It is a myth that women don’t have the muscle and stamina for the career. First of all, I am in this for the long haul and while it has caused me to grow thick skin, I am still here. I have a lot of work to do and societal norms to disprove. Things go wrong and just because I’m disappointed, does not mean I am discouraged. I’m going to learn a lesson and live to see another project.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Audrey P. Willis.
Audrey P. Willis is a social innovator who breathes life into big ideas. Tapping into her over 15 years of innovation and entrepreneurship experience, Mayor Lee Harris appointed Audrey as the first Manager of Innovation and Performance Analysis for Shelby County Government in Tennessee. There, she is responsible for transforming government, talent, transportation, and IT to better serve the citizens of Shelby County. As a founder of businesses, Audrey has led, raised capital, and scaled businesses including most recently CodeCrew, a code school exposing underrepresented children in Memphis to computer science skills where she presently serves on the board. With a passion for talent development Audrey serves on the boards of Veritas College Prep, STS Enterprise, and LITE Memphis. She is a New Memphis Institute and Leadership Memphis Fellow. She has been recognized globally by the BBC during their “100 Women” series documenting her in “Young, geeky and black in Memphis”. Audrey was named one of the “185 Black Women in Tech to Follow” for her work as a tech inclusion advocate and evangelist. More recently she was featured in a national ad campaign for Prudential Insurance, “The State of Us”, highlighting her entrepreneurial contributions to making Memphis one of the cities with the highest rate of female business ownership.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ihave been in tech all my life without really laying claim to it for years. As a child, I used a word processor at a relative’s home to use an old Brother Word Processor to initially type my homework. No one ever really sat me down with a book or a class, I was just eager to learn something and do something different. My teacher was impressed that I would type my homework at such a young age. I would play on it and experiment just to see what it would do; I have always been a “I’ll figure it out” type of person — so my official journey into IT was rooted in “I’ll figure it out”. I was living in Dallas at the time going through a divorce, working dead-end jobs at call centers and in my spare time I would update my Myspace page. I wasn’t paying for the HTML code to update my profile, I figured it out. I would spend my free time in the bookstore while my son played and ventured around the kid’s section, writing down lines of code to try out on my Myspace page. At the time, there wasn’t an Amazon or anywhere to get cheap books, so I would take notes from those expensive books. If there was free time at work, I was making magic happen. It sounds so corny now, but my profile page was amazing! I would change it hourly, daily… I would embed music and these graphics where things would scroll across the screen — it was impressive at the time. Then I got caught at work and I knew it — the gig was up and I was about to be fired for playing on company time — which was the last thing I needed between being a single parent and living check to check was to lose my job. At the end of this hallway, I found the contrary. He was impressed with what I was creating and wanted me to work with the “guys in IT”. IT Department? What’s that? I was thinking, “You mean to tell me there are other people that work in this building,” as he swiped his badge across this literal and figurative “New Door” he was walking me through. I swear I heard cherubs sing when I saw the IT department. I spent the rest of my time there working in an unofficial capacity completing service requests, building web pages and database changes. They taught me how to be a project manager and systems analyst and I absorbed as much as I possibly could. I did not realize then how impactful those events were, and I wish I could remember my boss’ name or the guys that took the time to teach me. Not only did they change my life, but in the downstream, thousands of lives.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Everything about this entire journey has been interesting. I think the most memorable thing that has happened to me was when Prudential came to film a national campaign about the work that we are doing. I’m not a very gregarious person, so having people excited about the work we do is sometimes fascinating. It was an awesome experience — they literally followed me around for days and then they paid our students for their participation. I cried, ugly tears.
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?
