In Episode 79, Sherrell Dorsey, Founder & CEO of The Plug and Author of Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us, dives into an insightful conversation with Melinda about the future of work and strategies for supporting inclusive innovation. They discuss important ways for people from marginalized communities to thrive and actively take part in the tech-driven economy, whether that is by reskilling, upskilling, fighting coded bias, or getting started in tech.
- Learn more about Sherrell Dorsey
- Learn more about Sherrell’s work at The Plug
- Read Sherrell’s book, “Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us”
- Read more about McKinsey&Company’s research on automation, employment, and productivity
- Read the book, “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” by Cathy O’Neil
- Read the Pew Research Center’s article on Gender pay gap in US in 2020
- Read AAUW’s article on systemic racism and the gender pay gap
- Watch Warren Buffet’s documentary, “Becoming Warren Buffett”
- Watch Joy Buolamwini’s TED Talk on coded bias
- Watch the documentary on coded bias
- Learn more about Career Karma
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “I think that the one area in which folks of color (and why I even named the book ‘Upper Hand’) is [to] design and be strategic about your moves so that you can maximize the resources that you need to be economically influential within your communities because (again) no one is going to come save you and no one is going to give something to you that takes away from them. So, better equip yourself and repair yourself to get the top dollar, to get the great job, to get access to education in a way that does not economically impact you, your family, your future, or your generational wealth— apply all these great principles so that you can move in a way that you need to move.”
- “Money is a very intimidating process especially if you come from an environment where that’s not the primary conversation in your household or what you are being paid is far more than you ever thought you would be paid. And this is why ‘pay transparency’ is important— or at least an ethical commitment to saying— ‘Listen, if our price range is at the top, then that’s exactly what we’re going to pay across the board…, we’re not going to let people negotiate themselves out of some cash.’ And now as a business person, it’s probably the wrong attitude to have, but when we think about retention…, part of it is paying people what they’re worth.”
- “What was fascinating to me was that we have these large institutions that did not take hold of and partner with— in a substantial way or invest in— the community’s success as they were growing… [So] I wanted to think of what can be useful today for Black and Brown communities to not get left behind once again in this next wave of Metaverse, Web3, rising in community quality, housing…, how can we start thinking of unlocking information access?”
- “You just never stop learning. You keep creating strong networks. You constantly continue to subscribe to the kinds of information and publications that will support you, you attend the conferences if you can afford them (or a lot more companies do grants or free tickets sometimes for BIPOC folks). There are some different ways, but I think [the] more important [thing] is to not be intimidated, to know that you can find your place…”
Founder and CEO, The Plug | Author of Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us
Sherrell Dorsey is the founder and CEO of The Plug—a digital news and insights platform covering the Black innovation economy. Her work has been featured in VICE, The Washington Post, Seattle Times, The Information, and more. Sherrell has been a contributing writer for notable publications like Columbia Journalism Review, Fast Company, Black Enterprise, and others. In 2018, she was named an inspiring woman in tech by CNet, and the most creative people in business by AdWeek in 2021.
Prior to launching The Plug, Dorsey served as a marketing manager for companies like Uber and Google Fiber. She holds a Master’s degree in data journalism from Columbia University. She is the author of Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us published by Wiley.
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another, and to take action to be more inclusive, and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder, and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right, let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. Today I’m speaking with Sherrell Dorsey, Founder, and CEO of The Plug and Author of Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us. Sherrell has been working for a long time in the tech industry to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in a number of ways. Today, we’ll be talking about the future of work and inclusive innovation.
SHERRELL: Thank you so much for having me, Melinda.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. My pleasure, I’m glad we’re having a chance to have this conversation.
MELINDA: So we usually start by just talking about your story. If you could just say a bit about your story: where did you grow up, how did you end up doing the work you do now?
SHERRELL: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a Seattle native, born and raised in Seattle, Washington. It’s sort of that typical Black family story of how Black folks migrated from the historic Deep South, into the North. So my grandfather left Birmingham at the age of 13, moved to Detroit, Michigan, and ended up in Seattle after a three-day bus ride for a job at Boeing, after he got out of the vocational training program. At the time in the late 50s, he was one of just a couple thousand Black employees hired at Boeing, as companies started to hire more Black workers in spaces they previously shunned any kind of ethnic minorities. His love for technology, electronics, and gadgets trickled down into our family as he purchased our first computers.
