25 Black Tech Leaders Who Reinvented Their Careers in Tech
Photo Credit: Career Karma
Today, millions of people are unemployed, suffer from self-doubt, and have built walls of “what-ifs” around them. The underrepresented community has been hit especially hard by the Coronavirus lockdown, which is why there’s no better time to start learning new skills and improving your career prospects.
In 2016, Ruben Harris and Timur and Artur Meyster set out with a mission to demonstrate the possibility of breaking into tech, regardless of background. The trio wanted to break existing stereotypes around hiring individuals from non-traditional backgrounds through education, mentorship, and other resources. They created the Breaking Into Startups Podcast to feature inspiring stories of those who turned their perceived disadvantages into advantages, and their limitations to strength.
The podcast today has over one million downloads and has helped thousands of people from non-traditional backgrounds embark on various opportunities and paths in tech and land jobs at some of the best tech companies in the US.
Here are the motivational stories of 25 people from all walks of life who took control of their careers and broke into tech despite all odds.
KESHA LAKE – HOW A MOM FROM ATLANTA BECAME A REMOTE SOFTWARE ENGINEER AT STITCH FIX
Stop the negative self-talk. Get support.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Kesha Lake is a member of the Career Karma community from Atlanta, Georgia. She joined Career Karma at the beginning of 2019. Less than a year later, she landed a job as a remote software engineer at Stitch Fix.
Kesha committed herself to the Career Karma 21-Day Challenge, a program that helps participants push themselves out of their comfort zones and learn to code, while also making some new friends. At the end of the 21 days, participants apply and interview at some of the top coding boot camps.
Kesha applied at four coding schools: Lambda School, Thinkful, DigitalCrafts, and Flatiron School. She received preliminary acceptance from all four within 24 hours.
At school, she learned how to code and eventually equipped herself for the next step, which is a job hunt. She treated the process as an actual job itself—sorting, seeking out, and shortlisting the companies she wanted to apply to. Kesha made it a point to not send out her resumes until she had spoken to someone at the companies first.
One day, someone tagged her in a hiring post by StitchFix on Twitter. Since then, Kesha found a new fixation with the company and ended up getting hired at StitchFix.
RODNEY URQUHART – HOW A 16-YEAR-OLD HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUT BECAME A SENIOR SOFTWARE ENGINEER AT SLACK
Test the limits of what you can do. Look around you and find where you can go to reach new heights.
Rodney Urquhart grew up with 13 siblings in a North Philly neighborhood ridden with gang violence and drugs. He dropped out of high school at 16 and moved in with his grandmother, out of concern that his surroundings might get him arrested or killed.
Being a high school dropout, Rodney struggled through low-paying, dead-end jobs. When he was working as a computer seller at Best Buy, Rodney discovered his interest in computers and made his way into Comcast as a tech support associate.
However, he didn’t want to stop there. Through hard work and determination, he was able to create an impressive portfolio at Comcast, Microsoft’s Yammer, and ThoughtWorks.
At Comcast, Rodney realized he was underpaid, so he started to look for work outside of the company. Comcast offered him a software engineering role with a 50 percent pay increase, but he received another offer that beat Comcast by 20 percent.
Rodney then began to explore the world of software engineering by making friends with those in the field—friends that he now calls peers.
He currently heads the test infrastructure team at Slack. He is also part of a program called /dev/color, a non-profit organization that aims to maximize the impact of Black software engineers in the tech space.
On his journey toward breaking into startups, Rodney learned essential job search hacks, interview skills, and salary negotiation techniques.
IRIS NEVINS – TEACHER WHO BECAME A SOFTWARE ENGINEER AT MAILCHIMP
The formula of breaking into tech = plan + knowledge + hard work
In 2017, Iris Nevins left her job as a teacher in Florida to attend a bootcamp in the Bay Area. After learning from coding tutorials, she applied to various bootcamps and ended up getting rejected by Hackbright Academy, just a few days before flying out to California. To overcome the challenges in her bootcamp journey, Iris decided to run a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe.
