What I’ve Learned as a Black Female Founder in Silicon Valley

“What would you do if you had all of the time, money, and res in the world?”

This question was posed to me by long-time Googler, Colt McAnlis–and at the time it was striking. Since Colt and I started working together in Google Developer Relations, I’ve been grateful to call him a mentor. For days, I turned his question over and over in my mind.

Growing up with a mindset of scarcity–believing there was never enough, and I was never enough–this single question shattered generations of engrained teachings. It seemed like such an absurd and even irrelevant question to my lived reality; he might as well have asked me what superpower I would choose. I struggled to conjure his hypothetical constraint-less state, let alone imagine what kind of impact I could have by taking it on.

While my mind was filled with the weight of constraints and expectations, I continued to wonder, “What would I do?” As a Black woman in Silicon Valley, coming up with a response felt truly challenging.

In my view, this is how the world works: There’s one world for one kind of person and a different world for another. Silicon Valley is no different. In mid-August of this year, the U.S. Census Bureau released data showing the nation is more multi-racial than ever. People of color represented 43 percent of the U.S. population in 2020–up from 34 percent in 2010. In two or three decades, experts project, white Americans will fall below half the population and lose majority status. There are nearly 22 million Black women in the U.S. It’s a young and growing population, and so many are hungry for opportunity. Even rarer is a Black woman company founder — fewer than 0.5 percent of Silicon Valley tech leadership positions are held by Black women, according to one study).

I’ve always been one of those women hungry for opportunity. I want to help others–to make a positive impact and leave the world a little better than I found it. But, at every turn, most Black women are re-constrained–running out of time and underfunded.

The effort that most Black women must exert–their hunger to make a difference–is often clouded by long-standing stereotypes. Sometimes, even disdain. While the statistics suggest the rise of Black women could and should be encompassing, these social bounds remain a daily occurrence.

I have felt all of this and more. I have made more mistakes than I can count. I have rubbed people the wrong way, or perhaps worse, spent hours mentally churning over the potential of having rubbed people the wrong way. I have fallen into the same traps so many women like me know–Black women–making the same devastating errors that others with more melanin in their skin have made. But, I’ve also done a few things right.

Within that young, growing population of Black women and men, I count myself as one of the many Black women who have overcome a barrage of potentially defeating sociocultural challenges to thrive. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. You do what you need to do in order to achieve the things you want.

Often, Black women are not afforded the same opportunities as our lighter counterparts. So, if you’re a Black woman, you’re going to need to seek them out; you’re going to need to be bold and tireless. You may need to leave that job where you’re treated poorly; to take that riskier role at that startup. You may need to move into unfamiliar places.

This may be difficult, as we are also often carrying the collective weight of our families, communities, and even our entire gender or race. It’s a lot. Sometimes these risks will not work out, and that’s okay. But you must take hold of your potential and see it come to life.

2. Black women cannot allow others to define them– but you can learn the rules of the game (in order to break them later).

There’s no denying that thinly veiled instances of racism, or microaggressions, are an all-too-common reality for Black women in the workplace. I know from personal experience. What’s seen as ambition and boldness in a white man can be construed as manipulative and uppity in a Black woman. I’ve been called “calculating” and “overly assertive,” though I know that’s not who I am.

In regard to this reality, the most meaningful advice I can offer is this: Stay true to yourself. Be real, and really yourself. Don’t let others’ biases frame your identity or slow your determination to succeed. Despite the mass of news articles and opinion pieces like this one that reminds you of the continued disparities across the tech industry and beyond, remember, you are enough.

You belong in every room you walk into. Act “as if”, but check the boxes, learning the techniques to engage effectively and win the hearts and minds of others. In other words, master the rules of the game in order to break them later. It’s what white guys do, after all.

3. Think of personal relationships as color-blind.

The landscape is slowly starting to change, with more Black people beginning to break through the glass ceiling of Silicon Valley. Our awareness of the presence of Black people stepping into leadership roles is growing, too. But the truth is, there has always been extremely talented Black people in every industry. We’re just starting to receive more recognition now. The thing is, we cannot accomplish this alone.

Black leaders must build personal relationships with communities of people that have too often excluded them in the past. I suggest seizing on this as an exciting opportunity to learn about another world. Seek to understand the burdens others are (and are not) carrying. Learn the possibilities that others encounter with ease, and identify how you could adopt them.

Simply, you deserve to learn what it feels like to operate without constraints. You have the ambition and the right to consider Colt’s question for yourself. Take hold of the opportunity to adopt a boundless mindset in a world that remains imperfect, but in which you know–I know–you can thrive.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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