In conversation with… Denise Williams
Denise Williams was raised between Haida Gwaii and Vancouver Island. Her family members are survivors of the residential school system in Canada and as a result experienced a complicated relationship with Western institutions of education. Yet as a child, Williams aspired to be an astronaut, so when she discovered her first computer and internet connection, she undertook all kinds of personal research and absorbed as much as possible in science classes throughout high school, college and university.
Her tech career resulted somewhat from her fascination with science, but also by virtue of her being the youngest and often the most tech-savvy person in her workplaces. Early in her tech career, Williams faced “considerable ageism, racism and sexism.” Now, she is a changemaker, a Women of Influence STEM* Star, and BC Business named her a Top 40 under 40.
At first, Williams rarely saw role models in tech leadership and she found it hard to identify with the women at the top, who tended to mirror their male counterparts. When she looked to Minerva and KPMG’s published scorecard data on the progress of women in leadership in British Columbia, it was clear that the tech sector lagged behind other sectors.
Today, Williams sees young, and increasingly feminist role models in executive positions and senior board roles at large companies, but fewer women in the startup community. “They don’t receive investments at the same rate,” said Williams. “I have great respect for angels and investors who avoid unconscious and conscious bias, and consider that women, marginalized and racialized people are safe to invest in.”
Policies and attitudes have advanced, but entrepreneurs still face barriers. As Minerva’s 2019 report states: “Women are still decades away from achieving equitable outcomes in the workplace.”
Williams agrees. While she sees diversity programming as a way to build awareness, it falls short of spurring transformational change for equity and inclusiveness. She believes that actionable and lasting diversity requires that everyone make their own personal connection, commit to allyship and lead from where they are.
“Have a personal journey, to acknowledge one’s own privilege, whatever that might be, and sit with that privilege in an uncomfortable way, and think about where you are an ally and where you are not. Only then can we begin collectively to step in the same direction, not in shame, not in judgment, but rather in understanding that we’ve organized ourselves societally around an economic pathway that isn’t serving any of us or the planet well. At that point, we can commit to doing allyship work, getting involved, and figuring out how to advance and transform.”
A side effect of such journeys is that those people are gradually becoming less nervous about discussing diversity. “I’m experiencing many more open questions. People, including men who identify as allies, those who do not identify as a woman or a woman of colour, are asking questions to better understand and to figure out what they can do differently.”
Meanwhile, changes happening from the top down are also encouraging. Williams has witnessed more investment in earnest by leaders, policymakers and decisionmakers. She points out that having women and under-represented people around the boardroom table or in executive leadership roles can result in a ripple effect throughout an organization, one that brings about better quality work and more success.
Making a difference
As CEO of First Nations Technology Council (FNTC), Williams applies her skills and networks to bring digital tools, technologies and training into Indigenous communities. She also works with her team on decolonizing curriculum and advocates for diversity and inclusion. After preparing a strategic plan, she focused on skills development by taking mobile computer labs out to communities. To motivate people across the community to be comfortable with and interested in technology. She also works with her team to build curriculum that is decolonized and Indigenized by making sure that what is presented incorporates Indigenous wisdom, ways of knowing and being about science, nature and discovery.
Although Williams never became an astronaut, she shares her fascination with science and inspires others to aspire to such careers. As part of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, Williams led the first iteration of the Connected Classrooms Project for kindergarten to grade 12. That major project was designed so First Nations students on reserves could study STEAM* subjects without having to leave their community.
At FNTC, Williams is involved in BC’s first Sector Labour Market Partnership where she is working with her team to address the under-representation of Indigenous peoples in BC’s technology and innovation sector and the growth of local digital economies though data, analysis, and to produce sound recommendations from which all levels of government will benefit.
Williams describes her current role at FNTC as “the culmination of all the dreams I ever had of being in science and technology myself, but instead mobilizing Indigenous Peoples to do what I was not able to. It’s the honour of a lifetime.”
Her takeaway applies to women, Indigenous Peoples and many other marginalized groups. “More diverse voices will challenge the structures put in place a century ago, like our current structures that see us treating each other as competitors and the environment as resources.” She would like to see us live in balance, with more humbleness, and “an awakening that we humans, for all our brilliance, have a lot to learn from our natural environment and the knowledge that exists beyond our capacity of consciousness.”
*STEM (science, technology, engineering & maths) / STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts & maths)
Reminder: Diverse applicants can apply for funding and entrepreneurship training in ocean technology before the upcoming August deadlines for the Ocean Startup Challenge and the Oceans Stream of Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) — Atlantic.