Inspirational profiles featuring the
career path & advice from Black
professionals in the tech industry.

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Black in Tech: Eric Brown, IT & Support at CyberArk banner image

Black in Tech: Eric Brown, IT & Support at CyberArk

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Eric Brown - IT & Support at CyberArk shares his story.


Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work? 

I grew up in Boston as a young child but lived most of my life in Massachusetts in different towns. Spent my high school years in Randolph, MA and Brockton, MA. My mother was a single mother who raised 3 children including myself. She worked primarily as a secretary/administrative assistant for Teradyne and Harvard Pilgrim Health care.

Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating?

I attended only one year of college at the New York Institute of Technology. I studied Business Administration and after one year, I landed a job working in retail and then customer service at Harvard Pilgrim.

What inspired you to get into the tech industry?

I had always been the go-to or even the go-between of non-IT and IT at my companies. I had always been interested in computers, but after I did some outside learning on my own, I found out that I really enjoyed helping with computer issues. My best friend worked in IT at the same company and saw that I had an interest. He was leaving the company and his new company needed a help desk tech. He got me the job interview and it started my career in IT.    

What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining CyberArk?

My positions in tech prior to CyberArk have been primarily Help Desk and Support with cross-training in system administration and some information security. 

Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position in IT & Support at CyberArk?

In the current role, there are many high-level responsibilities. However, we are ultimately responsible for building secure end-user machines so employees in the company can access our resources.  

What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional?

For myself, I attribute my success to the support I get from family and friends and never letting “what I am supposed to be” define me. I believe in the skills I have developed and the ability to improve those skills with proper training. As for obstacles, I have been subject to people not believing I could perform a job before even seeing qualifications. Recruiters and HR assuming one thing and then suddenly being surprised when interviewing me that I have a brain. Nothing more insulting than being told you “speak very well” during an interview. This, I have run into several times throughout my professional career.    

What types of programs and initiatives does CyberArk have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?

In my short time with the company, I have seen CyberArk initiate conversations/webinars speaking on diversity. Utilizing outside speakers to drive the conversation. Along with women in tech speakers as part of the talks. 

What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry?

Find a specialty that interests you and engage in as much learning in that specialty. The tech world is vast and technologies are always changing. Don’t be afraid to apply for and reach for positions that may seem difficult. If it is what you want to do, it can be obtained. Patience and hard work are the key.  

While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?

Companies can reach out to communities of color and form partnerships to supply equipment to students interested in tech, as well as supporting STEM programs. Employees in tech can be encouraged to mentor at all levels. Companies can offer internships aimed at people who may not normally have opportunities to explore the depth of the tech community.

About the
Company

CyberArk proactively stops the most advanced cyber threats – those that exploit insider privileges to attack the heart of the enterprise.

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Black in Tech: Bianca Sullivan, Inclusion, Equity & Belonging Specialist at DraftKings banner image

Black in Tech: Bianca Sullivan, Inclusion, Equity & Belonging Specialist at DraftKings

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Bianca Sullivan - Inclusion, Equity & Belonging Specialist at DraftKings shares her story.


Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? 

I was born and raised in “Title-Town,” also known as Boston, Massachusetts. I learned most of my values from my parents, who migrated to the United States from Jamaica. Growing up, my family and I volunteered with numerous philanthropy organizations to provide resources to impoverished neighborhoods allowing me to serve as a change agent for the Jamaican Diaspora in the Greater Boston area. Besides volunteerism, I was a competitive student-athlete involved in Track & Field, Tennis, Double-Dutch, and Lacrosse. Lacrosse was my favorite sport, and I played from grades 5-12 and played D1 Lacrosse at Howard University. 

Where did you go to college? What did you study, and what did you do after graduating? 

I went to Howard University, a private HBCU in Washington, DC, and studied Communications. In addition to being a student-athlete on the Women’s Lacrosse Team, I also contributed as a Sports Writer for the student newspaper of Howard University, The Hilltop, to create visibility on women’s sports.  My passion for writing, sports, entertainment, and advocacy sparked my interest in Media. As a student, I held numerous internships with professional sports leagues and TV stations. After graduating, I worked for FOX News Channel in New York City and NBC Sports Group in Boston. 

Bianca and her Lacrosse teammates at HU

What inspired you to work in Tech, Sports & Entertainment at DraftKings?

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, employees are not only expecting employers to talk the talk on diversity but walk the walk by taking actionable steps to disrupt systemic biases and policies. Tech is the birthplace of innovation, growth, and global advancements, and DraftKings is a leader in this space. DraftKings is deeply committed to achieving and maintaining parity across our worldwide organization. 

I look forward to continuing to make a positive impact on the business of sports and inclusion. 

What has your career path looked like and the various positions you’ve held before joining DraftKings? 

Before joining the team at DraftKings, I held several positions within the media industry. Recently, I worked with NBC Sports Group in Boston, working in Sales and Production closely with The Boston Celtics. Before NBC, I worked at FOX News Channel in New York City in Sales. I held several internships with media companies like The Washington Football Team, ESPN, CBS, NBC, and the U.S German Embassy in college. 

Assisting Tommy Heinsohn and Mike Gorman at a Celtics Game

Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as Inclusion, Equity & Belonging Specialist and some of the advancements DraftKings has made in the IEB space?

The IEB Team at DraftKings aims to foster a culture of inclusion and belonging that makes our employees feel safe, empowered, engaged, championed, and inspired to be the very best.  In my role, I am responsible for assisting in advancing diversity across our global work-force, supporting efforts on knowledge sharing, promotion readiness, and career progression opportunities, and cultivating strategic partnerships that align with our Inclusion, Equity, and Belonging strategy.  

DraftKings has made considerable strides to become more inclusive such as $1MM annual investment in IEB, increased diverse representation on our Board of Directors, cultivated new partnerships and social justice compact commitments, enhanced gender affirmations benefits and accommodations, and announced International Women’s Day, Juneteenth, and Election Day as company holidays. 

What has attributed to your success thus far, and what are some of the obstacles Black professionals overcome along the way? 

My perseverance, leaders, and support system have been attributed to my current success. There have been countless moments in my life where I have leaned on someone trustworthy for advice or assistance from professors, coaches, peers, or others, the importance of mentors is undeniable. My mentors have helped guide, direct, and shape my present situation and future opportunities for the better.  

The systemic barriers rooted in race and gender bias contribute to the challenges Black professionals experience. Many of us face difficulties securing jobs, fitting into the work culture, and are paid less than our white counterparts. These disparities exist at all levels regardless of education and accolades. According to data collected by Forbes, “only 3.2% of C-suite executives are black, and only four fortune 500 CEOs are black.” The data speaks for itself and shows that racism still exists in the workplace. Black CEOs are all around us if we would just let them grow!   

Can you tell us about the affinity groups at DraftKings and how you celebrated Black History Month?

DraftKings has three Business Resource Groups: DK Shades, DK Pride, and DK Women’s, all of which are committed to supporting and providing stewarding leadership and action within these communities that are welcome to employees and allies. Our Business Resource Groups act as strong cultural voices for DK, driving meaningful change and decision-making with our senior executives’ participation that affects our employees’ day-to-day experiences. 

For Black History Month, we held several initiatives to celebrate black culture. We kicked off the month with our Buy Black February Challenge, encouraging employees to invest in Black economic empowerment and bridge the racial wealth gap by utilizing our crowdsourced resource catalog to support Black-Owned businesses. Just as voices can effect change, so can the dollar. We also worked with a black-owned organization named TriLuna Wellness to host a workshop on Meditation for Stress Management to provide employees with tips and tricks on navigating in times of uncertainty through journaling, mediation, and breathing exercises. Lastly, we launched our virtual career role-modeling speaker series with our newest Board of Directors to talk about navigating industries, the importance of diversity and mentorship, and the future of DraftKings. 

While general awareness of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, real actions need to be taken to make a lasting change.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference? 

Diversity is a fact; equity is a choice, inclusion is an action, and belonging is an outcome. I believe that organizations should amplify ongoing educational opportunities for employees and carve out safe spaces for diverse thought to tackle optimal results. I strongly encourage organizations to consider recruiting at Historically Black Colleges & Universities to find diverse talent for your pipeline effectively and recruit where diversity thrives. 

About the
Company

It’s simple, at DraftKings, we believe life’s more fun with skin in the game.

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Black in Tech: Bert Amadi - Head of Platform Operations & Services in Technology at Unqork  banner image

Black in Tech: Bert Amadi - Head of Platform Operations & Services in Technology at Unqork

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Bert Amadi - Head of Platform Operations & Services in Technology at Unqork shares his story.


Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work?

