Something magical happens when black people put in work.
This fact should surprise no one. Hard work has always been the required wage demanded to justify the existence of the African American, lest the black tax go unpaid. It is common knowledge amongst black folks that we must work, at minimum, twice as hard as our non-black counterparts to achieve an equitable level of recognition and respect. Intriguingly, the fateful marriage of scarcity and struggle wrought from centuries of injustice and inequality have, out of sheer necessity, birthed a culture of innovativeness that has transformed everything that black people touch; from sports, to fashion, to tech, and beyond.
Still, knowing all of this, I watched the inspiring story about the upbringing of Venus and Serena Williams by their father Richard Williams and found that it struck a chord with me. One that continues to resonate in my very soul for several reasons.
For one, I was moved by the actions of a man determined to propel his daughters into greatness in the face of inestimable odds, defying skeptics and critics in pursuit of a singular vision. I was also inspired anew by the tenacity of two young girls from Compton working with skill and precision to hone their craft with relentless persistence and grit. I even watched with wonder as an entire family upended their lives to risk everything on a hope and a prayer, trusting that their heritage would be nothing short of greatness.
And more than any other moment in the film, I was completely captured by Serena’s response to a tennis coach when asked who she wanted to resemble most as a tennis player. With an all too familiar air of Muhammed Ali like confidence, she lays bare her audacious goal: “I want other people to be like me.”
A shared narrative of greatness
Beholding the greatness of champions like Venus and Serena (and any of the other highly successful athletes, artists, and musicians from Compton), we laud them for the success they’ve attained. And I mostly believe it appropriate for us to do so. There’s nothing like a good ‘ole American underdog story. But this acknowledgement of greatness also belongs to so many others from Compton who aren’t said athletes, artists, and musicians.
It also belongs to people like me and so many others.
And what is my claim to this narrative? After surviving physical and sexual abuse as a 4-year-old kid and being abandoned to the foster care system, I taught myself how to code at age 8 as a means of reclaiming some of the agency and control I felt I had lost. I learned to code nearly a decade before I ever met a programmer in real life. And I was not just content with merely being good—I wanted to be the best. That, in my mind, was no less than what seemed required of me. I learned that from black history, for I taught that this too was the price demanded of the innovators and engineers who long preceded me.
Though I did not exactly have a Richard Williams of my own per se, I had foster parents who believed that I would be somebody. They stopped at nothing to unlock as many opportunities as they could for me. Even when opportunities were scarce. Even when they couldn’t afford it. Even when my father was laid off from his job two years before retirement and cheated out of his pension.
Like the Williams sisters who themselves knew what it meant to be the only black person in white spaces, I also knew what it was like to be that only one in the computer science lecture halls, on teams at work, or in the whole office.
I worked my butt off to succeed at the infamously hard Google interview that not even I thought I could pass. I actually failed it on my first attempt. Nonetheless, that fact didn’t stop me from studying 4 hours a day for over a month to eventually find my pathway to success. My career has always required the same relentless persistence, grit, determination, practice, and work ethic that the Williams sisters harnessed in their own journey.
Well, almost. I never had to write code outdoors in the rain. But I would have, had such been required.
In the pursuit of excellence
Let me share with you a little secret. For many black folks pursuing pathways in tech, they are not merely fighting for a job. They are fighting for both their excellence and the recognition of their brilliance. They are striving to be still first in many unfamiliar spaces. In fact, being just 5% of all software engineers in the US, black tech talent has continued to endure a myriad of challenges and yet remains undeterred in the pursuit of not only succeeding in the tech game, but also changing it.
People like Marian Croak, a living legend who pioneered Voice-over-IP technology and has over 200 patents to her name. People like Justin “Thug Debugger” Samuels, founder of the largest black software engineering conference, Render ATL, whose stated mission is to drape the whole of tech culture in unapologetic blackness. People like Bria Sullivan, a software engineer who left a cushy job at Google to start her own game company and serve as a startup advisor. People like Ruben Harris, opening doors for underrepresented folk through the Career Karma platform that provides support, community, and mentorship to those embarking on untraditional journeys into tech.
And now, Serena Williams joins this noble work. Her recent financial investment as a Champion of Brilliance for Karat’s Brilliant Black Minds initiative is nothing short of awe inspiring. Providing participants with free practice interviews, feedback, and guidance, the program is the start of a new movement to increase the number of black engineers in tech.
The blessing of my fellow Compton alum Serena Williams is profoundly significant to me. We are now standing at the intersection of so much black excellence—and Compton excellence—that I believe this work will move the needle of tech diversity in a way never before anticipated. Its significance can scarcely be contained. Indeed, it cannot.
I hope the day will come when society recognizes the brilliance of moments like this with the same vigor shown when black folks make moves in sports and entertainment. On that day, the true significance of this moment may perhaps be more fully apprehended. Until then, the work continues.
Anthony D. Mays is senior advisor for Brilliant Black Minds at Karat, founder and career coach at Morgan Latimer Consulting, speaker at the Washington Speaker’s Bureau, and a former software engineer at Google. You can follow him at @anthonydmays on Twitter. Find more of his articles at anthonydmays.com.
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