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Helping Black Women in Tech Spread their Wings

Gaby M. Rojas

Tech can be a scary place. 

It’s an often discussed industry and with the advent of AI, it’s become one of the hottest topics of conversation, right now. 

For Black women especially, tech can be a scary place for a myriad of reasons. According to a special report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, high tech employs a larger share of white people, from 63.5 to 68.5 percent, with 80 percent of executives being men. 

And as AI becomes a vital and lucrative part of our lives, it’s more important than ever for women to be allowed to earn a piece of the pie. But how, when the industry seems so hesitant to open up the boys club? 

This is where Rewriting the Code (RTC) comes in. Rewriting the Code is a nonprofit dedicated to offering support to college, graduate, and entry-level career women in tech. Rewriting the Code does so by offering mentorship, industry experience opportunities, educational resources, and intersectional communities. 

Rewriting the Code achieves this in part through its group Black Wings, a branch of RTC specifically designed to allow Black women tech and engineering majors to share experiences and advice, have a familiar community within the industry, and gain support from one another.

MBE Magazine sat down with Dr. Kristin Austin, vice president of IDEAS for the Black Wings Group to talk about the Black woman’s experience in tech. 

While the subjects discussed tended to be more serious, Dr. Austin has a refreshing buoyancy about her. She discusses how she started her career working on pre-adult development on college campuses 20 years before Black Wings. 

“This was before George Floyd, this is before [diversity, equity, and inclusion],” Dr. Austin says.. “This is when we were just people doing the right thing by the students that were historically marginalized. Because I had done so much in that space of inclusion, I started to craft a brand around what it means to really be inclusive for multiple identities.” 

This advocacy toward the historically excluded led her to RTC and position as vice president of IDEAS or Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Access. 

“My role is to create things that don’t exist. One of the things that Sue Harnett said to me when she was bringing me onto the team was, ‘Kristin, I want someone who is going to wake up everyday thinking, thinking about our Black, Latina, and our native and indigenous women.’ So that is what I do every day. I wake up thinking about them. What is it that they need? What is it that we can offer? What is it that needs to be created?” she says.

Part of Dr. Austin’s role is to co-create intersectional programs, relationships, connections, and networks for women who are pursuing careers in tech. But, as with most professions, her position extends far past the normal job requirements. One of her favorite Black Wings success stories of a young member who came to her with a predicament that her white male counterparts never have to deal with: what to do with her hair. 

Black women face unique scrutiny and questions surrounding their hair. Is it professional? Unprofessional? Who will comment on it? Will someone ask how my hair got that way? Or worse, ask to touch it. 

This member reached out to Dr. Austin as they were preparing to attend a conference, wrestling with the question of whether or not she should straighten her hair for the conference. The demographics of this event were predominantly white, privileged backgrounds and she wondered if being able to assimilate would allow her to be taken more seriously. 

“And is it about the straightening of the hair?” Dr. Austin questions. “No. What it’s about is a student feeling that in order to be successful, the natural part of who they are is not welcome. And when I saw her for the first time at the conference and saw that she had not straightened her hair, I was so happy. It meant everything to me to see her show up in her fullness, to see her show up authentically, and more importantly, to see her show up comfortably. So she had to make the choice that not only was she going to live in her truth and be authentic, but she would be comfortable with it.” 

 The guidance that Dr. Austin gave this Black Wings member encouraging her to show up as her most confident self is exactly what Black Wings is trying to accomplish. 

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