I was born in Nigeria to Nigerian parents, who were both of the Igbo ethnic group. My mother was a director of nursing at the teaching hospital and my father was a war veteran (from the Nigerian Civil war) who owned one of the biggest bakeries in my city at the time. At the age of 12, my parents sent my older brother and I to the United Kingdom to continue our education. 

My first impression of what schooling in a new country would be like was very disappointing. We visited a school in London, where we were viciously targeted by a group of kids chanting racist abuse and throwing bananas at us as we walked through. For a child who grew up in a more homogeneous society it was quite traumatic, because I witnessed racism for the first time. After that experience, my parents decided that a boarding school outside of London might offer us more protection from the obvious negative bias towards black people at the time.  

Attending boarding school abroad was not the easiest path for a young child who missed his home country, but I adapted quickly to this new reality and made lifelong friends. I excelled at sports such as Rugby where I was top scorer in an unbeaten rugby team (one of the 2 unbeaten teams in the school’s 150 years history), soccer and Field Hockey. 

Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating? 

After boarding school, I returned to London to study computer science at Middlesex University in London before attending City University to complete my master’s in Information Technology (Computer Science). After my post graduate degree, I was accepted on the IT Graduate training program with Morgan Stanley UK. 

What inspired you to get into the tech industry?

When I was younger, I loved taking systems apart and trying to put them back together or figuring out how things worked. This innate curiosity made studying computer science a natural path because I had the aptitude for anything tech based. I was interested in how to automate and write code that would impact society and as a developer, I knew that my coding would speak for itself rather than my color or background. After University, I wanted to be in an industry that offered varying opportunities, and I chose the financial industry at the time because I felt I would have more global access. My relocation to the United States with Morgan Stanley was destined because I finally worked in a team that recognized my skills and allowed me to grow and also gave me a path to leadership roles. 

What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining Unqork? 

I started my career with a graduate training entry at Morgan Stanley and I spent over 18 years with various global investment banks in both the technology and the business divisions up to executive levels across 3 continents in various specialist fields - development, data acquisition, shared-services, DBA and electronic trading.

I worked for 6 years at Bloomberg as the Global Head of Enterprise Technology.

I am currently at Unqork as Head of Platform Operations and Services. Unqork is an enterprise no-code platform that allows businesses to create mission-critical software much faster than traditional methods, without writing a single line of code. 

Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as Head of Platform Operations & Services at Unqork?

In my current position as Head of Platform Operations and Services in Unqork I am responsible for Unqork’s Production Support, Shared Services (incl QA, Program Management, Incident, Problem and Change Management, Telemetry, TCO..etc)  with an overall remit of Implementing a scalable and repeatable framework that maximizes operational excellence while managing and operating a high-quality platform and providing services that fulfill both customer needs and expectations of an industry leading product

What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional? 

The discipline instilled in me by my parents when I was growing up in Nigeria, where failure or giving up was not an option has been the bedrock of my mindset. The expectation on me is one of success so I have had to strive to achieve what is expected of me.  Over the course of my career, I have learned the value of persistence, humility, and leadership by example. I am a person of faith and so to this I add prayers and my faith. 

There was an early incident where I was the most qualified person, only black person and having been given a stellar review, I was given half the bonus everyone else got. This escalated and rectified by HR because there was no valid reason. Over the years, there were incidents where I was always being passed over for a promotion or promotion was delayed for no apparent reason. I always wondered if the fact that I looked different and was either the only or few black person had something to do with these decisions

These experiences did not faze me or break me, instead they continued to fuel the desire to prove just how capable I was. My hope was that as long as many black professionals rise above the unconscious bias, we might be paving the way to the day when the next generation of black professionals can be seen as capable by merit.

What types of programs and initiatives does Unqork have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Netta Jenkins - our VP global inclusion has set a comprehensive DEI framework focused on 3 pillars:  Executive Buy in, Accountability, Continual Learning

  • Executive Buy-in: 

We have executive buy-in and leaders are sharing their 2021 DEI KPIs with their teams.Our Head of Asset Management and New Markets, emailed his team last week and shared his commitment. Managers with direct reports are selecting one of the three KPIs to work on for the year: Recruiting/Retention, Growth/Development, Engagement/Branding. 

All executives are sponsoring an Employee Resource Strategy Group (ERSG). Here are the designated ERSG Channels covering but no limiting to LGBT, Gender, Race, Veterans, Caregiver/Parenthood, access..etc

  • Accountability - At Unqork DEI KPIs are tied to performance. Netta is building a DEI Application on Unqorks platform that provides access to all employees to add our DEI KPIs. This platform will track microaggression trends and provides monthly internal diversity data
  • Continual Learning: We are embedding our DEI and Anti-Racism training that encompasses a quiz after each lesson in our onboarding process for all new hires on Unqorks platform.

What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry? 

To the black professionals who are interested in joining the industry my first advice would be to get ready as the journey is not easy. Realize that the deck is stacked against you. 

Remember that “talent is a pursued interest, anything that you are willing to practice you can do.” – Bob Ross

To get to the top of your profession and be recognized as one of the leading talents in Tech you must work hard at it and perfect your craft and skills. No one questions excellence.  

Most of all believe in yourself and go for it even if it is outside your comfort zone. It is important to build a network of other black tech professionals, surround yourself with what you aspire to. 

Getting a sponsor is more important than a mentor. A sponsor is someone who can speak to the quality of your work and will go to bat for you during performance reviews. 

While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?

  • Tech-Industry diversity agenda is improving but the framing of the diversity challenges as a “pipeline problem” is not 100% correct. The ideas of fixing the flow of talent of the minority (HBCU colleges participation, STEM programs in primarily black neighborhoods and their schools without prior access to those opportunities) to these tech companies, is a good step in the right direction but the ability to code might not change the thrust of the tech industry as it currently operates. The skills of the future are more creativity driven, so AI literacy should be promoted in these programs as much as coding skills. 
  • Ultimately it is all about “Diversity by way of integration”. We need to diversify with not just token inclusion that makes the numbers look better but with integration that covers influence, power, change and partnership. With proper integration, the behavior of the entire industry would change due to the presence of black professionals in leadership roles.   
  • The tech industry also needs to involve their future potential users in regions with a growing population like Africa and Asia. Nurturing and developing talents from those regions are better for inclusivity and benefits the future positioning of the tech industry as a whole.

About the
Company

Unqork is a no-code application platform that helps large enterprises build complex custom software faster, with higher quality, and lower costs than conventional approaches.

 
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Black in Tech: Nikki Slaughter - Validation Team Manager at Vecna Robotics banner image

Black in Tech: Nikki Slaughter - Validation Team Manager at Vecna Robotics

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Nikki Slaughter - Validation Team Manager at Vecna Robotics shares her story.


VentureFizz: Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work? 

Being a Boston foodie during restaurant week

Nikki Slaughter: I grew up in Cranston, Rhode Island in an area very close to where my mother grew up. Even though I am an only child, I had lots of cousins nearby who I grew up with. My parents had split when I was very young. I lived primarily with my mom, but saw my dad fairly often, too. My mom has had various jobs - from a school teacher, to a mortgage lender, to a health administrator, while my father was in electronics sales.

Growing up, I was extremely creative and very interested in art - drawing, painting, and mixed media were some of my favorites. I was also very curious about how things were made. You could always find me taking apart something in the house just so I could figure out how it was put together. My house was full of K’nex, Hot Wheels, and a pretty big bin of Barbie dolls, too. I was convinced I’d grow up to be an artist or architect one day.

VF: Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating? 

NS: I went to Tufts University for undergrad where I studied Mechanical Engineering. During school, I had several engineering internships during my summer breaks, and I ended up working for one of those companies after graduation. My first job out of school was as a mechanical engineer within the R&D team at Second Wind - a company specializing in wind resource assessment for the renewable energy industry. Over time, my role grew within that team over several years, even as we were acquired by another company.

VF: What inspired you to get into the tech industry?

NS: I had known a little bit about engineering from my father and my uncle who were both electrical engineers. But my first interest in robotics came to me in middle school when my woodshop teacher started a robotics club. I was part of an all girls team who competed in the FIRST Lego League challenge. I loved learning how different types of engineering disciplines could be mixed together to create something that moved and solved problems. I also loved being able to see something working that I had a part in making. From that point on, I was hooked. I ended up going to a vocational highschool where I could continue this interest in robotics, and eventually obtained my pre-engineering robotics diploma.

VF: What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining Vecna Robotics? 

