Supercharge Black Sisters in STEM: Female Founder Diana's Tech Revolution
20 July 2023
Podcast Episode #18: "What's going on with Black Sisters in STEM?"
Diana Nyamekye Wilson is a highly successful 26-year-old social entrepreneur, former Googler, activist and global speaker, honored by the Princess of Dubai as the CEO of the Most Impactful Initiative worldwide. She is the product of a diligent single mother, prayer and a constructive community of Newark, NJ.
Nyamekye is the founder and CEO of Black Sisters in STEM, where she is on a mission to unleash the global brilliance of Black women in STEM. To this aim she is building the largest talent marketplace of Black college women in STEM globally. From Lagos, Nigeria to Atlanta, Georgia, Nyamekye is building a community that the world has never seen.
Listen to the full episode here!
Rebecca: Welcome to Career Sisterhood, a podcast for top female talent. I am your host, Rebecca Leppard. On this podcast, you're going to listen to raw, unedited conversations between your big sisters that I hope will give you a mental boost or a hint of an answer for your current career dilemma. I am the founder of Upgrading Women. And today, I have a fellow woman of colour founder, Diana Nyameke Wilson.
Diana: Hello, hello.
Rebecca: Yes, she is ready. She's ready. So let me tell you, she is a highly successful 26-year-old social entrepreneur. She used to work for Google. She is still an activist and a global speaker, honoured by the Princess of Dubai. Um, not Princess Diana. That's your name. As the CEO of the most impactful initiative worldwide. What an honour. She is the product of a diligent single mother, prayers, and a constructive community in Newark, New Jersey. She is the founder and CEO of Black Sisters in STEM. Powered by AI, their platform improves the higher ability of Black women through live projects, mentorship, and learning communities at scale. That is similar to what I'm doing, but I'm doing it at 39. So kudos to you at 26. You are there.
But what about the six-year-old Diana? What did you want to be when you grew up?
Diana: Yeah, six-year-old Diana was watching so many rom-coms, and at that time, what was beautiful about romantic comedies is that they really tried to feature working women. It's romantic comedies at that time. So I specifically watched "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days." And all of these movies, they were working, you know, they were corporate women, they were career women. And I loved the vision of being in a suit and being in an office. So for me, I was like, okay, that's what I like. And I like money. Okay, and my mum always goes to Bank of America. That was her bank, and it still is her bank. Oh, so I was like, I want to be the CEO of Bank of America. That is how it was.
And did you then follow your dream, quote-unquote, dream job, as in did you pursue that degree, etc.? So what did you do in university then?
Diana: Absolutely, yeah. That was my dream all the way up to university. I got a full scholarship through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And I went to UVA. And UVA, the University of Virginia, has a unique situation because we have an undergraduate business school that you have to actually apply and get into. You can't just declare a business major. So I was on the route to enter into our undergraduate business school for my first two years. So I was doing finance. But then I realised I didn't really want to do finance. I didn't really feel accepted here.
I really didn't feel like I wanted to be the only, well, one of three black girls in my class for two more years out of 500 students. And I really felt imposter syndrome in a place that I thought was my dream. I saw the questions I couldn't answer and the concepts I was struggling to understand as a signal of my incompetence rather than a signal of areas where I needed to develop. And because I was coming from Newark, New Jersey, and I had no exposure to someone in finance, I had no exposure to someone at Bank of America. I had just had movies and a wish. Actually, I dropped out.
Unfortunately, I am one of almost 50% of other black women who drop out of a STEM-based major by their sophomore year. And so after I dropped out, I actually did it under the guidance of a dean. They told me that I would be better suited for something like women's studies. And as an immigrant child, I take authority very seriously, so I saw his words as final. And I actually went to study women's studies and sociology. And so, though it was a very traumatic way to enter into that field, it was a huge blessing because Black Sisters in STEM was built on the foundational principles of theology that I learned in gender and sexuality studies and sociology. It was built on the movements that I studied in sociology.
It was built on the African and African-American studies courses that I took. And that really empowered me to understand the power of one person and a couple of other people who agreed to build something and make a change in the world and be relentless about it. And so, if not for me going into those majors, I wouldn't be where I am today. But I definitely still want to reinvent that journey. So it's not as traumatic, it's not as lonely, it's not as oppressive. One thing I didn't mention during those four years is that I was highly depressed, I was highly anxious. I gained over 80 pounds in less than a year and a half. I went from about 110 to 180 by my sophomore year. All of that is what I'm trying to remove from the journey of other black Gen-Z women going into STEM-based careers.
