Team Spotlight: Empowering Black Women in Tech Part 1

Sit down with Eme, Candace, and Losa to hear their stories and their collective mission

June 2, 2021

“The thing about equity is not just about making the playing field levelled. Some people have been under-served for so long, they can’t even see the entire field. You might need to give them a stool to stand on to have that view first.”

Eme couldn’t have said it better when it comes to diversity and inclusivity in the tech workplace. She along with her fellow teammates, Candace and Losa, come with big hearts and an even bigger vision to build that figurative stool to empower and advocate for black women pursuing careers in tech.

Only two weeks left for our teams in the COLAB4 cohort and excitement is buzzing around the products being built by our Co.Laborators! You’ve gotten to know a bit of the individuals in the past few weeks, but this time, I sat down with the women from Team Project Unicorn to learn more about their idea.

And what an inspiring idea it is!

You might catch Losa, Candace, and Eme demo their solution on Product Showcase Day so sign up for the event on June 12: But in the meantime, get to know this amazing team in a two-part series 😎

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The Players on the Field

The team’s product manager, Eme E., felt like she’d always been in the tech space ever since her early discovery of computer games. With a Bachelor’s and later Master’s degree in electrical engineering, she started her career at the Ministry of Works and Transport before moving into banking and later in health-care.

Eme was usually in more technical roles and is now looking towards the product side of things. The requirements to break into that role are proven to be different, from the interviews she’d gone through: experience, experience, experience. Interviewers were looking for genuine hands-on PM experience and that was what led her to Co.lab.

“But I was also going to build something at the end of the day that I could put my name to and just put something out there and look back in the future to say, ‘wow we really did that’.”

UX designer, Losa E.’s journey began at York University, where she studied international business and marketing at the Schulich School of Business. She knew of the tech industry but didn’t really know what kind of roles she could take on in the workforce: “people with business backgrounds were in tech jobs and they weren't necessarily coding.”

A vague idea started to form when she interned at one of Canada’s big banks, CIBC, and later when she joined its Technology Graduate Rotational Program. There, she got the chance to experience different roles that don't necessarily have to involve pure technical skills.

That idea solidified when Losa got introduced to UX design and a few introductory workshops later, she decided to go full speed ahead in the design route. Currently in the CIBC rotational program, Losa’s a UX designer in the Digital Strategy and Innovation team.

It’s one thing to get the role of your dreams, but another to grow in it. Losa emphasized on continuous learning and development:

“Even when you land the role, you’re still learning on the job and outside the job, you’re still wanting to learn how to become a better designer – which is why I ended up in Co.Lab. I found myself being stagnant. Although I have a portfolio out there and I have a role for now; I still want to explore other options and see how I can develop my design skills and get more on-hands experience.”

What’s a Co.Lab team without its developer?

Candace R.’s entry into the tech space was her role as a pharmacy technician at CVS. She took on a big project where data was migrated from excel sheets to SQL database and significantly reduced cost in patient delivery operations. This sparked a career interest in technology for Candace.

Slowly but surely, Candace moved forward in the software development path. She was an analyst and scrum-master at a transportation company before going into a junior web developer role at a self-care startup.

When Covid-19 hit and impacted the startup, Candace decided to go for a development boot-camp, hoping to level up her coding skills. Subsequent interviews, however, focused more on data structures and algorithms, and so Candace decided to go another route: Co.Lab.

“I’m hoping to get more experience and add this project to my portfolio. Although I’ve worked with teams building products before, I’ve never been on the developer side. So I wanted to have the experience of working with a PM and designer because unless you’re freelancing, you’re going to be collaborating with people from these disciplines. So I wanted to make sure I wasn’t a complete novice in that area.

It’s also to boost my confidence and be able to build out entire projects. I’m still a new developer and I kind of have to hype myself up because the interviews are telling me otherwise.”

The One Percent

It’s a straight fact coming right out of the team’s research: there is only about 3% of black women in the US tech industry and 1% in Canada. Why are the numbers so low? It’s not an educational barrier, as Eme stated, that they usually have the highest level of education.

And this…is Team Project Unicorn’s problem space: they’re aiming to improve diversity and inclusion in tech with a main focus on black females.

Why the name ‘Unicorn’?

Eme elegantly elaborated on its origins: “one black woman in a room of 100 people is essentially a unicorn. It’s a rare sighting, unicorns are rare. We’re trying to no longer be the unicorns in the room.”

Through their research, Losa provided some reasoning behind the low numbers:

“It’s actually more attributed to the fact that black women weren’t actively exposed to tech jobs and roles in general. Often, they associate ‘technology’ with ‘coding’ and would shy away from exploring the career path. But we want to close that gap and help people to see there are a lot of tech jobs out there and you don’t need to be so technical. You can go into design, you can go into product management, you can go into data. ”

It’s evident in their passion to solve the problem, as this subject is so close to the ladies’ hearts. Candace shared her own thoughts on how it’s really up to the tech companies to make conscious efforts to invite and recruit black women.

“One thing I think is a big factor is due to the lack of welcome or support in the companies. I think that’s something lots of companies are missing out on. You’re not going to attract an underrepresented group or any BIPOC person if your organization looks homogenous. You wouldn’t expect someone, who looks your company up on LinkedIn and doesn’t see anyone that looks like them, to say ‘maybe I’ll be comfortable to be here.’

It’s basically about making your company a welcoming place. What sorts of programs are in place that show that you’re making strides in diversity? What are your university programs? Are you in communities where there are higher populations of underrepresented people? You can’t just pick CS-grads from Ivy League schools – you’re only going to get a few kinds of people like that.”

You know it, I know it, we all know it. Representation matters! It matters to future generations figuring out what careers they might take up and sometimes, it does boil down to ‘does it look like I’ll belong there? Like I’ll fit in?’

Candace summed it up in her own experience: “in middle and high school, I took computer classes that I enjoyed. But when you watch any movie, who’s the hacker? Who’s the programmer? So I guess I’m supposed to be the sassy assistant so at first, I didn’t even consider being a developer.”

But now that Candace, along with her teammates, are on the trailblazing path in tech, they want to open that path up wider for the many black women aiming to do the same. The talent is there - more organizations just need to recognize it.

So how are these three ladies doing it with Project Unicorn? We’ll go right into the details and more in part two, coming out next Wednesday. So stay tuned!

If you’re interested in perhaps building a product of your own and get hands-on experience working in a product team, sign up for the upcoming cohort! And as always, don’t follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram for career advice in tech, Co.Lab events, and updates 😁.

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