I grew up in a single-parent household, so my grandfather played a tremendous role in influencing my life. He was kind of the designated babysitter when we were sick, he came to pick us up, he took us to camp, and things like that. My mom was the fueler of political engagement. We would go to Barnes and Nobles on the weekend and read books, and really gave me this grounded sense of self in a city that, again, was primarily White.
I got to be part of a really cool tech training program called the Technology Access Foundation in Seattle, which essentially took intercity kids and taught us about technology, how to code, gave us scholarships for college, and allowed us to get internships at tech companies. So I spent my four summers in high school working at Microsoft being paid, which allowed me, of course, to save cash, pay for school clothes, and eventually buy books in college.
So I have a very interesting story and journey that really starts with intentional adults in the community, and I’ve tried to triple that into the way that I’ve navigated my life and my career. Building a publication like The Plug, which really serves to document, report on, and drive the conversation to the trends of what’s happening across the Black innovation economy, and in spaces and places that are typically not seen as places for innovation.
As you mentioned earlier, I also authored the book that just came out in January, with Wiley, called Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us. I talk through my story of growing up in Seattle, of my grandfather, and also just getting here today, really trying to build new narratives of what genius looks like and what innovation looks like.
MELINDA: Awesome. I don’t know if you know this, but I grew up in Seattle as well, first Oakland, and then South Seattle. So I went to Franklin High School.
SHERRELL: I graduated from Franklin, so we are Quaker Girls. I didn’t know that, I love it.
MELINDA: One of the things in your book that really struck me was, I will say I left in the 90s when gentrification was just starting to change the city, and Starbucks and Microsoft were just starting to take off. So thank you for writing about the city and the changes to the city, because there’s not a lot of stuff out there about that. I mean, there are several cities around the country and around the world that changed due to gentrification, of course, and it has transformed communities; the way money, opportunity, and innovation flowed to some communities and completely skipped over and blocked out others. I will say that Seattle is kind of known for those few empires that are built by those few White men. I think we’ll dive into that a bit more in a moment.
But I do want to take a bit of time to just have you talk a little bit about a few insights on The Plug because I think those are really important elements of the tech industry that are moving and pushing the tech industry forward. Wayne and I have been fans of that work for a long time. So can you just tell us a little bit more about the work that you do and how it can help anybody who’s listening?
SHERRELL: I definitely hope that it pushes the industry forward. I think that the last few years have really been about how do we cover and look at businesses and investment funds and ecosystems that are led by Black and Brown people, that do not focus solely on the fact that they are Black and Brown. Because a lot of media narrative in journalism thus far has been kind of catalyzing this magical minority narrative that just feels very inauthentic and almost dehumanizing. It’s like “Oh, Black people don’t have their own stories or their own families or their own experiences that are just as interesting and fascinating and thought-leading as others.”
As someone who had been working in tech for several different startups, a lot of the journalistic literature felt very vapid; it felt intellectually lazy. When Black founders were covered, even women founders for that matter had been covered, it was done in a way that felt very aspirational, but was not necessarily critical.
Again, we both grew up in Seattle. So the Bill Gates of the world or Jeff Bezos, that was kind of the key marker for what genius actually looks like. It wasn’t like my grandfather who rewired his whole house, built a second floor, would help me build robotic arms for science projects, and created an entire streaming infrastructure so that when people came to the front door, he didn’t have to go downstairs unless he saw their face on the video. Like, he created that himself before that became a mainstay in how we function in our households today. But my grandfather wasn’t kind of a visual bastion of what that looks like. As I mentioned, the literature was so vapid when we got to the storytelling with Black and Brown founders.