Funny mistake, I can’t say that has ever happened. We have had our fair share of “someone forgot to bring the snacks for the summer class” and I show up with all sorts of sugary treats. The kids love me, but it doesn’t go over well with teachers. One of the lessons we did have to learn in starting was to stand firm on what we wanted our organization to be and what we weren’t going to allow.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think our mission and story makes us stand out. We know we were not the only group of IT professionals that wanted to teach kids to code, but the love for this city changes the paradigm. We are Memphians through and through — we love our city and how it has transformed us into the people we are. We take the “Grit and Grind” culture and bring that into the CodeCrew experience. There are thousands of tech education programs, but none so intricately in tune with our community and we love it. We may argue about where roads should be paved or who leads this city, but one thing we agree on is that educating our children in computer science related fields will ensure the state and economic future of our city and its citizens.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
CodeCrew’s Code School will now earn you continuing education credits at one of the community colleges here in the city. This not only adds to the validity of our program, but it introduces the possibility of entering college to individuals that may have felt college wasn’t for them. I believe that Memphis will be the tech hub of the south, we own the blues, so why not tech? I think this validation and all the support from the community helps us build and reinforce this pipeline.
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! I am emphatically, unsatisfied! I get exhausted and tired sometimes, but it’s something about walking into a CodeCrew class or session and seeing young women command a class or drive a project with a team of boys and those boys support her changes and leadership — that re-energizes me. It gives me hope that the work we do in and outside of CodeCrew is making a difference. Women are not only held to a standard that our counterparts are not being held to, but we often go unsupported and unrecognized in leadership.
During my very lengthy IT career, I have only had one woman that I reported to in senior leadership and the others have all peaked in middle management. Just recently, I’ve met some women CIO’s and CSO’s and I later saw a national publication and could recognize more than half of the women featured from personally meeting these women. I don’t know that many people and it should not be so few of us that we all know each other.
Changing the status quo is not 100% the responsibility of women — trust me you don’t need to survey women to figure out if we want equal opportunities in leadership or pay — we must motivate men. We need men as allies that understand and support the programming power and leadership of women. At minimum, as a rule for an organization properly aligning management based on the demographics is an easy win and easy to do it if you are truly invested in your teams — think about how empowering that becomes to your employees. Women are not asking for affirmative action; we are asking for equitable opportunities to work.
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?
Constantly having to prove myself and of course pay. I spend a lot of my initial time with new people or teams proving I am capable rather than establishing trust — that exercise comes later and is also harder for women. Men don’t get questioned. They walk in and people assume the position to not question and to immediately trust their leadership. Addressing this STEM problem is a culturally rooted problem in our society. The way we are treated is simply an extension of how women are treated in all industries. Because there are so few women in tech, we never really get to play the offense in this fight — we are always fighting. We are fighting inside and outside the parameters of our jobs because we know we have to change the culture for the women that will come after us. I feel more pressure to “be great” at work because I know that my failure could affect a downstream of expectations people have about women. I was recently told in a candid conversation with a member of leadership that “I was told you were given this job…” implying I wasn’t as “smart” as he had been recently witnessed and been made aware. I took in one deep breath and I swiftly began to “read” him my resume of all the million dollar projects I’ve lead, teams that I have lead, companies that I have built, features that range from the BBC to Prudential until he raised his hands in surrender and professed that he believed me. If I had been a man, that would have never happened.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
Women don’t want leadership roles: Women do want to lead, in a supported and empowered environment. We do not want to be the scapegoat or be set up to have to clean up projects that have gone awry.
We aren’t hard to work with; we are passionate about our work. I I still have to work through this myth because I am very passionate about my work. Projects become like our children and if it fails or “needs me” I will work relentlessly to fix it and sometimes to our defeat, we expect the same level of passion about our work.
Women aren’t techy/nerdy Enough: So, what do you think, I’m going to bring my Easy-Bake-Oven to work and make treats while the real developers do the work? Upon meeting me, I am very reserved, but if you bring up gadgets, I’m all over the conversation. Some think, “She’s not techy enough and doesn’t gel with the team.” No, you have not figured out what she’s nerdy about.
Women don’t have the muscle and stamina for the career. First of all, I am in this for the long haul and while it has caused me to grow thick skin, I am still here. I have a lot of work to do and societal norms to disprove. Things go wrong and just because I’m disappointed, does not mean I am discouraged. I’m going to learn a lesson and live to see another project.