During her job hunt, she learned about marketing service provider MailChimp and fell in love with the company. In 2018, through the power of selling herself, Iris not only scored a job at her dream company but also negotiated a high signing bonus!
Iris always felt strongly about social justice and believed it was the key to making a change in the world. Following her passions in life, Iris has founded Organeyez, an organization that provides relevant tools and materials to groups that work towards fostering social justice.
JERRICK WARREN – HOW CAREER KARMA’S FIRST MEMBER BECAME A SOFTWARE ENGINEER AT GEMINI
Failure is the greatest teacher!
Jerrick Warren made the shift from medical to the tech field after joining Career Karma. The community offers extensive help to students in figuring out a road map in coding—each customized to their preferences and needs.
Through Career Karma, Jerrick got accepted into Lambda School, where he took on various leadership roles throughout the program.
Within a year upon graduation, Jerrick successfully landed a job as a software engineer at Gemini, a blockchain tech startup! His coding experience at Lambda School led to an increase in earnings of $100,000.
PHAEDRA ELLIS – CEO OF PROMISE ON HOW TO BUILD POWER AND TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR CAREER
Find magic in people so they manifest into greatness
Phaedra Ellis used to be the leader of the South Bay Labor Council, managing over 110,000 members. Prior to that, Phaedra was also the CEO of Green for All. Ruben met Phaedra when he worked with her at Honor, a tech startup, and she became his mentor.
Phaedra has also worked with singer-songwriter Prince in the past and helped him recover his master recordings at Warner Bros. She also admires music mogul Jay-Z for creating space for people to manifest great things.
Today, Phaedra is the CEO of Promise, a startup that uses technology for good to change the criminal justice system. She believes in building relationships and the importance of having a crew that’s “down for you” in its truest sense and lifts each other up.
AMEER BROWN – CODING BOOTCAMP GRADUATE WHO IS A SOFTWARE QUALITY ENGINEER AT ADOBE
Former journalist Ameer Brown hit a realization that he had to make the best out of life for himself. That’s when he left his job and flew to LA, where he obtained a fully-funded education through General Assembly’s Opportunity Fund. At the school, Ameer struggled in the beginning but wasn’t afraid to ask for feedback on how to improve.
After the General Assembly bootcamp, Ameer was offered a job at Adobe without even applying. At Adobe Digital Academy, he was paired with a mentor who continuously supported and motivated him.
Ameer is now a software quality engineer at Adobe. Outside of work, he also organizes parties. His experience in event planning helped him realize his capacity to achieve success through hard work and perseverance.
RITA HENDERSON – BREAKING INTO TECH AS TEEN MOM
Forget what society says. Take action. Even when you don’t have a plan, just take that jump.
Growing up in one of the poorest areas in Philadelphia, Rita Henderson aspired to a different life. She had her fair share of struggles in school and college, especially being pregnant at 17 and welcoming a daughter on the first day of 12th Grade.
As a full-time mom, Rita completed a degree in Criminology from Indiana University while also juggling a full-time job. Eventually, she moved to DC where she landed a job as a Program Coordinator for the FDA. She began picking up some tech skills after working with popular tools like Salesforce and DocuSign.
In hopes of a better future for herself and her six-year-old, one day Rita decided to pack her car and drove all the way to San Francisco. She then met Ruben, who introduced her to Honor, a tech startup. She jumped on the opportunity and sent an introduction email—keeping it short while selling herself—at 12 am. In less than 24 hours, Rita was hired as a recruiter at Honor.
NICK CALDWELL – VP OF ENGINEERING AT REDDIT
Be adaptive to learning!
Nick Caldwell learned how to code in his early days, after being influenced by his mom and dad. During his freshman year at MIT, Nick side-hustled in video games for a bit and received a credit on the game Battlecruiser Millennium.
