According to the Npower and CitiBank report “Breaking Through and Rising Up,” women of color make up less than 10 percent of the computing workforce.
Over the next 10 years, jobs in computer and mathematical occupations are expected to grow by 13 percent, creating 600,000 jobs. Npower and CitiBank’s report encourages focus on training programs that can expand the talent pipeline and engage women of color.
In the territory, there are already training opportunities for women of color to begin their tech journeys. UVI’s Research and Technology Park started an accelerator program they hope will help more Virgin Islanders get involved in technology careers. The accelerator program aims to help tech ideas transform into tech businesses, and 80 percent of the businesses the program accepts are local businesses.
The park also had plans to start a Women in Tech program, before the coronavirus stopped it, where women in technology could have a comfortable space to work and share opportunities once a month. They may still start a similar program, but virtually, in the near future.
The Source spoke to women of color from the V.I. in the technology field about their career paths and how they think more women in the territory can get involved in tech.
Rashida Hodge is a transformational technology executive, artificial intelligence innovator and cultural diversity advocate from St. Thomas.
She left St. Thomas to go to school at North Carolina State in pursuit of an engineering degree. After she received her master’s degree, she joined IBM as part of a leadership program for individuals with advanced degrees and strong potential.
Since IBM is such a large company, she felt that she didn’t have to leave the company to get different types of work experience. Hodge has international experience, having spent six months in China and three and a half years in Bratislava, Slovenia.
She moved up in the company quickly, she said, because, “I’ve been willing to take risks, I’ve been able to take on new and exciting opportunities.”
One of the challenges she faced on her way to establishing herself in the technology field is that she didn’t grow up around engineers; she only knew of one growing up in the Virgin Islands. A high school teacher noticed her potential in math and science and suggested that she could be an engineer. Then her mother found a summer program at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.
“That program was great because it showed me all the different engineering disciplines that were there; it talked about what you actually do once you graduate and actually in a job,” Hodge said. Going into the program she thought she would be a computer engineer, but she soon realized that she wanted to be an industrial engineer.
When Hodge got into college, she had to really decide what she wanted to do with her career and learn about the industry and different companies in the technology field. She said she is grateful for the amazing mentors that “helped me navigate that process, in terms of here are your opportunities, here’s what you can do, here’s what your career trajectory looks like.”
She spoke of a moment that increased her confidence. After a meeting where she was reserved, a senior vice-president told her, “You’re always going to be a woman, you’re always going to black, but you’re always going to be great, and you take your seat.” According to Hodge, it was one of the most defining moments for her because she realized, “If I’m here you’re going to hear my voice; I will never be silenced.”
She said she thinks one issue for Virgin Islanders in the the technology field is that, “You can’t be, what you can’t see.” She said the V.I. should “highlight individuals, even if they left the territory, that have pursued these careers and highlight them to young Virgin Islanders that this is a possibility and this is an option. We have to ensure that there are programs that are shown in the schools, and [students] know that technology is a career that generates wealth.”
After she moved to California, Hodge learned firsthand that exposure to new opportunities can lead to growth. She is now a limited founding partner of How Women Invest, an investment firm focused on women and minorities. The founding partners are a community of industry leaders investing together to shift the venture capital landscape.
Hodge said she started working with UVI’s Research and Technology Park because she felt her situation was “the luck of the draw,” and she wants children from the Virgin Islands to know these careers are there and that people from the V.I. have found success in them.
She donated to help fund a STEM Program in the Virgin Islands. “I am so thrilled to begin to open my philanthropic efforts closer to home and help open the possibilities and imagination to young Virgin Islanders,” she said.
Getting kids involved at a younger age will expose them to opportunities and will give them more time to explore what’s in the field, she said.
Hodge has formed an endowment scholarship, Real Hope for NextGen Engineers, at her alma mater, and there will be a building on the campus named after her mother, Karen Hodge.