Women have to fight through subconscious bias, gender gaps, pay gaps, the lack of representation and I am willing to take it on headfirst. I sometimes think I’m lucky because my current spouse understands my plight, he is very supportive and takes on a role in our household where I am not forced to fulfil gender norms. If I have to go take a class in another city or speak across the country, I can go and without feeling I have failed as a parent. He’s got it under control. Those ideals about women’s roles in society subconsciously feed into work, assuming that just because she’s a mom, divorced or a single parent is a reflection of her capacity to perform work. That’s simply not true.
Women don’t work well together. Women work best together and can get a lot done because of the nature in which we work. The problem is, we have been unintentionally vetted against each other because we know there are few opportunities for us, and competition is born from the lack of opportunities for advancement. This happens among women in Hollywood as well. There are only so many opportunities for women to act, but very few to get to pay of a “big time roll” so there is competition, unhealthy competition, because there can only be one “it girl”. It happens in tech. I’ve been the “it/IT girl” that is scooped up by management for leadership and fast tracking. I’ve been shut out and found myself choosing between my team or a leadership opportunity. If there were more opportunities for women to ALL have access to leadership and equal pay, we would not feel the need to compete.
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.)
Don’t Throw Away Your Shot! — I got that one from “Hamilton” — everyone resonates with something from that play and for me it’s the excitement of being “young, scrappy and hungry.’ I’m a dreamer and I do not always do things as they are as they are prescribed — that’s not the way I’m built. I don’t understand “NO”, I don’t understand “I can’t”, but what I do know is — if it can be learned, I can achieve it.
Reach as You Climb — Your success is the pathway for another woman to find her way and it is our obligation as women to ensure as we succeed so we prepare the industry for more women. We can advocate for ourselves but think about the message we send when we are also advocating for the work of other women. Hire smart and hire people who are not only smart but have diverse backgrounds with passion for their work. I’d rather have someone willing to learn and take risks than a person that knows everything and has been in the same job for years.
Practice What You Preach — If you want inclusion you have to be inclusive. That’s not just for women — so many companies talk about how inclusive they are, but when you look at the demographics of their company, it does not reflect what they claim to be the mission. One important factor to attract women and people of color to tech is to actually see women and people of color within your organization — that also means purposefully doing business with vendors and organizations that are owned by women and people of color. There are many women with tech startups that are looking to provide services — try them instead of another conglomerate software company.
Being comfortable is for your pajamas, on the weekend — To be successful in this business, you always are having to take risks. If you aren’t careful, you will talk yourself out of so many opportunities. I have found that some of my most impactful experiences have occurred at my most uncomfortable and challenging moments. I am too comfortable with “uncomfort” and I find myself anxious if I’m too comfortable. I love being challenged and that drives me — extended periods of comfort is also a sign that I need to grow or change.
We are on the same team — Embracing women in tech benefits us all. Women struggle sometimes knowing their value, but when her value is acknowledged and appreciated, that’s invaluable.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Find your purpose and follow through. Actually “following through” is the most important, not following through destroys trust. Hone in on what makes you a great woman and maximize on that — we are naturally great communicators and collaborators. I know I can sit in a meeting with another woman and in silence communicate how I feel about a topic and she can receive and understand me. Take risks and get over perfection because leadership is also about the process and journey. Stay in tune and connected with your team and ensure that they know they are empowered and trusted.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Ensure your support is supported and communicated through leadership. Overarching buy-in is vital to the ability to lead. You can be the best leader, male or female, but if there is doubt, hesitation or unclear communication from leadership, it can be your demise. My advice to manage a team is no different from the advice I would give to a man, the value add is what separates the sexes. Women have to know their voice and be able to utilize what that means and the value that she brings to the table.
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?
I have met plenty of women in tech in passing, but Pam Rendine-Cook was the first woman in tech that was a bad ass and made no qualms about it. I was used to women in tech that lead with risk aversion that aligned with operating as a woman was expected to work. Pam was a firecracker and would not only command attention but demand it. When she walked into the room people sat up straight and listened. They didn’t unnecessarily question her leadership or decisions and she would push you even when you didn’t think you were capable.
