How This Tech Veteran Survived & Thrived In A White, Male-Dominated Industry
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“Rarely is survival a learning tool,” says Dwendolyn “Dwen” Williams, a 24-year veteran in Information Systems. She’s currently working at Cummins, a Fortune 500 company that manufactures diesel and natural gas engines for Volvo and Ford.
With her extensive career, Dwen mentors young hires of color about survival and the skills required to succeed in the tech industry.
There’s been a rapid change in technology, which went from using awkwardly-shaped floppy disks to the serverless cloud storage during her career. But Black people and other people of color still need to jump through hoops to get where they want to be. Dwen knows this experience only too well.
Surviving in a White, Male-Dominated Industry
Dwen knew that her calling was in the tech industry since her teenage years. Back when programming was still being done on Tandy computers, she’d excel in her high school database and coding classes, despite rarely paying attention.
In the early 1990s, American colleges began introducing new majors related to technology. So, she decided to pursue a degree in Management Information Systems at The University of Memphis after finding out that this enabled her to work with databases and interact with customers at the same time.
In Dwen’s early experiences, she didn’t feel like an outsider. In college, she didn’t realize how different she was from other people in the industry because she enjoyed the field she was in.
At Sarah Lee, a food corporation, where she interned as a network assistant doing tape backups and presentations, she was surrounded by a diverse group of people. Many others were working with her that looked like her.
“It was only in the corporate world,” Dwen claims, “where I saw the difference.” When Dwen began climbing up the career ladder and working with more prominent companies, she noticed many glaring issues.
There would be times when she was the only Black person in 30-person meetings. She would get snide remarks. There was an underlying assumption that people of color weren’t as knowledgeable or capable. She worked 60- to 70-hour weeks just to prove her worth and was often the last to leave the office.
Visibility was also an issue. While Dwen was present in significant projects, she felt she wasn’t being listened to. There were times when she thought that she was being invited for the wrong reasons. “I was just being spread around from project to project,” she says half-jokingly, “to make sure there’s at least one person of color.”
Importance of Mentors of Colors
In her years at Cummins, Dwen has been an instrumental driver of change. She’s helped recruiters figure out where to hire more people of color with the right skills and expertise. She’s also mentored entry-level hires about the realities of being a young person of color in tech.
About the career ambition of the new hires, Dwen states, “It’s wonderful that a young person would like to be Chief Information Officer in the next 15 years. But they also need to take into consideration what exactly their developmental needs are to meet this goal of becoming one.”
Dwen understands the importance of mentoring young people. Today, she is much more aware of the mechanisms behind the industry. But there was a time when she became frustrated, and she wants new hires to be better prepared for the challenges to come.
“My mentors are male and female, and they’re wonderful,” Dwen says. “But what I was missing, and what I am missing, is a mentor of color. My mentors didn’t know exactly how I felt. They said that sometimes they see it. Sometimes, they don’t. I see it every single day I come into the office.”
Mentors can teach people of color how to navigate through the industry and its murky politics. They have the powerful ability to act as champions for people of color and to make sure young mentees are on the path to leadership positions.
The right mentors in positions of power can steer mentees in the right direction, and most importantly, recommend them for promotions. Effective mentorship can drive meaningful change, especially for those who have been underrepresented.
Driving Change at Cummins
Since March, Dwen has been working from home. She has all of the essentials, including a laptop, mouse, monitor, keyboard, and collaborative digital tools. Her home also happens to be situated at the heart of the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred throughout late-May and June 2020. The events including the tragic loss of life in Black communities, the overt acts of racism and discrimination, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 due to racial disparities in our healthcare system have heightened public awareness and acknowledgment of the systemic racism, social injustices, and proven inequities impacting Blacks in America. When the protests took place, her colleagues called to check in and see how she was doing. They were also keen to listen.
“We’ve always said that we are focusing on diversity and inclusion within our company,” Dwen says. “But we’re now walking the talk. I am cautiously optimistic about the future. I am very optimistic that it will be better for those who proceed me.”
Dwen wants Black people and other people to realize that they should not let their socioeconomic background or family deter them from what they want. Bright and young entrepreneurs are coming up and will change the world. They’ll be the next Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, or Jeff Bezos. And they won’t be white.
“Blacks were always born being innovators,” she proudly says. “We had to be innovators, and they have it in there, they just need somebody to support them.”
Cummins has formed a team to implement strategies and drive execution in four external-facing focus areas: police reform, criminal justice, social justice, and economic empowerment. Internally, Cummins' global diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy continue to expand and progress its U.S. Diversity Growth Initiative. Started in 2015, this initiative aims to improve the representation, development, advance. Throughout Cummins' 100-year history, diversity and inclusion has been a business imperative, and it is one of the company's five official values. Cummins knows that having diverse employees doesn't drive business success alone; it's how the company uses diversity that makes an impact.