NS: Shortly after I started working at Second Wind, we were acquired by Vaisala - they added our equipment to their weather sensing line of products. Vaisala was a much larger company and more established, so there was a lot of work to fold us into their new processes. I started to get involved in the Engineering Change Control process to roll out changes like cost savings or new designs into manufacturing in addition to my Mechanical Engineering role. I learned quickly that I liked being involved in cross team projects, process management, and continuous improvement projects. The management team at the time recognized my interest in these areas, and approached me to take on a role as an Engineering Project Manager. I really enjoyed helping to coordinate and contribute to the product roadmap, but I learned quickly that I needed to develop my skills in people management to really succeed in a management role.

From here, I went back to school to obtain my Masters in Engineering Management from Tufts University. During that time, I started work as a Project Manager at Balyo where I was able to get back to my early interests in robotics. At Balyo, I worked directly with our customers to plan and coordinate their robotic installations. I traveled to customer sites to help scope out the project, worked with our deployment teams to develop our pre-installation activities, and often got my hands dirty helping out during the site installation. I loved the work and the technology, as well as my coworkers. Eventually though, I did burn out from the extensive travel. I was also interested in finding a role where I could bring my customer facing knowledge back into product development, which led me to Vecna Robotics.

VF: Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as Validation Team Manager at Vecna Robotics?

NS: Our team is responsible for validating and testing new features and product lines that come out of our development teams. In fewer words, we try to find ways to break our robots so our engineering teams can correct for them before releasing those products to our customers.

In my role, I organize and manage the testing our team needs to carry out based on the development projects from our various engineering teams. I spend time learning about what each of our engineering teams is working on so we can develop test plans and build test setups. I also help create the processes which allow for information to flow between the engineering and test teams so we can solve any issues and bugs that are found. I also spend time planning for our long term testing needs at an organizational level.

VF: What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional? 

Joking around during Somerville Open Studios

NS: I am lucky to have had excellent role models, teachers, and mentors who have supported me in my career goals. Just as my family has always had my best interest at heart, these folks who are my career family have my back, too. As you might guess in my profession, most of the people in my career family do not look like me - they are mostly white males. I hope one day to change that norm as I become a mentor and role model for others who come after me.

Being in an engineering discipline, I try to never let it bother me that I might be the only female or the only black person in the room. Even so, I recognize that others might discount my views or bring their own biases to the table just because of who I am. I’ve been in meetings where people didn’t listen to me and I had to rely on my male coworker (who was part of my career family) to bring the conversation back my way. I’ve had my ideas ignored earlier, just to be brought back as someone else’s idea later on. I’ve experienced racial bias from a customer I was working with - I tried to handle this situation on my own, but eventually brought it to the attention of my management team who supported me through that project. I’ve had another female engineer leave me hanging when I needed help simply because she felt I should go through the same difficulties she had in her own career. 

These are all awful situations for anyone to go through, but I’ve learned how to negotiate these situations either on my own or with the support of others. The one thing I always keep in mind is that everyone faces difficulties in their career, but the way in which you address those difficulties will either let you move forward, or deepen the divide.

VF: What types of programs and initiatives does Vecna Robotics have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?

NS: Like many companies, Vecna has several programs that help promote diversity, equity and inclusion both internally and externally to our company. We have tuition reimbursement for anyone who is interested in continued education. Vecna also provides reimbursement for employees to join professional organizations such as Society of Women Engineers (SWE) or National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). The positive and inclusive company culture is a very important part of working here at Vecna, which was a major factor that drew me to join the team.

We also have a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee which I recently joined as a Hiring and Recruitment subcommittee co-chair. Some of the tasks our sub-committee are working on include identifying how we can broaden our reach to more diverse candidates. We’re also looking to implement changes that will reduce bias during our interviewing processes. It’s been a really great experience so far to be part of this group as we look to promote change within our organization.

VF: What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry? 

NS: Don’t be afraid to be the first… for me, that was being the only black female in a mostly white, male R&D team. If you don’t see someone in the hiring team or on the exec team who looks like you, it doesn’t mean that you won’t be valued as part of their team. You most certainly will face cultural challenges, and possibly stereotyping, but you’ll also have an opportunity to make change. You’ll need to surprise people by speaking to something they might be familiar with that you have another take on. Make those connections that will change their perspective. 

And no matter who you are or what your background is, you need to have a career family who has your back. Find a mentor or a work ally who you can talk to about any difficulties you’re facing in reaching your goals. Ask for help and make a plan with them if you need support. I asked a coworker to help me bring order back to a meeting where people were consistently not listening to me. As soon as I asked for his help, he expressed how bad he felt about the meetings getting out of control before, but he didn’t want to overstep his bounds. Luckily, he only had to help me once in that situation, but I knew he had my back for anything I might need going forward.

A Jumbo for life at Tufts University

VF: While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?

NS: First and foremost, companies in the tech industry need to build a culture of inclusiveness that will attract talent as well as diverse candidates. You also need to consider how your company culture could affect employee retention and diversity. If you know your company is lacking in diversity, find ways that will make it easier for potential candidates to picture themselves working for you. That can be helped by having a mentorship program that pairs new hires with someone in your company who’s looking to gain mentoring skills. For other companies, it might be addressing biases in your interview process that might make a candidate run the other way. There are many ways to promote diversity in your organization, but the first step is to address in what ways your organization might be limiting it. From there, your team can create a plan and take action towards a more diverse and inclusive work environment.

About the
Company

Vecna Robotics delivers Automated Material Handling, Hybrid Fulfillment, and Workflow Optimization solutions featuring self-driving vehicles operated by our learning Autonomy Stack.

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Black in Tech: Michelle Jarmon - People Operations Manager at Namely banner image

Black in Tech: Michelle Jarmon - People Operations Manager at Namely

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Michelle Jarmon - People Operations Manager at Namely shares her story.


VentureFizz: Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work? 

Michelle Jarmon: I was born in Houston, TX and raised in Sugar Land, TX. My mom worked as a Division Order Analyst in the oil and gas industry before transitioning to becoming a legal assistant. My dad was a Marine who fought in Vietnam. He worked for Southern Pacific Railroad as one of the first black boilermaker apprentices, then transitioned to engine inspections before an early retirement in 1990. 

My parents would describe me as energetic, happy, inquisitive, and bright as a child. In middle school, my science teacher recognized my affinity for science, and submitted me to a summer science program at Duke University. Since I was only 12 years old, my parents worked with my teacher to enroll me in Texas Southern University’s Science & Engineering College Preparatory Program for four years. I began ballet, tap, and jazz at the age of 6, and evolved into pointe, competition dance as a dance officer of my high school dance team, and taught for a summer dance camp organization until I was 24. I was always involved in dance, performing arts, church, or school activities. I had the opportunity to teach dance to the youth ministry and have always been passionate about giving back to the community. 

VF: Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating? 

MJ: I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in Acting from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. After graduating in 2006, I moved back home with my parents in Sugar Land, and began working at the local CBS news station trying to find my professional path. After recognizing that the recession completely changed what companies were willing to take risks on, I realized that I wanted to grow in ways beyond what Houston could offer, I moved back to Fort Worth where I worked in hospitality to save for a move to New York. I moved to New York in 2012 and began working as a fraud analyst on the customer support team at my first startup, Fab.com. In the last eight years, I have had the opportunity to grow my career in the HR industry from client operations to facilities management and people operations. I have always had a passion for roles that allow me to serve and advocate for others. 

VF: What inspired you to get into the tech industry?

MJ: I realized that I wanted the opportunity to work with organizations that are more forward thinking and innovative. The tech industry allowed me the chance to grow with an organization in its beginning stages, and develop a clearer understanding of the different phases within an organization’s life cycle. In my experience, I enjoy working with organizations where their mission is centered around improving the standards by which we live and work; they create a sense of ease for the user. These types of organizations tend to automate, streamline, or improve processes and quality of life for their employees and customers. 

VF: What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining Namely? 

MJ: Fab.com was my first venture into the tech and startup space in the Customer Support team. While at Fab.com I discovered the People Team’s function and impact on the overall culture of an organization. It was this experience that motivated my career transition into the HR industry. My first opportunity in HR came when I joined the Glossier team in their beginning stages, I learned the basics of the human resources, talent acquisition, and facilities. After Glossier, I worked as an HR Consultant with Sotheby’s, and eventually transitioned into a Senior Manager HR role with a health and wellness tech startup, shortly before joining the Namely team. 

VF: Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as People Operations Manager at Namely?

MJ: As a People Operations Manager at Namely, I help with streamlining and improving processes and programs within the organization. I also act as a People Business Partner for employee relations to managers and employees. I help our employees with professional scenarios, and consult with management on employee feedback. I work closely across departments with diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. 

VF: What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional? 

