269: Being Your Authentic Self – Turning Adversity Into Power with Nikema Prophet
February 2nd, 2022 · 1 hr 7 mins
About this Episode
00:51 - Nikema’s Superpower: Connecting To People Through Authenticity & Vulnerability
- Background in Dancing
- Shift to Tech
- Having Babies
- ADHD Diagnosis (Neurodivergence)
28:02 - Seeing People For Their Whole Selves; Facilitating Safe Spaces
- Nikema’s Founder Journey
- Remote Work & Homeschooling
- Pop Schools
- School Can Be Damaging to Children
- The Purpose of School
- Self-Directive Education
51:38 - Impostor Syndrome Isn’t Natural; The Tech Underclass
- Bias & Discrimination
- Equity & Accessibility
Damien: Connecting through authenticity.
Arty: Even when you’re scared, stand up and speak.
Chanté: Our youth is our future.
Nikema: Making real connections with other people.
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ARTY: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Episode 269 of Greater Than Code. I am Arty Starr and I'm here with my fabulous co-host, Chanté Martínez Thurmond.
CHANTÉ: Hello, everyone, and I'm here with our fabulous friend and co-host, Damien Burke.
DAMIEN: Hi, and we are here with our guest, today, Nikema Prophet.
Nikema Prophet is a software developer and a community builder based in California. Her current projects are a book to be released in 2022 and hosting conversations on Twitter that highlight Black and neural diversion perspectives in the tech industry.
Welcome to the show, Nikema.
NIKEMA: Thank you for having me.
DAMIEN: What is your superpower and how does you acquire it?
NIKEMA: My superpower is connecting to people through authenticity. I acquired it by practicing standing up and speaking—speaking from my heart in front of others—and I had to overcome very painful, debilitating shyness to do that.
CHANTÉ: I love that you started with that because Nikema, it doesn't seem like you're shy and I think even on your Twitter account, you're louder on Twitter than you are in person. I find your presence to be really lovely and a voice that our community so very much needs.
When I found out you were going to be on the show, I got excited and did my research and did all the things we normally do and found a whole bunch of stuff about you. But before we get into those exciting parts, I am a person who loves to orient people to who you actually are to bring you into the room and just tell us a little bit more like, who are you besides the titles? Where are you living? Where are you from? The things that you do for joy, and if your job is one of those things, tell us about those.
So just curious, who you are and then we can get into the things that you're doing now.
NIKEMA: I really do need to sit down at some point and write down the story that I want to tell about myself because I tend to make it very long. So I'm going to try to keep it brief. [chuckles]
But I am Nikema Prophet. I was born and raised in Sacramento, California. So I'm definitely a California girl. Sacramento is the capital city, but it's not super exciting [chuckles] as a place to grow up. There's a lot of government jobs. People say, “Get that state job, get those benefits, you're good.” Government jobs, healthcare, a lot of that.
But I grew up and probably starting when I was a preteen, like 12, 13, I decided that I wanted to be a professional dancer. So that was my life goal. No plan B. I'm going to be a dancer. I'm going to get out of this small town and I'm going to go dance, which is funny because I did say that I am very shy [laughs] so I always struggled with being self-conscious and I never felt like I was really dancing full out, as we say. I always felt like I was holding back, but I think looking back it was the dance that saved me in a way. It gave me something to look forward to. It got me moving.
Also, my parents were really cool about this, looking back on it, because we didn't have money for daily dance classes, or anything like that. They allowed me to go to schools that had arts program. So there were some magnet schools, or something like that that had these art programs.
So actually, through elementary school, I was in the so-called gifted and talented program, which is a term that I really dislike [chuckles] because even at the time, it felt like it was segregation. [chuckles] It felt like it was money kind of rerouted to mostly white kids. The way that my program worked, it was we were our own class in a school that had gifted classes and regular classes. So it was very segregated, like we were in our own class, we would go from grade to grade with mostly the same kid, and my class was mostly white kids. I was always one of less than a handful of Black children in the classroom and the surrounding school, the so-called regular kids, were not that demographic. They were busing in the GATE kids to go to this school.
So I left the GATE program in middle school to go to a school that had an arts program. I'm a December baby so I was kind of always older than most of the kids, because my birthday was, I don't know where the cutoff was, but if you weren't 5 by a certain day, then you would go the next year to kindergarten, or something like that. So I was always kind of older. I went to this school, left the gate program because I wanted to dance and ended up having just 1 year of middle school because I had one semester of 7th grade, then one semester of 8th grade because I had already had like those gifted classes. The classes were too easy once I got to the regular program.
So I decided back then and my parents supported me in going to these schools where I could dance and I could take daily classes for free. I said that I think it saved me because it was regular physical activity. I always struggled with depression and I was even starting to be medicated for it in high school and thinking back, if I didn't have that dance practice, I think I'd probably be in much worse shape than I was and it wasn't good. [laughs]
So I think now as an adult, I'm grateful that I did have that one thing that I was holding onto, which was like, I'm going to go dance. Also, it was that one thing where I kind of had to force myself to, even if it wasn't full out, even if it wasn't what I felt was my best effort, it was still performance. It was still putting yourself out there and I still deep down inside knew that I wanted the attention of other people. I didn't want to be hidden and yeah, I didn't want to be hidden away. I wanted to be noticed. I do look back at that as dance is what saved me in my adolescence [chuckles] because I was a bit troubled.