Rebecca: Oh, that's a lovely story. And it was actually a blessing as well that a dean took an interest in your future and guided you in the right path. Many of us, and especially universities are basically businesses, right? They don't care. From the outside, it looks like as long as you pay the tuition, even though you will have to repay the student loan for the rest of your career, we don't care. We just want your money. But it's so good, and that is why I also built Career Sisterhood so that a lot of sisters out there really understand that you don't have to stick it out for the sake of, “Oh, I already got the scholarship or all it's already been paid. If I don't finish what I started, I'm going to embarrass my family and so on and so forth.” So you told me that you were depressed at that time, but -
What was the breakthrough in your mindset that finally made you realise, oh, this is where I belong, when you took up that major?
Diana: Yeah, my breakthrough was actually in my, I believe it was my third or fourth year. Yes. I went on a study abroad to Ghana and Morocco. And I am actually Ghanaian, so I'm Ghanaian-American. But I hadn't been back in a while. I hadn't been back since my childhood, and I really didn't have an understanding of what Ghana looked like. I had no understanding, no context. I didn't have any clear memories of Ghana because I was so young when I went there. So going back to Ghana was really a coming-of-age moment for me because I had a beautiful kind of utopia view of how Ghana would be.
And I was very, very, very surprised when I got there. And in that, you know, the newness of my understanding of my homeland and my country, I was going through a lot of different emotions, but the climax of all of those emotions was when we went to visit the Cape Coast Castle. The Cape Coast Castle, as you may know, is the largest slave castle in all of Africa, I believe, but definitely West Africa. And it was there, after going through the door of no return, that we were able to go up to the balcony area. Our tour guide, being such a great storyteller, asked us to all look towards the sea. And so we did. And he said, "Look how beautiful it is on this beautiful day, but now take the time to imagine ships coming. Ships coming not only to take away people but to take away legacies, to take away innovations, to take away dreams."
And as a very visual person, it was as if the sky went black to me and I saw the ships coming in. I really took that moment seriously. And all I heard in my spirit is a proverb that my mum always shared with us, which is, "What is lost to the sea, the waves will return." And I knew then and there that my life must be a wave. And I was created with the purpose to bring back something to Africa, to Ghana, to black women across the diaspora that was lost. And that is innovation. That is legacy. Those are dreams. And to do it in a way that connects the diaspora, in a way that the diaspora was actually broken and disconnected and disjointed.
So that was really my breakthrough moment of knowing that this is my purpose. When it's your purpose, it's not something that you would just live for, but it's something that you would also be willing to die for. And I think that once you have a passion for something and understand what you would actually be willing to die for on this earth, then you understand where to prioritise your time and where to prioritise your talent. And so, though I was going to Google and I was at Google for three years, I always knew Google wasn't my final destination because it wasn't my purpose and it wasn't my vision. It was someone else's. Thank God for the opportunity to serve and learn at Google. But I always knew that that wasn't the end story for me.
Rebecca: Now, tell us what you did at Google as a profession. And then how did you, after three years, because even for Gen Z three years is quite long to stay in one company.
So how did you eventually say, “Okay, this is it. It's great. I have learned a lot, but I have to cut the proverbial umbilical cord off.” The security of working for the big tech and the prestige as well?
Diana: Absolutely. So we call it the golden handcuffs. It's difficult, but again, you have to really be tied to what your purpose is because a lot of us assume time, which is a very foolish assumption because even after this call, you know, God forbid, something could happen to either one of us and we could have no more time.
And so understanding that, I understood that now is the time. The time is always now, right? There's always a way you can start now.
It doesn't mean you're a million-pound, multi-million-pound nonprofit now, but no, it means you can start now. And I was in an accelerator called Fast Forward, they're a tech nonprofit accelerator that has built and produced some of, I mean, has supported and fostered some of the largest tech nonprofits in the world.
And they really let me know that “Diana, if you're going to take this to where you're telling us, you can't not be working anywhere else. You have to be full-time” and I now being full time understand exactly what they were saying. You can't build an organization working for another organisation in the capacity and scale that I want to build. Side hustles are just that, side hustles. But with time and with human capacity, you cannot build a multimillion-pound, billion-pound organisation and be working for another organization. It just doesn't work that way.
Rebecca: Absolutely. Until we can clone ourselves.
Diana: Right. And so that was really when I was in that accelerator. And then I had one of the alumni who also actually left Google to start her nonprofit for teaching kids maths in K to 12. And I asked her when she was talking, she said, it got to the point being at Google cost me more than it was giving me. And when she said that, it really spoke to my spirit that it's costing me more, even though they're paying me, it's costing me more to be here than to leave.
Rebecca: Would you be willing to share what salary you were at when you left? Just so we can see how much you were willing to sacrifice.
Diana: Yeah, total compensation was about either 160 to 180. I don't remember the exact amount.
Rebecca: So it's close to $200,000 a year. That's what you left.
Rebecca: And how long was there an overlap between what you were building and what you were working on at Google?
Diana: Yeah, so it was five, it was four years. So I started it a year before I worked at Google, which was in 2019. And I started it in 2018 and then kept doing pilots of it until I left in 2022.