MJ: Perhaps my success is rooted in my perseverance. I consider success a continuous path. As a Black woman in the tech space, I have experienced both micro and macro aggressions - from the typical doubt of credibility that comes with working in the corporate space to encountering the double standards of expectations from leadership, or managers using diminishing or demoralizing tactics in group settings. 

In navigating sensitive scenarios (i.e. leadership having the expectations of unspoken acts of servitude) I have learned to set and communicate clear professional boundaries with precision and without ego. Through all of these situations, I’ve recognized that many of these actions are done to push a person towards acquiescence. Instead, I continue to be vocal, advocate for myself, allowing my work and thirst for knowledge and growth to remain the focus of the conversation. 

VF: What types of programs and initiatives does Namely have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?

MJ: Namely offers many programs and initiatives that support diversity, equity, and inclusion. From our Parental leave policies, to the organization’s stance on equality, Namely’s leadership aims to create an equitable work environment for all. You can see our company’s commitment to equality here

When I first joined Namely, I had no experience with diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the workplace. I was invited to join the grassroots employee resource group DiveIN. DiveIN is an employee-led community of advocates focused on empowering employees in their professional careers at Namely, as well as the surrounding community. In working with this ERG, I had the opportunity to help found and lead the Black Professionals at Namely, ERG and extend support the growing ERGs in the organization - Asian Pacific Collective, PrideIN, Hispanic Alliance for Career and Employee Resources, WomenIN, RemoteIn, ParentIn. These groups aligned to create camaraderie in the workplace and develop spaces to share feedback, host educational events, and promote intersectional inclusivity to benefit the employees of Namely.

Namely’s reverse mentorship program was established in 2018 to aid in career development, foster diversity of thought, and continue to develop cross-functional collaboration, communication, and transparency. I was fortunate to have the CEO as my mentor, which further enhanced my understanding of the layers of the organization, while creating a space to explore ideas and professional development. More recently, Namely offers a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) mentor program, focused on improving career advancement and equity opportunities. 

I also co-lead a speaker series called SpeakHer Mind ™ where the mission is to amplify the voices of women, and share practical and positive steps each of us can take to deliberately build the workplace environments that empower women to achieve their potential. We’ve had phenomenal speakers from NYT Best Selling author Luvvie Ajayi, to Wharton Professor Adam Grant. This idea began as an internal initiative focused on supporting Namely employees, that has grown into a social movement during unprecedented times.  

VF: What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry? 

MJ: I would advise that you have a clear understanding of your goals and timeline as you work on your transition into the tech industry. Do your research on industries, organizations, and individuals that model the career that you seek. Given that there are so many options, there are a few questions I would ask myself:

  • What state is your career in, currently?
  • What type of role are you looking to transition into?
  • What are your deal breakers? (i.e. base salary, culture, certifications, etc.)
  • Can you connect with anyone in your network to get more insight?

I also recommend you set your own timelines. Don’t compare your journey and timing to others. You cannot always see the work that brought an individual to their present day situation, so keep working toward your version of success.  

VF: While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?

MJ: I’m really thankful for my experience with diversity, equity, and inclusion with Namely. I’ve learned that employees can impact real change within an organization, and it can be a powerful effort if diversity, equity, and inclusion is equally important to the executive leadership team. Now, more than ever, leadership is listening. Connect with your organization’s executives and senior leaders on ways that you can work together to hold one another accountable for taking actions that will lead to long lasting change. As a recent example, during one of our erg lead meetings our CEO, Larry Dunivan, asked how he could make a difference and support our employees in the midst of racial injustice across the country. I mentioned what acknowledging Juneteenth as a holiday would mean to the black community, and now Namely recognizes Juneteenth as an annual company holiday and has inspired other companies to follow suit. We all seek to make those big changes, but the small changes matter as well. Constantly educate yourself, and share that knowledge with those around you. 

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Namely is the HR, Payroll, and Benefits platform your employees will love.

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Black in Tech: Mallori Harrell - Data Engineer at Devoted Health banner image

Black in Tech: Mallori Harrell - Data Engineer at Devoted Health

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Mallori Harrell - Data Engineer at Devoted Health shares her story.


VentureFizz: Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work? 

Mallori Harrell: I grew up in Memphis, TN with my mother, grandma, and younger brother. My grandma, a Navy veteran, studied biochemistry and trained to be a lab tech while in the Navy. She was a Lab Director at a free clinic and later the neonatal lab at the regional hospital for the Memphis metro area. My mom began as a post office clerk and later decided to take night classes to earn her bachelor's degree in Information Technology. She is now an IT  Project Manager for Memphis' largest hospital group.

As a child, I was severely introverted, but my mom was an extrovert and being a hermit was not an option. So I was involved in EVERYTHING, from my church dance team to all of the sports teams at my elementary school. By middle school, I somewhat embraced this active lifestyle and joined the school band as a clarinetist, became the president of a youth organization at my church and the regional treasurer for that same organization. I also became heavily involved in community service, mainly around tutoring kids from disadvantaged communities and volunteering at a summer camp. 

In the tenth grade, I was called into the guidance counselor's office and told I had been selected for a program that sent inner city kids to prep schools in New England. This was a no-brainer for me, I loved to travel and I had always wanted to know what it would be like to live "up north". In the summer of 2004, I went to Choate Rosemary Hall for a month. For the first time school was actually challenging and interesting. I wasn't being asked to just regurgitate the character's names from the books we read, instead I had to analyze the text and contribute to meaningful discussions. I had to pay attention to do well. This experience changed everything for me, I began to dream bigger and I wanted more out of life than just financial stability. When I returned home, I began researching colleges, scholarships, and college entrance exam prep materials. I had gotten a taste of a new world and I wanted more.

VF: Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating? 

MH: I went to a small women's college (45 minutes away from Choate) called Smith College and studied Engineering. I had no clue what engineers actually did but everyone back home said if you like Math and Science you should become an engineer, so I did. My time at Smith was a culmination of me trying to learn the physics of engineering while also trying to figure out how all of my classwork translated into an actual job. I thought I wanted to become a Civil Engineer but soon realized that required too much work outdoors and I'm not a fan of bugs. So I switched to Mechanical Engineering, this seemed to be an indoor job so I stuck with it but I absolutely hated my machine shop course and was completely bored in most of my other courses. This should have been a red flag but I graduated with a BS in Engineering anyway. It wasn't until I began interviewing for jobs that  I came to the realization that the actual roles and responsibilities of an engineer versus what I envisioned, were completely different and I no longer wanted to be an engineer.

So I became a freelance copywriter and spent a few months soul searching and finally landed on Human Computer Interaction (HCI). I enrolled in a masters program at the University of Memphis but was completely bored. I asked my mentor if all graduate schools were boring and she said yes! I said if graduate school is supposed to be boring then I should do it somewhere exciting. So I applied for a masters program in Italy for HCI and got in! A few months into my HCI masters I realized there had been a teachers' strike and the majority of the classes I wanted to take were no longer offered in English, so I switched to Cognitive Neuroscience, a field I'd never heard of but grew to love. 

After spending two years in Italy for my research masters in Cognitive Neuroscience, I wasn't completely sure if I wanted to give up my dream of working in the tech Industry to dedicate my life to research. So I decided to apply to the few research assistant positions. I’d made it to the final stage of the interview process for a position in a Neuropharmacology lab but I didn't get the position. Two of the three lead researchers for the department loved me but one professor didn't think I'd eventually become a good Ph.D. student because I went to a public high school.  It was at that moment I swore off research and began looking for an industry job that would allow me to combine my love of math and research. I stumbled upon Data Science, it was heavy in mathematics and would not pigeonhole me into one particular industry. A year later I enrolled in my second masters program to study Data Science in the Bay Area.

VF: What inspired you to get into the tech industry?

MH: I loved the innovation and saw how companies like Apple and Google completely changed the way we lived. It was inspiring. I wanted to work in a field with endless possibilities that peaked my curiosity and could be applied across many domains. Data Science seemed to fulfill that desire. 

VF: What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining Devoted Health? 

MH: Straight out of my Data Science master's program I took a job at a small machine learning platform startup as a customer facing Data Scientist. I was responsible for conducting Proof-of-Concepts for potential clients and helping develop machine learning algorithms to automate anomaly detection. After a year and a half, I joined Royal Caribbean Cruises as a Data Scientist on a new centralized data team.  We were responsible for creating self-service tools to help business users perform predictive analytics.

VF: Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as a Data Engineer at Devoted Health?

MH: The data team at Devoted consists of Data Scientists and Data Engineers. As a Data Engineer, I build data pipelines, dashboards, and tooling to help streamline processes and code. In short the Data Engineering team is responsible for the data infrastructure and governance at Devoted.

VF: What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional? 