So I did have a major accomplishment when after high school, I was accepted to two dance programs. One was Cal Arts in California, California Institute of the Arts, and the other was The Ailey School in New York. Of course, I took The Ailey School because it's Ailey. I don't know if there are dance people who are listening to this, but Alvin Ailey was a very influential Black choreographer and the company, the Alvin Ailey dance company is amazing. So I was super excited to number one, get out of Sacramento and go to where the real dancers are like New York and Ailey School.
I actually graduated high school early, too. I graduated in January of that year. I didn't even attend my graduation because I hated school so much. Took the rest of that year off and I went to that summer program at The Ailey School, the Summer Dance Intensive. That was cool. I'd never been around so many Black dancers in my life. So many people of color. It was so amazing to me to be in a ballet class and almost everyone was Black. That was not my experience in Sacramento.
And then I was going to start the regular semester in school in that fall and that was fall of 2001 and in fall of 2001, 9/11 happened in New York. So that rocked my world. I was living in New Jersey at the time and getting to school became very difficult and I eventually dropped out. I didn't even finish that first semester of dance school and at the time, I kind of thought, “I'm not giving up on my dream. This is just too hard, but I'm going to go back to dancing. I'll keep it up. I'll dance outside of school.”
And I tried that for a while, but it's really hard to do that just on your own without the support, the structure, and the financial aid because it was a post-secondary program. I took out loans and things like that to attend. So doing that all on your own is pretty hard and that was pretty much the beginning of the end as far as dance was concerned.
After leaving The Ailey School, I never danced full-time again. I came back to it like taking classes here, or there, but I never went back to full-time professional dance career aspirations. So that was a turning point in my life. I didn't want to leave New York. So I tried to struggle through it, tried to make it there. [laughs] Didn't actually work.
I haven't talked to anything about my tech background, but that was always in the background. Like my no plan, B plan was to be a professional dancer, but I also always really loved computers. We had a computer in the house when I was in elementary school, which looking back that was a privilege. Most people didn't. I think we had internet, AOL. [chuckles] I remember those discs they would send in the mail, we had that.
CHANTÉ: [chuckles] I remember those, too. Those were fun. [laughs]
NIKEMA: Yeah. I was in a Twitter Space yesterday and Gen Z folks were in there and they were like, “Yo, you used to dial to the internet?” Like, “You actually made a phone call to connect to the internet?” And then – [overtalk]
DAMIEN: I still remember the sound.
NIKEMA: Yeah, and then they were like – two of them were talking and they were like, “Girl, Google it, it's crazy.” [laughs] So it's wild to think we used to measure internet in hours and if you had 10 hours and that was up, then you were off the internet. So I thought that was – [overtalk]
CHANTÉ: I remember before somebody would, at your house, they would pick up the phone and then disrupt the connection.
NIKEMA: Oh, oh, right, right, right. Or you have the one phone line for calls and internet so you can't. Yeah. So it was just funny, the generational difference of always knowing high speed broadband and all that. It's like, we measured this in hours [laughs] and we had to dial a number to get on.
So we had a computer and internet access when I was pretty young and I would make webpages and stuff back then. Even through middle school and high school, I would take computer classes, but that was not the thing I wanted to do as a career and I was also looking at it more from a visual arts perspective, because I'm also a visual artist.
Back when I was making webpages, I think the class I was in was web design and I think back then, my web design class in high school was on the colorful IMAX. I think it was the first version of IMAX. So it was web design and back then when I was looking at careers where I could use those skills, I thought it was graphic designer. I didn't know anything about a web developer. I don't even know if they were calling it that back then, but I thought graphic designers were the people who made websites. But I also took a programming class in high school, which was in the math department.
So I always had an interest and even in New York, when I left dance school, I wanted to major in computer science, which I turns out, I didn't have the math prerequisites to even get into that major. I ended at pre-calculus. That's all to say that while I wanted to be a dancer and that was my only goal, I always had an interest in tech and I always had an interest in programming. I used to make my own websites back when we did have that home computer and the dial-up internet. So it was always something that in the background I enjoyed doing. It wasn't I want to do this as a career because I was going to be a dancer.
So 9/11 was one of those life changing moments and then the next one came. While living in New York, I got pregnant. I was actually in school when I got pregnant and life in New York was kind of almost stabilizing because I had a job as a pharmacy tech. I was in school. My parents—here's another privilege alert. My parents had bought me a co-op, something like a condo. I don't think they call it that out here; I never heard the term until I got to New York. I had a co-op studio apartment where I could walk to my classes at Brooklyn College.
Things were starting to stabilize and then I got pregnant and I decided okay, I'm pregnant and I'm going to have this baby. So that was another life-changing moment and I was pregnant for a while [laughs] and I decided that I needed to go home. I needed to go be where my loved ones were and I needed that support from my family.
So left the apartment vacant [laughs] and went home and while I was pregnant, I started my web developer certificate at the junior college because I was like, “Okay, the dance thing is probably not going to happen and I'm going to have to support a baby now. This is a career that I could do and I could be a mother and I can work from home.” My child was born in 2007 so I was thinking about remote work in 2007 and almost banking on it, like this is what I'm going to do.