So just out of curiosity, and through the nature of me working in an industry where I was desperate to find additional community, like the one that I had when I was working at Microsoft. I got the Blacks at Microsoft Scholarship. I had mentors who were test engineers or lead engineers or product managers, or what have you. I was trained by Black and Brown and gay and lesbian and what have you, mentors. Yet, when I looked to the literature on tech to stay on top of the latest trends, it was always a quote from a White guy about what’s coming next in the future. But communities like mine – I grew up in the Rainier Beach Skyway area, so South Seattle, went to Franklin High School – the Rainier Valley and Rainier Beach communities were very, very diverse, just even geographically speaking; Eastern African, Mexican, South Pacific Islander.
Yet, no one ever asked us – at least when I was reading the New York Times, and I was reading Bloomberg, and I was reading Wall Street Journal – no one was going to those committees to talk about what the future of work looked like. I mean, maybe for good reason, I’m not sure. But I felt that if I could create new narratives and start asking critical questions, can I fundamentally help change the conversation? So I was freelancing on the side of working, pitching the publications, getting published in places like Best Company, Room, Next City, CityLab, which I think at the time was under the purview of The Atlantic. I got to a place where I started to build a reputation as the Black girl tech journalist, kind of popping up at conferences and finding ways to get on stage to interview people.
Then at some point, I grew frustrated with Black media publications which were not covering tech in a substantive way. It was kind of more consumer-focused, like what is the latest gadget? We all need tech reviews; I look to a tech review before I purchase an electronic. But the critical nature of the kind of business that was being built in the technology that was being built, I didn’t see enough information that would be compelling for me to pay attention to.
So that’s really how The Plug emerged, through a newsletter. Just a very innocuous newsletter that I would pull together at 5 am before going to work, detailing my adventures and who I was speaking to. It was community-centered. Eventually, after seeing some pretty decent growth and starting to get sponsorship and advertising, I decided that maybe there is a way that I could build this into a platform that can be akin to, like, a Bloomberg; something data-driven. Because we weren’t studying and doing research on what was happening with Black tech companies in a substantive way; we weren’t looking at and doing an analysis of Black-owned co-working spaces.
So I went to grad school and I started doing a lot of that work. I really used grad school just to take a 10-month time out to build up my company in content. Then people just continued to gravitate toward it and say: “This is needed, thank you for your work.” I never really planned to create a company from this, if I can be honest with you, Melinda. I was bored, I was curious, and I continued to stay curious about what’s next.
Even now, I’m in this space of what can we do that is compelling – that moves media forward, that moves journalism forward, that moves communities forward – and also continues to inform the leaders that are thinking in an inclusive way about how they’re making investments, about how they are partnering, about how they are recruiting? How can we be of much more use to the enterprise market, as we’re starting to turn our attention to what has been lacking in our thinking about Black and Brown people in business overall?
MELINDA: So the book is, in some ways, a continuation of that work. Let’s dive into your book. First, can you just give an overview of the book: what it’s about and who it’s for?
SHERRELL: Absolutely. So I wrote a book, it’s called Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us. It’s a very pointed title because I felt that especially going home to Seattle, seeing all the changes. Though I was born and raised in South Seattle, I spent a lot of my time in the Central District (The CD), which was a predominantly Black neighborhood. As I was doing research for my book, I found out that pre-1970, that square mile area was designated a redlined community, as ethnic minorities were not allowed in certain places or allowed to purchase certain homes in certain places.
So when I was coming up, The CD was predominantly Black; Black businesses, Black restaurants, gift stores, banks. Most of the folks who had migrated from the South to Seattle were in the Central District; more Black folks and Black families owned the properties. But as the city continued to grow and companies started to set up shop, Microsoft expanded, The CD, the inner city was like most cities pre-1960 and 1970 I believe, before what is known as White flight happened, where White people weren’t getting access to resources and subsidies to live in the suburbs or purchase homes in the suburbs. Whereas, the G. I. Bill for the men who came back from the war provided access and opportunity to two and three-bedroom homes in Levittown or what have you, or whatever your city’s akin neighborhood was, then White families left the cities to the undesirables; undesirables being ethnic minorities. So think about The CD as symbolic of all the things that happened across America from access.
