10 Questions with Danielle Forward

Product Designer at Facebook

Photo by Victoria Holden

Danielle is a Product Designer at Facebook, designing for emerging markets on Facebook Connectivity.

She was born and raised in Santa Rosa, California, and moved to San Francisco, where she graduated as valedictorian with her BFA in Interaction Design from California College of the Arts.

During college she had two internships at Facebook, both on separate teams for Internet.org.

Danielle is also the founder of Natives Rising, a website dedicated to highlighting Native American role models in tech and fostering mentorship connections for Natives in tech, design, and Native students.

  1. When did you decide you wanted to be in the tech industry?

It wasn’t intentional at first. I came to technology through art.

When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot, but we at least had pencils. I got really good at drawing, and I ended up pursuing an artistic pathway throughout high school.

At the time, I was really interested in Japanese animation and comics, so I wanted to get a job designing the logos for the English versions. I found out that was called “graphic design.”

As a graphic design major in college, I also had to take lots of humanities courses to fulfill the bachelor’s requirement. I ended up loving the humanities so much I got two AA degrees: one in Behavioral Science and one in Global Studies. My interests had expanded to include global and sociopolitical issues, and I wanted to bridge my existing skills (art & design) with something that reached those new issues I cared about.

It turned out that new ingredient was technology. I began studying “interaction design,” a newly coined field that incorporates both design and technology to address all kinds of human problems.

2. Who’s one (and please, no more than one) person in your life you looked up to when you were younger?

As a kid I used to be very shy, and I considered myself a timid person. So I would read lots of stories about people with courage — stories about heroes — which is where my love for Japanese animation and comics comes from.

But a dear relative was really the first person I met who had courage, a person I’ll call ‘Emma.’

I didn’t understand all of the complex constructs that boxed Emma in. She grew up in the 1950s, and she would tell me a lot about her first marriage, long before I was born.

She said,

“He used to beat me until I was black and blue. People would tell me, how are you gonna take care of those kids on your own? They would try to scare me to stay with him. After 20 years, I waited until our kids were grown, then I finally stood up to him. I told him I wasn’t afraid of him anymore.”

Before 1974 in the U.S., women couldn’t even get credit cards in their own name without their husband’s signature. For lower-income women with children, like Emma, economic dependence forced you to stay in relationships, whether they were abusive or not.

I didn’t understand what she was telling me at the time, as a little girl. But I understand now. It didn’t matter that she was at a disadvantage. She used to live in fear, but she ended up protecting us at all costs. I work hard to protect her now — so that her life can be better than it was.

3. Where’s your hometown?

Santa Rosa, California. Also known as occupied Pomo territory.

4. What’s a time you faced a struggle?

It took me 10 years to graduate with my BFA. When I say this to people, it’s not immediately obvious why, but there’s a lengthy historical reason.

I’m at the end of a long line of inherited poverty and trauma, when only a few generations ago, everything was forcefully (and many times, violently) taken from my Native American ancestors. As a result, my great, great grandparents grew poorer and poorer as immigrant European colonists and their children grew richer from the gold (cotton, tobacco, timber, and other things) they took from this land and sometimes, the slave labor that produced it.

“I’m at the end of a long line of inherited poverty and trauma, when only a few generations ago, everything was forcefully (and many times, violently) taken from my Native American ancestors.”

All laws and government institutions were biased in favor toward the colonizers that forced those systems to exist here, and my relatives and other indigenous people here were forced into poverty, violence, and despair, both systematically and directly. My family struggled to reclaim decent standards of living for decades since. I’m at the end of that line.

In the present day, we all know how expensive a good college education is. I did a lot of research to see how I could make progress towards my education while keeping costs low. My mom couldn’t help me financially, and my dad wasn’t in my life. So I used every strategy possible.

Community college was basically free in California if you used the BOG waiver, so I went there first and transferred to a 4-year college later. I lived with my mother to save on rent. I worked full-time while I took one community college class or two at a time. I kept focused on each checkpoint and all the prerequisites, slowly, until I reached the next milestone.

When you’re forced to go to college as slowly and incrementally as I did, working full-time to pay for yourself — it takes double, triple the time. Years and years went by. Things started to get easier as I built more skills, work experience, and a broader network of friends and colleagues.

I found that because I was kind to people, they wanted to help me. They would bend the rules so that my intense schedule would be a bit easier. I found that when I showed my passion and sincerity, people wanted to give me opportunities. Many times, by showing people who I really was, showing compassion, being a good friend, and showing my determination for my goals, people would offer me opportunities that weren’t there before.