I was enrolled in that web developer program, which was something like a 1-year certificate. You could do the associate’s degree, if you wanted to. But I didn't, I did the certificate and it took me 4, or 5 years to complete that certificate, that 1 year certificate because I was primarily a mom.
I had a baby in 2007 and then I had a baby in 2008. So for several years, it was chaos and two babies and I don't know. I almost want to say it was almost – I don't know what it's like to have twins, but I felt like it was probably worse to have one a year apart because it's like they're both babies, but they're at slightly different developmental levels and you just have just all babies. [laughs]
CHANTÉ: I can relate, Nikema because I do have twin boys and it is really hard. Like you're describing here, I had to be with my family and I needed to take time off to be a mom first and it was really humbling. I have a sibling who I’m really close with in age and my mom always says, “I don't know what was worse: having the two of you so close in age, or you having twins.” [laughs] So it's debatable. I don't know. But either way, it is very tough.
NIKEMA: Yeah. So I was depending on – and that's part of why it took so long because I was a mom and online classes were not as widely available as they are in 2022 back in 2007. I just took all the online classes I could and the ones that weren't online were hybrids so it was a few hours. My mom would watch the kids, or something while I go to school for a couple hours a week.
There was a lot of privilege in my story, but there's also a lot of struggle [chuckles] because I was not diagnosed with ADHD until last year [chuckles] and that's not something that you just catch. It's been with me my whole life. Having to go through school, go through jobs, and all these things with undiagnosed and untreated ADHD, it makes the late diagnosis bittersweet. Because you've built up this idea of yourself and oh gosh, I'm going to start crying. But you built up this idea of yourself and it's always been hard, but you didn't know that it wasn't supposed to be that hard, you know?
NIKEMA: So I'm going to – [overtalk]
CHANTÉ: I can relate, too. I'm another late ADHD diagnosed person. I was in my early 20s, but it was like, are you kidding me that I have been unnoticed by all these adults? That no wonder I was struggling to do my homework and get it turned in, literally doing 50 versions of the homework. [chuckles] Staying up until 2 o'clock in the morning as a kid to do you my homework and always struggling with feeling like I wasn't perfect.
Just, I can really relate and understand, too and I think the tears are welcomed because I know it to be true about our listeners, that folks in our community identify with neurodivergence and where you feel society tells you, it's like this bad thing, it's a label, and it's shaming, but I also feel it could be very liberating. And once you know what is going on in the background of your [laughs] of your life, you can make connections and start to really get into your brilliance. So just want to say thank you for being so honest.
NIKEMA: That's my superpower, right? It's a double-edged sword because I can't turn it off. Actually, okay, so superpower. Another jump. [laughs]
I was in some program and they asked what's your mutant superpower, which is that superpower that you can't turn off, I guess. That's probably not the best way to it, but it's a double-edged sword because it's like, I am vulnerable and I am authentic and I can't turn it off. [laughs]
So it's pretty much what you see is what you get. Fake until you make it never was good advice for me, because I can't like, if I’m trying to present myself in a way that doesn't align with what I think is true, it just doesn't work. It's going to come off really strange, but I've learned to embrace the tears because I used to fight it so hard. [chuckles] That was also recently that I learned that tears have a function, like you're releasing some endorphins and [laughs] there's an actual physiological reason why it's okay to cry and it's actually helpful. But I used to fight it so hard and I would be so because I couldn't control it and I would just cry in front of everybody and that's why it's a mutant superpower. So it's like, it's not all good. [laughs] There's some downsides to it.
DAMIEN: So I can speak from the other side of that. As a person who, for decades, successfully repressed my emotions and feelings, it's not better on that side.
And so, the mutant superpower that you can't turn off is a thing that I am actively learning currently and [laughs] it's not easy and it is very, very useful.
NIKEMA: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that, though.
I did also learn that this is how I connect with people, which is weird. I learned that people appreciate it when you're authentic and raw. I always thought that was so weird. I'm like, “I am such a mess and you're thanking me [laughs] for this.” Like, “Why?”
So the ADHD being late diagnosed, I relate to everything that Chanté said. I was always a perfectionist, I was always a procrastinator, and it's like, I would do excellent work, but it would all be done the day before it was due and it would kill me to get it done. Now as an adult and knowing what executive dysfunction is, I'm like, “Oh, okay. I didn't start because I couldn't start [chuckles] and it wasn't my fault.”
There's so much kind of shame that you can build up when you're thinking that I should be able to do these things that I can't do. Why can't I do these things and I don't like the high functioning label, but I know it's one that people know. But people who are masking their symptoms in a way, which I think gets girls turn out to end up masking because they're not identified. They weren't looking for that.
I've said to people before, there was no way in the 80s and 90s, they were going to look at this quiet Black girl and say, “She has ADHD.” No way. No way anybody would've identified that. Girls tend to end up masking. So people are looking at you from the outside and thinking, “This is a so-called normal child.” [laughs]
NIKEMA: Oh, yeah. That's another thing, other people's expectations of you. If you're capable of doing harder schoolwork and all of these things, why aren't you capable of just getting started on this assignment? Like you can do it, are you just not trying hard enough? So you start to kind of internalize that judgment of I should be able to do this and that's why an adult, it's so painful to look back at all of those years where it's like I really wasn't getting what I needed. I wasn't getting the support I needed. I wasn't getting the recognition of what's going on that I needed and you think it didn't have to be this hard and it's not supposed to be this hard right now.
