Be open to possibilities and do not put yourself in a box when considering a career. There are so many different opportunities out there. At first, I thought a career in tech would just be coding, and I was wrong!
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Latifah Thomas. Latifah is an Assistant Technical Instructor at NPower, a nonprofit organization that helps elevate people from poverty to the middle class through free tech training, certification, and job placement. After emigrating from Guyana to move to the U.S at age 20, Latifah was able to take her interest in IT from back in grade school all the way to New York City, where she now helps young adults and people of color from underserved communities learn the fundamentals of tech. Latifah attributes having a female instructor at the front of her own IT class as the driving force and encouragement that she needed to let nothing stop her from claiming her space in tech, and she’s passionate about serving as a role model for the future, diverse technologists of the future.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in Guyana and emigrated to the United States a little under four years ago in November 2017 when I was 20 years old. I am the first born, so I had a lot expected of me from my family. I took responsibility early on to be an example for my siblings, and that is really where my passion for being a role model or teacher started. When I moved to the U.S., I had just completed high school, so I came into this new country with the task of figuring out what I wanted to do next. I basically had a chance to start over from scratch very early on in my life!
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I read a lot, and most of what I read is around gaining financial knowledge and independence. I am very interested in learning more about investing, and how to generally budget and save. The book that had the biggest impact on me was, “Secrets of the Millionaire Mind” by T. Harv Eker. It still sticks with me today, especially since I am still navigating my new life in the U.S. and the jumpstart of my career in IT.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Making a difference is all about leading by example and staying firm in your beliefs, even when it can be difficult. When I first began my job as an instructor at NPower in Brooklyn, I was the only female teaching among three other males. It was a blessing and a curse at the same time, navigating that environment and finding my confidence in the crowd. However, this challenge gave me a unique opportunity to connect with my female students on a deeper level. Many would approach me after lessons, saying they are sticking with the class and learning IT because they saw me succeed. That meant the world to me. It taught me that sometimes just being present is enough to give people the extra push they need to pursue their dreams.
Ok super. You are currently helping to lead an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Of course.NPower is a national nonprofit that is committed to advancing race and gender equity in the tech industry. The organization provides free tech training classes that lead to IT certification for young adults across the country, with an emphasis on women of color and those from underserved communities. Through our work, we are passionate about creating pathways to economic prosperity and mobility for young people and showing them that a good paying job in tech is possible even without a college degree. Through my role as an Assistant Technical Instructor, I am helping to mold the next generation of IT workers and working to influence more young adults from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in tech. I am honored to be in this position as a woman of color, but right now, women of color only hold 3% of jobs in the national tech industry overall. I want to show my students that there is space for them to succeed.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
High school is quite different in Guyana than it is in the States. You have to go through Forms 1–5, which would be like Grades 7–11. If we want to pursue a level of higher education, we are also expected to complete an additional 2 years of schooling, as required, at a Higher level (Tertiary Level) known as Lower Six and Upper Six (the equivalent of Grade 12 in the U.S.). It was during that time in Forms 1–5 that I was able to learn the basics of IT and computer science, and get my feet wet in both as part of the curriculum. I realized I really liked IT, and that was where my journey began. Once I was taking classes officially with NPower, another thing that caused me to be passionate was the realization of how many different things you could do with a career in tech. I learned it is not just coding, and that you can be a field technician if you like working with your hands, or that you can teach, like I do!
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They do not get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it?
The final trigger for me happened when I first emigrated to the U.S. It was difficult at first, leaving all my friends and completely starting over, but I knew it was the best move to pursue my career. Once I moved, I wondered what I could do next in terms of education, but worried about the cost of college. As one of five siblings, I was unsure of how I could make that work financially. This is when I decided I needed a plan B, and I began looking at alternative routes to education.
I remember my Dad taking me to a job fair shortly after I moved, and I almost did not want to go in. I thought it might be a waste of time and that my current skills would not be a fit. But then I came across Bridgestreet Development Corp, an organization that helped me with my professional development. They helped me tweak my resume and prepare for interviews, and through that program is how I came across NPower. I visited one of their classrooms as part of my curriculum for Bridge, and I was so inspired I applied on the spot. This was the moment for me where everything fell into place. It became clear that I had my early exposure to tech in Guyana for a reason, and that coming to the States when I did was the moment for me to study even harder so that I could make a difference.
