Techies: Natasha Vianna
Original Interview: http://www.techiesproject.com/natasha-vianna/
Okay, so why don’t we get started. Tell me a little bit about your early years and where you come from.
I was born and raised in Boston. My parents are immigrants from South America, and I am the first generation American in my family. I grew up in acity called Somerville, a really nice area outside of Boston that’s been getting more attention lately. Mostly, it’s experiencing gentrification, partially led by Harvard, but ia nice diverse city made up of immigrant and working class families.
When my parents left Brasil for the U.S., they left behind interesting lives and successful careers there. A lot of people assume that every immigrant who came to the US was looking for a better life or to chase the “American Dream,” but my parents didn’t have much of a choice. My older brother needed open-heart surgery and the only hospital successfully operating on children was in Boston. So my parents came to the US so he could get the life-saving surgery and care that he needed.
“When my parents left Brasil for the U.S., they left behind interesting lives and successful careers there. A lot of people assume that every immigrant who came to the US was looking for a better life or to chase the “American Dream,” but my parents didn’t have much of a choice. My older brother needed open-heart surgery and the only hospital successfully operating on children was in Boston.”
Not knowing English or knowing anyone here, they realized pretty quickly that it was really hard work. With few options, they started their own house cleaning business. They made flyers that read, “We put your house to shining.” I was too young to really understand but when I found a copy of the flyer when I was about 13 or 14, I thought it was amazing. I showed my mom and we laughed for a moment, but we then talked about how hard it was for her to be a domestic worker.
After my parents divorced and my mother switched careers, I saw her blossom into this really awesome woman. She started her experiences and background to make positive changes around her. She became an advocate for immigrant women, survivors of abuse, domestic workers and became a bit of an organizer. As a kid, I didn’t fully appreciate what she did. I just assumed, “Oh, this is my mom. This is what all kids do. They go to these rallies, right?”
In your pre-interview that by the time you were 18, you already dealt with depression and experienced homelessness, you survived domestic violence, and you’ve given birth to a child.
A lot happened in my young life and I think when young people share their tough experiences, society’s first instinct is to blame their parents. My parents loved me, cared for me, and worked hard to do a lot for me. The issues I faced were complex and layered and the reality is that they were struggling too.
Sometime in my journey through middle school, I became depressed. I wasn’t sleeping, I was anxious, and I was having a hard time finding myself. My doctor was hesitant to label it “depression” and convinced my mom to take me out of my current environment to see if a change of scenery for an extended period of time would help me. She did. I spent 2 ½ months in Brasil with her and my brother learning more about my culture, visiting family, riding horses, and being away from what felt like a negative and toxic environment. But the trip had to end and I eventually had to come back home.
I think my parents were convinced that my peers were driving me into a downward spiral so they decided at the last minute to enroll me into a private catholic school in the next town over. Horrified, I spent days crying in my room. The new school was supposed to be a new chance for me to be around people who were smart and driven. The problem was that dozens of other parents felt that way too and sent their kids to this school thinking it would resolve all of their core issues. It ended up feeling like a space, a breeding ground, for young people with complex issues who were turning to drugs for relief.
“Since it was a Catholic school, we definitely did not receive information about making healthy choices around relationships, dating and sex. We weren’t provided with information on how to keep ourselves safe or recognize signs of abuse. We, the girls, were just expected to keep our legs closed.”
And since it was a Catholic school, we definitely did not receive information about making healthy choices around relationships, dating and sex. We weren’t provided with information on how to keep ourselves safe or recognize signs of abuse. We, the girls, were just expected to keep our legs closed. And the message at home wasn’t much different. I was the only girl among my siblings and often felt the burden of supporting my mother to help provide for the family. I did a lot of cleaning and cooking and my mom reminded me that as a kid, she was already the head of the house, hand-washing everyone’s laundry, cooking dinner every day and responsible as the head caregiver for her own 4 siblings. Her expectation for me was not to be an adult, but I was expected to be responsible.
“Having a lot of responsibility and never really getting the help I needed to cope with my issues made me a vulnerable target.”
By the age of 14, I was in school full-time, involved in a ton of extracurricular activities, babysitting and working as a hostess in a local restaurant so that I could help pay bills. Every month, I would help my mom sort through the bills and make phone calls to service providers to dispute charges or request help. My mom knew how to do this, but she explained to me that she felt her english was so bad that people would never take her as serious as they would take me. That even though she was a woman in her 40s, her broken english meant a child with no accent would have more respect in the US. And she didn’t get this idea from nowhere, it came from years of people telling her that they couldn’t understand her or that she should leave the country if she can’t learn english properly.