I think I'm also a bit teary because I'm currently undermedicated [laughs] and I'm dealing with that. Even if I can tell myself it's not supposed to be this hard, it's hard to believe that I do deserve that grace, I do deserve to have the support that I need, and that it's okay when you come up against things that you're physically unable to do, because I don't think we think enough of mental struggles as physical struggles, too. But the brain is part of the body, right? We could go on about – see, my brain goes all over the place.
Now I'm thinking about, [chuckles] how our health insurance works and how I'm paying hundreds of outside of my health coverage to get therapy and how I'm paying thousands of dollars outside of my health coverage to get my teeth taken care of. Teeth are part of the body, right? Isn't your brain part of your body?
Why is that not covered? Modern dentistry again, it's a gift, but it's out of pocket for [chuckles] most of us, if we want to say things like, “The treatments that could save your teeth are cosmetic and not covered for the poorest of people.” That makes me so angry. [laughs] I'm liking that this is a demonstration of an ADHD mind at work because I'm all over the place.
CHANTÉ: I like it. I welcome it. [laughs] It's completely fine.
ARTY: One thing I'm thinking just listening to this and you talking about authenticity, masking, this pressure in society to wear a mask. In a world that becomes increasingly more fake, propagandized, and all of these things where people become almost not real to us, that seeing you being yourself, being in tune with what's going on with you, with your struggles, being will to cry, being willing to stand up and say what you really feel, and stand up for what you believe in. It's refreshing in a way that you look around where everything kind of becomes not real and you stand out as a beacon of light just by being in alignment with yourself and other people connecting with you. You give them permission to take their own masks off. You give them permission to admit their own struggles. Because we all have struggles, right? We all have these things that are hard for us, but it's easy to fall under that same pressure of having to wear a mask all the time. You being in tune with your authenticity is so powerful in terms of the weight that you influence the world and there's no reason you need to change. You just keep on being your beautiful self.
CHANTÉ: Yes! [laughs]
NIKEMA: Man. Now I'm crying again, but thank you so much for that. It took so much to step out into the world and say, “Here I am, this is me,” because like I said, I was so shy. I would get butterflies every time I had to raise my hand in class and I would cry. [chuckles] Like I said, when I would do any kind of public speaking, I would be sweating, shaking, crying. It has been a hard road
DAMIEN: And in a world are emotions are forgotten, making them visible and feeling them and allowing people to see them is a revolutionary act like when you do that, you are setting a path. You're blazing a path for people to follow, to get us to a place where there isn't so. It's not because it's not like people don't have emotions. It's not like you're the only one feeling things. It's just that other people don't have the courage to be seen, to not hide it.
NIKEMA: I want to thank you for bringing that up because it reminded me of something that I used to say, which is for Black women, we're not seen as soft. [chuckles]] We're not seen as being in need of comforting and protecting. So I used to say that I'm radically soft [chuckles] and again, it's the mutant superpower. Sometimes I wish I could turn it off and just not let it all out. [chuckles]
But I do appreciate what Arty said about giving other people permission to be themselves because I've been running a lot of Twitter Spaces lately and I always feel so honored with people say, “Yeah, this is my first time speaking in a space.” Because to me, that means that I have facilitated a safe space for people and I always celebrate them and I always just feel so honored when people are willing to step up and be seen that way because I know how hard it is. But being radically soft, maybe I should put that back in my bio [chuckles] because – [overtalk]
CHANTÉ: I love that. Yes.
CHANTÉ: I love that and I can relate, too. I like where you were going with the whole conversation, which I think is worth noting and talking about a minute because I grew up – Nikema, I'm half Black, I'm half Mexican. My mom's an immigrant. So on both sides of my family, I always felt like there was no time to be sensitive, soft, and to be in my feelings. I actually got called out a lot as a kid because I was very emotional and I was like, “I just thought I was highly empathetic and intuitive and what the hell's wrong with y'all?” [laughs]
But it was something that I got made fun of and ridiculed for and eventually, tried to suppress, which I felt really impacted my image of myself and what I felt like I should be projecting into the world. And ultimately, my self-confidence to the point where, like you said, you hit a breaking point because I was masking all the time and trying to basically posture myself to be something. I was highly gifted and talented and was in these advanced classes, just like you, and it's interesting.
I never thought anything about technology. I loved it just like you're describing it and I find myself interwoven into the community, not a technologist, but somebody who's recruiting and focusing on the culture and the talent of those organizations.
So one of the things that as I was reading about you and just hoping that we can weave into the conversation is your approach to seeing people for their whole selves. I really appreciated when I read that about you and saw that you had been taking effort, once you got into technology, to build it seemed like a community, or spaces where you were going to allow people to show up and be their full selves, which in my mind and from my point of view, I'm assuming that's like okay, then if we're going to do that, we need to know who you are, the unique identities and intersectionalities that you bring to the conversation, or to the space.
I'm just curious if we could go down that path a little bit, because I want to know how you've turned these, I put in air quotes, “adversities” into a power, into something that's really great.
So tell us about that. How you've used all this stuff about yourself and your experiences thus far to do what you're doing right now, which is you've built a few different products and I'll let you talk about that in technology.