Typically, in program management, the first project is “fluff” — something needed, but if it fails the company won’t go under. My first IT Program to manage under her leadership was a multimillion-dollar data migration. I remember the weight of imposter syndrome setting in — I knew that feeling before it became popular and had a name. She was like a mother eagle. Eagles are amazing creatures — one of my favorites actually. When they know their little eaglets are ready to fly, they purposely make them uncomfortable by putting glass and uncomfortable things in the nest. They literally kick them out when they know they have built them so that they can soar. The mother eagle is always available even if not visible. The little eagle jumps out of the nest and if mother sees issues, she soars out of nowhere to catch her eaglet. She coaches and empowers so that the eaglet tries again and again until it can fly. It’s one of my mantras, when I have to tell someone on my team to do something that’s hard or risky, I tell my children and mentees: “the eagle is a regal bird.” It’s the greatest testament to true leadership, in that statement I’m saying, “I appreciate you trusting my ability to lead you, now trust me that I have empowered you to be successful on your own and if you fail I am here to catch you. We will fly again.”
One of my first of many meetings, I remember having a panic attack after being forced to make a decision on the spot and immediately getting questioned. Pam was in the room observing and as the room cleared her maternal instinct drove her to ask me if I was ok, but that other part of Pam, the driver, immediately said, “Whelp, that’s over and I’m sure there will be more of those meetings. It gets tougher at this level — you’ll get some think skin and you will be ok. Now let’s go figure this thing out.” This was the first times I wasn’t coddled by another woman and I was allowed to show emotion at work and not be demonized. To this day, she responds when I call and she sends random notes that say, “I see you ‘kid’, I’m proud of you”, or willing to give a swift kick in the butt. That’s the motivation and attitude that has taught me so much about maneuvering this IT industry.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I don’t know when it started to resonate that there is a possibility that I could save the world through tech, but I am actually crazy enough that I believe myself now. Tech saved my life — I know it did. When I learned to be confident in tech, it was the empowering vice that transformed my life — leaving behind my own experiences of being poor, living check to check and in abusive relationships. Because of my experiences, I know if I could succeed, others could succeed too. I’ve seen it with one of our CodeCrew students — she is a single mom that was experiencing so many of the same issues I had experienced. To see her grow and now have access to the same types of opportunities that I have created for myself is simply amazing to me — it inspires me to continue working.
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. 🙂
My Movement? I’d like to think it’s happening now. Mind you, there is a lot of capacity for growth, but I see the change in the eyes of CodeCrew students, parents and people I see on the street. “Hey you are that CodeCrew girl?! I love what you all are doing, we need you.” Yes, I answer to ‘CodeCrew Girl” it’s endearing, and I know it means well. I want to expand my reach as a tech inclusion and equity influencer. I know this is a stretch, but I envision Mark Zuckerberg calling me up and saying, “Look, Audrey, I have to get some more women and minorities in my company. Can you come out here, help me and tell me what you think?” I vividly see these images in my mind, transformative conversations with tech leaders implementing real change. I intensely feel there’s a lot of change that can happen throughout these companies if the person driving change is supported by all tech leaders.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
If there is one thing I have learned in life it is, “If I can endure all that I’ve been through, I can achieve anything.” I know where I grew up, I know that the expectation of my existence is not the life I live. I grew up with a strange battle because I was smart. Where I’m from, I was less likely to be bullied because my mother was a drug addict and more likely to be ridiculed because I was smart. Everyone I went to school with either had one or both parents battling drug addictions or they had a close family member struggling, but “being smart” was ostracized and labeled as “being white” or selling out.
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 🙂
I am always in the state of learning, this person would have to give me more than just lunch and there is something that I need/want to learn from them. It’s a toss-up between Susan Wojcicki or Ursula Burns. Susan Wojcicki’s career is amazing, she is the reason why my child doesn’t even watch TV anymore. She was a founder of Google and runs YouTube, two revolutionary organizations all while being a mom. She understands the gender gap that exists and is an advocate for inclusion.