Many young people do not know the steps to take to start a new organization or project. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
My successful transition from student to teacher would not have been possible without my incredible support system — my parents and close friends. I believe having a solid support system and surrounding yourself with people who keep you motivated is crucial to thriving in any program or project. When I realized I was having anxiety while taking my classes or even before starting this job, I had to remind myself that everything seems hard until it is done, and that I had people who believed in me and wanted me to succeed. Another thing that kept me going throughout that process was reading. I read a ton of motivational books and quotes on a regular basis to keep me inspired and to help me level up as an individual and professional.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I faced and overcame adversity in the very beginning of my career, and the experience still sticks with me today. When I had my first internship interview, I noticed that the person evaluating me was just watching and judging my hair the whole time, instead of paying attention to the words I was saying. I felt very discouraged. It is unfortunate that this occurrence is not uncommon, and that many other Black women have experienced this at some level at the workplace or while interviewing for jobs. I left that interview feeling like tech was not inclusive, and that I would not have a place in the industry. But that all changed quickly when I interviewed for the job I have now as an Assistant Technical Instructor at NPower. They were more concerned with the knowledge I had, not where I came from. I brought everything to the table and that is my hope for the future — that other people of color can reach these types of jobs and with more diversity celebrated throughout.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
One time, I was trying to teach a lesson on how to create a batch file, or a series of commands for a computer to follow at its launch. As part of the lesson, my plan was to hide the files away in start-up folders on the computers with the goal of having students troubleshoot them and figure out how to get rid of them. However, all our laptops at that time were the same color grey — the one for my work and others for the classroom. While I was creating the file for all the computers, I accidentally launched one on my own! I had to figure out quickly how to remove it to show the lesson — which was to show students how to create one! It was a great reminder that even our educators are not perfect, and everyone had a good laugh and went with the flow.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My greatest mentor was Kashif Jones, a Technical Instructor at NPower. He took me under his wing early on throughout my journey as a student. He understood that not everyone learns the same way and was committed to helping each student find their own path. Even on my lunch breaks, he would find me and have me teach him the material as if he were the student, which was incredibly helpful for understanding the curriculum. He gave me the inspiration to pursue teaching myself.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When I was a student, I had one instructor that was female, and this had a major impact on me. She was the only female instructor I had ever seen in tech or IT. When I was in high school, every time I had a science or tech class, the instructor was always male. Having this change of pace was incredibly inspiring, especially since she was also an African American woman. I will also never forget a conversation I had with a student one time, who stated that they originally wanted to work in nursing (since that is where she thought most females worked), but then she realized IT used to be a female-dominated field back in the 1960s. This stuck with me throughout my career, and it fuels my goal of helping more young women and women of color achieve careers in tech!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
If we want to support people of color and add more diverse representation in our nation’s tech industry, NPower believes more systemic reforms are needed in both educational and career pathways. One way to do this is by increasing and allocating new sources of funding for training programs from the government.
Additionally, if we truly want to foster more equity in the tech field, employers need to consider more candidates based on their skills in their hiring processes, not just degrees or education levels. Corporations need to further embrace more individuals from nontraditional backgrounds, like me!
Lastly, if we want to see more young women and people of color in the tech field, we need to start encouraging this career path and creating awareness of what is possible with tech careers early on in school. To do this, we need increased support for STEM funding and programs within public education to reach students where they are and to help close the digital divide.
Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- Be open to possibilities and do not put yourself in a box when considering a career. There are so many different opportunities out there. At first, I thought a career in tech would just be coding, and I was wrong!
- No matter what you hear or see, no field is predetermined to be for males or females only. You can get your footing in anything if you are passionate. Whether you want to be a doctor or a pilot or work in IT, your race or gender does not limit you.
- Embrace the spotlight and any chance to speak publicly or share your skills with others. I had anxiety for so long over public speaking, and it was very limiting for my growth. I wish someone had encouraged me early on to work through this and find my voice!
- Value your network and invest in growing it. I wish someone had told me prior to my job and internship search how important networking is, and how important the company you keep is.
- Just be yourself. You put a unique energy into the world and your talents and skills will set you apart as an individual. Just be you and you can help make a difference!
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I recently lost a classmate, and when she died, I saw a lot of people speaking out about the great person she was. It was very eye opening for me to witness, and it got me thinking about how you never know the impact you are making on people. Sometimes, the full extent of that impact will not be revealed until you are gone. If you want to make an impact, think about how you want people to see you, what you want them to say when you are gone and the kind of legacy you want to leave. Turn that into something good and let it motivate you to do better and be better!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Rihanna! I would have a private breakfast or lunch with her anytime. She is such an inspiration as a musician and businesswoman. I just want to learn all her secrets. And maybe I could teach her IT?
How can our readers follow you online?
You should follow NPower to keep up with our programs! @NPowerOrg on Twitter and Instagram. Thank you very much!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!