NIKEMA: I will talk a little bit about my founder journey, I guess, because I did start a company. This was also a part of my coming out because even through college I was always overlooked and pushed aside by stronger personalities. Whenever I had a group project, it was just always a bad time [chuckles] because I never felt insecure about my skills, or my ability to contribute. But I did have a problem with like standing up and like making sure that my contribution was included.
So I finished my web developer certificate and I was like, “I'm going to go get a job now,” and I was again, thinking I can get a job as a developer and I can work from home. I could still take care of my babies; still take care of my kids and I could do this job from home. Back then, remote work was not widely available like that. It was almost more of a perk [chuckles] and reserved for more senior people, people who had more career experience than someone who had just be coming in from junior college. But still, that's what I thought I was going to do. I'm going to work from home.
I was having a hard time finding that kind of job [chuckles] and I was also feeling like I didn't get enough practical hands-on experience in my program. So I started going into the community. I started going to meetups. I volunteered for some nonprofits helping kids, teaching kids tech classes. I joined a startup weekend and I joined this startup weekend as a developer because I'm like, “I'm going to practice these skills.
I need to get hands-on skills to get a job.” Didn't actually get to do any development work. But this was important because I'd never taken that much time away from my kids before and I took a whole weekend to build a startup. That's what the point of startup weekend was to start with an idea and build a product and pitch it.
My team won, which was like, wow. The entrepreneur switch turned on in my brain, it was like, “Oh, my contributions matter, my work matters, and I can start solving these problems that I care about because no one else seems to be working on them.” And when that happened okay yeah, we won.
Very quickly after we won, the person who came up with the idea for our startup decided that she was CEO. She also decided that she was going to fire the rest of the team, take our prizes, and go off and build a startup for real with a friend of hers and I was like, “That's not going to happen.” [chuckles] I was so angry. I was like, “This is the first weekend I took away from my kids. This was the first time I felt like my work was being recognized and that my work mattered and you're going to try to take that from me? Hell no.” Like, “No, that's not going to happen.”
I could go on about that story. I don't really want to, but I will say that I alerted the organizers of the startup weekend. We ended up being disqualified, but that was also my origin story as a founder. So I decided to go and try to build something to solve my problems and my company that I ended up forming is called PopSchools. It's still a company. I'm still paying taxes on it. That started my founder journey.
My company was eventually called PopSchools and in the first iterations, it was like a school alternative, an alternative school. I was homeschooling my kids at the time. Didn't really feel like they were getting the best experience out of that and I didn't want to put them back in school because I didn't feel like they were getting a good experience in regular school either.
At first, it was a school alternative program. Then the later iterations, were a co-working space that is family friendly and age inclusive. So students would be first class citizen in this co-working space. They would have a homeschooling program and an afterschool program for kids who weren't homeschooling and also, a workspace for parents. So kids are taken care of, kids are doing their thing in a rich environment that is accommodating to them, and parents also have a place to do their remote work because I'm still on this remote work thing. I don't want to go sit in an office.
That was a later iteration. Then I kind of played with, well, I had ideas about education, school choice, and all of those things. But also, I learned over time that if you are not financially stable, or somewhat financially well off, you don't really have school choice. You could have the best programs in the world, but not everybody is able to homeschool and not everybody was able to give up the services that they're going to get by having their kids in public school.
It's really interesting that I felt very vindicated when this pandemic hit, because I'm like, “All of you people who did not understand what I was doing [chuckles] a couple years ago, were just kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, sucks to be you’ when it came to the options for school and homeschooling,” and how homeschooling was not the experience that I thought it should be. All those people who didn't understand got firsthand experience and what it's like to have to homeschool [laughs] and what it's like to not have that support in place for a family that's not in a public school.
So I felt vindicated because I'm like, “Now you all understand, you understand what I've been going through,” and I kind of feel like it's a good time to pick up [laughs] that project. Because like I said, a lot of people understand why there's a need for it now and a lot of people also found that school can be damaging this to some kids. Some people found that their kids were better when they didn't have to go to school. They were better mentally. They felt safer. I've heard things about the racial trauma. A lot of schools that are – the school to prison pipeline is a thing I don't want to get into that, but some schools are great and a lot of schools look just like prisons. So being home was a relief for some of these kids.
DAMIEN: I want to repeat something you said: school can be damaging for children and that there's a trope in this country of children hate going to school, right? Like, “Oh, they're pretending to be sick to not go to school. They’re ditching school. They don't want to be at school.” So the question is why. Nobody stops to ask why are we doing this to our children, putting them environments that they don't want to be in? What harm is that causing? Why don't they want to be in these environments and why are we not asking those questions?
CHANTÉ: Yes. The question I've been grappling with, and I feel like this is appropriate group of folks to talk to and pose the questions, what is the purpose of school? Is the purpose of school to be childcare because we live in an industrialized society that demands adults to be awake [chuckles] and at work, at their attention at desk at dawn and then to dusk? Is that the purpose of school to be a holding place for those children and/or is it to allow for children to have a social and emotional experience with one another, to learn how to be friends, to learn about people who are their neighbors, and then to build a community? Is it to prepare children for a job that they're going to take in this industrialized world? And if our industrialized world is changing because of the applications of technology and where we're going with the future of work, do they need to be at school all those hours, or is there a new version of what education should look like?