So now, as the downtown started to grow and to proliferate, well, it was like: “Oh, we want to now live, work, and play. But we’ve already left all these other people here in the middle of the city, and they have a five-minute bus ride to downtown.” So now the reverse started to happen; rising prices, more development, and retired families having to be pushed out of these areas that were now closer in proximity to the amenities that all of a sudden were now desirable, once investment went into those neighborhoods and communities.
So for me, watching this take place – growing up as a kid in the mid-90s to early 2000s before I left for college – it was devastating. It was devastating because, by an association of luck, my mother found a billboard poster about a program that teaches technology, and I got to be in the best part of that program and my friends did not. That enabled me and locked access for me in a way that did not serve all of my friends, because they can only take so many kids at one time.
But what was fascinating to me was that we have these large institutions that did not take hold of – and partner with – in a substantial way or invest in – the community’s success as they were growing. I spell that out a lot in Upper Hand about how it is that we were all in this city that is considered a major tech hub, but only some of us got access to opportunity? Now as you see them importing opportunity, you’re like: you couldn’t have gone across the street and helped to build that out?
So when I look back at that 20-year span, I wanted to think of what can be useful today for Black and Brown communities to not get left behind once again, in this next wave of Metaverse, Web3, rising income inequality, housing, things like that? How can we start thinking of and unlocking information access?
So my book is a part memoir where I tell the story. I start the story with my grandfather’s story, because that is through-lined to my story. I share my story, and then I go into what’s ahead; I share definitions of new technologies. I dedicate this book specifically to my grandfather, but I also dedicate it to Mrs. Smith, who I met in a church basement. She was an older woman in Charlotte, North Carolina, who was raising her grandson. I was on a panel and she asked me: “I know that this technology stuff is really important and significant, but I have no idea how to help my grandson get into this or navigate it.” So this is the book that I could give to Mrs. Smith and say: “Here are some resources to help you get started, here are some solutions.”
I do an entire chapter on the future jobs and the salaries and the prerequisites, and it really is a navigation guide. It’s a conversation starter: from money, to career, to internships, to digital divide, and the low-cost internet options families can choose from. Everything that I’ve been writing and covering over the last, let’s say, decade, has really been packed into this book as a resource.
MELINDA: Awesome. I read that part in your introduction about Mrs. Smith. As we worked on bringing Tech Inclusion conferences to different cities around the US and actually around the world, we found really striking differences. Like, we started in San Francisco and then went to New York, and that is one thing. But then we started to go to Detroit, Chicago, even Melbourne in Australia and London, too. There was a clear divide between access to resources and understanding of the tech industry, even around what are those entry points into the industry. We found so many people that had very similar stories to Mrs. Smith, that lacked access based on race and ethnicity, and I would say disability as well. It’s super important, I’m glad you wrote it. Could you in broad strokes say what does the future of work looks like, what is that?
SHERRELL: I think there are several different features, as there are several different realities and several different worlds that we live in, depending on where we’re from, what kind of education we have, what kind of access that we have. I think the future of work, probably the darkest explanation, is one where there are those who are being served and those who design the tools for those to serve. I think that that’s just the reality of people who’ve been shuttered out of certain economic opportunities. So when I say economic opportunities, that’s across the board: from transportation, to food access, to basic healthcare. We see it now, having spent almost three years now in a pandemic, where basic access to resources really is still a challenge. So getting work still continues to look like a gig economy in order to make ends meet.
I think that on the other side of that are the opportunities that exist for folks like me and you, where we can have a series of entrepreneurial endeavors, create value in any room, and get invitations to create values in those rooms. Our jobs are essentially secured, especially from a remote perspective, and that will be very easy to navigate for the most part. But again, a lot of people do not necessarily have those capabilities.
Then I think there’s this third tier that’s emerging, where we have a crop of folks who are starting to get access to information, who are doing things like micro-credentialing to get into these new jobs of the future. That, for me, is where I try to keep my focus on: what are some of the ways that you can hack your space in the future of work, being able to live life on your terms and design that experience for yourself? Amid all of the ongoing and rising challenges we will have, just from a sole infrastructure standpoint and a policy standpoint, on the base level, how can you continue to provide for your family and provide a strong foundation and education for your family?