Having a lot of responsibility and never really getting the help I needed to cope with my issues made me a vulnerable target. During a very troubling time in my life, I met someone a little older than me who maneuvered his way into my life by offering what a young vulnerable girl needed at the time: support. And this isn’t an uncommon tactic. People can sometimes sense when someone is going through something or feeling very vulnerable, but there are certain kinds of people that feel that and use it to prey on them.
“During my junior year of high school, I found out that I was pregnant.”
During my junior year of high school, I found out that I was pregnant. I thought, “Oh my God! This can’t be happening to me. I go to a Catholic school! My parents will hate me.”
To of add a layer to that, I knew that my mother was also a young mom and then my grandmother was a young mom, that my aunt was a young mom, and it continues across several generations. And since they are Latinas, I like to talk about the reality of teen pregnancy in our culture. In our communities, young motherhood isn’t framed as a negative outcome. At the same time, young motherhood isn’t the expectation. But in a culture where women are denied access to quality education and/or prevented from pursuing careers, the next step in life for young women is marriage and/or motherhood. And that was the story for a lot of the women in my family. There was no reason to wait until 30. If you didn’t intend on going to college or establishing a career, what are you supposed to do for over 10 years between your high school graduation and the “ideal” age of motherhood. But what happened, at least this is how I see it, my parents assumed that because I was born in the US, that I would adopt American cultural norms and beliefs.
But I got pregnant at 17 and the first adult I told was my school nurse. In theory, you would think the school nurse would understand, what is essentially, your health condition and provide you with unbiased advice. You assume that as a medical professional, they will help you. Being in a Catholic school made my pregnancy a little more complex. What I heard was, “You already made a mistake so you can’t make another one.” Of course, this was the discussion around my reproductive choice and instead of providing me with all of my options and going through what the best choice was for me might be, I didn’t have a choice. Despite that, I walked away thinking about the reality that I could still get an abortion and no one would know. I could just do it, tell no one, and start all over. But I think my nurse knew that, so she told all of my teachers about my pregnancy. So here I am: pregnant, junior year in a Catholic school and I had nuns and teachers pulling me aside to tell me what decision I should make and shouldn’t make. “Oh, one sin can be forgiven but not two.”
“But I got pregnant at 17 and the first adult I told was my school nurse. In theory, you would think the school nurse would understand, what is essentially, your health condition and provide you with unbiased advice. You assume that as a medical professional, they will help you. Being in a Catholic school made my pregnancy a little more complex. What I heard was, ‘You already made a mistake so you can’t make another one.’”
I was young and really relied on the acceptance of the people around me. And I really believed that if everybody knew that I was pregnant, then noticed my belly wasn’t growing, that they’d know what I did. I thought they would judge me and I thought I would end up regretting the decision. I was stuck in a position where I couldn’t make the best choice for myself. And maybe the choice would have still been the same in the end, but at that time my judgment was so clouded. So, I decided to continue with my pregnancy.
I told my mom first and she couldn’t believe that her daughter was pregnant. And I don’t blame her. There’s an assumption and a false stereotype about what kind of girls get pregnant. And I didn’t “fit into” that stereotype as a responsible daughter, honor roll student, and class representative. My parents were upset and I can understand why. They worked really hard in a new country and fought so hard to shed themselves from the stereotypes that Latinos face in the United States. Then they discover their teenage daughter is pregnant. It felt like the ultimate stereotype and they didn’t support me. They kicked me out that day and I had to pack my things and move in with my boyfriend.
Oh my gosh.
That period was really hard for me, because I was leaving a home where I felt safe and in with someone who I barely knew. I was isolated from the only support system I ever had.
“My parents were upset and I can understand why. They worked really hard in a new country and fought so hard to shed themselves from the stereotypes that Latinos face in the United States. Then they discover their teenage daughter is pregnant. It felt like the ultimate stereotype and they didn’t support me. They kicked me out that day.”
To make things more complicated, he was a marine getting ready to leave for training. Before my first trimester ended, he was already gone and for the next 6 months, I was completely alone. And since I was no longer living with my parents, I finished my junior year of high school and enrolled as a senior in a new public high school.
