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.