MH: From a young age, people tried to put me in a box and tell me what I was capable of achieving, and when I exceeded their expectations they attributed my success to luck. At first I pushed through it, but as I grew older and strangers from all over treated me the same I started to wonder if they saw something in me that I didn't. Pushing through those voices has been the constant and most challenging obstacle as a black student and professional. Constantly trying to figure out if I'm being undervalued because of my race, gender or demeanor or if I'm actually not bringing enough to the table is exhausting but necessary. Society has stereotypes on what success looks and sounds like, but they’re not based on a diverse reality. Which is why I’ve never let someone’s opinion of me be a deciding factor in my life.

VF: What types of programs and initiatives does Devoted Health have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?

MH: Devoted is awesome! The entire company is dedicated to removing unconscious biases and creating the most diverse work environment possible. As employees we have created working groups to tackle everything from recruiting to corporate goals to measure our success in our diversity efforts. Our People team also began unconscious bias training for hiring managers. We plan to roll out new initiatives next year for the entire company.

VF: What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry? 

MH: When I would stumble as a child people would tell me to give up and find something I was good at. My classmates would veer away from classes and majors that didn't come easy to them because they too were told to go into a career that has the least amount of friction.  "Find something you're good at and make that your career". No one ever tells you that there are jobs where you have to be an expert at failing, and the tech industry has a ton of those jobs.  Tech is one of the few industries where failing is a rite of passage, so if you fail at something or you're struggling to learn a concept, DON'T QUIT! The more you fail the more you learn and the more valuable you are to a company because you can help them prevent making those same mistakes.

VF: While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?

MH: The problem of diversity in tech stems from many issues, from the lack of awareness and education in certain communities to unconscious bias in hiring practices to toxic work environments. If we want to make a lasting impact we need to tackle all of these issues. Companies should actively engage with programs that seek to educate underrepresented communities in tech by investing their time and money. Help the programs develop their curriculum or provide internships to their students. But this is just one side of the issue. Companies should also work towards removing unconscious bias from the decision making process, whether it be in hiring or promoting employees.

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We’re on a mission to make healthcare the way it should be: caring, affordable, always there when you need it.

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Black in Tech: Jamal Fuller - Manager, Strategic Partnerships at Poppulo banner image

Black in Tech: Jamal Fuller - Manager, Strategic Partnerships at Poppulo

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Jamal Fuller - Manager, Strategic Partnerships at Poppulo shares his story.


VentureFizz: Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work?

Jamal Fuller: I was born and raised in Brockton, Massachusetts. As a child, I was a bit reserved but always had an active imagination. I started playing organized sports heading into my teenage years and that's when I came out of my shell. I played basketball year-round and participated in every local basketball league as well as with my AAU travel team. 

My mother worked two jobs to provide me and my sister with a stable home life, but was also supportive in all of our endeavors in sports and other social activities. She worked in Finance at Gillette and Proctor & Gamble and was a manager at a retail store. Watching her grind during my childhood instilled in me the importance of hard work.

VF: Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating? 

JF: I studied at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. I majored in Psychology and minored in Philosophy. I realized in my Junior year that while I enjoyed Psychology and Philosophy, I didn’t want to base my entire career in those areas. I started to explore different ways that I could apply my knowledge in Psychology and Philosophy in the business world. 

I graduated into a recession but was able to land a Sales job with the Brockton Rox who, at the time, was an independent minor league baseball team. That job was a great initial step into the business world as I did everything from executing deals with large companies to being our mascot when needed.

VF: What inspired you to get into the tech industry?

JF: My entrance into the tech industry was a bit serendipitous. I was working as a Key Account Manager for an apparel company but I was looking for something new. One of my friends posted that his company was hiring for Business Development Reps and I jumped at the opportunity. 

VF: What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining Poppulo? 

JF: At Mashery and Intel, I started as a Business Development Rep and moved up within the company until I was the manager of the team. I also began working with our Strategic Alliances team to build out our partner ecosystem. I was lucky enough to have an extremely supportive and engaged leadership team that wanted to develop their employees.

In my roles at Exinda and Progress, I was a Director of Channels and Alliances. In these roles, I was responsible for building relationships with referral and reseller partners. I worked cross-functionally with sales, marketing, and product teams to develop the materials and programs to pique partner interest and train partners in the 

VF: Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as Manager, Strategic Partnerships at Poppulo?

JF: In my current role, I am tasked with establishing and developing strategic technology and referral partnerships. I recruit new partners that align with our business directives and develop go-to-market strategies with them to drive revenue growth. I am working closely with our product, marketing, and sales teams to ensure that we can develop clear strategies with each partner in our ecosystem.

VF: What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional? 

JF: A strong work ethic, an eagerness to learn, and a good support system have been essential to my success. The combination of these items have helped me through every facet of life from school to sports, so applying them to the business world came naturally. I’ve also been able to understand that every failure is a lesson.

The biggest hurdle that I’ve had to overcome is the constant thought of “is my voice going to be heard”. Developing the confidence in your own voice and the belief in your skillset is half of this battle. This has been an ongoing process throughout my career, but whenever I do begin to question myself I remember that if I don’t speak up for me, no one else will.  The other half is having the knowledge to support your ideas and voice.

VF: What types of programs and initiatives does Poppulo have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion? 

JF: Being an international organization, there are many different voices and experiences to capture and validate. Poppulo has taken the steps to drive development and learning around diversity that is being led by a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion group. This group was established to identify the key areas for growth and improvement. The culture Poppulo has established is one that is very inclusive. Many of our employees have expressed that they feel accepted here no matter their background which gives us a great starting point. 

We’ve also taken the time to start addressing difficult conversations with our employees in small groups, so we can truly understand what we are doing well and what areas need to be improved. I was allowed to serve as a moderator for one of these conversations which allowed me to hear the difficult stories from outside of Poppulo as well as the positive experiences that our employees have had since joining Poppulo.

Watching and participating in our DEI group and seeing the progress that we have been able to make in ensuring all the voices of Poppulo employees are heard is one of the prouder achievements of my career.

VF: What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry? 

JF: I would tell them that networking and professional development are necessary. Reach out to people or groups that have ties to organizations that you are interested in joining and make yourself known. I’d tell them to identify the kinds of technology that interest them and look for different ways to expand their knowledge on those topics. My last piece of advice would be to look up blogs, podcasts and other content in the area of tech (Sales, Engineering, Product, etc.) that they want to break into. 

VF: While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?

JF: I find myself thinking about this question more than ever since I now have two small children and would like their experiences to be better than mine. For change to take place, I believe a dedicated effort needs to be made to connect with BIPOC students and young professionals early and often. I would love to see companies work closely with BIPOC groups in their local high schools and colleges to begin developing skills that would benefit students looking for careers in tech. I’d also love to see more mentorship opportunities developed by companies to engage with a more diverse group of potential job candidates. For all of these ideas to have long term success, it’s imperative that companies ensure their management and executives teams have a more diverse composition.

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Poppulo is the global leader in employee communications technology.

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Black in Tech: Otis Johnson, PhD, MPA - VP & Product Line Executive at ERT banner image

Black in Tech: Otis Johnson, PhD, MPA - VP & Product Line Executive at ERT

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Otis Johnson, PhD, MPA - VP & Product Line Executive at ERT shares his story.


Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? Otis Johnson ERT

I grew up in a small farming and fishing community in rural Jamaica. Few people had a chance to go to high school and almost no one went to college. I am part of a huge family and was constantly competing for attention from my parents and older brothers and sisters. One day, an aunt persuaded my mother to send me to middle school in a nearby town, where I would have a chance of proceeding on to high school. After raising several objections, including the fact that she thought a car would certainly hit me because I did not know how to cross the street in a city with cars around, my mother finally agreed. 

Growing up in a small remote village limits, to some extent, one's expectations of possibilities. This was certainly true for me in a small community where no one had a car until I was about 9 years old. The first time I saw a car, I thought it was a futuristic machine being driven by some kind of superhero. I was so fascinated that I knew right then I wanted to be a driver when I grew up. Throughout my youth, my perception of the ideal profession changed multiple times, mainly due to new experiences and interactions. My career aspirations shifted from driver to superhero to lawyer to doctor to president. In other words, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Middle school went by quickly. Fortunately, I passed the high school entrance exam for the most prestigious boarding school in the country. From there, I went on to the University of Technology, Jamaica where I got an Honors Diploma in Medical Technology and was elected the science department representative in the student government. In my role as the representative, I founded and ran an educational game show similar to Jeopardy. Students in the various science programs competed against each other, and the game became a major weekly attraction for the entire department. I won the award for most outstanding department representative that year and was nominated for the university’s Student of the Year Award.

Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating? 