In September of 2005, I started my last year of high school as the new pregnant girl. To top off the experience, my new guidance counselor learned of my pregnancy and decided to remove me from my honors classes and put me in slower-paced classes. When I asked her to put me back into honors, she told me that I probably wouldn’t even graduate and that I should just try to get by in the lower classes — as if she was doing me a favor. But my pregnancy wasn’t impacting my ability to function in class, and I wanted to learn and I wanted to feel challenged. I wanted to continue on the path that I was on, and I couldn’t do that if people were making decisions for me without involving me. Luckily someone else in the school knew about the situation and really wanted to be an advocate for me, and so she stood up for me and said, “Put her back in honors. If it gets to the point where it’s not going well then that’s a whole different story, but put her back in honors.” And they did.
The assumption is that our peers are the ones who will pick on teen moms or give us the hardest time, but they were actually the most supportive to me. My classmates were amazing. They brought me snacks, they carried my books, and they let me cut the lunch line. They asked me questions about what my experience was like, they offered to babysit, and they spent time with me so I wouldn’t feel so alone. In school, it was teachers who were judgmental and mean.
“Older women are celebrated, supported, and the people around them will help in any way they can. That doesn’t happen for teenage girls. When we are in pain or afraid, we don’t get help. We’re told our pregnancies are punishments and this is the consequence.”
These small gestures helped so much. I was too proud to ask for any assistance, because I didn’t want to be the stereotype of what a teen mom was. I wanted to prove people wrong because I often heard, “You became a teen mom because you wanted free stuff, you wanted handouts.” That fear of judgment actually put me in worse situations because– when I should have asked for help and when I should have gone to people to tell them what was going on, I didn’t want to, because I was afraid they were going to say, “I told you so.” or “You’re just like all teen moms.” People really don’t know what it’s like for a teenage girl to be pregnant, unless you were one yourself. Older women are celebrated, supported, and the people around them will help in any way they can. That doesn’t happen for teenage girls. When we are in pain or afraid, we don’t get help. We’re told our pregnancies are punishments and this is the consequence.
My daughter’s father returned four days before I went into labor. During my daughter’s delivery, there was a moment when I started panicking. Her birth was recorded so I can still watch the moment when I went from grunting to crying to staring at the ceiling. See, throughout my entire pregnancy people said things like, “This child’s going to ruin your life. You’re life is over. You’re not going to be able to do any of the things you ever wanted to do. This is the worst thing that could happen to you.” So as I was giving birth to her, I started panicking, because I realized I was giving life to the person who would end mine. And how do I love someone who is meant to ruin my life?
Because of that experience and internalized belief, I had a very negative journey through the first few years of motherhood. I was diagnosed with depression and prescribed anti-depressants. To make matters worse, I was in a horrible relationship and was constantly told that teen moms like me are never taken serious and that no one wanted to love a woman with stretch marks and a baby. There was no one cheering me on, no one who believed in me, and I felt entirely alone.
At the same time, I was constantly facing barriers in school. The school was only required to offer me tutoring in 4 of my 7 classes during maternity leave. It was the minimum required to help me simply pass the school year. But I didn’t want to just pass, I wanted to do well in every class and graduate with a good GPA, like I would have before my pregnancy. So my psychology teacher volunteered to come to my house every week and tutored me in all 7 courses. She brought my exams and quizzes and held my daughter so I could take them. She held my textbooks while I breastfed and was always proud of my progress. Returning to school was tough, the other teachers weren’t as fond of me or my “situation.” They would refuse to meet with my after school for help and embarrass me in class. One teacher told me in math class that there was no way I could catch up, so I proved her wrong by acing the class.
“I even had to fight for things like the right to pump breast milk twice a day. The school didn’t want to let me because they thought I was trying to find excuse to get out of class. Right. Because what every 18-year-old girl wants is to like skip her lunch break so she can be sit in the nurse’s office pumping milk and nibbling on crackers.”
But I even had to fight for things like the right to pump breast milk twice a day. The school didn’t want to let me because they thought I was trying to find excuse to get out of class. Right. Because what every 18-year-old girl wants is to like skip her lunch break so she can be sit in the nurse’s office pumping milk and nibbling on crackers. That is so much fun.
I dealt with a lot of people who constantly tried to limit my choices and my future. Then closer to the end of that semester, I went back to my guidance counselor’s office to ask if she could help me look over college applications. Most of my friends had already applied and had already found out where they were going, and I was late but wanted to do make it happen. Her response without even making eye contact with me was, “Well, let’s see if you even graduate high school first.”
