I've been working in tech for a year and some months now. How I got into tech is a rather roundabout story, one that I’d like to share since I think it can provide a lot of guidance to the many millennials out there who want to work somewhere where their work will matter and improve others’ lives.
Working on improving the lives of others matters a lot for me. In fact, that is how I wound up in tech. Now, I should share that my background is definitely not the norm for the tech world. Not at all. Actually, it’s as far away from whatever the “usual” path to tech might be. What is my background you ask? International criminal and human rights law. Yes, you heard right, and yes, I totally get it if you’re very confused about how I wound up in tech.
Let me explain a little about how I wound up in tech and provide some explanation behind my career “pivot,” as we might call it in the tech world. My dream as a little girl was always to work somewhere where with my work I could positively impact a lot of people’s lives around the world. I mean a LOT of people, not just a couple of hundred or a few thousand, I’m talking a million or billion people.
When I thought of my role models and the people that had made a difference and were making a difference in the world, many of these people had a legal background. There was Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Hillary Clinton, among others. Growing up, Hillary Clinton was a big role model for me since she was one of the only women highlighted in the news (that I remember from my elementary school days) who was shaking things up and doing meaningful work in the world. I thought that to achieve my goal of immense social impact I would have to become a lawyer, and so I did.
Actually, I don’t know that anyone could have convinced me otherwise. I had my 10-year plan as a high school student and did all the things on that list. Attend UC Berkeley. Check. Graduate early. Check. Work on international criminal law abroad. Check. Do Teach For America. Check. Go to law school. Check. Work as an attorney…well, as you recall I now work in tech.
My initial plan was to go to law school and then become a prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, and in that way set helpful precedent for the many people affected by international conflict. However, law school and the legal career were not what I had in mind. In law school, I learned about the workings of the legal system, its history, and its current application. I became very disappointed at a person’s ability to bring about massive social impact in the legal field. I realized that if what you were after was real progress and innovation, the opportunity to work on something that would bring about meaningful, timely, massive and long-lasting change, this, at least for me, could not happen though working in law.
There’s a popular saying out there, “be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods.” I see my career pivot as a fulfillment and even deeper commitment to my goal of massive impact and a re-thinking of the best way to make that happen. This goes to the point of this article: Care about social impact? Work in tech.
For me, this epiphany came from a youth hackathon I attended. By this point I was already clear on the fact that practicing law for the rest of my life was not for me, I just wasn’t sure what was next. I actually attended this hackathon because I wanted my brother to attend. This hackathon, the Level the Playing Field Hackathon, was a two-day event that allowed students underrepresented in computer science the opportunity to build apps that would improve their community while they gained valuable technology skills, and so I was thrilled that my brother had agreed to go! I wanted nothing more than to see my little brother in action and excited about tech, so we went together and I volunteered to work wherever they could put me. I was asked to be a facilitator for a group of students, and we got to work.
Since the whole point of the hackathon was to work on technology that could positively impact our community, the aha moments started rolling in. Our team was working on an app that was basically the OkCupid of mentorship. You see, the students on my team were brilliant students of color, people commonly underrepresented in tech, who had dreams of becoming aerospace engineers, computer programmers, data scientists and had no one to look to for mentorship in making those dreams become a reality. So, we were working on addressing an important need they had that would not only empower them but also lead, quite literally, to a better tomorrow for all of us. Who doesn't want an additional aerospace engineer, computer programmer, and data scientist these days? The realization of solving real problems for a huge number of people was becoming more and more obvious.
Towards the end of the first day, it was becoming more and more clear that our team had a real chance of winning. The next day, we worked on the final touches for the app and perfected our pitch. The team went up on stage, presented the idea flawlessly, and after deliberations our team was announced as one of the two winning teams for the hackathon! This meant the group was invited to attend the Lean Startup Conference, which also meant I was invited (insert happy face emoji here). At the Lean Startup Conference I knew I was home. I met CEOs of companies working on issues that had the potential to positively impact the lives of millions or billions of people. This was it. This is what I had been looking for all along. Not a career in law, but a career in tech. I belong in tech, and so do you if you care about directly and massively impacting the lives of millions or billions of people.
The potential for impact in tech is limitless, and that is a beautiful thing. With technology in the areas of genomics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, materials science, advanced automation, space, and data science to name a few, we can go beyond addressing problems (something that really bothered me about the practice of law) and actually get to their core and disrupt them once and for all.
If we want to solve humanity’s most pressing issues, the answer will come through a merging of social impact initiatives and technology. Technology has to be part of the answer, especially as we work to scale social impact. The only way to reach a billion people at once will be through technology. The way to reach people at the bottom of the pyramid is through technology. They way to once and for all tackle, not just address, the problems of poverty, inequality, world hunger, disease, education, health, environmental sustainability, and political stability is through technology. Do I think tech is the be-all and end-all for society’s most pressing problems? No, but I am sure that tech is part of the solution. So, I put to you again, if you care about social impact work in tech.
Working to radically improve the lives of a billion++ people via tech & mindset