Upon arrival in the United States, I found it difficult to get a job as a medical technologist because I had foreign educational credentials and had done only six weeks of internship at Cornwall Regional Hospital. Consequently, I ended up doing odd jobs to pay the bills. These jobs included package delivery, book sales, and telemarketing. These were challenging for me, as I had never done anything similar before and found them difficult and stressful. I even contemplated returning to Jamaica where my job was a lot easier and I got more respect. A former classmate and friend had also migrated to New York a few years earlier and encouraged me to hang in there.

Once I was settled, I started attending Hunter College of the City University of New York, where I ended up redoing several of the courses I had already taken in Jamaica. I found this frustrating, but was determined to get a degree in the United States so that I could simply get a decent job. I reflected on my wild childhood dreams of becoming a doctor and of becoming president. At that point in my life, I found myself simply aiming for an OK job. I felt the need to lower my expectations so that I would not be disappointed any further by the pressures associated with assimilating into my new environment. Based on the negative experiences I had finding a job, I felt it was dangerous to have high aspirations because the consequences of not achieving them could be even more devastating.

Having struggled for two years to save enough money to pay for the courses at Hunter College, I was determined to learn everything I could and to do well in them. In Economics, I completed every single exercise in the study guide twice and was the only student who earned an A+. In an assignment for literature class, I immersed myself into the play Antigone and compared Antigone and Creon’s experiences to my childhood desires to own a bicycle. To my surprise, the professor read my paper in front of the class and described it as her idea of excellence. Both professors encouraged me to change my major, but I declined and stuck with science.

After completing my honors degree at Hunter College, I conducted HIV research in an immunology laboratory at New York University (NYU) School of Medicine before moving on to become a clinical research scientist at Merck & Co., Inc., one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. I spent my first 6 years at Merck researching and developing medicines for respiratory conditions such as asthma, exercise-induced bronchospasm, allergy, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. My work involved researching, consulting with respiratory experts, and working with physicians to design and conduct clinical research studies. I also had the opportunity to co-author several protocols and clinical study reports, which became part of drug applications submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other regulatory agencies worldwide. I later obtained a Master of Public Administration degree in Health Policy and Management from NYU and a PhD in Management from Walden University.

What inspired you to get into the tech industry?

Some of it was a natural career progression, but mostly it was out of necessity to solve key problems at the companies I worked for. My transition from the scientific side of the business to operations and tech was not easy, as I feared I was destroying great relationships with the head of the respiratory and immunology department and my manager. They both wanted to retain me in the group because of my strong performance history and expertise I developed in spirometry training, data collection, and analysis. However, I was well aware that moving up in a scientific role at the time for a non-physician staff was more the exception than the rule. At the same time, I noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find patients interested in participating in clinical trials. I also learned of a small group of people in Merck's clinical operations group who were studying the patient enrollment problems and became fascinated with some of the initial ideas they had.

I always had a key eye for identifying ways to improve efficiency and frequently did value-added work outside my core job description. Because of this quality, I was asked to participate in a major restructuring initiative at Merck to improve the efficiency of its scientific and operational divisions. This project led to the creation of a dedicated patient recruitment and feasibility department, intended to create discipline and focus on processes to facilitate better planning and execution of clinical trials. I later joined this dedicated group and founded a clinical informatics function that provided the analytics to support feasibility and patient recruitment for clinical trials. This was my first foray into tech and the first piece of software I led the development of was a Monte Carlo Simulation tool to predict clinical trial enrollment with a probability of success.

Otis Johnson ERT

What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining ERT? 

My career path leading up to the role at ERT was semi-tech. It was mostly science and operations with a tech focus. The tech industry needs subject matter expertise in the various verticals they are focused on. In my case, I brought a strong health care background from my 20 years of clinical research and commercialization experience. This experience helps me ensure that the products we develop are relevant and resonate in the market.

Prior to ERT, I spent a short time helping a healthcare technology startup develop and commercialize an AI-driven site selection and study design product. Before that, I led the feasibility, clinical informatics, and site selection teams at ICON, a large CRO, for about 4 years. In this role, we built business intelligence dashboards to automate aspects of the clinical trial research and analysis process to support sales and project delivery. Prior to that, I spent 2.5 years in a similar role at Syneos Health and 13 years in various scientific and operational roles at Merck.

Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as VP & Product Line Executive at ERT?

Sure. ERT is a global data and technology company that supports the global biopharmaceutical industry  We provide innovative solutions and services to facilitate the collection of l safety and efficacy endpoint data from patients participating in clinical trials of new medical treatments.. Regulatory agencies, such as the FDA and European Medicines Agency, use this data to determine if a drug is sufficiently safe, effective and worthy of approval. In fact, ERT’s solutions were used in the clinical trials that led to75% of all FDA drug approvals in 2019. ERT has over 2,300 employees in 17 locations across, North America, Europe, and Asia.

As the vice president and product line executive for Trial Oversight, I am responsible for ensuring that the clinical trial data we collect across all our product lines are of the highest quality. This responsibility requires a strong business intelligence reporting and analytics strategy to flag data issues in real-time, so that the clinical trial teams can take appropriate remediation actions to preserve data quality. In clinical research, every detail matters. As trial complexity increases, new risks emerge. Missteps and inaccurate data can mean more expensive trials and delays in bringing life-saving treatments to the patients who need them most. So, I lead a team of product managers and software engineers responsible for delivering on this trial oversight performance and risk management function. We help our clients spot and mitigate risks before they become problems.

The role I have reporting to the chief executive officer at ERT was not something I imagined as a child. People in my community were not exposed to anything other than the traditional professions and trades. The childhood Otis would be proud of the man I have become. Not only do I have a great job working for a company I love, but I also have a loving family. I have also been giving back to my rural Jamaican community through multiple avenues, such as mentoring, career advice, charity, and scholarships.

What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional? 

A large part of my success was a result of the strong support and mentoring from colleagues and managers. During my first month at one of the CROs I worked for, a senior vice president challenged my work, citing her experience as the reason for the challenge with no other data to support her position. My manager stepped in, cited my data-driven analysis and reminded the team of my strong academic and professional background. I gained a lot of respect and became quite influential in the organization from that point on. I do not think my status as a black professional was a factor in that interaction. If it was, my manager steered the conversation away from it to focus on the fact that I had done the job well with data and analytics to support the conclusions and recommendations.

What types of programs and initiatives does ERT have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?

ERT has made some bold steps to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have formed a diversity council, which is an umbrella structure designed to provide consistent governance to current and future employee affinity groups. Within the structure, we have an active women’s leadership network, as well as a people of color network. The objective of the people of color network is to level the playing field by enabling recruitment, advancement, and development of people of color. To enable this objective, we modified aspects of our recruitment strategy to target people of color. These modifications expand our reach within universities to identify specific active student and alumni groups, as well as reaching out to historically black colleges and universities to find suitable talent. We are also examining existing leadership development and mentoring programs to ensure that people of color are active participants. Another key component of our diversity strategy is having a forum for employees to share experiences about what it is like to work for ERT. We are also rolling out various types of diversity training to the global management team and entire employee population.

What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry? 

Identify the attributes and specific skills needed to succeed in the tech role you desire. This could be a skill you acquire as a result of taking on and solving a pressing problem in your department. You then become the go-to person when a similar need arises and a valuable asset to your organization in the process. Depending on where you are in your career, you may need to learn a new coding language or you may need to learn about machine learning. In my case, I saw that tech is playing and will continue to play a major role in bringing efficiency to the way we develop new medical innovations. So, I decided to learn about artificial intelligence and its implication for business strategy, and obtained a certification from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to prepare for a leadership role in tech.

Also, do not get fixated on perfection. This is especially important in tech. It is expensive and time-consuming. It is often more important to get the project done and improve from there. So focus on your minimum viable product (MVP), but make sure your MVP has enough value in it, so customers will demand it. This is an area I have spent time developing over the years, as I often found myself spending too much time trying to make things perfect. As a result, I tended to feel I never had enough time to get everything accomplished. Finding that balance between perceived perfection and getting tasks accomplished is my idea of excellence, but I consciously guard against the waste associated with seeking perfection.

Once you get into tech, learn what is expected of you in your role from the start. If specific, measurable goals are not set for you, create them yourself and discuss with your manager. Doing so will help you focus. I have come across many situations in which I was asked to take on substantial projects not aligned with any of my established performance goals. The response I was usually given when I asked for clarification and the connection with my goals was that we need to do whatever is needed for the business. Doing what is needed for the business is absolutely right and you should absolutely do it, but adjust your goals to include those projects. Those projects should now be your focus. Your time is a limited resource and although you can attempt to do everything, you will not be able to do all of them really well.

While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?