I walked away from that and thought, “Oh, she’s probably right. I probably won’t be able to do this, and I should probably take things one step at a time.” So I didn’t apply for college. Now, the good news is I did graduate high school on time and I did walk the stage with my class. I did get to stay in my honors classes throughout the whole year, and I did well in all of them, despite being a teen mom. I think, actually, I did better in school because I was a teen mom and because I had something else motivating me to do even better. But people outside of me and my daughter’s life didn’t see that.
So, you graduated, you didn’t go straight to college — what were those next few years like for you?
When I was in high school I really, really wanted to go to med school. I wanted to become a psychiatrist. Having been a young person who coped with depression, I knew what people like me needed and I understood the differences in cultural understanding of depression. For example — parts of my family are really religious and there have been times people said things like, “You’re not depressed, you’re just dealing with something. Pray to God. You’ll be fine.”
“No one in my family filled out a college application. I had no idea of what that process was like, I had no idea of what you were supposed to do, when you were supposed to do it, what was normal, what wasn’t.”
I knew at a young age that this was not right. I just couldn’t articulate or figure it out, but I wanted to become a psychiatrist so that I could serve and help young people, like me. Now, the idea of going to med school was really overwhelming because again, my parents were immigrants and they weren’t citizens, and they weren’t in the best financial places, and no one in my family had ever gone to college. So I knew that first, they wouldn’t able to co-sign loans for me and I felt overwhelmed at the thought of the expense. And even if I chose another career, I didn’t know how to navigate the process.
No one in my family filled out a college application. I had no idea of what that process was like, I had no idea of what you were supposed to do, when you were supposed to do it, what was normal, what wasn’t. The idea of a young mom with no support becoming a psychiatrist felt way too overwhelming. It felt unattainable. So what I did was, after I graduated, that summer I looked at local state and community colleges that would accept late applications.I might not be able to become a psychiatrist right away but I can start the process by becoming a nurse. It seemed a little more attainable and promised a guaranteed job. So I applied for college, started in the fall, finished off my prerequisites, and prepared for a career in nursing.
“I entered college with a new identity. I didn’t tell anyone that I was a mom, including my professors. I just so badly wanted to be treated the same as everyone else.”
I entered college with a new identity. I didn’t tell anyone that I was a mom, including my professors. I just so badly wanted to be treated the same as everyone else. The problem was that I was still facing unresolved issues and an internalized belief that I was not valuable. So I didn’t ever explain anything to my professors and by my second year of school, I dropped out. I didn’t have reliable childcare, I was still coping with depression, and I was working a full-time job and living on my own. I decided that if I was going to accomplish anything, I needed to take care of myself. That I was going to focus on being a good mom and practice self-care.
Wow. How did you end up in tech?
That’s a great question. It’s quite a little bit of a journey from that point to getting into tech. I don’t have a traditional tech background, as I think a lot of people do out here. After I took this break from school I started focusing on myself. I started to deconstruct and redefine what it meant to be a young woman and single mother in today’s society. I started talking to other young moms — which was life-changing — because it really helps when you don’t feel as isolated.
I started realizing that thousands and thousands and thousands of young women across the country are dealing with the same exact thing. 100,000 teens give birth every year — more than 80% were unplanned — and so many of them drop out of school, or feel pressured to leave or didn’t receive the support that they need to stay. Yet, many some of them share that it’s not actually pregnancy and parenthood that makes their lives hard, as we often hear, but it’s actually the way people treat us. It’s the way that our educators treat us. It’s the way a lot gate-keepers treat us. It’s the ways in which people invalidate who we are as just women and humans in society. The minute we become young parents we’re labeled as irresponsible, and told we’re awful people, and that we should just be isolated and not exposed to the general public because we’d cause an “epidemic.”
So I began looking at ways to counter-message the false reality that young mothers are not productive members of our society by leveraging the power of new tech, like social media. My first time trying out this theory was with the Children’s Hospital in Boston, where I developed a comprehensive strategy for using new tech to eliminate the feeling of isolation among over 500 young parents in Boston. That opportunity led to a hire at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital where I expanded the program to make an impact on reducing health disparities and improving health outcomes in the lives of young mothers of color in Boston. Then I was hired by the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy where I worked on a $5M dollar grant from the CDC to reduce the teen pregnancy rate in two cities by 10% in five years. In a few months, I helped develop a social marketing campaign for two cities. We reached our 5-year targets before year 3.