That’s not the typical definition for most people, depending on what industry they’re coming from. But I see it very clearly, even just with the rising housing costs now, from major cities to smaller cities. Some rents have gone up by 40%. The average one-bedroom at this point is $1,600, and I don’t know what kind of family is able to afford a $4,000/month three-bedroom place to live. There are just some really harsh realities along with all the cool technologies that everyone is talking about, for sure.
MELINDA: Yeah. You talk about robots and automation as a part of that, and I think that’s important, the need for reskilling and upskilling, in the future of work. Can you talk a little bit about what that means, particularly for people of color and communities of color?
SHERRELL: Yes, absolutely. So when we talk about upskilling and reskilling, there’s a McKinsey report that came out in 2018, that really talked about the impact of automation and these robots in more simpler terms, that will be replacing certain kinds of jobs. Black and Brown communities historically have over-indexed and service-oriented jobs, and of course, that has been by design. Lower wage, and I think during the pandemic, we called it essential worker jobs. But those kinds of jobs are where we tend to over-index and have the highest risk of being automated out of those jobs.
The great thing here is that with upskilling and this idea of getting trained for the next tier jobs and the jobs of the future, that’s really where we can also take an opportunity to stand out. So when I think about my grandfather, he got a vocational certificate and worked on aircraft, on an assembly line as an aircraft technician. He continued to be able to get enough training to move up in the ladder to continue to grow his skillset.
The tech companies, where priorly they weren’t hyper-focused on taking people on who are maybe at an entry-level without a degree, they’re now providing more incentives and more training, in even their own academies, to helping people learn the technology tools of the future, be that cloud computing or cybersecurity. We’re even seeing traditional four-year and two-year institutions start to offer executive education or bootcamps; we are a nation of boot camps. I provide several case studies of people who have developed bootcamps or have gone through bootcamps, in order to transition from maybe one career to another that doubled their salary. So that upskilling opportunity is what we’re hyper-focusing on for Black and Brown communities, and I think it’s going to definitely be the game-changer.
MELINDA: I think the piece we haven’t talked really about yet is the importance of diversity in tech. It’s clear obviously, and our listeners and watchers are well aware of its importance. There’s a sentence that really struck me in your book: “The increasing problems we face in society – like threats to our privacy online, climate change, inaccessible banking tools, and other socially inextricable challenges – won’t be solved by White guys in hoodies alone.” I wholeheartedly agree, which is part of the reason why I do this work. You also write about ethics and removing coded biases, maybe we could talk a little bit about that.
SHERRELL: Absolutely. Part of the challenge here is that technology for technology’s sake is not a panacea for some of the inequities that we face in this country. I reference a lot of the work of Dr. Joy Buolamwini, whose research on coded bias into machines and into our technology has really led and broke open the conversation for lots of discussions. For example, well, if the creators of the technology are already biased, what they’re creating is going to demonstrate and show a bias. A lot of her work at MIT was on just facial recognition software; how some software does not recognize Black or Brown people. I share examples from some research I did on even just the way that technology is used to weaponize and cause aggressive policing in communities of color, from facial recognition software programs recognizing the wrong Black person and still police going in accosting that person and wrongfully trying to convict them.
There are a lot of inherent challenges here, a lot of early in-creation and ideation challenges that are trying to be met with: how do we get more Black and Brown and females, or what have you, into the tech space to help create more of a level playing field? So that when things get created, they are created with folks of color in mind and how those technologies will actually impact folks of color.
Dr. Cathy O’Neil, I read her book actually before I decided to go to grad school, it’s called Weapons of Math Destruction. She pointed out things like credit scores and how bias can be encoded in just what kind of deals you’re offered. If an algorithm can figure out that you might be coming from a community of color, just based on your zip code or what you listen to on your streaming service, it may offer you some deals that are worse than others. I believe Facebook was sued several times for their ability to allow advertisers, let’s say realtors, to skip certain demographics when advertising, which of course violates the Fair Housing Act.
