I was diagnosed with depression when I was a teenager. I was stubborn. I felt that depression was more of a sign of weakness, a lack of mental fortitude, than a chemical imbalance or something hereditary.
I dealt with the roller coaster of emotions that sometimes made it impossible to be as high functioning as I wanted to be. By the time I was 22 years old, I finally accepted the medication I needed to take me out of the hole.
In the early 2000s, I worked at several non-profit organizations — but even these liberal employers wouldn’t have hired me had they known about my depression.
I was even called “lazy” by some employers because I couldn’t work 14 hour days. I was told I wasn’t dedicated to “the cause”. I always ended up burning out and leaving. My mental illness was exacerbated by high levels of stress. I left those jobs, and it only reinforced my decision not to disclose my invisible disability.
Only in hindsight do I see how wrong those organizations were, and how much talent they probably lost in the process.
My depression was more or less in control. It was an ongoing fight, but I could still work a 9–5 job, and thrive.
In 2013, I saved up enough money to leave my job. I had the privilege to go backpacking through the world for 3 months, and I was able to visit several continents.
But that trip ended abruptly.
I had just landed in Bangkok and was settling into a hotel for the evening when my life turned upside down.
I don’t remember much of it.
I vaguely remember being strapped to a stretcher in the hotel elevator.
I remember being in the ICU.
I remember my husband telling me that I just had a seizure. That he thought he saw me take my last breath. But that was I was going to be okay.
I spent three days at Bumrungrad International Hospital, where I received world class medical treatment. All they could do was make sure that I was fit enough to leave the country. I never received a diagnosis for why I had the seizure.
I wasn’t the same after the seizure.
When I got back to the United States, I was barely able to stay awake during the day. I thought it might take a week or two to recover. But things never got better.
I was taken off antidepressants since they possibly contributed to my seizure, and my psychiatrist didn’t want to prescribe me anything new until I saw a neurologist. I tried to see a neurologist, but none were taking new patients. I was in a catch-22 where the entire medical system was failing me. And there was nothing I could do about it.
All the while, I spent every day in a fog. My mind couldn’t function. I could barely stay awake for more than a few hours at a time. I spent most of my days on the couch. I continued to hope that this would only last a couple more weeks. I needed to get back to work. I needed to get a job again.
When I did eventually see a neurologist, all they could say was that I had “abnormal brain activity”. My treatment plan was to rest, eat right, drink water, and avoid stress. You know, the things that every person should be doing anyway. . . and, there was no definitive timeline on how long it would take for me to get back to “normal”.
After months of living in this haze, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to hold a steady job anytime soon. I spent all my time trying to figure out where my life was going. I felt like a loser. Like I would never get to be like the rest of my peers. I would never have a career or be successful. My disability was going to take center stage for the rest of my life.
For the few hours a day when I wasn’t in a complete haze, I focused on improving my user experience design skills. I began creating fake projects for myself. I would go online and learn about new tools and trends in user experience design. I eventually started to work on my front-end development skills. I took on projects here and there, mainly to teach myself how to do it.
I eventually started to land some freelancing gigs doing UX work for a variety of companies, both large and small. This provided me with the flexibility to choose the kind of work I did, the hours I committed to, and the time of day I worked. It also provided me with space to let my health improve without feeling the stress of overcommitment.
However, taking on small projects here and there didn’t fulfill me professionally. My life has always been focused on making social impact. I didn’t feel like I was maximizing my impact by doing small jobs and working for other people.
Was there a way to hold myself to the high standards of working really hard to make a big change, while maintaining my health?
I didn’t think so. I decided to prioritize my health.
I moved to Colorado, where I could spend more time outdoors in a less stressful environment. Where I could focus on allowing my body and my brain to heal.
It wasn’t long before I began feeling anxious again. But this time it was for a different reason. When I entered tech spaces in Colorado, I was often the only woman, or the only woman of color. I felt unheard and ignored. I felt lonely and isolated. And this spiraled me back into a depression I wasn’t sure I could get out of.
Something was different this time, though. My depression turned into anger. And my anger turned into action. Instead of succumbing to my feelings, I went and started looking for people who would listen to me and hear me. People who wanted to see a more diverse and inclusive tech industry like I did.
I joined a team of women at Go Code Colorado’s annual hackathon. We built an app called <div>ersity, that would help employers connect to coders, developers, and engineers from underrepresented communities. We were selected as one of the finalists to pitch our business with a chance to win $25,000. We didn’t win, but so many people came up to our team afterwards and were excited to see where this business would go.
I hadn’t really considered becoming a startup CEO. I wasn’t sure if my body, mind, and health would be able to handle the pressure.
But I also knew that becoming my own boss would mean I could build a company culture that values health and accommodates the unique needs of people of all backgrounds.
I wanted to build a company where employees would be heard, feel valued, and could grow. I wanted to work with people from different socio-economic backgrounds, religions, ages, gender identities, races, visible and invisible disabilities, cultures, weights, or any other type of underrepresented background.
Since that competition ended, I’ve talked to hundreds of developers and companies from all over the world. I’ve heard the stories of so many people who have felt “othered” working in tech, and I know that companies are thirsty to find these talented people and bring them into their teams.
I haven’t had a seizure in 4 years. In the back of my mind, I’m always concerned that another one may come if I don’t take care of myself, so I do everything I can to reduce stress in my life and treat my body well. As of now, I believe that’s the only treatment option available to me.
This journey has instilled in me a stronger sense of empathy with people who have experienced struggle. I now know that disabilities don’t have to stop you from succeeding in the job or career of your choice. I want to create more spaces for people to understand that and embrace that. I hope that my startup can make a dent in creating more inclusive workplaces.
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Nina is the Co-Founder & CEO of <div>ersity, a startup focused on creating an equitable, diverse and inclusive tech industry. They are building a “Glassdoor for Diversity” where companies can highlight what they’re doing to create inclusive environments for people of all backgrounds, and where coders, developers and engineers from underrepresented groups can share their experiences in the workplace.
As a child of immigrants, Nina has always been passionate about social justice and improving the lives of marginalized people. She began her career in the non-profit world working to empower marginalized communities, then went on to get an MBA before teaching herself front-end web development and user experience design. With nearly twenty years of experience in non-profit and for-profit organizations, she decided to dive into the startup world, combining her community organizing, business, leadership and app development skills.
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