“Initially, I thought, ‘There is no way I want to work in tech. I can’t give into that culture or space because, well, it’s tech.” I thought, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t be for racial justice and reproductive justice and work in tech. That doesn’t make sense.’”
While all of this was happening, I also started a grassroots campaign called #NoTeenShame to change a terrifying message that organizations like the Candies’ Foundation and multi-millionaire CEOs like Neil Cole share with teenage girls about sexuality and choice and I partnered with six other young moms from different parts of the country for its launch and within a week, it went viral and we were being featured in everything from Ms. Magazine to Business Insider. It was exciting for people to see seven young moms of color across the country were starting a campaign against this multimillionaire CEO. It went viral to the point where he caught wind of it and wrote a response on The Huffington Post about it. It was not the response we were hoping, but it was a win for us none the less. Once that happened, we started getting contacted by just about every organization in the United States that was working with young people to get our insight on how to do the work better and more effectively. We got really busy really fast and people just started reaching up to us and asking, “Well, how can we replicate the models that you guys have used in your respective organizations to help young people? What should we be doing differently?” The series of all those events led to me developing strategic frameworks for using new technology for social impact and finally presenting at a tech conference here in San Francisco last year.
For a long time I envisioned tech as the enemy — I’m a reproductive justice activist. I’m a racial justice activist.
When I wased in San Francisco, I met someone on the executive team at a startup called Honor (where I work now) who was interested in the work that I did,how I accomplished it and how creative I was in using very little resources to accomplish a massive goal. And so we started talking, and I met other people on the executive team. Initially, I thought, “There is no way I want to work in tech. I can’t give into that culture or space because, well, it’s tech” And so coming into this space, I thought, “I can’t do that. I can’t be for racial justice and reproductive justice and work in tech. That doesn’t make sense.” I had this assumption that social justice didn’t fit into tech, but I think that’s because I based my opinions on the negative stories I heard on the east coast. But once I met the people that were leading the company, I realized that so much of what I assumed about the people in Silicon Valley were wrong. But also that someone like me can still be in tech and be a valuable asset to the work. And as weird as this sounds, I do think I found that special startup that actually developed a really good frame from the very beginning of how they do work. So, I waited a while and I thought about it, went back to Boston, and decided to pursue the opportunity. I thought to myself, “Oh my god. I was 27 years old. I have a daughter. I’m a single mom, and the only family that I have in the US are just four people who live in Boston. And now I’m accepting the opportunity to move to San Francisco to work in tech.” And that was hard to wrap my head around.
It was actually my mom who said, “Natasha, you can do this. You’ve overcome way harder things in your life.” When she was 27, she was on her way to the US for a completely different life. And so she said, “I did it, and I’m not saying that we’re the same. But you can move across the country to pursue this. You can do this.” She also reminded me that I had to think about my daughter who’s really interested in science and has been going to all these science clubs. I now have an opportunity to actually be in this field, to actually be in tech, and provide her with an inside view of what this world is really like. She can watch me go through this process and this journey, and she’s going to see how hard it is. She’s going to see the good and the bad, but she’s going to see it. And she’s going to appreciate it. So, it was a combination of those things that made me decide to say yes to the new field and the big move.
So, what was Silicon Valley like for you when you first got here?
There’s been positives and negatives. One of the things that I actually had to overcome when I came here is how fast everything moves. It’s really fast-paced. Everybody told me it was like this, but it was ten times faster than what I’d prepared myself for. And initially, it was really hard, but I also had a really supportive group of people here where they were willing to help me adjust.
“I love that when I’m having lunch and sitting at a table with people who are amazing engineers, or accomplished healthcare professionals, and talented organizers. And we all sit at a lunch table enjoying each other’s company and discussing the very different experiences we’ve had — and how those diverse experiences shaped such an incredible company.”
The other difficult transition is coming from a space where I talked about racial and reproductive justice 24/7 without filtering myself. Prior to this role, I went to networking events where we introduced ourselves by identifying which pronouns we prefer, the issues we’re working on and how we identify. It’s much different here where I’m often asked to introduce myself by position, educational background and accomplishments. And even when I went to events centered on inclusion, I didn’t feel included. How are so many companies hosting an event on improving inclusion in the tech sector, hosting in spaces that are difficult to access, and not offering things like child-care?
What has been most exciting of activating for you in your work here?
