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Celebrating Black History Month with the WISE of Today: Deb Raji

Deb Raji, Engineering Intern at Clarifai, Applied Machine Learning Team. (Photos used in this article were taken by Karen Herder.)

During the month of February, we sat down with some amazing black women in science and engineering to talk about their career paths, challenges they have faced, and their advice to other WISE in the field!

Our first featured women is Deb Raji, a student studying Robotics Engineering at the University of Toronto. She is currently interning at Clarifai, a computer vision company in NYC.

Hi Deb, thanks for interviewing with us!

Tell us a bit about how you got to where you are today. Why did you choose this path?

I ended up here by just putting myself out there, to be honest. I chose engineering because I thought I was good at math and I liked physics a ton in high school. The Engineering Science program at the University of Toronto just gave me an excuse to delay choices on which field to specialize in. Eventually, I landed on the Robotics option, because everyone was doing it.

Haha, just kidding — I actually really struggled with picking an option that was so mainstream, but it was popular for good reason. This was one of the few options that really gave us some exposure to interesting Computer Science courses.

I knew on some level that I wanted to build out my ideas and coding was an interesting way to do that. I blew off a disturbing number of weekends in my second year just going to hackathons, and coming out of that experience, became really hyped about tech. My first couple events were a disaster, but I eventually got into things and sort of figured out what my role was in the teams. That summer after second year, I started building out other ideas I had — like Speak Up and Project Include — and even did a short stint at University of Toronto’s Entrepreneurship Hatchery.

This all just made me fall in love with the tech startup space, and I knew I wanted to intern for a small but powerful tech company I loved during my PEY internship. [Editor’s Note: The PEY internship program is a 12 to 16-month internship program offered by the University of Toronto.]

I picked Clarifai for a couple reasons, including the awesome work the company is doing, but mainly because I had met Matt and understood that he was an excellent role model for hard work. I sort of hustled my way in there, and prepped so hard for every interview (to the detriment of my economics course quiz grades, haha). Eventually, they gave me a chance.

I’ve been here since May, working on their Applied Machine Learning team, and I’m loving it so far.

Have you ever encountered difficulty in maintaining your individuality at school, at work, or in Canadian culture? What difficulties did you encounter and how did you overcome them?

Of course — I think every person goes through this at some point! Early on, I really struggled with putting the real me on display and pursuing what I actually cared about. This involved a lot of early experimentation and failures — as I mentioned before, I went to hackathons, I talked to people and just kind of zeroed in on what I was more and more interested in.

This sounds like an ad, but participating in ILead programs really helped me out with this. That group is very serious about supporting students to define their values and make concrete plans to live out those values. I took that task extremely seriously and have a set of values that define my priorities and act as a north star for my decision making. I learnt a lot during my time with them about individuality and how a big part of living your authentic self starts with just explicitly defining your values in an honest and accurate way.

Knowing what I needed out of life really helped me shed the labels and just live as me, independent of the shape and color of the flesh suitcase I happened to have arrived in. Just literally having the two or three words to remind me of what was important pushed me to really go after what I wanted.

Have you ever been the victim of prejudice or discrimination? How did you respond?

While I was in school, I constantly had jokes made at my expense, and it really took me by surprise. At first I was amused — why did people have to bring up the fact that I was black in every single conversation? — then I became frustrated — I’m black, I get it. Why is this such a big deal? — then just plain angry. Some people I thought were my friends have said some awful things to me and, like for any human being, these veiled insults on my appearance and my intelligence hurt a lot.

I think I just learnt to avoid people that say these things and take personal attention away from them. It took a while but I think I’ve grown into a person that can recognize someone with conscious or subconscious racism and do what I need to do to navigate as far away from them as possible — I just don’t need that negativity in my life. For professors, TAs and now colleagues that demonstrate this behaviour, I unfortunately plan a similar route, taking a wide U turn to avoid any personal interaction when possible. It makes life unnecessarily difficult, making conveniences for the other person at my own expense of time and effort, but it’s just how I cope for now.

Looking back, are you satisfied with the way you responded or have you thought of something that might have been a more appropriate response?

I’m not really satisfied with the way I handle things now and wouldn’t recommend this approach to anyone. Letting things fester silently like this often takes a lot of energy out of you, and very few select people ( sometimes, near strangers) have actually seen what it’s like when I finally explode in a race rant or deflate completely into serious physical exhaustion. It also doesn’t help that I’m really facing prejudice due to my gender as well, and there’s almost no one I know at this intersection to talk to about this. It’s a strange and complicated situation to be in, but I continue to just do the best I can.