Nick started as a junior developer and eventually climbed the ladder to becoming the Vice President of Engineering at Reddit. The online community boasts 320 million monthly active users, with 1.1 million active communities on its platform.
Nick has worked for impressive institutions including Microsoft and NASA. He is also heavily involved in the community, having worked as a facilitator for organizations like /dev/color.
RICH SMITH – HOW A COLLEGE DROPOUT BECAME A SENIOR ENGINEER AT NETFLIX
Proofread your work, have discipline, get feedback, and design a resume that rocks!
Rich Smith started hustling as early as the 4th Grade. By 10th Grade, Rich was already writing programs for formulas taught in class. After dropping out of college, he discovered his interest in coding and realized it could be a viable career path for him.
Rich also developed a strong interest in design. He started his own design agency, which he used as a stepping stone to build his portfolio and get his first job in Silicon Valley. Since then, he has filled illustrious roles in the industry. Today, Rich is on his 17th job. He is now a senior engineer at Netflix.
Rich resonates with rapper-songwriter Eminem, considers coding ability a superpower, and believes in being a creator rather than just a consumer.
MADELYN TAVAREZ – HOW A PART-TIME BOOTCAMP HELPED HER BECOME AN ANDROID ENGINEER
Do it! And don’t compare yourself to anyone!
Madelyn Tavarez is a Dominican Republic-native who grew up in Washington Heights. In her senior year of college, she had an “Eat, Pray, Love” moment which took her to Italy. This phase of her life eventually played a big role in her decision to take up coding.
Madelyn then taught herself how to code and practiced her skills on Myspace. She enrolled in a part-time bootcamp while working a full-time job.
Fast-forward to today, Madelyn now works as an Android engineer at Pinterest. She also continues to be actively involved in different community projects like TECHNOLOchicas, among others.
KENYATTA LEAL – SURVIVING SAN QUENTIN PRISON BY WALKING THE LAST MILE INTO A JOB IN TECH
The greatest challenges present the greatest opportunities!
In his youth, Kenyatta Leal dealt with abandonment issues and grew up in an environment that got him involved in drug dealing and other crimes.
When he ended up in San Quentin State Prison, Kenyatta owned up to the bad choices he had made in the past and corrected his course. After serving his sentence, Kenyatta found a mentor who helped him put things into perspective. He continued to work on himself by getting an education and connecting with his family in an authentic way.
He’s also involved in various programs to help others in prison. Through his determination to do good for himself and others, he became a founding member of The Last Mile. The Last Mile is a startup accelerator and entrepreneurial program (partnered with Hack Reactor), which helps incarcerated individuals develop tech skills in order to prepare them for successful re-entry into the world.
Kenyatta is now the manager of Campus Services at RocketSpace, a tech campus for startups.
DAVID HARRIS – HOW AN APP ACADEMY GRADUATE BECAME A SOFTWARE ENGINEER AT OMADA HEALTH
The best part about failing in interviews is learning where you’re weak so you can focus on those parts.
David Harris has had an illustrious portfolio—from being a writer, an artist, to a mathematician. He moved from Atlanta to the Bay Area and struggled his way to success. David applied to App Academy and got accepted into JumpStart, a free program that offers core subjects to prepare for an interview with the school. A month later, he was accepted to the bootcamp where he was learning two month’s worth of course materials in less than five weeks.
After a lot of networking, sending and tracking emails, contacting random individuals including CEOs and CTOs, attending meetups, and building skills based on feedback, ultimately David was able to land a job as a software engineer at Omada Health.
David is the brother of Ruben Harris. Ruben, Timur, and Artur have helped him throughout his journey, along with some other amazing people in the industry that he met along the way.
MANNAH KALLON – AN EDUCATOR WHO BECAME A SOFTWARE ENGINEER AT STITCH FIX
It’s up to you to write your narrative despite what people think!
