As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brenda D. Wilkerson.
Brenda Darden Wilkerson is the President and CEO of AnitaB.org, a global nonprofit founded with the mission to empower women in technology. Brenda is an advocate for access, opportunity, and social justice for underrepresented communities in technology. She currently serves as the President and CEO of AnitaB.org, an organization that connects, inspires, and strives for greater equality for women technologists in business, academia, and government. She founded the original Computer Science for All program, building computer science classes into the curriculum for every student in the Chicago Public Schools, and serving as the inspiration for the Obama administration’s national CS4All initiatives.
Thank you so much for your time! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thank you for having me!
I’m proud to come from a family that values education and career with their professions ranging from published authors, teachers, attorneys and accountants; naturally my upbringing greatly influenced my “start.” Since high school and during the beginning of my college career, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so I majored in pre-med biomedical engineering. My goal was to help and serve others, to decrease suffering and increase the impact of other people. Majors were required to take two programming classes which marked my first exposure to programming and computer science, and little did I know that they would lay the foundation for what would become my new passion and fuel my career. While I decided against one career dream to chase another, I still ended up on a path that realized my true passion to serve.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
After graduating Northwestern, I had an opportunity to teach continuing education at a community college. I’m dating myself here, but every night for two hours I taught classes for Lotus 123. It wasn’t until the last class where I asked if they had any final questions and a student raised her hand and asked, “How do you turn this on?” In that moment, I realized how poorly I had read the room, how much I had assumed about my students’ prior knowledge, and how I took my own learning for granted. It’s funny in hindsight, but that was a pivotal, humbling moment in my career as an adjunct professor that taught me how to know the needs of my classroom. Half the job is knowing what to teach; the other half is knowing who you are teaching.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
When I started my transition into the K-12 education space, I came across the book, Stuck in the Shallow End by Jane Margolis and Joanna Goode. It highlights how inequality is reproduced in America and how students and teachers — when given the right tools — can change the system. It helped me revisit the questions I asked about the tech industry when I first joined it by addressing the industry’s lack of diversity and inclusion in a digestible way.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I was waiting at an airport gate for a flight back to Chicago when I received an email from a job recruiter saying Megan Smith, the former chief technology officer of the U.S. and assistant to President Barack Obama, had put my name down for consideration for the position of CEO and President of AnitaB.org. I wasn’t looking for a job, and frankly, because of my own Imposter Syndrome, I was in disbelief that I would be the right fit. But eventually, I started doing research on AnitaB.org and came across a video of Anita Borg speaking about the lack of gender parity in computer science. I saw her vision as one that people could not see for themselves, a vision that I shared and wanted to expand to provide choices to everyone, no matter their gender, race, religion or identity. From then on, I realized the ways I could expand the organization’s founding mission, and this has been my purpose ever since.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Always look at the big picture and stay the course even when you fall on hard times. When things are challenging, people either bail or think they have failed. It’s in those moments when you have to realize how your actions impact the business of others, and that in several ways you exist to serve others. The ups and downs are what business is about; serving people makes it worth it, no matter the size of your impact.
Thank you for that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I am a widow and a mother of four kids between the ages of 18 and 25, none of which are emancipated. My constant worry is about their safety and at the start of the crisis, it was important to bring everyone under my roof to ensure both their physical and emotional health. Being confined to our home has been taxing with heightened emotions, the inability to leave or come back, and my commitment to my job. Through this time, I am encouraging my family to take on goals — anything that is new, different and achievable — to keep them motivated. Right now, we are focused on our health from daily workouts to planting a garden with healthy vegetables. This has also made strides in our mental health as we give ourselves a routine we all enjoy.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Candidly, COVID-19 has been hard for me both personally and professionally as I had to make changes to the organization — workforce and processes — in light of COVID-19. As both a CEO and mother, those changes were not taken lightly as I worked to support my staff and, by extension, their families. When you couple how workforce decisions enable the domino effect on society, communication was and is an imperative tool to manage the situation at hand. For weeks, we had conversations with our staff and decided to establish a fund to help the most impacted of our constituents through this time. Another challenge was providing thoughtful communication to our constituents. To address this, I’ve created office hours to allow clients as well as leaders in academia and several industries to host an open and honest dialogue about how COVID-19 is impacting our whole community.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
AnitaB recently piloted a survey to understand the pandemic’s impact on women, and particularly women in tech. Our survey respondents have seen an increase in domestic labor at an average of 9 hours per week coupled with increased workloads from their employers (32%). Unsurprisingly, women technologists reported decreased productivity (41%) and inability to concentrate (46%) coupled with declining mental (50%) and physical health (32%).
I live by the advice I give. Like the lifestyle my family and I have created, I encourage everyone to set goals and start a routine — daily, weekly and monthly. It is important to continue on with life despite the challenges COVID-19 brings by keeping your mind and body occupied. On the other hand, you also have to be willing to forgive yourself when you can’t do as much as you need to. Self-forgiveness encourages people to make a new plan for tomorrow and not stress about the trivial things.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the post-COVID-19 economy will look like, but we can try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID-19 economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, it can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate?
COVID-19 presents an opportunity to rethink the work economy from the workweek, pay, burnout and job opportunities. There are questions of who’s essential and what determines “hard work.” As many remain home balancing their jobs and personal life, we need to rethink overworking in the name of productivity. It’s important for mental and physical health, as well as work quality to find a sustainable rhythm.
How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Following COVID-19, we must permanently change the ways we do essential work. For example, we never think about how we receive the food on our table. Farmers and production and distribution company workers have gone unnoticed until this moment, with farmers going bankrupt, food being wasted and more people going hungry. With the level of technology we have today, this problem among many others is maddening. We need to leverage technology to correct supply chains and calculate ways to make life better for everyone.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID-19 economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID-19 Economy?
In a post-COVID-19 economy, we are thinking differently about everything, but especially the Grace Hopper Celebration. This year, for the first time in its history, GHC is going virtual, creating an opportunity to rethink the needs of our constituents, how we can serve them, and how we can extend the reach of our event to new and different types of people. With a virtual event, we can now have someone join us from a location where air travel wasn’t feasible before.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I highly encourage others to take the time and consider the needs of their communities, audiences, and customers. We need to make the art of compromise fashionable again and understand that the pandemic has impacted even the simplest things in life. Continue to think outside the box and strategize how we can all make our organizations and industries more diverse and inclusive.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have three mantras I follow in life. First, my parents taught me, “Leave it better than you found it,” always looking to have a positive impact and to continuously improve.
Second, I reimagined the famous quote by Bobby Kennedy, “Some [wo]men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” This quote allows me to say, there is no box I must confine to. It’s led me to try to do the impossible that people said I never could.
Lastly, I have a favorite quote from Theodore Roosevelt when he led a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris back in April 23, 1910. “It is not the critic who counts…” speaks to seizing the moment, getting things done. That it might be hard is not the point.
How can our readers further follow your work?
For the latest on my work with AnitaB.org, you can follow AnitaB.org’s website and social media channels, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. You can also follow my professional social channels as well, commonly found under Brenda D. Wilkerson.