I'm considered a relative rarity in the world of high tech: I'm a black woman.
An August 2015 article in The Verge on diversity at major internet-driven companies cited research showing that at Google and Facebook, only 1% of employees are black women. At Twitter, this percentage was almost 0% -- only 14 people out of over 2500 employees.
You might wonder, what is that like? And if I'm a person of color or a woman -- or both -- how is it possible to survive and thrive in an environment where you constantly stand out?
When my brother and I were kids, my aunties and uncles stressed the old saw familiar to many black folks: that we'd have to work twice as hard and be twice as smart as the white kids in our class to receive the same recognition. But Silicon Valley, like America itself, remains a place where a willingness to work hard and to use your brain will find reward over time, no matter your background. And as geeky fans of 'The Big Bang Theory' can attest, there's something attractive about the misfit, outsider quality to STEM-careered characters, both male and female.
While I've certainly experienced discrimination, it usually hasn't been at the hands of fellow technologists, who can sympathize with what it's like to be "different" in a society that too often stigmatizes those who don't fit some mythical all-American football player/cheerleader norm. For every one person who has treated me differently because of my race or gender, there are 10, 20, 50 people who have either been more interested in my qualifications, energy and ideas than what I look like or who have actually been excited to work with someone bringing a fresh, exciting perspective to the table.
Though my experience in the tech sector has been overwhelmingly positive, that's not to say there haven't been some bumps in the road. To help others who might come across these challenges in their career journeys, here are a few tips for success:
1. Don't get discouraged by random racism/sexism. When discrimination rears its ugly head, it's rarely overt, especially in politically correct Silicon Valley. Instead, a conversation, job, deal, or speaking engagement will all of a sudden hit a significant snag, or a weirdness emerges. Your phone calls don't get returned. The deal falls through. If you get turned down, then go around. In other words, if someone gives you static, tune out the noise and move on. You worked hard to get where you are. So keep knocking on doors and doing your thing. You'll get your breakthrough, even if it takes you a little longer than other people.
2. Adapt to the culture. You don't have to change who you are or what you're into. But it does help to know the difference between 'Stars War' and 'Trek' -- bonus if you've seen some 'Battlestar Galactica' or Marvel shows. Check out popular techie blogs and subreddits. Learn to "speak geek" and pick up a little lingo. In short, it helps to have some cultural overlap in common to show you're not so different after all.
3. Remember that being unique is a strength. If you're at a conference among a sea of people who look the same and you stand out, that's a good thing. People will remember you and networking will actually be a little easier each time you hit an event. As a black woman in tech, I've turned an apparent challenge into an advantage to thrive in situations when your uniqueness is an asset.
4. Help others up the ladder. Some tech companies like Slack are already showing us the way. Slack sent four of its black female engineers to accept a high profile award for the fastest rising startup, highlighting the changing face of tech. I encourage you as you succeed to reach back and give a hand to someone who doesn't look like you to help build a brighter, better, 21st century tech sector.
I believe that a golden era in Silicon Valley and tech in general is ahead of us. Once we begin to incorporate people of varied backgrounds, it's going to open the door to problems solved, amazing apps, and incredible unicorn companies that are only possible with new ideas and new entrepreneurs. It's an exciting moment for our economy -- together, we can create the jobs of the future for more Americans.