Shekinah Smith is an Associate Front End Developer at Red Ventures. Before joining RV, she was a graduate student in Elon’s Interactive Media program. Outside of work she enjoys playing with her dog, Gretel, and exploring the craft beer scene in Charlotte.
Back in the spring of 2014, I was on the verge of finishing my graduate program at Elon University. I began the hunt for my first job as a front end developer. I’d spent the last year learning the fundamentals of coding in an effort to shift dreams from being the black, female Steven Spielberg to becoming the black, female Steve Jobs.
I began my interview process at Red Ventures and, after surviving three grueling rounds of interviews, I received an offer to start in August. At the time I was hired, the lack of diversity within the tech industry was becoming a major topic of conversation. Companies like Facebook and Google had released discouraging diversity reports. Twitter later reported that only 2% of their employees were black and 10% of their tech related jobs were occupied by women. I was aware that I may be the only black person and the only woman in my position once I started the job, but I thought four years in undergrad as a film major would prepare me for the personal challenges that lay ahead.
I was wrong.
I started the job and sure enough — I was the only developer on the creative team who was a woman and not only a woman, a black woman. I felt like a unicorn and I was intimidated.
As the most junior member on a team full of white males, I struggled to find my voice. I feared sharing my opinions in a large group of my colleagues. I feared my ideas would be shot down or dismissed. I knew that in order for me to progress within the company, I would have to conquer this insecurity.
My first priority was fostering relationships with members of my immediate team and then branching out to other developers within the organization. By creating positive relationships with the men on my team, I realized the fact that I was woman, and not only a woman, a black woman, didn’t seem matter to any of them. I realized I had more in common with them than I thought. Developing friendships based on video games, superheroes and craft beer made me feel more comfortable asking questions and expressing my opinions.
I was not only able to learn immensely from my teammates, but also create an open dialogue that allowed for a free exchange of ideas.
I came to realize the value in my perspective. Countless articles have explored how diverse perspectives in the workplace have been shown to increase innovation within companies. I knew that at times my perspective or approach to a problem could be vastly different from the other members of my team. I was constantly encouraged by those around me to share my ideas, and that encouragement engendered a more fearless attitude within me about expressing my ideas, even when they went against the grain.
In the two years I’ve been working at Red Ventures, I’ve seen more women in tech create programs across the nation to introduce young girls to coding at an earlier age. Programs like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code continue to grow. I have even volunteered to speak at coding camps created by a local developer called INTech. My hope is by inspiring the next generation of female developers, the personal challenges I struggled with starting my career are challenges they will never have to face.
RV Creative, or “Class of 2016”?
As the Red Ventures team has grown in the last few years, I am no longer the only female developer on the creative team and our team has become more racially diverse. However, I am still a minority, and there are things I struggle with in regard to my “blackness” in this space. One in particular is the nationwide focus on police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. Last week, watching the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile traumatized myself and my peers of color. We found solace in each other in the days afterward. We struggled with how to deal with the hurt we felt as black people, and with walking into a space each day where it seemed like everyone else around us was oblivious to what was happening.
I tweeted this:
I’m at work angry and sad, cried on the way into the office but I can’t express that with the majority of people around me.
— Shekinah Smith (@_SheSmith) July 7, 2016
To my surprise, I got a text from a friend at work, who happens to be white, saying that he saw my tweet and was there for me if I needed to talk. In that moment, I realized that although some of my teammates didn’t look like me, they too were feeling the anxiety and hurt surrounding the events that were happening across the nation.
There is still a lot of work to do in the tech industry with regards to increasing diversity by recruiting and retaining diverse employees, but I’ve truly seen a progression during in my time here at Red Ventures, and I will continue to use my voice by sharing my perspective.