Because I was always short on time, balancing work and school, I started finding ways to maximize every second. I picked up Zen Buddhist philosophy and started learning about meditation to improve my focus, decrease my anxiety, and decrease my attachment to things that kept me distracted. It helped immensely, almost more than any other strategy I’ve ever practiced.

Specifically, I read a lot of books by Thich Nhat Hanh. Most importantly, as a woman, Zen Buddhism (and studying sociology) helped me detach myself from patriarchal constructs in my mind. As I observed myself more, I had found out a lot of my time was spent thinking about boys, dating, or my physical appearance as a female — and it wasn’t serving me, it wasn’t serving my goals. Zen Buddhism helped set my attention free, and as a result, I reclaimed more of my time.

“Most importantly, as a woman, Zen Buddhism helped me detach myself from patriarchal constructs in my mind. As I observed myself more, I had found out a lot of my time was spent thinking about boys, dating, or my physical appearance as a female — and it wasn’t serving me, it wasn’t serving my goals.”

Eventually, during design school, my best friend helped me get my first design job. (Again, by trying your best to be a kind person, people want to help you). After working a few years as a product designer, I started attending my first semester at CCA when Facebook reached out to me to interview for a product design internship.

When I started my internship the following summer, I did absolutely everything to get another offer from them. Literally, my life depended on it. I couldn’t afford to keep going to college without the money I earned from that internship. I couldn’t afford to not be the absolute best.

I gave it everything I had, and I got another internship offer — which meant I could keep going to college, for my last and final year of the BFA I had been working on for 9 years. During college, I didn’t hang out with friends very much, if at all. I didn’t have time to go out. I was always studying. I had to make the most of every day, because I took too big of a risk on myself to not deliver on the promise that I was worth investing in.

Design school is expensive, and I had taken out student loans in my name, by myself — my mother was only able to sign for one loan for two semesters. Everything else was out of my pocket. I had over $100,000 in student loans in my name, along with thousands in credit card debt that financed a lot of my early twenties. Most of my peers did not have this problem.

As a result, I had to keep working full-time, or pick up contract work here and there during the school year. I used low-income housing. I used food stamps. It was because of my two Facebook internships that I was able to finally focus on school full-time in college, and not have to split my attention with work like I always did. I lived on the money I earned there so I could finally just be a student. It was everything to me.

I was so grateful, and still am, for Facebook and the people there that helped me grow. They gave me a full-time offer, and I went back to school to complete my final year. After 10 years, I graduated with my BFA in Interaction Design — as valedictorian.

5. What’s a time you did something you were immensely proud of?

Last year I delivered the commencement speech for my college graduating class to about 2,000 people — a speech about the intersection of art, design, and civil rights.

My family and friends were front and center to watch me at my very best. I got a standing ovation. Some of my professors had tears in their eyes as they greeted me after the ceremony.

No one knew I used to be so anxious that I would stay home from school if I had to give a presentation. In elementary school I would tell my mom I didn’t feel good, and she would let me stay home every time. When I was 9 years old, I missed so many days of school that my teacher pulled me aside, and very kindly asked me if I could “please not be sick” so much.

I had a lot of social anxiety as a child. So much that I even had my mom call my school in 3rd grade to tell my teacher to stop calling on me if I didn’t have my hand raised. It was never because I didn’t know the course material. I was actually set aside in class to do more advanced work. But my anxiety kept me back in other ways.

When I got older and realized this fear was in the way of me and my dreams, I did everything I could to break through. Now people look at me and say, “This is your strength.” To me it still seems unreal.

6. What’s something that’s been on your mind a lot lately?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I spend my time. As time goes by, it gets easier to see how great a particular time investment was. Your attention is your life. So I try to be mindful of where my attention goes, and why it went where it did. Would the future me be proud of where I put it?

“Your attention is your life… Would the future me be proud of where I put it?”

7. Favorite food?

Kale, avocados, unagi, shojin ryori, and sadly but nostalgically, pizza.

8. Mac or PC?

Oh, Mac, of course! But, I am a designer after all.

9. If you could try another job for a day, what would it be?

Social psychologist, cognitive scientist, and this isn’t really a “job,” but Zen Buddhist monk.

10. If you could give your 18-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?

If you train your eyes long enough, you’ll start to be able to see the cage you’re in.