Being a Unicorn Working for Another Unicorn

In this talk, I’ll walk you through my journey as a woman of color in tech and how I got to where I am today as a software engineer at a high growth unicorn startup.

🌐 https://2019.jsconf.eu/frances-coronel/being-a-unicorn-working-for-another-unicorn.html

Being a Unicorn Working for Another Unicorn

Intro 🔗︎

Hello everyone - I’m Frances, a software engineer at Slack on the Customer Acquisition team.

First off, I’d like to admit that I struggled a lot with this talk. The last time I gave anywhere close to a “personal” talk where I talked at length about my own life was when I was speaking to a group of black and brown students through SMASH Academy at Stanford University.

For those who don’t know, SMASH Academy is a free of cost, STEM-intensive college preparatory program in the US for underrepresented high school students of color that is run in partnership with several universities, including UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis, and Stanford University.

So there I was in this huge classroom in an older Stanford building and I was giving these students an overview of my journey into the tech industry and listing off a laundry list of what I perceived as my key accomplishments and obstacles I had faced throughout that journey.

I’m so used to giving technical talks at conferences, Meetups or events like these on topics like Progressive Web Apps, TypeScript or HTML & CSS - things I know a lot about and speak to without needing to feel vulnerable.

And even though I received positive feedback from the talk, at times throughout this talk, I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to talk to these students.

Sure, I was a minority female in the tech industry. But Alicia had let me know before the talk that all the students accepted to SMASH Academy were required to be first-generation (meaning neither of their parents had received a degree) and from a low-income family (meaning they qualified for the free or reduced lunch program at their schools).

I identified as neither of first-gen or low-income but I recognize that the lack of diversity in tech from the socio-economic representation to demographic representation across all underrepresented populations is a very visible and well-known issue.

The Past 🔗︎

This brings me to my past. How exactly DID I get to that stage or even this one?

I am the eldest daughter of Francisco & Rosa Coronel. My parents both immigrated to the states from Peru in their early 20’s and came here to study. They both studied math at some point and always instilled the importance of education to my siblings and I. We were your typical middle class family chasing the American dream.

But growing up in Virginia, there were not many Peruvian let alone Latinx people. At times, I felt like an anomaly because of this. The self likes to fit and see itself replicated - to belong. This confirms its existence, importance and power in society.

But looking back, I am grateful I was usually the only Latina in class. If I grew up in a place in California where there is an abundance of people like me, perhaps I would have felt less compelled to seek out the perspectives of those who reminded me of myself - the other outsiders most Americans had limited perspective into.

In middle school, I was best friends with Dakota who was Cherokee and Elisabeth who was half Polish and half Spanish. I gossiped with Yasmina - a Muslim woman and Manell - a Phillippino woman. I would ride rollercoasters with Anthony - a Dominican and Alexandra who was Romanian. In high school, I got asked out to prom by one of my best friends at the time - Emmanuel - a black Jewish man.

From those rich perspectives, I grew more and more pride not just my friend’s different cultures but for my own Peruvian heritage as well. All their stories made me into who I am today - a woman proudly embraces her Latinx identity and those of others who would call themselves underepresented, knowing full well the negative stereotypes around Latinos in the United States were just meant to flatten my experience and often represented an incomplete story.

I ended up following the traditional path of getting into software engineering. Despite the fact my friends or family knowing very little about computer science, I started getting interested in how computers worked starting in 2013 and made the somewhat arbitrary descision right then and there to study computer science.

Out of high school, I got a scholarship to study abroad at Jacobs University Bremen in Bremen, Germany which boasted a student body that came from over 50 different countries. I studied computer science there and after a semester, I continued to study CS at Hampton University, an HBCU (historically black college/university) located in Hampton, VA.

After graduating from Hampton, I attended Cornell Tech in New York City where over 70% of my class body were international students. I graduated with a Master’s in Computer Science in 2017 and have been paid to code since 2015.

Being surrounded by people of color throughout my entire journey of studying, from kindergarten to grad school, was never a problem. It was actually finding other Latinx people interested in technology like I was.

You can imagine my surprise when I started working for the tech industry and I found out just how rare someone like me actually was.

The Present 🔗︎

This brings me to my current situation.

Today, I’m a software engineer on the Customer Acquisition team at Slack. I work with amazing people like Mina Markham and I’m blessed that Slack treats me well and cares a lot about diversity and inclusion. In many ways, by being a software engineer, I have found my ikigai - or my reason for living.