Mannah Kallon’s journey started from being a chef to a math teacher to a software engineer. He has earned degrees in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Michigan and received his master’s degree in Education from Fordham University.
Mannah was teaching kids in Harlem when he decided to move to the West Coast and learn how to code through Dev Bootcamp. As an educator himself, it was the bootcamp that stood out the most to him.
To prepare himself for the job market, he started networking and surrounding himself with software engineers. After facing rejections and obstacles, he kept a positive mindset that he learned from his passion for cooking. The journey brought him to a software engineering role at Stitch Fix.
ALBREY BROWN – FOUNDER OF TELEGRAPH ACADEMY
The best resource that you can have is a mentor.
Albrey Brown grew up in Berkeley, California in a single-family home with his mother and his aunt. He was passionate about basketball, language, and writing. However, he was unable to excel in school.
Albrey then started a business but his lack of passion in entrepreneurship forced him to shut it down. Instead, he started to learn how to code. He first picked up coding from a mentor before starting with The Odin Project and Learn Ruby the Hard Way.
Albrey was rejected in his first attempt to get into Hack Reactor. The rejection became a humbling and learning experience for him. He kept polishing his skills and succeeded in his second attempt.
Using the skills he learned at bootcamps and following the advice of his mentor, Albrey eventually went on to become a founder of a top coding bootcamp called Telegraph Academy!
Telegraph Academy offers Telegraph Prep which is a six-week program that shapes you into being bootcamp-ready. Many of its graduates have joined big tech companies like Google, Accenture, and others.
Albrey loves teaching students how to code and has helped hundreds of students find jobs in the industry. Although Albrey never received a formal college education, he always knew that he was going to be a teacher.
CHARLES PRIDGEN – ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE AT LOGGLY & FOUNDER OF BPN
Keep going until you get your yes!
When Charles Pridgen was 14, he took up a job at a bike shop and ended up traveling in Ecuador for six months on a college scholarship.
The Baltimore native then went to college and majored in International Business and Finance. When he realized that he didn’t fit into the financial field, he pursued a career in sales before deciding to break into startups.
Previously, he got laid off from his job at LivingSocial. This was a humbling experience for Charles and prompted him to fly to San Francisco where he continued to hustle. He sat for interviews with the biggest names in tech including Dropbox, Google, and Slack but was rejected until finally, he was hired at Salesforce.
Currently, Charles is working at a startup called Loggly, which is a cloud-based log management and search platform. He is also an organizer of the Black Professionals Network (BPN), where he seeks to build a community that fosters diversity through the power of networking. It has now grown into massive success and a source of inspiration among people in the Bay Area.
BANGALY KABA – WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME A PRODUCT MANAGER AT FACEBOOK & INSTAGRAM
Your life dictates the skills you develop over time.
From working in Switzerland to starting a men’s fashion business, and now handling product management, Bangaly Kaba has come a long way in spite of his non-traditional background in Education and Finance.
Originally from the East Coast, Bangaly decided to move to LA to develop skills that would help him create a life he wanted. After closing down his business, he received an interview offer at Google. He was then referred to another tech giant, Facebook.
Bangaly is now considered as one of the best product managers in the Bay Area. He previously worked at Facebook’s growth team until landing his current product management role at Instagram.
DIVINE – THE JOURNEY FROM GOING IN AND OUT OF PRISON TO BREAKING INTO TECH
Believe in yourself!
Divine was born in a small town in Newport, Rhode Island where discriminatory practices are rampant. He started dealing drugs at 13 and was incarcerated at 18.
While he was doing his time, Divine started to fall in love with the habit of reading. He read and learned so much from all the books in the library, turning his seven-year sentence into a personal self-improvement workshop. With his new-found spirituality, he gave a new meaning to his name: Determined, Idea, Visualization, Infinitely Never Ending.
