August 9, 2016

Makinde Adeagbo, Founder of /dev/color

Congratulations on getting into YC and being the first non-profit.

Yeah. We’re about one of 15 non-profits, so I think USA Today called us out as the first diversity non-profit. It’s still a very early program for non-profits in there, they’re still adjusting to it.

Why did you start  /dev/color? And what has it been like thus far?

I started it just seeing my friends and people that I had been connected to, as I discovered tips and secrets that were novel to me, I would share them with people I was going to school with who were younger than me, people who were still in school. I saw the impact that just being in their lives and giving them this advice and working with them could have. I  thought to myself, “Why is it just me doing this? I know other people who could be doing this, and they want to, but they just don’t have any setup or system in which to do it.” They also need help from people more senior than them. Again, there’s no easy way to find that. That was the start of it, was figuring out what community I would want to be a part of and how do we build that?We put a lot of thought early on. We officially started last July just bouncing around a lot of ideas of, “What is an organization I’ll want to be in that organization for the next 5 to 10 years?” That’s where we came up with our basic core principles of what we want in members that are still with us.

That’s cool. What was your experience as a person of color in tech?

Here’s the question. If I think back to it, what I would say is most of what I remember has nothing at all to do with the fact that I’m a black man. I’ve worked with some great companies, I worked hard, shipped a lot of great stuff. People are down, we’re just down to help. That said, dotted along the way were these moments I’m forced to realize, “Hey, I’m not like everyone else here.” Sometimes it’s small, little humorous things. There was a time when I first realized that not everyone around me knew what the electric slide was. I sent an email to the entire engineering team, a survey, asking people if they knew the electric slide because I refuse to believe my co-workers, that it was not common knowledge. Because every wedding I’d been to was, mainly, a black wedding growing up, and of course the Electric Slide was played. That’s not anyone else’s experience.

That’s on the more comical side, but there are themes on the other extreme as well. Getting asked very strange and off-putting questions in interviews and things like that. It’s a mixed bag, but I’d say going through, I have felt like just another engineer with these other experiences thrown in.

How have you started building your community right now?

The way we approach it is interesting. We realize it’s a slow and arduous process, but we’re also eager to try to bring in lessons learned from the engineering world into this process. I’ll start by saying, you just said that your students, all women, all people of color, and they’re blown away to be in the room with that. What’s shocking is that that is, in my experience, an almost universal reaction. We had a kick-off event with our 60 current members in February, and almost everyone was blown away by having 60 black engineers in one room. It doesn’t change from the time you’re in high school all the way to when you’re a senior engineer, the same sorts of things apply.

Jumping back to where I was, building a community does take time, what we try to do is in some ways treat it like a buffer project and iterate rapidly. Just this morning we had a meeting with some of the leaders from within that group of 60, some people who have stepped up to lead their squad. We got a lot of great feedback. That goes into the iterating on the worksheets that we hand out; that goes into some of the information that’s on our internal site. Now, when we start new squads, they’ll be on a better footing.  We try to focus on collecting that feedback from people and just seeing what works, what doesn’t work, and being willing to change it quickly.

The other part of building our community that’s interesting for us is, and we stress this when we bring on new members, is that we’re not just a community, we’re a community with a purpose. That particular objective is to advance one another’s careers, and that’s why we’re here. We found that for folks who have just moved to the Bay area or a given city are folks who are just entering the industry. They’re looking for multiple things. They’re seeking to connect with a general community. As you get more and more senior, you have more demands on your time, a lot is going on for you, and you want to know that you’re using your time for its real purpose. That’s one thing we focus on from the beginning is, “Hey, we want to get to know one another, we want to be able to hang out, we want to know one another’s families.” That community, the purpose for that is so that we then advance one another’s careers. That’s why we’re here at the end of the day. We weave that in every aspect.

What are three tips that you could give to industry professionals and executives who want to help in their community and increase more POCITs?

Maybe this will end up being more than the one thing. The first thing is to find somelc4w (108) copywhere to start. We’re all seeking to be super high leverage and one hour of our time can impact a thousand students. But seek out, be open to one person see needs help and see how you can assist them because that one on one or one can produce a profound impact on those people’s lives. Don’t be afraid of one on one or one too few connections and opportunities.

Second is, build on what’s working. If you’ve found that helping this group of people helps, then find a way to scale that. Which might be helping a couple more people, or it might be encouraging your co-worker who wouldn’t go out on their own to find someone to help, that’s what led me to /dev/color. 

How can graduates find mentors?

It’s funny, some of the best and truest advice I’ve heard on this being on both sides of the request, the worst thing you can say is, “Will you be my mentor?” The reason that’s not a great way to approach the situation is the person who’s receiving that request is busy, they’ve got a lot of things going on, and they don’t know what exactly you want to them to do. What I’ve found is so so many people, no matter what their level of seniority is, are willing to help. They’ve seen your email, they’ve got 237 other emails to go, and they just want to know, what can I do in 5 minutes right now to help? The more you’re able to say explicitly and concisely, “This is my situation, here’s the question I have, or here’s specifically what I’d like from you,” you’d be surprised how many people will respond positively and help you. Then from there, a month or two later, you’ll have another question or another idea, and you can send that individually.

Building that up that way is the best way to go where the relationship is based on a track record of them being able to help you. They’ll tell you if they can’t. That’s my approach, find people that you look up to, hustle to get their contact info, especially in this world of startups, you’d be surprised how many CEOs, their email address is their first name at the name of the company dot com. Get in touch with people, and have a particular, short ask, and more than likely, you’ll get the help looking for. Then just keep doing that.

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Ruth Mesfun

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