Hey Trish: Black History Month has got me thinking more about Black representation in tech, how can we shine a light on this history?
Thank you so much for this incredibly important question – and at such a relevant time. As you point out, it is Black History Month here in the US: a time for us to reflect on the struggles and contributions of Black people throughout American history. Too often, their stories – of hardship and success, of trials and of incredible achievement – are swept under the rug. During Black History Month, we try to bring those narratives to the forefront – and the tech world should be no exception. Modern technology and STEM, more broadly, owes a lot to the Black community. That’s why, this week, in an effort to shine some light on this history, I’ll be sharing the stories of 3 incredible Black women who made amazing contributions to STEM fields. Of course, there are so many more out there – which is why all of you should see this post as a starting point, not a full history. I hope you take this opportunity to do your own research, to get inspired, and to do your part to ensure that the history of tech is inclusive and representative.
First on this list is Katherine Johnson, a mathematician whose work at NASA helped make the first moon landing possible. You may have seen her portrayed in the popular movie Hidden Figures. From a young age, Katherine was precocious – by the time she was 13, she was already attending the high school at West Virginia State College, having skipped several grades. At 18, she began her college education there. Later on, she would be one of 3 Black Americans that in 1939 integrated West Virginia’s graduate schools, enrolling in the graduate math program at West Virginia University. Later on, Katherine joined NASA, performing trajectory analysis for America’s first human spaceflight. She became so well-known for the accuracy of her calculations that before astronaut John Glenn took off, he asked engineers to “get the girl” to run the numbers that had been programmed into the flight computer. After 33 years of work at NASA, she finally retired – and at 97 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. She sadly passed away at the age of 101 in February 2020. You can learn more about Katherine and her incredible legacy here: https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography.
Next is Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, one of the first two Black American women to receive a PhD in physics and whose work influenced a number of important modern technologies, including caller ID and call waiting. She arrived at MIT as an undergraduate in 1964, where she found other students ignored and avoided her, solely because of her race. In response, as a graduate student, Shirley organized a Black Students Union to promote the recruitment and welfare of minority students at MIT. She later became the first African American woman to receive a PhD (in any field) from MIT. From there, her career would take her to innumerable STEM fields. She worked at Bell Labs (now AT&T), completing research on density waves; President Bill Clinton then asked her to serve as chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There, she helped lead the country’s nuclear power policy and regulation. And in the late 1990s, she left the NRC to become the President of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Through it all, she remained an outspoken advocate on important STEM issues and for American STEM education. Learn more about Dr. Jackson and her incredible work here: https://www.technologyreview.com/2017/12/19/146775/the-remarkable-career-of-shirley-ann-jackson/.
Finally, there’s Kimberly Bryant, the Founder of Black Girls CODE and an inspiring champion for tech inclusion. Kimberly had an incredibly successful career in the pharma and biotech industry, working for companies like Merck and Pfizer. But in 2011, she started Black Girls CODE, a non-profit organization dedicated to “changing the face of technology” by introducing computer programming to young women of color. Her decision to launch the organization was personal: she had enrolled her 10-year-old daughter in a computer science course, only to learn that there was almost no one else that looked like her daughter in the class. Like a true activist, Kimberly didn’t sit by: she demanded change, and she created that change. Today, Black Girls CODE is an international organization that has 7 chapters across the US and in South Africa and has reached 3000 young women. Hear from Kimberly herself – and learn more about her story – in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQUPr-yPLvQ.
I hope you found the stories of these women interesting, inspiring, and empowering. As I said, we need to do more to shine a light on this history and these narratives – so thank you all for engaging with this content. To that end, I encourage you all to think intentionally – this month and always – about how we can build a more representative, inclusive tech culture and community. We all need to be a part of the solution – how are you doing that?
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See you all next week! Until then,