I think I'm just really frustrated, Nikema because I could really appreciate you saying now people understand. I felt the same way because I was a person who had to stay home with my kids for a while and not have an income. I so much dreamed and longed of a place where I could take my children that was healthy, welcoming, supportive communal while I was working for a few hours to hustle, or do whatever and it could possibly be a stimulating, positive, welcoming, loving experience for my children. But there wasn't one that existed.
So I do think timing is everything. Maybe this is the right time to resurrect those efforts. But I love the question of what is the purpose of school and maybe we don't get to answer that question today, but I think it's worth just pinning and asking to you and to the listeners today.
NIKEMA: I love that because that was exactly what I was pitching [chuckles] back when I was trying to be the WeWork of homeschooling [chuckles] and I could also get into VC, tech startups, and my beats with that because I was watching, I was like, “These white men have very ordinary ideas. They're not really reimagining anything, but they are being funded in the millions.” And I could see – I like to call out that tech claims to be tech leaders and VCs claim to be data-driven. But if we're all data driven, I can look and see that as a Black woman, my chances of being venture funded at the level that I would need to be are slim to none. My chances are slim to none. Black people as a whole get a fraction of a percent of all venture capital.
So why should I put out this energy to pitch my ideas and ask for funding when chances are, I won't get the funding that I need going down that road?
But that was exactly what I was pitching and back then, I would try to get people to imagine if your kids weren't in school, where would they be? Okay, home [chuckles] is an option, but you quickly find out if you start homeschooling after being in school, the world is not set up for children. Children are not welcome everywhere and you might think, “Okay, well, what about the library?” The library is the library. It's not a place for children to be children so much, like you're supposed to be quiet. [laughs] They have children areas. It's not a place where you could be instead of being at school. You could go to a park. You could do that, but it's a park.
So if you think about it, if school didn't exist, where in the world, where in your world are kids going to be accommodated? There aren't really places to go and so, that's why I was like, “Homeschooling is very exclusive.” It's not something everybody can do and there are a lot of subgroups and not even subgroups, but maybe the dominating narrative of what a homeschooler is that I did not align with. I don't want to be aligned with religious fundamentalists. I don't want to be aligned with child abusers and people who want to keep their kids home because they want to shelter them from the world and they want to teach them their own worldview. I don't want to be aligned with that.
It probably is a good time to look at this again and it's sad in a way because when I needed it the most is when I was really trying to go hard [chuckles] to start this and get backing for it. But my kids are old now. They're teens now and it was really that age group when they were 7, 8, 9, pre-teen where it's like, where do these kids go if they're not in school? What can they do? Because I don't necessarily want to put them in just classes. I want them to have a rich experience and back then, I was really into self-directed education. So I was like, “If it's not a class, if it's not school, there's literally nothing.” [laughs] There's nothing they could do, but go play at the park, or hang out in the library for a few hours, or stay home.
So PopSchools was very homeschool, alternative school and it always had that aspect of like, “I need a place where I can go with my kids [chuckles] and I could do my work.” We had some things happen where even outside of being in school, my kids still weren't safe. [chuckles] So I was like, “I need to be somewhere where I know my kids are safe,” but I didn't have any money. I had less than $0 all the time [chuckles] and it's not really a position to start a business from. I did have a network and I did meet some great people in tech, VC, and all that and they were like, “Nikema, go get a job.” [chuckles] Like, “You need to get yourself stable, take care of your needs, and then once you're okay, then you can start working on that business. You can start putting your energy, time, and money into building the business that you want to build.” So I did that. I went out and got a job.
There's a lot of extra to story, too that I don't want to get into. But I think it was 2019 when I started this public Twitter job campaign where I was like, “Watch me get this job.” I think I was documenting my job search, documenting my interviews, and counting my rejections and I did finally get a group of offers in, I think it was 2019. Two were for solve engineering. One was for a community manager role. I took the community manager role because I was very much wanting to be in tech and in community. I don't want to be heads down in code because like I said, my superpower is connecting to people. So it's probably not the best use of if we're talking about, like Chanté said, the whole person [laughs] to sit me in front of a computer to code. I want to be in the community with people.
So I took that community manager role—it was also the highest base pay out of all my offers—and I connected with the hiring manager. So that was my choice and that was the last offer to come through. I took that and I worked there for a year. I just left in October of 2021. I was there for a year and a couple months and oh, I skipped over a lot. But talking about the whole person and I feel very strongly about equity and inclusion, I will say in tech, but specifically for people who are career switchers and so-called non-traditional technologists. I care a lot about that because I see things from this unique perspective, because I have experience as a student, I have experience as a founder, I have experience as just a parent, a single parent, someone coming from not a lot of money.
I have this unique way of seeing things and I can see very clearly when things are set up to exploit people and it pisses me off. It makes me angry and I had to learn how to that energy towards something productive. Because just throwing it out there and trying to scream into the void, it seems like no one's hearing you and it seems like the things that you're calling out are just being ignored. That's a waste of energy.
So I had to learn how to direct it and I started directing it by helping individuals and again, by showing up. Showing up and speaking, even if nobody's listening. I told myself, “When you're in these rooms with people that you admire and people who are influential, stand up and say something because nobody else has that perspective. Nobody else is going to say what you're going to say.” And it's not even possible. It's not possible for someone to speak your perspective and I had to learn that you need perspective is valuable.