What’s been most exciting is the people that I get to work with. I love that when I’m having lunch and sitting at a table with people who are amazing engineers, or accomplished healthcare professionals, and talented organizers. And we all sit at a lunch table enjoying each other’s company and discussing the very different experiences we’ve had — and how those diverse experiences shaped such an incredible company.
Despite growing up 5 minutes from Harvard and 10 minutes from MIT, I felt so disconnected from people in tech. They seemed so unreachable and different. And I didn’t always see them as the people I wanted to aspire to become. The Harvard grads were the ones moving into our community, pushing families out of homes, so 5 or 6 students could move in, bumping up rent from $1000 to $3000, a profitable idea for landlords. So I witnessed how the growth and expansion of schools like Harvard led to the immersion of grad students into my community, which meant the immigrant and working class families had to leave.
“Despite growing up 5 minutes from Harvard and 10 minutes from MIT, I felt so disconnected from people in tech. They seemed so unreachable and different. And I didn’t always see them as the people I wanted to aspire to become.”
That played a role in how I perceived tech, even though I was using platforms like Facebook. It didn’t occur to me that someone not too distant from me created this. To the teenage me, it was just something that was created by someone somewhere. It took years before I learned that it was created 5 minutes from my house.
It was cool, but it frustrated me because I felt like there were so many issues impacting young people in Somerville and Cambridge and no one seemed to care. And it was frustrating to see people come from all over the world to study here, learn from the community, then leave forever. Now that I’m on the inside, I see how difficult it is to create tools that are genuinely helpful to people — especially if it’s for people of low-income. And it’s frustrating.
I’m curious to know how that experience, seeing that tech ecosystem in Boston affects the way that you feel about the state of tech here right now?
Boston’s tech scene is very different than it is on the west coast. It’s thriving, but in a very different way. So although I was involved there, it didn’t help much when dealing with imposter syndrome. I think we often frame and consider imposter syndrome as a one time occurrence that we overcome. But what I learned is that it’s a life-long issue that you’re constantly battling. See, when my Boston friends learned the news of my move to San Francisco to work for an Andreessen-Horowitz backed startup, they were amazed. To them, I was doing what so many wished they could do and I was supposed to feel like “I did it!” And I did, but there’s still the reality that you’re constantly needing to be ahead of everyone else and doing incredibly well. I love the field and where I work, but there’s internal self-created pressure to make sure I’m outdoing myself.
“When everyone around you has very similar background, you can sometimes still feel like an outsider. I didn’t have the typical college experience, I didn’t have those amazing internship opportunities, and I didn’t have parents who could introduce me to really cool people or get me jobs or even read over my essay to see if they were grammatically correct. Growing up, I had to do and figure out all of those things on my own.”
But when everyone around you has very similar background, you can sometimes still feel like an outsider. I didn’t have the typical college experience, I didn’t have those amazing internship opportunities, and I didn’t have parents who could introduce me to really cool people or get me jobs or even read over my essay to see if they were grammatically correct. Growing up, I had to do and figure out all of those things on my own. So part of the culture shock is being lost in the conversations centered around privilege.
The other thing too that I notice out here that never happened to me before is we meet people and they’re constantly extracting from you. “What are your thoughts on this?” and “What are your thoughts on that?” And I’m hesitant to share information because also as a woman of color and having done really great work over the past decade I’ve constantly experienced situations where people with power will take a little bit of information from me and then turn it into something that they get credit for. And so, there’s this constant erasure that happens to young woman of color, so I’m hesitant to engage based on this historical experience. Especially if they’re not being transparent with me.
“I’m hesitant to share information because also as a woman of color and having done really great work over the past decade I’ve constantly experienced situations where people with power will take a little bit of information from me and then turn it into something that they get credit for. And so, there’s this constant erasure that happens to young woman of color, so I’m hesitant to engage based on this historical experience.”
The other piece is that I have internalized stigma as a teen mom and it pops up from time to time. I tend to find myself avoiding conversations that might turn into a discussion about me being a single parent that turns into facing a series of invasive questions. Because it happens. Too often. And it’s not intentional, but their unconscious bias just starts surfacing, and they ask, “Well, how old’s your kid? How old are you? Oh my God, that mean’s you were in like…” You literally see them every time look up, do the math, and they’re like, “Oh my god, you were 17! What was that like? What did your parents say?” And it just turns into this whole dialogue that I don’t want to be a part of. Interested in my story? Go read about it or watch Gilmore Girls. I don’t want my struggles to be the center of discussion, especially in a society where we were made to believe that teen parenthood is a bad thing.
