Small Nonprofit CEO of the Year – Desa Burton, Zip Code Wilmington Executive Director
Desa Burton’s life has taken on various positions of leadership: from serving as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy to serve as lead counsel on intellectual property for InterDigital in Philadelphia. But chief among them was serving as executive director of Zip Code Wilmington, a nonprofit focused on offering 12-week courses in software development and data engineering.
She first learned about Zip Code while she was serving on the board of Liberty USO, the greater Philadelphia’s United Service Organizations chapter. The organization was looking for a platform to help veterans transition to STEM careers – and Zip Code Wilmington, founded in 2015 as an economic engine for the greater Wilmington area – fit the bill.
“When I saw the change and impact they were having on so many people, and people from all different backgrounds, I really felt it was like watching the American dream happen. That’s why I fell in love with it, and that’s why I joined two and a half years later,” Burton said.
Over the last eight years, Zip Code has successfully trained more than 600 software developers who cumulatively have earned $131 million in wages. It has the capability not only to transform lives, but families. Four siblings have successfully graduated from the program within a three-year period.
The greatest challenge Zip Code has faced yet, like many organizations, was the COVID-19 pandemic. But Burton said that it mostly exposed the weaknesses in the nonprofit’s model, such as not invoicing for full tuition until participants are hired in jobs that use the skills Zip Code taught them.
“Even if everything goes right, the economy can still stall – and that’s what happened. We’re realizing how we reckon with that. And really, my staff had to lean on each other,” she said. “We made a conscious choice not to go to the same sources other critical nonprofits had, and still keep our doors open.”
Zip Code relaunched with remote training and has since expanded to high school programs as well as adult trainees in Kent and Sussex counties. Last year, Burton secured a grant worth $1.5 million per year until 2025 for program scholarships and stipends.