So we have to think about these very, very intently, and understand too as this technology is being developed, what are some of the checks and balances to ensure that it is an equitable processing system? That requires more than just 20 somethings in hoodies saying, we’re going to create this technology that’ll solve problems of the world, when in effect, the net effect ends up being creating a host of other problems. It’s about having policymakers, social workers, social scientists, psychologists, and other people of color in the room to co-create.
So that’s why I’m excited about people breaking open and learning about technology for the very first time. Because they’re going to bring in South Seattle, they’re going to bring in Brooklyn; they’re going to bring in all of these really cool ideas. I mean, we see that even with social media, where Black and Brown communities create the culture. When I think about the creativity that has emanated, and I think about during the height of learning about COVID, and everyone staying home and DJ D-Nice creating an entire concert series on Instagram Live, and how that moved the culture in such a different kind of way, the way that these tools are being leveraged. Imagine if we’re putting the framework of folks who can also create these tools themselves.
Imagine not just equity, like let’s all come to kumbaya and make sure everyone can do the same thing. But more importantly, what is going to be invented as a result of allowing everyone the opportunity to be able to become the best version of themselves? What happens when you don’t have to worry about survival, and you can be your greatest self? It’s called the lost Einstein theory. How many Einsteins have we lost because of discrimination? I think even Warren Buffett, in his documentary about his life, mentioned – especially with the bias against women, especially during the times that he was growing up – he’s like: “We are a country that has purposely tried to lock out half the population. How does that help us move forward?”
MELINDA: That’s an important question, indeed. I want to get to a couple of solutions, but I have one more question too. You talk a lot in the book about startups and entrepreneurship as an entry point to get into tech and to generate wealth, and that equity gap is real.
There’s a study in 2020 that showed that women earned just $0.47 to $1 compared to men in equity, and that it’s due to a lower number of total women who received equity and also the value of equity; they hold those two things. Similarly, Black people earn almost 75% less equity on average; Latinx folks earn 30% less. Similarly, you can see the same kind of disparities in salaries too.
So even when you get into the tech industry, there continues to be this gap, which continues to impact the intergenerational wealth gap. There are biases, of course, as well as an expectation gap, and then you also write about some other reasons. I’ll stop there. Can you share a little bit about where this gap comes from, from your perspective?
SHERRELL: I left so much money on the table at the startup that I’ve worked at. I mean, their stock is worth maybe a little bit something now, but I did not know. It was my first time ever getting a job where I was offered any shares, and I had nothing to compare this offer to. I didn’t know how to negotiate; I didn’t know any of those things. I didn’t really have anyone in my immediate family that had an experience like that. I could blame myself and say, you should just ask and keep asking until you get an answer. But it’s an intimidating process.
Money is a very intimidating process, especially if you come from an environment where that’s not the primary conversation in your household, or what you are being paid is far more than you ever thought you would be paid. This is why I think that pay transparency is important, or at least an ethical commitment to saying: “Listen, if our price range is at the top, then that’s what we’re going to pay, and that’s exactly what we’re going to pay across the board. Like, we’re not going to let people negotiate themselves out of some cash.”
Now as a business person, that’s probably the wrong attitude to have. But when we think about retention, I think a lot of times we try to over-engineer retention, but part of it is paying people what the hell they’re worth. If they’re not having to worry about either making ends meet or feeling as though they are not being paid comparably to their counterparts, be they male or be they White, on top of having to deal with bias and microaggressions, it’s like: “Well yeah, I’m going to go leave to the next place that will at least pay me more money.”
Just to jump in for a second, there is research that shows that most people who are paid inequitably do find out at one point or another. So you might as well be transparent about it because they’re much more likely to leave if they find out that they’ve been paid inequitably.
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s such a horrendous practice; it’s such an unethical practice as well. Honestly, Melinda, I’m so tired of having these discussions. So tired of people who have historically been brutalized, have been discriminated against, and forced out and kept out and left out, to have to continuously provide data points to prove that this is just wrong. At the end of the day, we have enough PhDs and scientific journals that show that this is wrong. Sometimes for the life of me, the fact that people don’t understand that, and that it’s okay for you to feel like we can continue to do this and get away with it.
