we’ve made a lot of different improvements in our ability to do well and also to continue to do well as we scale.

One of the things we’ve seen is as we’ve grown we’ve seen our employer network grow from a few years ago no one really knowing who we were when we popped up in D.C., to now we have a couple thousand employers within our network. We saw that grow and that prompted the need to bring on Shahier [Rahman] who now is our partnership specialist.

We’ve also done some really cool social impact initiatives. We’ve also raised over $250,000 in scholarships to our full-time program D.C. residents. That’s something that we’ve been internally really passionate about it. We think of the D.C. tech ecosystem as incredible, but we also want to give back to the broader District of Columbia, and we’ve been working to do so through scholarships and other social impact initiatives.

What is it about General Assembly’s mission and operations that gets you most excited about working there?

I’m super lucky, and it sounds really cliche, but I wake up every morning super excited to come to work every day. I have the energy and the motivation to want to work late into the night to get through whatever project we’re working on at the time. I think it comes from the fact that our mission is so big, which is that we want to empower people to pursue the work they love through practical skills-based education. We’re working really hard to ensure that everyone who comes through our doors is able to walk out with practical skills that allows them to level up within their careers or change careers entirely.

In my role now as regional director, it’s also my responsibility to make sure that the team is able to do that across the board. Every day I get to work with this incredible team, all of whom play this critical role in making that mission possible.

General Assembly DC team at the 2017 50 on Fire photoshoot at WeWork White House.

Why is D.C. an important market for General Assembly? 

I think that D.C. is an exceptional city in that it has a very long history that could have resulted in it being set in its ways, but instead, one of the things we’ve seen over the past 20 years or so is this rise of the burgeoning tech scene. That’s the reason why General Assembly chose D.C. is that we’ve seen so many amazing tech companies come into the city, and we want to help them find access to talent.

For us it’s incredibly important to be in D.C. and to be as helpful as we possibly can be by providing training and providing talent, and what’s cool about D.C. is that there’s a wide variety of agencies and sectors that we’re able to support in the process.

What is some advice that you give to prospective students who aren’t quite sure if they’re ready to participate in a General Assembly program?

We recommend that students go to meet-ups in the area and just talk to them about what gets them out of bed and what makes them excited and interested through a combination of picking up those introductory skills and getting that base level of exposure to say, for example, HTML and CSS.

Our prospective students have a great opportunity to get exposure to a lot of different opinions and pathways before they settle down and make an individual choice.

Everyone is working really hard to put D.C. on the map and make D.C. the best that it possibly can be.

What are some things you’ve learned through your position about the D.C. tech ecosystem and what it’s like? 

I’ve learned that it is incredibly diverse, both in terms of perspective and representation. I think there are a lot of people from many different backgrounds that have a seat at the table. There are a lot of people doing a lot of great things. Everyone is working really hard to put D.C. on the map and make D.C. the best that it possibly can be.

What’s something about the D.C. tech ecosystem that you would like to be able to change or improve? 

The D.C. tech scene is working really, really hard, and we all want to put D.C. on the map, but one of the consequences is that you have a lot of people who potentially are doing the same thing across multiple meetup groups or multiple nonprofits or multiple organizations or multiple events even.

I know that even General Assembly has made the fatal mistake of scheduling events the same night as the D.C. Tech Meetup, right? There’s a lot of really great players in the space, which is awesome, but I think that if I can wave a magic wand, I’d figure out a way for us to be a little bit more organized and cohesive to use our strength in numbers as opposed to having the number of strong players sitting at the table result in fracturing.