Startups

From educators to cofounders, here’s how Ximena Hartsock and Michelle Rhee came together to launch BuildWithin

Hartsock and Rhee announced their new venture last week. Here's how they moved from being DC educators to cofounders.

(L to R) Michelle Rhee and Ximena Hartsock, cofounders of BuildWithin.

(Courtesy photo)

Long before they launched an apprenticeship startup last week, Michelle Rhee and Ximena Hartsock were just colleagues working for DC Public Schools.

“When I went to her school to visit her, she was like, ‘Okay, come on, come on, I have things to do so talk and walk,’ and while we were talking she was sweeping in the floors and fixing a ceiling tile and a few other things,” Rhee told Technical.ly. “And from the moment that I met her then, I loved her.”

They each took their own curved pathways before coming together to cofound BuildWithin. Rhee went on to create StudentsFirst and then a chain of soul food restaurants. They became colleagues again when Hartsock became the national director of StudentsFirst in 2010, although she eventually went on to found the civic tech company Phone2Action in 2012.

But both kept in touch over the years, and when Hartsock left Phone2Action in 2021, she said she came to Rhee with an idea for how to help bridge the tech industry’s talent gap. At Phone2Action, Hartsock had developed an apprenticeship program focused on tech positions and job training after realizing that the most challenging part of running her startup was finding the talent.

“You cannot do workforce development without having in your head some level of understanding of education,” Hartsock said. “But also, you can’t do workforce development in technology without having an understanding of technology and those two worlds normally live apart.”

BuildWithin started operations in January of 2022, raising $2.4 million alongside $9 million in government grants. At present, the company has 14 employees on both coasts (Rhee is based in California) and plans to add approximately 25 employees at its five jurisdictions nationwide.

Hartsock thinks apprenticeships are an excellent way to build talent and teach skills at tech companies — especially as so much learning is completed on the job. But to make it sustainable long-term, she said, many workplaces have to become more of a learning organization.

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When they began speaking to many employers, Rhee and Hartsock said they found many open to the idea of a program but hesitant to go through the motions of starting one. Hartsock said that for many, it felt like a very heavy lift. So, the pair created BuildWithin, whose software product helps with the structure. The program includes learning components, messaging capabilities and the ability to assign and track tasks. This way, Hartsock said, it’s easy to follow workers’ progress.

“The world is changing so much and how people think about jobs is really evolving,” Rhee said. “So this notion that you’re going to go into one job and stay there forever is outdated.”

For Hartsock, apprenticeship programs unleash new potential in the industry, instead of looking at the same talent pools over and over. And with gaps in not only gender and race but also age, she thinks closing them is absolutely crucial. As the company grows, she hopes it will have a lingering impact on the tech industry.

“The upward mobility of apprenticeships is just untapped,” Hartsock said. “If you really think about getting people out of poverty to employment, to us, that’s the fastest way.”

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