How has everything we’ve talked about, both your experiences in tech so far, and your upbringing, and all of your cumulative experiences, how does that effect what is priority to you here? What is priority in a job, what is priority in what you’re trying to get out of Silicon Valley?
So it’s actually really interesting, because I feel like a lot of people out here are really focused on long-term planning. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s necessary, but I feel like my goals are very different than a lot of people in my position. And that has a lot to do with the reality of how much progress I’ve already made in the past decade. I’ve met and exceeding so many of my own expectations for this period of time and I wanted to spend time acknowledging that and perfecting and improving everything I do now. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to push myself to grow more. I’m focused on ensuring what I do on a daily basis is amazing and meaningful — I’m focused on leaving behind a legacy that my daughter would be proud to share with her grandchildren.
I think a lot about how my mother’s move to the US changed the entire future of our family. So I can’t help but wonder what amazing choices I can make that will continue to do that. If I have the power to shape an incredible future generation, I will do that. And I want to be present today, enjoying my life and my daughter’s life — not waiting for happiness in the form of monetary success.
I’m curious to know how much you’re balancing what you’re working on now and the activism that you’ve been involved with so long, and what it’s like being a part of both of those worlds, especially in the context of San Francisco.
After accepting a position in tech, I thought that I could still be an activist and a writer. But I realized that it was going to take a lot of my mental capacity and energy to adapt to startup culture and do my work really well. Although my personal work is always with me, I knew that I moved across the country for this amazing opportunity and I wanted to dedicate as much a possible to meeting my expectations. Prior to my move to San Francisco, I was presenting at different conferences and organizations across the countries and being asked to do a lot of consultant and advisory work. I had to start declining a lot of those opportunities. And I had to adjust to the realization that nobody in this sector knows me, which is different than Boston.
“Prior to my move to San Francisco, I was presenting at different conferences and organizations across the countries and being asked to do a lot of consultant and advisory work. I had to start declining a lot of those opportunities. And I had to adjust to the realization that nobody in this sector knows me, which is different than Boston.”
Outside of work, my only priority is being a really amazing mom. That can be challenging when you’re working in an environment where working moms aren’t the majority. The ways in which you use and prioritize your time is different and participating in after-hours anything is often a challenge, even though they’re usually necessary and important. Childcare is an obstacle when you’re a single mom in a state where you have no family and feel like you’re already spending too much time away from your kid.
How’s your daughter liking San Francisco?
She loves it but hates the hills. I hate it more than she does honestly but she likes it here a lot. Ha!
She’s really thoughtful and friendly so she made a new best friend within her first week in school. It’s been super easy for her in that way. And like I mentioned earlier, she’s now really interested in Science. Back in Boston, she participated in many different science clubs and programs. It helped expand what her understanding of science was and she became really excited about the opportunity for me to work in tech. And I’m glad she felt good about the choice because I hope she can face an obstacle one day and remember that, “My mom went through this too.” And we have deep conversations about girls in STEM and what it’s like to be a girl in a lot of the science programs. It was interesting to me that she wasn’t interested in the field because of the cool “perks” but because she sees this space as the space where she can do amazing things. Her mission is to promote eco-friendly lifestyles and find a cure for Alzheimer’s. After my grandmother passed from Alzheimer’s, she felt deeply connected and spent a year asking me countless questions. She knows we’ve created tech to do some amazing things and hopes she can do something amazing too. And I’m going to nurture her interest in science until she does exactly what she wants to do.
“I think a lot about tech’s impact on marginalized people, and not just how they use the service but how they actually can be included in the development of new tech.”
How do your friends and family from home feel about how far you’ve come and all you’ve accomplished?
They’re really happy for me. Actually, I had one friend who she really said, “Natasha I think you did everything you could here. You literally accomplished everything and there wasn’t a better next step than this.” My mom is really proud.
How you feel about the state of tech in 2016? What excites you, what frustrates you, what would you like to see change?
I think a lot about tech’s impact on marginalized people, and not just how they use the service but how they actually can be included in the development of new tech. This is where my previous experience overlaps with what tech is missing — the ability to always center the needs of the people they’re targeting. When we’re talking about young people, I’d love to see them getting the support and resources they need to turn their innovative ideas into reality.