There's a quote, and I really need to find out who said it first, [chuckles] but it's, “You're an expert in your own experience,” and I latched onto that because there's a lot of – it's another one of my pet peeves is this imposter syndrome thing. But there's a lot of people who are being made to feel like they're always going to be – I call it the tech underclass. You're always going to be lesser [chuckles] than the people who have degrees, or the people who've been in this for years, and the people who are already in the industry. Here you are coming from your non-traditional background and you're always going to be lesser than those folks, and you are going to have imposter syndrome, get used to it.
So I latched onto that idea of I'm an expert in my own experience and my experience is value. Bringing that up and speaking it out is adding value. It is doing a service and it's a service that nobody else can do. That's when I started kind of committing to myself that even if I'm scared, I'm going to stand up and speak. I'm going to let people know that I was in the room.
But I do want to talk about imposter syndrome. So my beef with imposter syndrome is not that it's not a thing. I'm sure it is, [chuckles] but I feel like it's being thrust upon us. I feel like people are saying, “You're a woman in tech. You're a person of color in tech. You have no degree and you're trying to get into tech and you're going to feel like a fraud,” and I don't feel like a fraud. Why are you introducing that to me?
I feel like another part that bugs me about it is that it's shifting the blame onto the individual for some actual, rational reactions to a hostile environment. If you're telling me, “Hey, it's natural, it's normal, it's okay to feel like you don't belong here,” you're kind of saying it's a me thing, but it shouldn't be natural and okay for me to feel like I don't belong here. Like, why is this environment not including me? I'm actually reacting to people pushing me out of this space, discriminating against me, and showing their bias against me. So what's wrong with me for noticing that? What's wrong with me for feeling that?
Why aren't we talking about the folks that are making this an unwelcome place? That are making people feel bad? Who are saying out loud, “We don't want you here”? It's putting the attention in the wrong place. Instead of saying, “It should not be okay, that should not be a normal thing to feel like you're not good enough and you don't belong.” I'm not saying that it doesn't exist. This is how I think of it. The actual definition is you are capable and skilled, but you feel like you're a fraud and someone's going to find you out. I don't think that should be normalized and encouraged, and I feel like it is being normalized and encouraged that it's normal to feel like you don't belong here.
DAMIEN: Yeah, it's rampant and it's something that a lot of people go through. The question is why? What is it about those environments that's causing that and why is it some people experience it and some people don't? I've seen the opposite of imposter syndrome. It is mindboggling.
ARTY: Well, there's this general first principle of whatever we focus on and grows and when we have these concepts, like imposter syndrome, that we learn about as these psychological concepts that then we internalize into ourself. Does that end up amplifying the experience of like if now I'm thinking about, “Oh, I have imposter syndrome and now I'm having all these feelings where I feel this certain way, too.” Do we end up amplifying those things even more by creating that frame and then as you said, normalizing it? It's like, “Oh, it's totally okay that you feel that way. You're supposed to feel that way. That's a normal thing.” Then we end up not dealing with the fundamental problems that we're actually creating these sort of tech, underclass, second class boundaries with the way we sort of create our group collective and we are pushing people out and then normalizing the fact that they feel unincluded.
I totally agree. It's putting attention on the wrong aspect of things such that as opposed to focusing on the things that are potentially corrective, that might improve the inclusivity of the culture and us thinking about how we're creating mental groups and how we can create more inclusive mental groups, instead we're normalizing the exclusion.
NIKEMA: Yeah. I almost titled my book, The Underclass, [chuckles] and I decided against that because again, I want to be positive [chuckles] and I'm probably still going to say some of the same things that I plan to say in that book. But this whole thing about – and this is part of the rage [laughs] that I have to redirect is because I went through a coding bootcamp that cost $30,000, up to $30,000 of potential future income for a lot of the students that attended that school and I saw the messages coming from the leadership and the people who were really gathering these people up and funneling them into bootcamps.
First off, I saw a lot of just wrong, [ chuckles] like wrong advice being given out and I saw a lot of cultural incompetency because a lot of these bootcamps are run by white men and a lot of the students are not that. So I'm like, “Here I am with this perspective, I'm a founder, I've talked to investors, I've been a student. I know how to code.” [chuckles] From that perspective of, I have a viewpoint that most students don't. So I'm seeing absolute wrong advice being given out. Like when we're talking about looking for that first job, your first job at tech, you're so-called breaking into tech, which I hate that term. We're not breaking in, let us in. [chuckles] Why should we have to break in?
DAMIEN: Open the door.
NIKEMA: Yeah. There are so many jobs that are not being filled. Why? Why are we gatekeeping? But wrong advice, like, “It's a numbers game. You might have to do hundreds of applications.” That's giving people wrong advice [chuckles] and it's giving people advice that you yourself never did. I know for a fact. These are people who have strong networks –
Oh, most egregious wrong advice. Part of the problem is these people were better marketers than people who could run a school. But there was a thread on Twitter. I remember seeing it. It was a young Black woman. She was graduating high school, she was going to college, and I think trying to decide about what college to go to and someone comes into this thread and recommends Lambda School to her and I'm like, “Absolutely fucking not. How could you?” Like, “How could you?” [chuckles] Like, “How could you tell a Black woman with all of this going for herself, who's going to be on a path to like –” I don't know.
