Moving Goalposts: Kimberly Lowe-Williams on Black Leadership and the Importance of Paying It Forward at Salesforce
Photo Credit: AfroTech

Moving Goalposts: Kimberly Lowe-Williams on Black Leadership and the Importance of Paying It Forward at Salesforce

Creating access to careers in technology is key for advancing equity and creating a more equal world for all. For leaders like Kimberly Lowe-Williams, creating opportunities for others through technology is a passion that drives her work. 

“I am a technologist with a passion to bring the gift of coding and technology to underrepresented communities. I truly believe technology will serve as the catalyst for people in poverty to change their lifestyles, both individually and as a community. If I could contribute to that progress in any way, I know I will have made a difference in the world,” Lowe-Williams explains.

As the first Black woman to lead as a senior engineering manager at Salesforce’s Heroku division, Lowe-Williams has emerged as a force within the company. Drawing on her own experience as a nonprofit founder, since joining the team she’s worked hard to cultivate new relationships and build bridges at Salesforce; as a result, Lowe-Williams has broken down walls while opening new doors for others. 

Recently speaking with AfroTech, Lowe-Williams shared her journey to Salesforce, finding her voice, bringing innovation to the company and much more. 

Charting Her Own Path in Tech 

A tech leader in enterprise applications, Salesforce has found success by creating a global CRM platform focused on customer service, marketing automation, analytics and application development. Lowe-Williams explains, “While others may know Salesforce for its core customer relationship management service, it has become a powerhouse in tech, and a leader in forging equal rights, accessibility and philanthropy.”

Before joining Salesforce in 2018, Lowe-Williams was hitting the pavement to create a career uniquely her own, deciding early on that she could fill a unique niche through technology. “I started a nonprofit, The Difference Engine, NFP (TDE), focused on empowering adults like me from non-traditional backgrounds wishing to transition into a technical career with a fighting chance,” she says.

Since joining Salesforce, Lowe-Williams has worked her way from a Site Reliability Engineer for the Heroku platform to overseeing the entire program. 

“A recent project I worked on is the SRE Engagement. Heroku ascribes to a total ownership model of software development. This allows for moving fast and fostering extreme ownership of a codebase. Engineering teams write, test, push and operate the code. As systems scale and get more distributed, it becomes challenging to keep up with such a dynamically distributed platform’s operational health and stability. This form of ownership allows engineers to expand their understanding of how their code impacts customers and systems,” she explains.

Culture, Growth and Rising to Challenges at Salesforce

In order to find her way, Lowe-Williams had to push herself and grow in new ways. “Navigating such a large company was, and continues to be, my most significant area of growth. I’d never worked at a company of more than a few hundred people. So when I joined Salesforce, my first inclination was to keep my head down and bury myself in my work.”

Initially unsure of her standing, she credits those around her with creating a welcoming and nurturing environment that empowered her. “I did not think I’d be able to have much impact in such a large company. My leadership and colleagues have nurtured me in such a way that I now know this is only true if I make it true. They continue to help me navigate my way within Salesforce as a leader and contributor.”

Lowe-Williams has since enjoyed a series of tacticals wins, but what stands out to her is her own development as a professional. “The thing I’m most proud of is the trust of my colleagues. After working together for just a year, people I worked alongside, as well as my management chain, entrusted me to lead — unknowingly making me the first Black engineering manager at Heroku.”

Adding, “We could never have predicted the extent of some of the internal and external changes we would experience. However, everyone displayed tremendous professionalism and pulled together. We have managed to improve how we operate and support each other, and continually improved our visibility within our organization during unprecedented times. It’s been humbling and enlightening to navigate these challenges together as we redefine success.”

Finding Passion and Purpose in Other Ways

To Lowe-Williams, part of Salesforce’s success comes from creating a culture rooted in extreme inclusiveness. “I have never seen a company invest so much energy into creating a space for so many different people. Employees are actively encouraged to participate in equality groups and informal sessions addressing specific issues, be outspoken about support for mental health and create programs to support it. Salesforce takes volunteering to a whole other level by not only offering volunteer time off to all of its employees worldwide, but actively seeking opportunities that allow employees to give back in whatever way they can.”

For Lowe-Williams’s part, she’s been pouring back into others through philanthropy, as the founder and CEO of The Difference Engine, NFP. TDE is a nonprofit that bridges the gap between education and the real-world workplace. TDE’s apprenticeship program empowers adults from underrepresented groups and non-traditional backgrounds with real-world technology experiences that help develop their skill in professionalism, agile workflows and collaboration.

Originally launched to help others avoid the hurdles she faced early in her tech career, Lowe-Williams explains, “[TDE’s] become a way for me to give back and pay forward the opportunity I now have. While collaborating with forward-thinking companies regarding the ‘nontraditional developer,’ my passion leads me to speaking engagements, blogging, volunteering and recruiting others with a shared vision for my board of directors, program leaders, apprentices, etc.” 

Lowe-Williams’ work with TDE has opened her eyes to the “disparities with Salesforce teams from the executive level to the entry-level engineer.” This motivates her even more to continue to encourage change from within. “I work internally to encourage healthy dialogue and put into action many of the well-intentioned initiatives from various parts of the organization. It’s often just a matter of being in the right place at the right time to shed light on the opportunity right in front of us.”

On Black Leadership and Cultivating Change in the Community

While proud of the doors she’s helped open, Lowe-Williams knows there’s always more work to be done, especially as a Black woman. “I believe leadership comes with a particular set of responsibilities, regardless of your color. However, as a Black woman, it carries with it the unspoken obligation of being authentic, bringing a perspective often missing from conversations, whether technical, cultural, tactical or strategic,” she explains.

Leadership comes with responsibilities that Lowe-Williams doesn’t take lightly as she describes her commitment to serving as a role model to her four children, family and community. “It means taking part in the community at Salesforce that seeks to grow — becoming more diverse, understanding the challenges of a community you’ve never lived in, fostering healthy relationships for people of different cultures and so much more.”

In short, the bar and stakes are always higher. “The difference between being a Black leader and a leader at Salesforce lies in the truth that it is not a choice but a privilege — an obligation for many of us to look beyond our day-to-day roles. It is not a political matter for us, but a matter of survival. It is a torch that gets handed down to us that many of us graciously pass on. While I recognize that these are my thoughts and may not be the thoughts of every Black leader, I have found that at Salesforce, it is a shared calling, and I am thrilled to be here.”

Thanks to Kimberly Lowe-Williams, and others like her, Black history is made each and every day. At Salesforce, it’s a badge she wears with pride that continues to motivate her each day. 

By being the change she wants to see, Lowe-Williams pushes open doors that may create new opportunities for those coming after her. “A Black woman serving as a leader in a technical role is not something you see every day. Salesforce has not been shy about their stance regarding equality for Black people, taking it to the government, speaking out regarding Black lives and initiatives to increase the number of Black people employed at the company. I believe the greatest impact is yet to come.”

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