“As a mother in tech, I also faced the reality that so many of the programs meant to nurture girls’ interest in STEM are not easily accessible. The programs are often replicating the very same systems that worked for people already in tech. I’ve found myself feeling like the burden falls on parents to fix the pipeline issue and get girls into STEM.”
As a mother in tech, I also faced the reality that so many of the programs meant to nurture girls’ interest in STEM are not easily accessible. The programs are often replicating the very same systems that worked for people already in tech. I’ve found myself feeling like the burden falls on parents to fix the pipeline issue and get girls into STEM.
One example is my daughter had science club on Saturday mornings, and it was at a college campus, which has its pros and its cons. The pro is that it’s great to send girls to a college to see what that environment is like. The con is that it’s often inaccessible for a lot of parents and families and it requires a lot of commuting. And then the classes are so short that parents, can’t just drop off their kids at the program and then go home or doing something else and then come back. They must sit there waiting. So parents are asked to spend a few hours every weekend getting their kids to this program, waiting for them, and then commuting back home. And that could be a barrier to some. The other barrier, of course, is a lot of these programs are really expensive, so if you’re creating programs that are supposed to improve diversity but they’re really expensive, only the people who make enough money to afford it it will be able to get their children into it. There’s usually a financial aid or scholarship application, but it puts the burden on parents who are now of low income to prove to the program that their children deserve a chance. Now you have moms and dads or grandparents, being asked to fill out applications that ask invasive questions about their finances.
“They’re asking parents who are already dealing with a lot to prove and to open up about these issues with people they don’t even know, so that their kid can have an opportunity that they deserve. What if parents don’t even speak English or what if they’re undocumented and don’t have tax documents proving they are of low income?”
They’re asking parents who are already dealing with a lot to prove and to open up about these issues with people they don’t even know, so that their kid can have an opportunity that they deserve. What if parents don’t even speak English or what if they’re undocumented and don’t have tax documents proving they are of low income?
This is probably related to gender diversity, but you wrote in your pre-interview that you think men should lean out.
Before I joined tech, the concept of “leaning in” surfaced onto my radar. Initially, it felt like this was being proposed as a new idea, something that’s rarely been done before. It frustrated me. I’ve spent most of my life leaning in for survival. And leaning in is simply what marginalized women across the nation have been doing for their basic human rights for decades.
“Before I joined tech, the concept of “leaning in” surfaced onto my radar. Initially, it felt like this was being proposed as a new idea, something that’s rarely been done before. It frustrated me. I’ve spent most of my life leaning in for survival. And leaning in is simply what marginalized women across the nation have been doing for their basic human rights for decades.”
And when I look at the core issue, it’s equity in the workforce. Women aren’t paid fairly, but women didn’t create the unfair ways in which women are compensated. And women of color make significantly less than white women, and face higher rates of discrimination at work. Women leaning in can help change the ways in which women are perceived and treated, but men leaning out create genuine opportunities for women to rise. Leaning out as a man can mean giving up your spot on an all male panel to offer a woman on your team the opportunity, or giving press ops to women, being vocal about the important roles women hold in the company, and of course, paying them a fair and equitable salary. Because the burden of making the workforce fair and equitable shouldn’t be ours to carry.
“Leaning out as a man can mean giving up your spot on an all male panel to offer a woman on your team the opportunity, or giving press ops to women, being vocal about the important roles women hold in the company, and of course, paying them a fair and equitable salary. Because the burden of making the workforce fair and equitable shouldn’t be ours to carry.”
What advice would you have for those of similar backgrounds hoping to get into tech?
We’re all facing different obstacles or adversities, and there are periods in our lives where we may feel like we can’t do what we want. And when we live in a negative environment, you’re not just internally facing challenges, but you’re getting that external negative validation. Whether you are a teen mom or a young person facing any of the many obstacles that make our lives unnecessarily harder than it needs to be, stay focused on your own dreams. Find a mentor or two who are smart and kind, and only trust them for advice and guidance.
And constantly work on yourself and making you the best version you can be. We like to believe that at some point in our lives we reach our full potential, but what if it’s a life long journey where we’re constantly learning and constantly changing and improving? Don’t feel like you have to be the final version of you at this very moment, just be willing to learn. Stay true to who you are and accept that you are a work in progress.
“Don’t feel like you have to be the final version of you at this very moment, just be willing to learn. Stay true to who you are and accept that you are a work in progress.”
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