Divine was initially discouraged that he didn’t share any similarity with the folks featured in publications like Entrepreneur Magazine, INC Magazine, and Black Enterprise. However, he then stumbled upon The Week magazine, which featured an article about tech mogul Ben Horowitz, along with the keywords, “hip hop,” “billionaire,” and “venture capital.” He began to read up more about Ben with the hope to finally meet him one day. Two years later, his dream came true.
Through his love of hip hop and building his network, Divine was able to break into tech. Currently, he provides financial literacy and entrepreneurship education to people through his new startup BLAK (Building Leverage Acquiring Knowledge) Fintech.
MICHAEL J WALKER – HOW A MARKETING EXEC BECAME AN ENGINEER AT 51-YEARS-OLD
Ask questions and don’t wait for things to fall into place!
Michael J Walker knew that unless he put himself out there, nothing good was going to happen. To him, risks weren’t just about bad things that can’t happen, but also good things that don’t.
Previously, Michael was fired from one of his early jobs, which he took as a blessing in disguise as it led him to better things in life. He landed a job at Ford Motor Company and received an MBA scholarship at the University of Michigan. He continued to hold executive marketing roles at renowned companies like Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, EA, and Mattel.
25 years later, he went on to co-found a mobile app startup and served as a chief marketing officer and operations officer at several tech companies. At 51, he decided to learn how to code at Dev Bootcamp and was later asked to join the team as a chief academic officer and campus director in San Francisco.
STEVON COOK – FROM PUBLIC HOUSING TO BRINGING TECH TRAINING THROUGH MISSION BIT
The more you ask, the more you’re led into the direction you’re looking to go.
Growing up in public housing, Stevon Cook, a third-generation San Franciscan, was exposed to destructive behaviors at an early age. After living with his grandparents, he found some structure in his life. A summer program at Stanford during high school became one of the most transformational experiences for him.
Stevon was aware of the challenges of his community, including the major lack of access to computer science education for kids in the Bay Area. His drive to bridge this tech divide was what got him to join Mission Bit, where he now serves as the CEO. At Mission Bit, Stevon is committed to providing computer science education for kids in the Bay Area so they can truly unlock their full potential.
An interesting fact about Stevon is that he ran for and won the election to be a Commissioner on the Board of Education for the City of San Francisco. According to him, what sparked his interest in politics was a controversial fight that happened during his high school time.
JOTAKA EADDY – FROM SENIOR ADVISOR AT NAACP TO HEAD OF GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS AT A STARTUP
Don’t be afraid to go into the unknown and just figure it out.
Hailing from a small town in South Carolina, Jotaka Eaddy grew up as an activist and a political strategist. In fact, Jotaka was voted as “Most Likely to Abolish the Death Penalty” in her high school yearbook.
Jotaka previously worked as a senior advisor to Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), who is now a partner at Kapor Capital.
The social impact of tech was what influenced Jotaka’s entry into the industry. Although she received an offer to join a startup, she was struggling with self-doubt which she was able to overcome through mentoring and self-motivation.
Currently, Jataka serves as the head of government affairs at LendUp.
MO WOODS – BALL IS LIFE: PRO BASKETBALL PLAYER (6′10″) WHO BECAME A DESIGNER
Be prepared. Do whatever you can and whatever it takes to get that position. Do your homework. Capitalize on your existing skills and talents. And once you get that opportunity, be ready for it.
When he was juggling academics and college basketball, Maurice sat down with his mom to find a field he would major in. Choosing the graphic design program changed his life and led him to his true calling.
Maurice is a 6’10” Richmond, California-native, legendary designer, and former professional basketball player. During the dotcom period, Maurice went to 30-40 startups a day to drop off his design portfolio. He received 38 rejections and only two callbacks.
Maurice eventually found jobs at various startups which prepared him to work at tech companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo. He is also the Founder of Inneract Project that helps youth and underserved communities learn about design.
