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Diversity in Tech: The Inspiration Gap

First landing on the moon (photo credit: NASA).

Growing up, I never thought I could get into one of the best universities in America. I was always top of my class at my high school in Haiti, but a teacher whom I respected once told my class that we would never get into universities like MIT or Harvard straight from Haiti. He insisted that those schools only accepted the very best in the world, implying that we wouldn’t make the cut. Unfortunately, I believed him.

Several years later, I found out that a friend, Serginio, had gotten into MIT. Serginio was my classmate in middle school and had left Haiti to finish high school in Boston. As soon as I learned that he was attending MIT, I knew that I could too because I had the same background and aptitudes. A year later, my dream came true: I successfully got admitted to MIT as a transfer student!

If you’ve never met someone who looks like you in your dream role, you’re often afraid to take the path that unlocks your full potential.

My high school class photo: Serginio is highlighted on the right and I’m on the left.

During my junior year of college, I began exploring different ways to help Haitians who traditionally lacked the confidence and access to information to pursue life-changing opportunities like attending MIT. I traveled to my hometown in Haiti on multiple occasions and talked to promising students to inspire them to pursue audacious dreams like attending top American colleges.

To help scale my impact, I created EducationHaiti, an organization that provides college preparation and mentorship to students in Haiti. All the mentors in EducationHaiti are Haitians attending American universities, and can relate with the students and serve as credible role models. As a result, a number of students from Haiti have been accepted to top U.S. schools. One example is Cedric Delmy, a student from a modest background, who was accepted into MIT in 2014 and was profiled in Haiti’s top newspaper because of his achievements.

The same problem I experienced in Haiti is true in Silicon Valley today. Many minorities are not pursuing careers in tech because they lack role models who look like them. If you’re part of the majority, it might be hard to grasp the importance of having role models with whom you identify, because you can easily find them around you. People from underrepresented backgrounds are often missing role models who look like them across many industries and roles, and as a result, don’t aspire to those roles. This is the inspiration gap.

The problem is not that these role models don’t exist; they just aren’t visible. As a minority, you may not want to stand out because you don’t feel like you’ve accomplished enough yet. Or you’re experiencing imposter syndrome. Or you just don’t like drawing too much attention to yourself.

As a minority, you may not see yourself as a role model, but you may be the only person from your community in your industry.

For example, my friend Rodney Urquhart, a Staff Software Engineer at Slack, was reluctant to share his story in the Breaking Into Startups podcast because he dropped out of high school and didn’t think of himself as a role model. I encouraged him to share his story anyway. Thanks to the podcast, he has become an inspiration for a large number of underprivileged students, several of whom have reached out to him to express their gratitude. This came as a total surprise to him.

In Silicon Valley today, discussions about diversity in tech often overlook the inspiration gap. The very few women and people of color who make it into tech leadership roles are not visible, especially to anyone living outside the Bay Area. This must change. People from underrepresented backgrounds can gain visibility through activities like writing online, speaking at events, providing mentorship, and visiting underprivileged communities, in order to inspire others like them. These actions often require a significant investment in time, money, and mental energy, but are totally worth it. They can change the life trajectory of those you inspire, for the better.

For me, it only took knowing that one other person from my community got into MIT to realize that my teacher was wrong and that I too could pursue the same path. That realization was the pivotal point that led me to attend MIT as a computer science major and to eventually become a product manager in Silicon Valley. As a Haitian working in tech today, I’ve realized my responsibility to inspire the next generation of minorities to join and to thrive within our industry. You too can be an inspiration for someone else to pursue a career in tech. What are you waiting for?