Who doesn’t want to be Shuri? The self-assured, witty and unapologetically brilliant younger sister of T’Challa has not only won over millions of Black Panther fans but, experts note, may also be turning a generation of young girls—black girls in particular—on to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
But is the world of STEM ready for them? Earlier this month, The Glow Up spoke to Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO of DreamBox Learning and one of the few black female CEOs in tech, to ask her thoughts on how to foster interest in STEM work; what companies can do to keep and nurture the talent that’s already there; and how she’s trying to make her workplace a safer, more inclusive and supportive space for workers of all backgrounds.
As FiveThirtyEight noted in a recent article (h/t to Damon Young at Very Smart Brothas), “The volume of evidence shows that when audiences see on-screen representations of themselves, particularly aspirational ones, that experience can fundamentally change how they perceive their own place in the world.”
DreamBox Learning provides online math education software for children. Even as a CEO, Woolley-Wilson says she still sometimes gets mistaken for support staff while waiting to be called in to a road show presentation for potential buyers.
“Many people that I encounter are just not prepared,” Woolley-Wilson tells The Glow Up. “They’re not used to seeing a black woman walk in the door and ask for $10 million of funding.”
Closing the math gap and creating equity in opportunity and achievement is part of what drives Woolley-Wilson, and her company could very well soon become one of the tools that real-life Shuris have to gain comfort and familiarity with math.
“I’m devoting my career to unlocking the learning potential of every child regardless of where they live, what zip code they live in, or what they look like or what language they speak,” Woolley-Wilson says.
Building an industry where more leaders look like her, Woolley-Wilson says, means fostering education, exposure and cultivation. And when it comes to education, she says, parents and educators need to be willing to part from a generalized approach and get specific, even at a young age.
“It’s really important to start STEM young so that kids get exposure,” she points out. “When kids are exposed to STEM fields earlier, with specialties, they thrive. They do well.”
Second, students need to understand the relevance of math and broaden their understanding of how it applies to their lives. This is especially important, Woolley-Wilson says, because math is the “underpinning of science, technology and engineering.”
“It’s not just because everyone should grow up and be a coder or an engineer,” Woolley-Wilson says. “But technology is transforming how we live. The algorithms that drive Facebook, the algorithms that help people to compose music .... All of those things are impacted by mathematics.”
Woolley-Wilson lauds the work of organizations like Black Girls Code, an organization she says she loves because it’s about creating fundamental shifts in belief “in the hearts and minds of young black girls and in employers about what young black girls can do in engineering and coding.”
But apart from building mathematical and technical skills, there is the importance of building leadership skills at a young age, something, she also notes, you don’t necessarily pick up in school.
“I think about my background; I think about how did I learn to be a leader? I didn’t go to school to be a leader,” Woolley-Wilson says.
In fact, she says, her earliest and most formative experiences with leadership came from being a Brownie and a Girl Scout.
“I learned sales, territory management; I learned inventory management. I learned presentation skills. I learned financial skills,” she says. “They weren’t labeled as such, but my mother was not one of these mothers who sold my Girl Scout cookies for me. She forced me to go out and knock on doors.
“I said, ‘What if they close the doors?’ And she said, ‘Well, how many doors do you have access to?’” Woolley-Wilson adds.
One way to build those opportunities for exposure, Woolley-Wilson says, is for girls of color to see those possibilities for themselves “in flesh and blood.” She advocates giving young people six-week stints in different environments, “where they will have enough opportunity to experience somebody like me and to ask questions about how I got there so that they could discover it’s not very planned.”
Of course, Woolley-Wilson isn’t just concerned with raising the future; she also wants to prepare women in the field today who are ready to take on more responsibilities and greater roles within the industry. She notes that social media has made it easier to find and recruit diverse candidates, but the work of achieving gender and racial parity in tech doesn’t stop at recruitment. Once a hire is made, Woolley-Wilson says, it’s important to understand people’s aspirations and goals.
A lot of that work is on the company, she notes.
“We need to make sure that ... we are still actively and intentionally soliciting input from diverse candidates about what their career aspirations are,” she says. “We need to make sure that we articulate what the success requirements are for internal progression. We need to encourage lateral moves, so that they can have a more well-rounded experience and skill set to prepare them for leadership and to be successful in leadership.”
“We need to invest in them, in their leadership development, through internal coaching and through external coaching,” she continues. “And we need to make a commitment that internal progression, career development is very important.”
Because Woolley-Wilson is one of the few black women in major leadership positions in tech, she says she’s often sought after for mentorship from other women and people of color.
“I do as much of that as I can,” Woolley-Wilson says, “but the thing that I oftentimes remind young promising talent is that there were so many people who helped me and mentored me, and they still do today, who don’t look anything like me. Who didn’t grow up anything like I did. Who don’t resemble me and my family at all.”
As one recent survey of diversity in the tech industry found, 76 percent of technical jobs are held by men. And when it comes to the total workforce, black and Latinx people make up only 5 percent. The tech industry’s woeful diversity numbers do mean that seeking out mentors who share one’s background puts enormous pressure and time constraints on a select group of people—and could leave new talent in the dust. Woolley-Wilson says she doesn’t want women of color to limit their opportunities in this way.
“There’s more opportunity for people if they open that aperture and consider anybody who really shares their passion and their beliefs,” she says.
She does emphasize the importance of creating support groups for minorities in the industry, as well as supporting the initiatives and work of people who are trying to make tech a more inclusive space. She cites the work of Ellen Pao and Project Include. Woolley-Wilson balks at the notion that just because she’s a black female CEO means that she has diversity and inclusion figured out, which was part of the reason she participated in the initiative.
“It was more work. It was more exposure, but it was a way to signal the importance of this, and I know that Ellen is deeply appreciative of that,” she says.
As was true in Black Panther, what was good for the women of Wakanda was good for the nation. Fostering their strength and their abilities helped the greater good—whether it was building vibranium-powered trains or protecting the nation. The same is true for industry. Woolley-Wilson notes what the data overwhelmingly shows: that diversity within a business is good for business.
“I think that the most important thing for ed-tech leaders is to understand that the world is changing, there’s a demographic imperative out there that is not going to change,” she says. “Growth is now inextricably linked to our ability to tap into the promise of diverse population.
“It frustrates me sometimes when people see people like me and they see us as anomalies, and what I know is that there are a lot of people more talented, more capable than I am that just are not discovered yet,” Woolley-Wilson says.