Brenda Darden Wilkerson: “Learn to delegate”

In order to have women-led teams thrive, it is important to ensure that as their leader you are supporting and promoting them in a meaningful way. And sometimes, this means knowing when and what to tell them to get the work done. Providing the information your team needs doesn’t necessarily mean telling them absolutely everything. […]

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In order to have women-led teams thrive, it is important to ensure that as their leader you are supporting and promoting them in a meaningful way. And sometimes, this means knowing when and what to tell them to get the work done. Providing the information your team needs doesn’t necessarily mean telling them absolutely everything. Being selective in this way not only streamlines how the job gets done, but also helps define your leadership position among your peers.

As a part of my series about “Lessons from Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brenda Darden Wilkerson.

Brenda is the President and CEO of, 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, 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 doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you for having me.

I come from a family that champions the value of education which originally led me to pursue a career in medicine. With my desire to help and serve others, to decrease suffering and increase the impact of other people, I initially started as a pre-med biomedical engineering major at Northwestern where I was required to take two programming classes. This first-time exposure led me to programming and computer science, and helped me discover my new passion for tech. While my career path shifted, my goal to help others remains true today.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career, I secured a teaching position at a community college where I signed up to teach an eight-hour class in Lotus 123. I led these classes for weeks, and tried to engage my often quiet class through the lesson plans. 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?” referring to the computer!

This was beyond humbling and terrifying as it showed me 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 moment in my career as an adjunct professor, and in all roles since that taught me how to know the needs of the people I’m trying to reach. Half the job is knowing what to teach; the other half is knowing who you are reaching.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

It’s uniquely impactful to help women in tech understand how needed their work is, and how powerful they are. It sounds insignificant, but if you don’t know who you are, you won’t act with the power you have. You could speak with a woman who makes software that impacts 35 countries, but because she has been isolated from other people like herself, she feels like an impostor. is able to put women technologists in proximity to each other while realizing the power of that network. That revelation extends beyond the individual; it follows her in every action she makes afterward.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

With our annual Grace Hopper Celebration going 100% virtual, we have the ability to reach women we haven’t reached before. Historically, GHC engaged 60–70 countries. This year, we already have participants from 90+ countries registered, and counting. One of the reason’s we’re thrilled about vGHC is because it causes us to rethink how we reach out to our audience.

We’re also focusing on Membership, which addresses a historic and current need in the community to provide women with access to one another at the click of a mouse.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No — absolutely not, and I don’t know if I ever will be. Here’s why: We have so much work to do in terms of changing what’s ‘normal’. People in STEM impact the lives of so many, so securing equal representation at every tech team’s table is critical for elevating creativity and accuracy for finding solutions.

One of the ways we can do this is by changing how we count; White men represent 31% of the population, yet 71% hold business leadership roles. Why don’t we raise our eyebrows at that? We must look at these numbers with a surgical eye.

We also must change what we measure; How does your company measure diversity? I don’t just mean ethnicity, race, and gender, but also difference of opinion, age, educational background, and more.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

In performance reviews, we see ambitious women are labeled “bossy” while ambitious men are seen as gearing up for success. In my second job in software, I was the only female analyst, and we would call the common area the “locker room” because it was full of men; I was an exception. Showing up is always challenging if you are in the minority, and most women in tech face that tokenism every day. This can only change when company numbers change — when companies hire from and successfully manage diverse groups.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

There’s a myth that all women technologists are this antisocial stereotype. There’s also the idea that every woman technologist needs to be a unicorn in order to be successful. This simply isn’t true. Every person is uniquely able to integrate their experiences into their work, and this should be seen as a positive.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

My experiences as being one of the few Black women in tech at my previous companies have taught me:

  • Be prepared, but not totally dissuaded by fact that the first thing people see are your differences from the norm.
  • Until we reach pay parity, we can’t model ourselves based on the current way of working. Be prepared to pioneer.
  • Learn to delegate. My generation was raised to ‘do it yourself’. But while women tend to carry more than they should, men immediately delegate. For your sake, and that of your project, delegate.
  • Find your mentors. To be frank, you need a male mentor to interpret the craziness of the male-dominated industry, and a female mentor as someone to learn how to navigate as well.
  • Be prepared to give your all every single day, and forgive yourself when you miss the mark you set for yourself. Grit includes self-forgiveness and is essential for growth.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

In order to have women-led teams thrive, it is important to ensure that as their leader you are supporting and promoting them in a meaningful way. And sometimes, this means knowing when and what to tell them to get the work done. Providing the information your team needs doesn’t necessarily mean telling them absolutely everything. Being selective in this way not only streamlines how the job gets done, but also helps define your leadership position among your peers.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

It’s important that the norms and values of your teams reflect that of your organization at large. If the norm is to treat one another with respect, that expectation drives how the organization and respective teams communicate and perform.

Delegation is another critical component of managing a large team, however this does not mean delegate and silo team members to perform certain tasks. Spread the wealth of tasks that align with their strong suits, and challenge them to move their career further.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Cynthia Clontz was the dean at the community college where I eventually became the director of IT training. She was the reason I was able to transition from tech to education, and she taught me about what it meant to be a leader and woman leader.

Looking back, the norm for women was to wear suits and never speak about our kids at work. She was an incredible exception to that norm. One day, my husband and I were at a church, and I was pregnant at the time. And she began to ask me, what are you going to do when you have the baby? Finally, she asked if I would join her college to teach as adjunct faculty. She phrased it as, “Can you help me?”

She taught me how to see talent in people where others might not and showed me it was okay to care about people while being successful. I hire people based on that mentality today. She’s a woman leader ahead of her time and we’re still good friends.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I am proud to have founded Computer Science for All. Since I lacked access to computer science in high school despite being a heavily involved STEM student, my goal was to ensure that people from all walks of life had the access and visibility to the computer science field.

I believe the opportunity to help others choose what they want to do/providing them with another career choice is critical to driving innovation and creativity forward.

Through our efforts, we were successful in helping turn computer science into a core class in the curriculum, and I am very proud that this year, 97% of Chicago public school students graduated with at least one class in computer science.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Let’s change how we see our potential. You only go as far as where you can see. Forget your limitations and push for more.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Bobby Kennedy once said, “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” I reimagined it to address all genders, and his quote allows me to truly believe that one does not need to confine to preconceived notions of worth or potential in order to succeed.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Women who have saved lives. Right now, with COVID-19, I would love to have breakfast with Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel. And, of course, Michelle Obama.

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