Andrea Russell from St. Croix works for Google as retail global lead with expertise in product management and strategy, data management and online advertising. She first got into the tech field after a friend suggested that she join her at an advertising technology company.
Russell started doing campaign management and worked her way up to a product management role in her three and a half years at that company. Over that time she met people who taught her the skills she needed to be successful in the field, and she has now worked at Google for more than five and a half years.
Russell said one of her main challenges was believing that she could do it, and that there was a lack of people like her in the field. “I was really interested in the internet. I did not think I was smart enough. I did not think I was good enough at math. I didn’t think that I could do it, so I think that would be a huge deterrent. There was no else like me from St. Croix or from the V.I. that I knew that had been in those fields, so I didn’t even think that was possible,” she said.
A key step to breaking into the field, Russell said, is making sure people have the right experience, which can be gained through internships or work opportunities during college and high school. She said she felt like she was playing catch up after not really being aware of those opportunities in her college years.
To create more opportunities in the field for women of color, she said, men in power need to see the lack of women of color in tech as a problem and work on solutions.
Also, she said, making sure kids in the Virgin Islands have access to STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics – programs will help.
Russell’s advice to high school students in the Virgin Islands who are looking pursue a career in technology is, “You might get a few’s nos before you get to a yes. But it is important to keep pushing and keep believing in yourself … reach out to other people who are doing what you want to do and have them give you some advice.”
Russell is a mentor for Accelerate VI, an RT Park sponsor program. “As I get more knowledge, more experience, I like to lift others up with me; that mentorship is really important,” she said.
She said she has formed a rich relationship with her mentees. “I can share my expertise and my knowledge, and they can share problems and what they are thinking about and we can both benefit,” she said.
Allison Bourne-Vanneck is an owner of Ocean Prospects, one of the businesses in the VI Accelerate Program. Ocean Prospects is a tech startup that could help athletes in the territory and the greater Caribbean region get in contact with college coaches through an app.
As a former college athlete, she said she felt “the heartache of trying to get in touch with college coaches in high school.” One of her deepest passions is to help the next generation of athletes.
“I have this idea of utilizing our digital space and our technology and really just trying to empower athletes to feel like they connect with the coaches in a way that they know they’re being recruited in ways they haven’t been before,” Bourne-Vanneck said.
She said she is very appreciative of the VI Accelerate program. “It has definitely been a journey putting together a startup as a new founder in this tech space and joining the RT Park’s accelerator program. That has given me so many valuable tools and it has been very empowering, to be part of a program where I know that my dream and my company is being supported,” she said.
Bourne-Vanneck learned about the VI Accelerate after she bounced her tech idea off a few friends and one suggested that she look into the program.
The mentors that Bourne-Vanneck had the opportunity to work with, she said, are “so inspiring, accomplished, knowledgeable, and hardworking.”
“People who can expand our minds and help us visualize ourselves accomplishing what we want to accomplish are gold, and that’s one of the greatest things about this accelerator experience, being able to pair with other women and color in tech and the mentors in general,” she said.
“We need more women of color in tech,” Bourne-Vanneck said. She said she knows that as the founder of a tech business she will have to help lift up others. “We have got to keep going, We have to keep encouraging, inspiring, supporting and show them they can do it as well.”
Her advice to any young person in the Virgin Islanders interested in pursuing tech as a career is, “Go for it, and just know that if this is something that you want to do, you have to keep believing in yourself no matter what. Because part of this experience and journey is you’re going to have those moments where your wondering if you can do it, and things are not happening as fast as you want them to. Use those moments to build your faith and dig your heels into the ground.”
In terms of the Virgin Islands, Bourne-Vanneck said, “The more educational opportunities that we can offer our youth in the field of tech, the better.” She added it needs to be fun and accessible. After-school programs, summer camps and more classes in the school system are all potential ways to make opportunities happen.
Bourne-Vanneck said she is very grateful for the opportunity, mentors, friends and people in the territory that are excited about what she is doing. “When there are people that also believe in what you do and are excited about what you do, it’s really the best thing.”