Slack as it happens is a unicorn.

The term “unicorn” was coined in the tech industry because researchers found that the statistical likelihood of a tech startup becoming valued at 1 billion dollars or more is about 1%.

And it just so happens that the Bureau of Labor reported in 2016 that only 1% of women in tech identify as Latina. From that same report, we could see that 25% of women held computing occupations and that 3% identify as black, 5% identify as Asian and 16% identify as white.

This isn’t just a statistic for me - it represent an unsettling hum underlying my career as a student and now as a full-time employee - loneliness breeds isolation and isolation breeds insecurity. It’s a feeling too many people of color can relate to within the tech industry and over the years, these statistics have not gotten any better.

So this is how you can be a unicorn - or a Latina software engineer such as myself and can work for another unicorn like the enterprise startup Slack — which is worth well over a billion dollars. That is why I can identify as a unicorn working for another unicorn.

However, I have no desire for the situation to remain this way as my existence in tech shouldn’t have to be this rare and magical event.

Instead, I’d like to band together with other unicorns so that we can lead, influence and inspire the next generation of minority women to not just break into but also prosper.

The lack of representation in my industry has been my greatest motivation - I want to lead by example, pave the way, overcome barriers.

Together, I believe we can transform ourselves from these mythical creatures to the more common but magnificent stallions.

And there are small things that all of us can do to bring us closer to this reality. Sometimes, it’s as simple as changing a picture.

For example, every now and then, I will apply to open CFPs for tech conference. There was this conference called CascadiaJS and on the CFP page, I noticed right away this young spectackled looking man who reminded me a little bit of images I’ve seen of Bill Gates when he was younger.

Changing the narrative with just a picture is an easier way to create a safer space.

But I have found myself going the extra step.

I am now a board member for Techqueria, a nonprofit representing the largest Latinx in Tech community in the United States. When it comes to the tech sector, the Latinx population only represents 3% of the workforce. Working in the tech industry allows for immediate wealth generation for individuals and their families as well as the entrepreneurial innovative impact that can shape society at large. As the second largest and fastest growing ethnic minority in the US, we are primed to be at the forefront of progressive advancement, utilizing technology as a tool to build equity. Latinx in America are a force of untapped potential.

I also created Tech Queens, the first and only podcast to focus on exclusively sharing the stories and advice by women of color in tech. Through hosting that podcast, I have heard the challenges of living an identify wholly and freely in the face of a homogenous tech culture where cis white men were the ones in power but really where aren’t they. Many could relate to experiences where they felt the pressure to adapt their personalities to fit in, where they held their tongue rather than speak up about something inappropriate for fear of losing their jobs, and/or where they felt the need to “prove themselves” and show that they really belonged.

And now I’m in the process of creating a course on CSS for one of the largest online learning platforms in the world. I have come full circle. When I was first starting to learn how to code and watching videos online, I was wondering if I would ever find a video where I would see someone who looked like me teaching me how to code. And now, 6 years later, I have become that very person I had yearned for.

The Future 🔗︎

So what will the future look like?

Technology is evolving at an alarming rate and businesses and educational institutions need to keep pace with the changes as they become the new norms. Without a diversity of voices and perspectives in technology, we run the risk of gender bias in board rooms and gender bias in artificial intelligence with the unintended consequence of errors entering algorithms.

But there will be always be someone who wants to take away our humanity and leave an uglier picture - a picture that is not accurate. If everyone in here lives out loud, we can overcome the hatred and expand everyone’s lives.

Outro 🔗︎

Tech companies must reflect the communities they serve. If not, they risk alienating the users most responsible for their success.

The intersectional identities in this room make us a powerful force but we need to continue to support one another so we create more leaders who continue to inspire younger generations.

One of the biggest challenges that Latinos have is ensuring that our voices are heard and represented. We represent approximately 17% of the U.S. population, yet less than 2% of CEOs are Hispanic and approximately 3.5% of Fortune 500 board seats are held by Latinos. In order to change the narrative, Latinx leaders need to ensure we focus our energy on raising up the next generation of Latinx leaders and actively create opportunities for them. Our voices will be heard only when we have an adequate representation of Latinx in senior-level positions. This is why I’m deeply committed to nurturing and fostering the next generation of leaders, and partnering with allies across the industry to ensure we are included and also feel like we belong.

Regardless, I know that whatever happens next, it will be a marvelous time to be alive.

Thank you.

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