I’m looking forward to the time when I have the confidence to just confront people for some of the awful things they do or say. When I swallow the pill, it hurts me personally but it hurts the community more, as those people also don’t get a dose of their own medicine. They’re likely to mistreat others in the future, if not insult me again. So I’m working on navigating the social landmine and getting to a point where I can shoot back at people when they cross the line, acknowledging their racism openly and effectively challenging them to react to it.

In your opinion, what is the greatest hindrance to racial harmony? Why? What can be done to remove this hindrance?

I get frustrated when people and institutions ignore prejudice and pretend it doesn’t happen — that usually manifests itself in a meeting with a lot of talking but no lasting record to hold anyone accountable. Racial discord exists and but is awkward to talk about, especially when you’re in the minority group. However, we all need to get past the discomfort and speak up. The more we talk about it, the more comfortable we’ll all feel taking steps to address this.

I think the University of Toronto Engineering community has made some great progress opening up a dialogue about Mental Health, through #BellLetsTalk and other awesome initiatives. I’m really proud of the people that fought to fight that stigma and believe the community is immensely better for it. I’d love to see us talk that freely about personal struggles with racism and sexism as well. These things are closely tied to mental health for many so I feel like it’s just as important to welcome those conversations without any fear of judgement or backlash. We need to start giving those stories the same respect and attention we give to any other story of personal struggle, since ignoring the issue certainly won’t make it disappear.

What do you think schools and workplaces need to do to help students/coworkers that are experiencing prejudice?

Just keeping a comprehensive and accessible record of incidents of prejudice would be useful — it would encourage others to speak up even if they’re unsure of the outcome, since at least they are contributing to our understanding of the problem. Don’t get me wrong — taking action is extremely important but it’s sometimes a steep hill to climb. However, keeping records of what’s presently going on is a low inertia goal with a rippling impact for years, if not decades after the fact. Other minority groups like Women in Engineering and the LGBTQ community are closely monitored and can provide ample support services as a result. It would be great if we could have that for ethnic minority groups as well.

Another thing institutions could do is provide some Diversity Training and Implicit Bias workshops — encouraging as many students and employees to participate as possible. We all have our biases, and it’s important to be able to identify them. That’s a skill that you can learn and that someone can teach you — it encourages people to be more articulate on the topic, in addition to breaking down defences and promoting honest, helpful conversations. We try to put our instructors through this kind of training at Project Include and it has helped them immensely to be more consciousness about openly addressing their unknown biases in the classroom.

What advice to you have to other students of ethnic minorities that would like to pursue science or engineering?

Find a mentor. Seriously just pick a person you really admire for whatever reason and reach out to them for a coffee, then keep nurturing that relationship. Pro tip — reaching out to alumni first is easy and builds confidence tenfold for later interactions.

In first year, I really admired this Engsci alum Karl Martin, the CEO of Nymi. He doesn’t look like me in any way — he’s a white male and doesn’t know anything about being a black woman in tech. He works on hardware products and has an electrical engineering background. I code and hate circuits courses. That being said, I appreciated his leadership style and agreed with much of what he had to say about entrepreneurship and tech. I’m not sure when — I think it was the Fall semester of first year — I reached out for mentorship and I’ve been meeting him ever since. The lessons I’ve learnt from him are invaluable — he’s taught me so much about practical things like how this industry works, how to ace an interview, and how a company creates value, but he’s also been an incredible example of humility and integrity, traits that continue to inspire me.

After Karl, I’ve since reached out to a bunch of mentors to help me in all facets of life and I think it’s really helped me to cope as a person that stands out in this field. And they all kind of play different roles — if I’m overwhelmed specifically by my position as a black engineer, I know exactly who to call (shout out to Kay and the NSBE crew), if I’m facing a challenge specific to being a woman, I know who I can lean on for advice there too. And it’s some intersectional struggle, I’ll take that initiative and find a person on Facebook, LinkedIn, whatever and ask them directly or indirectly for support.

I think people will be surprised with how much others are willing to help, and also how much they need help, especially as an ethnic minority, when you can easily feel singled out, isolated and lonely. A strong network of support, not only from peers but also those older and wiser than you is pretty important to stay encouraged and challenged — I’m certain I wouldn’t be surviving without all of these people.

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Do you know an amazing WISE that you want to nominate an for an interview? Do you have a woman that you look up to whose story you want to hear? Nominate them today by commenting on this article or by messaging our Facebook page here!