November 27, 2015

Vanessa Mason, Founder

What made you decide to work in tech?

I got into tech somewhat accidentally. I loved biology and chemistry in high school and started college planning to complete a MD/PhD after graduating. After working in a lab doing breast cancer research, I decided that I still wanted something scientific but a pursuit that involved people. I ended up majoring in psychology and starting my career in public health. Over the course of my career, I shifted to global health, which necessarily involved technology given my interests in systems change and scalable impact.

What was an obstacle you faced and how did you overcome that obstacle?

Starting my consulting business has been the hardest thing I have ever done. It’s challenging because of the external obstacles in finding and securing clients and the internal obstacles in shifting to see myself as an entrepreneur. I couldn’t do this without an amazing support system of family and friends who are there for me in good and bad times. So I guess I haven’t really overcome the obstacle so much as found ways to navigate the obstacles that work for me.

What is your experience being a POC in Tech?

Being a person of color in tech is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you will encounter bias. As much as you can try to prepare yourself, it will still throw you for a loop. On the other hand, because you are different than many of your peers and people really senior in the industry, it’s opportunity for your hard work and ideas to stand out even more. There is a Toni Morrison quote that always resonates with me when thinking about people of color in tech: “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” -Toni Morrison

What was your perception about the tech industry before entering it, what is your perception now?

I thought that I didn’t belong because I didn’t learn how to code and I didn’t want to learn how to code. I’d done enough programming while taking statistics in college and grad school to know that I COULD learn but my interests and strengths didn’t align well with pursuing coding as a career. Once I started working in tech, I saw that the industry needs so many skills: design, sales, marketing, content development and several others. Odds are, that if there is something you love doing, you can do it in the tech industry.

What are three tips you can give to high school/college students who want to enter tech?

1. Keep your eye on the prize. You can spend a lot of time doing work of navigating bias and trying to prove yourself, but that isn’t your job. To a large extent, success in tech is based on what you accomplish. Focus on your performance and accomplishments, and don’t allow microaggressions and other issues related to bias to deter you from your goals.

2. Practice radical self-care. Being successful in any career is difficult and there will be days and times where you start to wonder if it’s worth the struggles that you will encounter. Workout, eat right, talk to family and friends, pray, meditate…do whatever keeps you happy and whole so that you can achieve your goals.

3. Network, network, network. Succeeding in tech is lot about who you know in addition to what you know. There are countless programs for youth interested in tech: Black Girls Code, CODE 2040, Yes We Code, Level the Playing Field Institute, etc. These programs offer training and internships where you will be able to meet other youth who will be your future coworkers as well as people of color who currently work in tech who can be mentors as well as connections to future job opportunities.

Ruth Mesfun

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