Companies have the biggest opportunity to make a difference in this space. If companies treat diversity objectives the way they treat annual goals and objectives, they’ll have a much better chance of creating lasting change. Companies should not treat diversity as only a “nice to have,” but a necessity. It will take time for some organizations to get there, but the ultimate goal should be the following focus:

  • Real problems – Tie to real business objectives
  • Real numbers – Objectively measure the value of diversity
  • Real consequences – Someone has to be accountable for meeting established objectives
 

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Company

ERT is a global data & technology company that minimizes uncertainty and risk in clinical trials so that our customers can move ahead with confidence.

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Black in Tech: Herve Charles - Traffic Manager at Mimecast banner image

Black in Tech: Herve Charles - Traffic Manager at Mimecast

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Herve Charles - Traffic Manager at Mimecast shares his story.


VentureFizz: Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work?  

Herve Charles: I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts but spent most of my childhood in Malden, Massachusetts. My parents wanted a better life for us and worked hard to take us from the Cambridge housing projects to living in a 4 bedroom house. My parents worked tirelessly and I learned by example, especially following my mother's relentless work ethic. My dad worked as part of the cleaning crew at Delta Airlines and my mother was a Licensed Practical Nurse. 

As a child, I loved reading, watching & drawing cartoons. I loved Superhero cartoons the most. Oddly enough, I idolized Lex Luthor from the Classic 90’s Superman cartoons. I mistakenly thought Lex was a person of color due to how he was animated and I admired his relentlessness, business acumen and most importantly his conviction. I have always wanted to be a businessman and wear 3-piece suits just like Lex. I was also always fascinated by technology and working or funding my own tech company like Luthor, a goal that is still very much alive today. I created my life plan for what kind of man I wanted to be, what lifestyle I wanted, and what job I wanted as a child. I have surprisingly stuck to that plan with many minor adjustments along the way.

VF: Where did you go to college? What did you study and what were some of your initial jobs after graduation?  

HV: I went to college at Johnson & Wales University, in Rhode Island. One of the major life plan adjustments I made was pivoting from science to strictly business.  I studied Business with a Degree in Marketing, with minors in Psychology & Literature. I initially wanted to get into Advertising one day so I thought understanding literature and combining basic concepts of Psychology would help bolster my skill set. 

My first job out of college was first selling Verizon Fios, door-to-door. I did that job for about 3 weeks but the summer heat, and lack of sales in a 100% commission based role wasn’t appealing. I found a job selling custom blinds which gave me my first real taste of reality working in the “real world”. When your lifetime hero is a fictional arrogant super villain, little things like self-awareness are not things you think about. I learned quickly I wasn’t as brilliant as I thought, or as motivated, or even humble. I was verbally eviscerated by the company CEO about my selfishness, arrogance, and close minded nature. I am so thankful for that experience because it forced me to change my thought process, and realign my values as a person. 

Having left a seemingly unshakeable bad first impression, I left determined to be a better colleague, and person at a new company. I worked doing cold-calling for a magazine and met some great people who further taught me more valuable life lessons. I struggled in that role and left and did some soul searching, goal setting, and heavy research and found my way to Mimecast where I’ve been for 4 and a half years now. 

VF: What inspired you to get into the tech industry?

HV: I’ve always wanted to work in the tech industry due to being a huge Lex Luthor fan as a child. In High School I had an idea for an app but didn’t act on it which part of me still regrets. What got me into the cybersecurity industry and Mimecast, was luck and research. I was one of the thousands of victims of the Target breach in 2013 and when I looked at what Mimecast did, I knew it was the place and the industry I wanted to be in. I looked at the market, I looked at the cyber threats and what solutions were out there and I knew I could grow in this company and industry if given the opportunity. Luck got me an interview at Mimecast, and research helped me solidify it as my top choice and do excel in my interviews.

VF: What has your career path looked like since joining Mimecast? 

HV: Since joining Mimecast, I have had a few roles that have greatly helped shape my overall understanding of our business. I started off as a Business Development Representative, or BDR for short. I learned about our technology and the value proposition and benefits it presented to our prospects. I then quickly learned that the quota bearing lifestyle wasn’t something I was cut out for and transitioned into Licensing & Renewals. 

Licensing & Renewals was a great role for me because it helped further my understanding of sales, customer retention, and gave me a host of new skills and relationships across the company. Now I understood how to retain our customers and coupled that BDR knowledge to help add value and think more strategically when it came to customer and revenue retention. Having spent the 3 years I had allotted myself in that role, I worked to find a new opportunity internally that would allow me to leverage everything that I had learned to date. 

The Traffic Manager position was the ideal role because it allowed me to transition into Marketing which had been the plan dating back to college. I work with many different areas within Marketing and I have learned an immeasurable amount of information in the 6 months that I have been in this role. 

VF: What has attributed to your success thus far and has helped propel you to the position you have now?

HV: I believe that having great mentors, an open mind, and a willingness to put in the work has helped me to get to where I am now. Before even graduating from college, I had put in thousands of hours of improving my speech, my vocabulary, and my appearance. Working hard, harder than those around me, and getting in early, and working late has been something that has helped me as well. My best work has been done at the times of 6:30pm - 9pm. 

Another major factor has been the willingness to accept and seek out feedback. The feedback I received from the Blinds CEO still echoes in my mind today. It has made me someone who is open to constructive criticism and harsh conversations. When you are open to hearing and receiving feedback, it makes you more honest with people and yourself. I have had many great colleagues and mentors that have shown me the ropes along the way. Without those great folks, I am not sure where I would be today.

VF: What has been your experience as a Black Professional, working in tech?

HV: My experience has had many Ups and Downs working in tech. The issues of representation and a lack of diversity are well documented in this industry. The impact of that lack of diversity comes in the form of feeling as though you do not belong. There are several instances where I was the only Black professional on my team or in my department. One might say to keep your head down and produce good work and you will be fine. In theory, that sounds like the obvious strategy but it doesn’t address the feeling that you do not belong.

I have been called names, and had people ask me about all sorts of racial stereotypes growing up. Those stereotypes and more importantly the fear of being the Black Professional to validate/confirm the validity of those stereotypes are terrifying. It is like having a laser aimed at your head waiting for you to make a mistake, or embarrass yourself. When you do lift your head up, you start to feel as though everyone is watching you, waiting to see if you will validate their preconceived notions of your incompetence. It creates a form of perpetual pessimism towards your own abilities. 

What has helped combat those feelings for me has been goal setting. I have set goals for myself that I will accomplish regardless of what the environment is around me. By setting realistic goals, it gives me confidence and gives these aspirations tangibility. From there I made a goal to be a better colleague and that means creating a better environment for my colleagues. I decided to then join Mimecast’s Diversity & Inclusion Employee Resource group, for people of color. Creating a work environment where everyone can have a sense of belonging is incredibly important to me because no one should have to feel isolated in their work environment.

VF: What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry?

HV: The advice that I would give is to first do your research and find an aspect of the tech industry that truly appeals to you and your current skills. Make sure it is something you have room to grow in as well. Secondly, I would say to be open-minded and hungry for feedback. It is the only way to improve and helps create relationships. Next, I would say is to take a leap and try to introduce yourself to as many people as you can. What also helped me was connecting with people because many of those people I ended up working for or with later on. When you have a foundational connection with someone, they become invested in your success and want to see you win. Another piece of advice I would give is to pay attention to the details and take pride in everything that you do. Plan out your moves and plan with purpose. Tech can be difficult to get into but becomes so much easier when you have built connections with folks.

Herve Charles Mimecast

VF: While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?

HV: I think it starts with companies making a commitment to improving the diversity then peeling back the layers of their organization and looking at the raw data. The data often tells the story and can serve as a starting point. It will then allow companies to set goals and put initiatives in place that will drive those goals realistically. 

As employees, what we can do is to partner with management and create safe spaces to have open and honest discussions. We want to be able to educate one another to create a better work environment together. Training around unconscious bias, racism, sexism, and empathy are important in today’s climate. Understanding each other’s unique perspectives together help us forge stronger connections, and create a better organizational ecosystem.

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Company

Mimecast delivers relentless protection. Each day, we take on cyber disruption for our customers around the globe, solving the number one cyberattack vector – email.

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Black in Tech: Debo Adejumo - Systems Integration & Validation Engineering Manager at Starry banner image

Black in Tech: Debo Adejumo - Systems Integration & Validation Engineering Manager at Starry

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Debo Adejumo - Systems Integration & Validation Engineering Manager at Starry shares his story.