I think that’s what annoyed me so much about the tech statements. In my company, at The Plug, we documented all the tech statements that were made or all the statements that were made by tech companies about their inclusion after George Floyd was murdered. The feedback that we got from workers at these places was like: Oh yeah, my company made this statement. Yet, whenever I walk into the room, my coworkers barely acknowledge me. So they’re all Black Lives Matter in public, but barely speak to me or treat me well as the only Black employee at this company.”
So what I fundamentally understand is – and I think that this might be a very morbid view – I felt like I don’t want saviors who created problems to pretend as though they’re here to fix them. I don’t believe that at all. I don’t believe that people truly want to fix this issue, I think that it’s a nice-to-have. Until there’s a fundamental stepping down of power and abdicating from the hold of power, anything else is pageantry. I think that the one area in which folks of color should focus, and why I even named the book Upper Hand, is design and be strategic about your moves so that you can maximize the resources that you need to be economically influential within your families and within your communities. Because again, no one’s going to come to save you, and no one is going to give something to you that takes away from them.
So better equip yourself and prepare yourself to get the top dollar, to get the great job, to get access to education in a way that does not economically impact you or your family or your future or your generational wealth, and apply all these great principles, so that you can move in the way that you need to move to. Because again, I fully and 100% expect for discrimination to continue, despite all the training, despite all the conversations. Part of it is natural human instinct, part of it is practice and learned behavior, and part of it is that fundamentally, people do not want to have to give something up at all. They like their privilege; they like it, it protects them and helps them to sleep at night, it feels good.
So I think that as Black and Brown people, we just have to focus on our economic survival, thriving, and learning to grow our resources, continuing, of course, to support incredible advocacy work to help change things in our collective rest. Our collective of saying: “Nope, I’m not doing that, because I want to rest. I’m tired, and I’m not going to join that mission. Nope, that’s not my job, it’s not my responsibility. That’s yours. So good luck, go God. You let me know when you’re ready to pay me my worth, when you’re ready to ensure that you’re not just hiring Black and Brown and gay and disabled or what have you, people. You let me know when they’re on your board. You let me know when they’re directors. You let me know when you’ve made it just as easy for them as you’ve made it for a standard White guy here.”
Obviously, I have very strong opinions. I think that I’ve spent so much time, pretty much my whole life, being so frustrated. Because I fundamentally felt like not just that the journalism was intellectually lazy, but this ongoing conversation of race was the most intellectually lazy thing that I could ever think of. Just even the fact of this argument of critical race theory.
It’s like, so we can go and take yoga, and create entire practices and trends around entire cultures, and learn the ins and outs of Japanese tea ceremonies. But we don’t want to understand how my grandfather at the age of 35 did not have the right to vote in a country that he paid taxes to and went to war for. But you don’t want to hear about his experience as a Black man and what that meant for him. That even though he was able to create a sense of generational wealth, how much economic robbery was taken from him, let’s say from his father, growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, where you regularly could get lynched for looking the wrong way at a White guy on the sidewalk. That was my grandfather growing up as a teenager. My grandfather is alive today, he’s 88 years old; it’s not that long ago.
But we don’t want to learn about that, because we don’t want to feel guilty. But as a Black person hearing those stories, and understanding that despite my successes, Melinda, it is nowhere near where I could be if my family would have been treated with the same level of respect and economic opportunity as others. Sorry, I just want to tie it right there.
MELINDA: Yeah, it’s all good. I mean, it’s not good. Thanks for sharing that. Well, I want to offer some solutions to folks. So first, let’s talk about people of color who are interested in getting into tech. Would you recommend two or three things that they can do to get started and jump in?
