While tech giants such as Google and Facebook have been transparent about sharing their diversity statistics and efforts to increase minority representation, the low numbers of women and minorities at work in Silicon Valley’s thriving tech industry have, in the words of a recent Atlantic cover story, “barely budged” over the past few years. According to a 2014 report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, women make up only 36 percent of the high-tech workforce. (They account for about 47 percent of workers overall.) Black workers account for only 7 percent of the industry’s jobs, and Hispanics fare slightly better at 8 percent. This means that, despite years of talking about change, much of the industry, particularly leadership roles, remains dominated by white men.
Kaya Thomas, now a developer for the messaging app Slack, has been vocal about the industry's lackluster minority recruitment tactics. In a response to claims that dismal diversity numbers are a result of a weak talent pool, Thomas wrote, in a post on the site NewCo Shift, “We are here, but you are not choosing to see us.”
While in college, Thomas created We Read Too, an app that catalogues young-adult books featuring protagonists of color and written by authors of color. The 21-year-old has also volunteered for Black Girls Code, a nonprofit created by her own mentor, Kimberly Bryant.
For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with Thomas about the benefits of reaching out to a mentor online and the pressure that comes with starting out in an industry known for its lack of diversity. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Elisha Brown: What do you think the industry is doing well when it comes to diversity efforts?
Kaya Thomas: If you asked me this question a year ago, I probably would have given you an optimistic answer. I entered the industry when the diversity conversation started happening in 2013. Tech companies released diversity statistics. Articles followed. There’s been a lot of conversation about what they hope to do—without action behind it. The industry as a whole is failing. A lot of the conversation is only about gender. We have so many other facets of diversity: race, ability, age, orientation.
Brown: You had a dream of working as a engineer from an early age. How easy was it to make that a reality and to pick the specific field you’re in?
Thomas: I had just started my first year at Dartmouth and I wanted to study environmental engineering. The advisor I had intimidated me, and almost discouraged me from doing that. I was wondering if I should stay in STEM, or major in something related to the humanities.
Then I came across Kimberly Bryant’s TED Talk. Kimberly [the founder of the organization Black Girls Code] realized that women of color are vastly underrepresented in the technology industry, and since tech is so important to the future, if we don’t have a way into that industry, we’re going to be left out of innovative things. She talks about founding Black Girls Code to expose young women of color to these skills so that they’re not intimidated when they get to the college age and decide to study STEM. I signed up to volunteer for Black Girls Code, and I signed up for a computer-science class at Dartmouth. The summer after my first year, I was doing an engineering internship at Time Inc. I messaged Kimberly on Facebook and told her how much she inspired me.
Brown: How did your relationship develop after that message?
Thomas: We met in person a few times at Black Girls Code events, but a lot of it has been through the internet—talking, messaging. She advocates for me; she always lets me know if there are internship and scholarship opportunities. If there was something I wanted to apply to, she would always write me a recommendation. Four years ago, she was doing a Black Girls Code event in New Orleans. She invited me and my best friend to be mentors to the girls at the hackathon.
Brown: What was that experience like? Did it feel weird to mentor people who are only a few years younger than you?
Thomas: It can definitely be weird! When we went to the hackathon, I mentored a group of five girls, most of them in middle school and some very early in high school. At the time, I was 18, which wasn’t much older than them. I answered questions that they had about college: applying, scholarships, transitioning from high school. They asked questions related to the technology industry: How do you build an app? How do you build a website?
I encouraged them to realize that there are so many skills they can learn, and they shouldn’t let anyone tell them differently because of their gender, their race, or anything related to their identity.
Brown: Do you know if any of them have continued to pursue those interests?
Thomas: I’m still in touch with some of those girls, and that was four years ago. One of the girls just finished her first year in college—she majors in computer science and is doing an internship in tech.
Brown: Tell me about your experience at Time Inc., and what it was like to create an app during your free time.
Thomas: My boss was a woman named Erynn Petersen. She was the senior vice president of mobile development, and she has been in the tech industry for more than 20 years. Erynn is still a mentor to me today. She saw my potential. When I started, she said, “Pick a brand you’re interested in, and we’ll have you build prototypes and apps.” I had no idea about iOS development, but I created an app for Entertainment Weekly. Then I would go home after my internship, and work on We Read Too late into the night. I didn’t expect many people to use it. If one person lets me know it helped them, I feel like I did my job.
Brown: You started your first post-grad job at Slack a few weeks ago. How are you feeling?
Thomas: There is definitely pressure. I’ve always been very future-oriented. That self-motivation has helped me get to where I am, but it’s also dangerous: How do I keep the momentum up? What’s next? There were all of these milestones with school. You know you were going to graduate high school, go to college, then get a job. But now I have to define those milestones for myself. That’s something that I’m working on. In the age of social media, you have to present yourself. Sometimes it can seem like there’s nothing but success because of Facebook, but you’re not going to share that you had the worst day ever.
Brown: As one of the few black women in the industry, have you ever felt tokenized?
Thomas: Yeah. It’s something I struggle with. I think it’s related to imposter syndrome. Did they pick me because of the work I did and my accomplishments, or do they want me to fill in these boxes? You can never know whether or not that’s the case, being a black woman. Most times, there isn't anyone else like me in that space. It can be detrimental to my mental well-being if I always think that I’m a token. I do know that I’ve worked hard. I've earned my spot, but even if I am [a token], at least I’m still here and providing the space for women like me to get here.