Uncommon Empathy: Face to Face with Our IDEO CoLab Design Fellow, Debrena McEwen

By Kirsten Lundgren, TechHire Oakland

Debrena moved from survival entrepreneurship, to skill exposure and skill mastery through the TechHire Oakland training ecosystem. Photo credit: Naomi Thompson.

Survival Entrepreneurship for Good

Poor communities of color produce uncommon talent. At the age of eighteen, Debrena McEwen bootstrapped a childcare business out of her own home to survive. And survive she did through her own agency — using basic technology to develop a website and marketing to support her business.

Eight years in, the 2008 recession hit. Economic pressures forced 90% of her client families to drop childcare services. She had to walk away from her business.

She accepted a job as a bus driver shepherding scientists to and from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, where engineers encouraged her to re-focus on work she loved again.

She took the cue and began working at Oakland-based non-profit, Wardrobe for Opportunity — tinkering with ways to automate their systems while dipping her toes in local hackathons and taking intro coding classes at the STRIDE Center.

Can’t Turn Her Empathy Off

Debrena went on to study at now-defunct Oakland bootcamp, LearnersGuild, where she upped her game as a software developer. She found herself fixated on the interactive value of the technologies she was building. “I couldn’t just be a machine from 9–5pm and turn my empathy off,” she explained.

She started diving into UI/UX design and exploring companies like IDEO that operate on the cutting edge of human centered experience.

Debrena b-lined it to the Kapor Center when she caught wind, last-minute, of TechHire Oakland’s design fellowship info session with IDEO CoLab — the R&D arm of the world-class innovation consulting firm.

When I met the Director of IDEO CoLab and heard about his background in business, I could start to imagine a place for myself. I had previously felt embarassed by my non-glamorous startup story, but felt confident to talk about and own it with him.”

TechHire Oakland talent learn about the Fellowship from IDEO CoLab Director, Joe Gerber

She got her application in that weekend and waited.

The Wildest Thing She’s Ever Done

IDEO CoLab’s Fellows are selected based not on degree qualifications, but rather, concrete skills demonstrated at a day-long makeathon (something we believe more companies should do). Debrena was invited to join. “Never have I been so efficient in such a short amount of time,” she recalls.

She found out she had been officially accepted as a Summer Fellow while parked in Old Oakland one quiet afternoon. “I screamed so loud that local security guards came to make sure I was okay.”

Once summer hit, she burst onto the scene of her two-month Fellowship, designing solutions for emerging technology projects (VR, AR, AI) that aren’t yet public. Most of her work focused on blockchain. She didn’t know much about the technology coming in, but learned fast — first in a series of week-long sprints, then during a final six-week sprint with a focus on implications for global censorship.

Candidates for the IDEO CoLab Fellowship are selected via an immersive makeathon

“I could see a world that doesn’t exist yet, but is on it’s way. IDEO CoLab really believes in the power of [their Fellows’] collaborative minds to do something useful for their client companies. I felt empowered, like I was doing work that has real impact. I don’t know where else I could do anything like this.”

Moving Towards Cracks of Light

Debrena came away with a new conviction around how she wants to work — more collaboratively, after many hours in cross-disciplinary teams; more humbled, after letting go of over 20 prototypes; and more technically and creatively, in combination.

She’s now hot on the job market seeking a design role that aligns. “I never felt confident previously applying for jobs. It’s hard to get experience when you don’t have experience. But I now feel I have the confidence to apply for those big jobs in UI/UX and be considered.”

Her advice to employers? “Give opportunities to people of color from poor communities. They have advanced skillsets in solving complex problems with creative and resourceful solutions because they have often been forced to do so to survive.”

Her advice to these communities? “You are brilliant as you are in this moment and every single day. Few will open the door all the way for you, but move towards those cracks of light.”