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Launchcode hires new CEO after staff complaints it had been silent on trans visibility

A picture of Launchcode's headquarters on Delmar Boulevard in the Fountain Park neighborhood.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Launchcode was founded in 2013 and prioritizes teaching nontraditional students coding and programming.

St. Louis-based coding academy Launchcode has named Julian Nicks as its new CEO.

Nicks replaces former CEO Tasmyn Scarl, who recently resigned after two months on the job. Scarl's departure followed a wave of criticism from Launchcode employees and students that the organization had not publicly supported its transgender students and staff on social media.

Nicks, who has served on the nonprofit’s board, said in a statement he was happy to come back to his hometown of St. Louis.

“I am humbled and honored by the opportunity to lead such a great organization,” Nicks said in a statement. “Since its founding, LaunchCode has had an incredible impact on our learners, our employer partners, and the broader local economy in the regions in which we operate. I look forward to leading the passionate, dedicated team at LaunchCode to continue to create lasting impact in the communities we serve.”

Jim McKelvey, who founded the financial payments company Square, started Launchcode in 2013 with Brendan Lind. The nonprofit offers free tech-based training and apprenticeships and focuses on students who don’t have a four-year college degree or traditional programming training.

Nicks is a graduate of Washington University who has worked at Bain, a management consulting firm, and at the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development.

A tumultuous spring

Launchcode named Scarl, former head of the Challenger Research Center-St. Louis, as head of the nonprofit in March.

Before Scarl resigned, students and employees had criticized the nonprofit for not publicly posting support on the company’s social media platforms for trans people on Transgender Day of Visibility.

This year, the company did not post a recognition of the day on its public-facing social media platforms. The company in the past had made social media posts on the day, which is meant to celebrate transgender people and raise awareness of the discrimination endured by trans and gender-nonconforming people.

The omission hurt some people at Launchcode, where around one in five learners and apprentices identify as LGBTQIA. The nonprofit has for years offered education through its Women+ program, which the nonprofit describes as “a welcoming space not only for women, but is also intentionally inclusive of those who are trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming.”

Alumni have said such a statement of support is particularly necessary this year, following the Missouri legislature's decision to pass restrictions on transgender minors receiving gender-affirming care and participating on school sports teams that align with their gender identity.

According to Nicks, LaunchCode has received financial support from the state for the past four years to support workforce development initiatives.

Former Launchcode employee Sarah Freymiller decided to leave the company in April in part because Launchcode did not voice its support.

Launchcode’s decision to not publicly support trans people “was a major flag for me that I didn't think the work that I was doing would be supported, much less prioritized,” said Freymiller, a former success coach who assisted with the company’s equity efforts. “And it made me realize that I needed to find a mission that explicitly did support that work. So it was at that time that I decided to leave the organization.

“This felt like an immediate departure,” they said. “And one that is very personal, because a large number of our staff are queer or have trans partners and are trans ourselves.”

For other students, the opportunities the nonprofit offers to transgender students are more important than social media posts.

Natasha Lewis, a trans woman who graduated from Launchcode in the spring, said the nonprofit is a trusted space for trans people in a state that doesn’t always welcome them.

“I think culturally they’re very with it,” she said of Launchcode. “I felt super safe, which is not something I feel, hardly ever.”

Lewis is now applying and interviewing for coding jobs.

“A lot of the people [there] saw me exactly as I am,” said Lewis. “It’s a shame that somebody didn’t make the decision or to participate in Trans day of Visibility, but I still have a lot of faith in LaunchCode.”

What’s coming next

Scarl said that Launchcode was “an amazing organization” and that she thought it was best for the company for Launchcode not make public posts about Transgender Day of Visibility.

She said she worried such posts could jeopardize state funding.

“It’s a challenging time for organizations to be navigating these topics, and it’s tough to try to figure out what the right thing and the best thing to do is,” she said, adding that she was trying to keep her personal pro-LGBTQ rights views from “what I had to do to make Launchcode a successful organization.”

Scarl said she regrets the decision. Ultimately, she said, the company “wasn’t the right fit,” and she wishes everyone there “the best success.”

In a Linkedin post earlier this spring, Launchcode apologized for not posting on the Day of Visibility.

“We missed an opportunity to reaffirm that core value when we failed to post on Trans Day of Visibility,” they wrote. “The absence of a post caused unintentional harm and feelings of exclusion for many of our stakeholders and community, especially our transgender and LGBTQIA+ community. For that, we are sorry.”

Nicks, in an email, said he plans to publicly support the transgender community at Launchcode.

“LaunchCode is committed to being a place where our staff and learners, including our trans and broader LGBTQIA+ community, can feel seen, supported, and empowered to live authentically,” Nicks wrote. “We are proud that ~20% of our learners and apprentices identify as LGBTQIA+, and will work to ensure our internal and public communications are in line with this commitment to them and our diverse staff.”

Nicks will start his new job later this month.

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.