I'm just saying you're suggesting something very low value and especially low value to a Black woman because the people who ran that school did not have the cultural competency to give advice to anyone other than white men, I'd say. Maybe abled white men. [laughs] I don't know, but just wrong advice. A lot of anti-intellectualism anti-degrees like, “Oh, this is better than a degree education.” Absolutely not. Credentials matter more for people of color, for people who are minoritized in tech. Your certificate from an unaccredited school means absolutely nothing compared to a degree in computer science.
So it's rage-inducing for me to see that people are being exploited and pointed towards these programs that are not going to do what they're advertised to do for them and they're not even capable of knowing that they're giving the wrong advice. I opted out of career services when I was in a bootcamp because I saw the kind of advice they were giving and that's part of my, I guess, I'm going to call it activism today is I really want people to know what's really up. I want them to not devalue themselves and not allow others to devalue them. Because these people who know good and well what's up, they know good and well how things work, are leading them astray and they're leading them into jobs that are going to underpay them and they're not going to be satisfying and they are misleading. Misleading in what it takes to get to where we're all trying to go.
I would just like to say to whoever's listening to this and you're maybe getting into tech, don't be discouraged, but also, do your due diligence. Before you start agreeing to pay anything that's tens of thousands of dollars, even thousands of dollars, see who these people are, see what the outcomes are, and talk to the students who have gone through that program. Talk to the students who weren't successful. Talk to the ones who were successful because a lot of these success stories are skewed.
When I went to bootcamp, it was better than free for me. I never had an income share agreement. I had a scholarship. I had a stipend. So I was actually getting paid to attend. I always like to say that you could take my story and make it look like a bootcamp success story, but you would not be seeing the 20 years before that when I started to learn how to code. You could tell that story in a way that doesn't show that part. You could say, “Nikema was this single mom with no job who joined Lambda school did 15 weeks, then got a six-figure job the next year.” That would be true, [chuckles] but that would not be a Lambda success story. That is, Nikema worked her ass off [chuckles] for decades before Lambda was even thought of to get to where she is today and I feel like that story is left out.
CHANTÉ: Nikema, that is such an amazing point to make and I want to run the balance of the time we have left, but I just want to say – I think we have a few minutes to get into reflections, but I just want to say before we do that, that having conversations about diversity and inclusion in tech doesn’t means really nothing to me. We need to have conversations about equity and accessibility because equity is actually what you're kind of describing here.
We have to be able to see the whole person and this is why sometimes it's important to call out the institutional and systemic racism that's widely pervasive in the industry and beyond that is happening all over our country, all over our world. and it is such, I hope a deeper conversation that needs to be had. I'm here for it if you want to come back, or we can continue the conversation on Twitter Spaces, or something. I'm there for that, invite me. But there's a lot here and I really appreciate you giving that advice because we do need to have open, honest, authentic conversations show who you really are.
I'm looking forward to getting folks' reaction, but I really want to move us into reflection, if that's okay, just to respect everyone's time.
NIKEMA: That's okay with me.
CHANTÉ: Anybody want to go first? Anybody, Arty, Damien, you have a reflection?
DAMIEN: I can go first.
Really, the thing I'm going to be taking away from this—and Nikema, thank you so much for joining us here—is that connecting through authenticity and the power of that. It's not the first time I've heard words of that nature, or that idea, but getting to witness it in-person has been a really powerful experience and that's going to be something that sticks with me for a while. So thank you.
ARTY: Yeah, I think you gave a very good demonstration of your superpower here, though of just being yourself, standing up, and saying what you believe and what you think and stuff. I can even see how those things just affected me and affected people in this room and being able to connect with you so that we could have a very real conversation.
I think the thing that I'm going to be taking away from this conversation is you talked about even when you're scared, you stand up and speak and you're going to let people know that you're in the room and that you are an expert in your own experience and nobody else has your unique perspective. I feel like that's something that all of us have so much power in ourselves to stand up and speak in our own authenticity for our own experiences and be in the room. Even when we're scared, to go after and do it anyway because by doing so, too it gives other people permission to do the same. It creates opportunity for other people to take their mask off and create space for them to be themselves and for them to stand up. It's kind of like a chain reaction that happens. So if we can all start to do that and all start to create space for people to do that, that's the kind of stuff that one person at a time changes the world.
CHANTÉ: Thank you for those. I'm really appreciating, Nikema your authenticity and your rawness. I think it's beautiful. It just really resonated with me. So I felt like I was listening to a version of myself, just listening to your story.
What I think I wrote down, the aspiration that you had about children and making sure that they feel like where in our world are they first class citizens. That really stuck out to me because I think that our youth is our future and I'm really committed in this portion of my life to building and doing whatever I can to make sure we build a future that is inclusive, equitable, and accessible to everyone. I think we’ve got to lean in and look at our youth and I hope that they're learning from some of our – not necessarily failures, but some of our places in our lives as adults where we fall short of kind of build world that's fair and awesome.
So I really want to take that and do something with it and I'm really inspired. Thank you.
NIKEMA: Thank you for letting me speak like, I can go on and on, so. [chuckles] I appreciate it.
CHANTÉ: Thank you. Do you have any reflections before we close off the conversation?
NIKEMA: Yeah, just last thing. I just wanted to say thank you again and I really appreciate and I have come to enjoy my story. It’s because of the things you told and it’s because I recognize that it is how I connect with others and that is the good side of the mutant superpower is that I do get to make real connections with other people.
DAMIEN: Thank you. Thank you so much for being here.Support Greater Than Code