SHERRELL: Yeah. Well, the first thing is to find community, especially if maybe you’re from a place that does not have a lot of resources or tech companies in your neighborhood or community. Really, these online communities, from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram and just beyond, people are gathering. The #BlackTechTwitter emerged in 2017 or 2018, and Paris, Athena kind of runs that group. You can find these online communities of people who are talking about getting into tech, sharing their own stories, using certifications to get jobs and opportunities. You can learn anything online these days, YouTube University is always free. There are even great groups around data where people are just learning in public and from a free standpoint. So getting access to mentors and a supportive community, that helps you. That helps you to understand what’s possible and gives you folks who will also just be there to help you, who genuinely want to help you and want to support you. I think that’s first.
Secondly, I think, again, in Upper Hand, I really do dive into and list out the jobs of the future and the opportunities. It’s a great way to start thinking about, well, what might you want to do with tech? Because you have to figure that part out. I reference Career Karma, it has an amazing questionnaire that helps you to navigate. Like, do I want to be a software engineer, do I want to be in tech sales or marketing? What kind of skills might you have that are transformative? So really dive into that and experiment with a few things before you decide that I’m going to go back to school, I’m going to go into a bootcamp or something like that.
Then if you decide that you want to go to a bootcamp or you want to take a class, make sure that you feel like not only is a program going to be useful and give you the knowledge that you need, but they also are about your success and helping you to connect with potential employers. So that way, you can have some interviews lined up after you’ve completed that program and you’ve gone through that diligence.
I feel the third thing, Melinda, is, you just never stop learning. You keep creating strong networks. You constantly continue to subscribe to the kinds of information and publications that will support you. You attend the conferences if you can afford them, or a lot more companies do grants or free tickets sometimes for BIPOC folks. So there are some different ways. But I think more important is to not be intimidated, to know that you can find your place; it just takes a little bit of effort. Even if it means going to your local library and just sitting and reading about the fastest-growing companies, but just getting started.
MELINDA: Awesome. So for our listeners and watchers who are interested in ways to take action as allies and advocates – I will say that I believe that all of us need to be allies and advocates for each other, we all have an opportunity to; the more that we work together the better, in terms of really moving the change – what can allies and advocates do to improve the future of work for everyone, what actions can they take?
SHERRELL: That is such a great question. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot myself in terms of what does my next tier of allyship and support look like? I’ve been chatting with some friends and colleagues about ways in which we can support scholarships and ongoing organizations that are very community-centered and helping to teach kids of color coding, or advocating for internship support, like with America On Tech.
There are so many ways that you can help support; maybe there’s a donation mechanism at your company that does matching. Money always helps, for sure. Being a mentor, for sure. Asking hard questions about maybe programs or initiatives you’re part of. Like saying: “Hey, it looks like in the last couple of years, we really haven’t had any women of color in this space. How do we revamp our recruiting process to give someone an opportunity?” I think these are small things that don’t require you to stand on the soapbox, I think they’re just kind of easy wins. Again, money always helps to move the needle, maybe just giving a book. Those to me are kind of very low-touch ways, in a very quiet way, to help make a change, like brick by brick. These are things that anyone can do, for the most part.
MELINDA: Awesome. Where can people learn more about your book and your work?
SHERRELL: Absolutely. So definitely, please become a subscriber to TPInsights.com, i.e. The Plug Insights. Also, you can go to any online platform that sells books and just look up Upper Hand, I would love for you to grab the book. If it’s not for you, it’s definitely for someone in your circle; give it away, buy some books for some organizations. But you can definitely check out Upper Hand wherever books are sold.
MELINDA: Awesome. We’ll add those links and a few other resources that we talked about throughout our conversation to our show notes, too, which is on our website at ally.cc. Thank you, Sherrell, appreciate you.
SHERRELL: Thank you so much for having me, Melinda. I had no idea that you were also from Seattle and grew up and went to the same high school.
MELINDA: I know, I didn’t know you went to the same high school either.
SHERRELL: Yes, I love that! Well, it was such a pleasure. Thank you for giving me the space to have this conversation, really appreciate it.
MELINDA: Absolutely, my pleasure!
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.
Allyship is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. And the more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action will you take today?
Please share your actions and learning with us by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or on social media because we’d love to hear from you. And thank you for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast and the YouTube channel and share this. Let’s keep building allies around the world.
Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. Appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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