VentureFizz: Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work? Debo Adejumo Starry

Debo Adejumo: I was born in Ondo State, Nigeria, one of the southwestern states in the country. I grew up bilingual, speaking English and Yoruba. I was raised by a father who was a college professor and a mom who was a business owner and high school teacher so I was very school-centered. I vividly remember that the readily acceptable justification to my parents for missing the routine house chores was to make excuses for having to study or doing homework. However, I did play soccer as an apt way of cooling off after a hectic day and enjoying the weekends.

In this part of Nigeria, education is perceived as one of the best legacies parents can give their children as education is often seen as the key to success. In fact, an education in medicine is highly regarded so it was a bit of a surprise to my parents for me to follow the technology and engineering path. 

I was more drawn to finding out why things work the way they do, love for breaking things apart, fixing things, and understanding how they operate. That passion for problem-solving showed up in my math classes as I enjoy solving math problems and don’t feel at peace until I am able to solve the problem. Although I was inspired by my father’s career in sciences, I was ultimately drawn to engineering by my love for math. 

VF: Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating? 

DA: I have a bachelor's degree in Electronic and Electrical Engineering from Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. I chose this major because it was a broad engineering major where one can specialize in Power, Control Systems and Instrumentation, Communications, and Computer Engineering. This major would allow me to explore different areas that piqued my interests within engineering. 

It was in college that I got my first hands-on experience with internet systems. Internet (Wi-Fi) was not available in our dorms, so I offered a monthly subscription-based service to share my internet connection over Wi-Fi using my PC and a dial-up connection. I got away with that for a few months before the dial-up company shut down my service. This opened my eyes to computer networking, radio frequencies, antenna design, and telecommunications. 

After graduation, I worked with a telecommunications company as an RF/Network Optimization Engineer in Nigeria. Then, I decided to attend Minnesota State University to pursue a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering. Making the decision to continue my education in the United States opened my eyes to more diverse opportunities in the field of engineering and allowed me to explore a career in technology and telecommunications here. 

VF: What inspired you to get into the tech industry?

DA: I love challenges. Challenges bring out the best in me. Even from my high school days, I took delight in solving tough math and physics questions. I enjoyed the think-through process and systematic ways of answering those sophisticated questions. 

The tech industry is about fixing the problems that face humankind and finding a more efficient way of resolving an already solved problem. The dynamic challenges of the tech industry have consistently inspired and helped me stay motivated in my career as an engineer. 

VF: What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining Starry? 

DA: I have worked at various companies where I have held different positions from an intern to leading teams in network architecture, Wi-Fi testing, validation, and optimization. 

Before Starry, I worked at CenturyLink as a Lead Architect (Wi-Fi/Network) and that experience prepared me for my position at Starry. 

I decided to make the jump to Starry because the start-up culture is fast-paced and challenging. I am the most motivated in an environment like Starry where there is a quick turnaround to implementing recommendations and improvements and interesting technical problems that need to be solved.

VF: Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as a Systems Integration & Validation Engineering Manager at Starry?

DA: I lead and manage the WiFi-CPE team of passionate engineers that validate and optimize our Wi-Fi devices for the overall seamless system performance that Starry is known for. The team is specifically involved in:

  • Software feature validation and regression testing: We participate in each sprint with Software, Firmware, and other engineering teams. We develop automated regression tests that run against nightly and milestone releases of our system software.  We are responsible for releasing upgrades to the field and providing engineering level support throughout the process. 

  • Full system validation and verification test system development: We design and create automated testers to validate system requirements during the prototype and development stages. We also design and create test automated testers to verify the functionality of each unit at manufacturing time. This work involves understanding the operation of the complete system in order to be able to configure and analyze all parameters and execute usage scenarios.

  • System performance optimization and issue investigation: We leverage expertise in software, networking, electronics, and communications systems to investigate critical performance and functional issues

VF: Attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional?

DA: Hard work, strong work ethic, and self-determination are a core part of my family values. Until I came to the United States, the concept of limited opportunities based on the color of one's skin was foreign to me. As a matter of fact, I never paid much attention to the color of my skin until I moved to the US; however, the sense of self-doubt is universal.

Early in my career, I worked in spaces where I have been the other or only Black professional around. In many cases, that was the team's first interaction with a Black colleague, so it took a while for me to feel a sense of belonging. This showed up in meetings where my ideas were outright ignored or second-guessed, but I quickly learned how to be an effective advocate for my work and strived to compel the system to assess me beyond my skin color. I have long realized that it is easier to tell a success story than having to justify why you failed. Unconscious bias against men and women of color is a barrier; rather than letting it discourage me, it became an impetus for a strong work ethic.

I have also been in situations where leaders have an archetype of what "senior" talent should look like, which resulted in missed opportunities and recognition for the outcomes and impact of my work. However, I feel fortunate to be with Starry; they’ve provided me with complex problems that pique my interest, recognition for the contributions of my team and myself, and leadership support to grow my career.

VF: What types of programs and initiatives does Starry have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?

DA: Starry has been working to create a multifaceted approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our CEO is a person of color who has been open about how his life experiences have shaped his views on discrimination. It’s important to him as well as everyone here at Starry that our actions towards increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion aren’t hollow. It’s important to ensure that we’re not putting out just words and empty statements.     

Starry is an internet service provider and we’re founded on the simple idea that everyone deserves affordable internet access. Internet access is the bridge to economic opportunity, education, health care and so much more. Internet access can fuel social advancement and wealth creation, unlike any other utility. And yet, millions of Americans - the vast majority of whom are people of color - are locked out of that opportunity. 

We created a program called Starry Connect which provides ultra-low-cost broadband access to public and affordable communities. There are no disenfranchising credit checks, complex eligibility requirements, stifling data-caps, handcuffing long-term contracts, or predatory extra fees. As part of our fundamental belief that internet access can have an equalizing effect, Starry has continued to broaden and expand this program. In 2020, we’re doubling down on serving public and affordable housing communities and finding new and creative ways to deliver free and low-cost internet access. 

Starry understands that fostering a diverse and supportive working environment that reflects the communities we serve will enable our company to succeed and advance. How can we build products that people love if our workplace doesn’t reflect our society? Our talent acquisition team partners with many groups to identify and recruit diverse talent. As a manager, I want to hire people who aren’t just a good ‘cultural fit’ but rather, a cultural add - people who bring diverse perspectives, experiences and skills to the workplace. We’re investing in expanding our engineering co-op program to reach a more diverse set of schools; right now, we tend to focus on the Boston area because it’s our backyard, but we know there are lots of great engineers around the country. We’re making gains on diversity, but we must and will go further. 

Debo Adejumo Starry

VF: What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry? 

DA: My biggest advice to Black professionals would be to be yourself. Bring your authentic self to work, build connections and communities; make it a priority to be in the right association with people who genuinely believe in you and want to see you progress personally and professionally. 

Be consistent in building a strong work ethic as a professional in the tech industry; this may include but is not limited to, investing in continuous learning and development. The problems we are solving today are increasingly complex, so employers are seeking employees who not only have the skills for today but are willing to up the ante by learning the skills of tomorrow. 

When you have a voice, use it. Use your voice to pave a path and inspire others to change policies, practices, culture, or habits that don't create a safe space for all. It sometimes might feel intimidating to be the "face of the race," but there are others who are inspired when they see someone that looks like them at the level of achievement that you have. 

Finally, give back. It would be nice if someone warned you about bad weather or road construction ahead on your regular route to work that might affect your commute. In the same vein, give back by providing mentorship to other professionals who may benefit by taking comfort in your successes and lessons from your failures. 

VF: While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?

DA: We need intentionality and genuineness! There is only so much a company can do. Without real people who are personally invested and willing to genuinely change the status quo, then it will all be passive diversity messaging. It is not enough to just have a diversity quota or pledge as camouflage; companies need to actively take actionable steps that are timely, sustainable, and impactful. 

Many studies have shown that companies that take diversity seriously are more profitable than those that don't. Organizations need to invest in programs that promote diversity and inclusion from the lower echelons to the boardrooms. If you serve a diverse audience, then the leadership of the companies should reflect the communities they serve. Beyond leadership, representation is investing in direct professional opportunities for black students providing mentorship, internships, or early career programs to give the needed support to be successful. 

As for what employers can do, front line leaders need to adjust the archetype of what they look for when it comes to promotions and really come to terms with whatever unconscious bias they have. The keyword here is unconscious, but understanding it might be a starting point to changing the status quo. I believe the key to unlocking the gains of a diverse workforce is inclusion. It is not enough to have folks show up in the workplace with different ideas and a diversity of thought. Individuals and teams should work hard to curate a safe environment where all views are represented and everyone feels a sense of belonging.

About the
Company

Starry is making Internet better for everyone, from easy-to-use Wi-Fi products to radical Internet service. Happy Interneting.

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