EDGAR PABON – ARMY VETERAN TURNED SOFTWARE ENGINEER
Don’t change your mind fundamentally about what you believe in and do what you want to do!
When he was deployed in Korea, Edgar Pabon would read books about Steve Jobs, the tech industry, and TechCrunch.
The aspiring techie picked up on an idea and built an e-commerce website that he ran through Shopify. He then realized the need to customize certain features for a better user experience. This led him to leverage online resources and learn how to program.
Edgar began applying and got admitted to several boot camps including Hack Reactor and Fullstack Academy (New York).
Upon graduation, Edgar applied to over 80 jobs and he wound up with five interviews, three job offers on top of multiple rejections, before landing a job at Amazon as a software engineer.
MELANIE ARAUJO – VISUAL AND INTERACTION DESIGNER
Advocate for yourself and build an online presence!
Melanie Araujo is a Boston-native who grew up in a multi-racial community of working-class immigrants. Her parents had hoped for her to pursue conventional career choices (medical, finance, law) to be able to pay the bills and put food on the table. So, she went to college and pursued a science major.
Upon graduation, Melanie flew to San Francisco to figure out her creative side. The first role she took on at a startup was a design researcher, where she collected subconscious information from users and tracked brain activity through data science techniques.
Melanie then enrolled in General Assembly’s part-time UX Design class so she could build a portfolio for her graduate school application. She paid for her bootcamp education with her 401K and committed herself to the coursework while working at the same time.
To position herself as a unique designer in the market, Melanie took advantage of her existing professional experience in neuroscience. She invested $4,000 in learning resources to become a web designer and, in return, received a tenfold increase in profits. Today, she has a successful career and is making six figures.
Melanie is also the founder of Front & Center, a company that helps people from underprivileged backgrounds break into tech through design.
SARON YITBAREK – SELF-TAUGHT ENGINEER & FOUNDER OF CODENEWBIE PODCAST
Have a good portfolio. Use and build your network!
Born in Ethiopia, Saron Yutabarek came to the U.S. when she was only three years old. She followed in the footsteps of her pharmacist-parents by pursuing medicine but soon realized that it wasn’t for her.
After college, she was influenced by Steve Jobs’ book and found her interest in startups. Saron began exploring the industry, doing her research, and cold emailing CEOs of various companies.
Saron learned coding through free coding resources like MIT OpenCourseware, Codecademy, Treehouse, and Code School.
In the final week of her bootcamp education, Saron booked seven interviews, one of which landed her a job at Microsoft.
Saron decided to create the CodeNewbie Twitter Chat which has been running since 2013. Today, CodeNewbie is one of the biggest coding podcasts with over 1.4 million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
KYLE WOUMN – SOFTWARE ENGINEER AT TWILIO, WHO TURNED AN INTERNSHIP INTO A FULL-TIME OFFER
Develop people skills and go after opportunities!
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Kyle enrolled in educational programs at Georgia Tech and received CEISMC and HOPE Scholarships.
Through Georgia Tech’s Career Fair, Kylie landed an internship opportunity at GE and Twilio using some personal projects. The internship taught him the power of mentorship, how to ask the right questions, and how to solve real-life challenges.
Today, Kyle is a full-stack engineer on the messaging experience team at Twilio. He is also part of the National Society of Black Engineers and he is currently building an app that fosters an online community for Black Greeks.
Whether you are a chef, bartender, teacher, nurse, or an army veteran, you don’t have to let your existing profession stop you from following your dreams. Initially, most people enter the career world without the certainty that they love their jobs, which is why it is important to keep your options open and keep exploring.
The amazing and inspirational individuals we covered in this article used to be at the same spot as many of us might be at right now. However, they didn’t let any setbacks or obstacles get in the way of achieving success.
Tech careers and startups offer many fun and rewarding career choices and help many unleash their creativity and find fulfillment. We hope these stories ignited a spark to step out of your comfort zone and strive for the career you’ve been dreaming of.