Rebecca: Wow. And have you ever had, especially you are a daughter of an immigrant. So you're a first-generation US-born, is that right? Did you ever have any pushback from your parents saying, "Hey, look, job security, financial security is something that you have to hold dear"? So how was the conversation like in your household when you decided to quit Google?
Diana: Yeah, so my mum at this point has understood that I am really not the child who'll be following the perfect line. She knows. Because of that, she's like, "Okay, I trust her". Even in university, when I dropped out of my finance major, that was when my mum was like, "What are you doing? What is sociology? What is, aren't you a woman? Why do you need to study women's studies? Like, are you critical?" And I was like, "Ma, don't worry. I trust her. You're worried about job security, and I can be able to get the job that I want even with this major." And I promised her that.
When she saw that I was still able to intern at JP Morgan as a sociology and women's gender studies major on Wall Street, filled with all finance majors, she was like, "Okay, she's serious." Then when I was able to get my full-time role at Google with a sociology and WGS major, she knew that, "Okay, my daughter has something cooking." So when I told her, obviously, because she hasn't watched us build this since 2018, she's watching me. Well, she's watching me put my blood, sweat, and tears into this. She already knew I wasn't going to be at Google for long. She didn't know it was going to be that moment, but she knew it was happening. So she wasn't too surprised.
And I had built a track record of kind of making decisions that don't make sense to her, but proving myself right in knowing that I'm doing it the right way. So she trusts me.
Rebecca: So what I'm seeing is that for any of us women, especially when we're still trying to figure out how our passion overlaps with our profession, we have to at the same time showcase to our parents or stakeholders of our lives basically, right? It can be a spouse, it can be your parents or even your grandparents, that "Hey, I will get there. I will bring home the bacon as well." Speaking of spouses now, your mother knows you best, and has already been through your journey. She knows how brilliant you are and how ambitious and stubborn you are. And at the same time, you achieve everything that you set your mind to.
What about spouses? You're single right now, but have you ever had any disagreement or misalignment with a partner, a former partner, about your ambition and the lifestyle that you choose as a founder?
Diana: Yeah, so I haven't had that yet because I have an understanding of who I am, right? So for me, my advice here to so many women who people could deem as too smart, too successful, too whatever, is to know what you have and what you carry. I think that is the critical part of it and know what that requires, right? Because when you are going to build a house, depending on the house you are building, the height, the depth, the width, they can tell you, a good contractor can tell you, you're gonna need this, you're gonna need that, you're gonna need this. The best construction material for this structure is this, this, and that. And they give you exactly what is needed so that this house is not only beautiful, but it's also sustainable and it's also not dirty.
And it's the same principle you have to take with yourself. I know that I need someone who's probably a bit calm and is not a little bit out there, right? If I have someone who is as fiery as me, the house might be on fire, quite literally and figuratively. And I also know that I need someone who is so deeply set in his identity that my success is one that he propels, not one that he hinders. I know I need someone who is able to really serve as a covering for me and support me and push me and pray for me and keep me going when those moments of being an entrepreneur, being someone's daughter, being someone's wife, being someone's mother in the future all hit me at once and I'm going to be like, oh my goodness, I'm overwhelmed.
You need someone in all those moments. And I need someone who obviously cares about changing the world and who is as fanatical about doing that and as aggressive about doing that as I am. Otherwise, everything that I'm doing is going to be hindered because we're going to fight so much and we're just gonna kind of get over it that even I will start to relent in my passion towards it, not because I'm not passionate, but just the circumstances. And so for me, understanding that, I really cross out a lot of men easily. So I swipe left easily.
Like, "you know, you're on a call. I need you to talk to me right now" – definitely a swipe left. You can't understand my schedule – swipe left. You aren't willing to travel – swipe left. You aren't willing to be able to say, "it's fine if you make more money than me. It's fine if I make more money than you. That's not the point. It's a collaboration and it's a partnership." Yeah. If you're still stuck on who's making the most money or who in this season of our life is the one who's stepping down, then you're not mature enough for me. Because the thing about marriage is that, especially for marriages that I've seen that are so successful, there are always seasons. Rebecca: Oh yes. It's a long journey.
Diana: A long journey. There are a lot of times the women actually come in making more than the men. And then there's a season where that shifts.
Rebecca: Oh yes, unless you're Oprah.
Diana: And then there's a season where that shifts. And then there's a season where, like, even Oprah, Oprah was so visible to the world. Right? And now, of course, she's still Oprah, but she's more like, we see her when she wants us to see her. Right?
Rebecca: She definitely always be the breadwinner. But I think what you're saying is right. Look at the Obamas. Who's the star now?
Diana: Exactly. Michelle.
Rebecca: I love it every time President Obama these days come up to the stage and say, “Hi, I'm Michelle's husband.”
Diana: Yeah. Exactly.
Rebecca: And speaking of gender dynamics in Wall Street and big tech,
Have you ever experienced these biases, such as racism and sexism? Do you still experience them in your generation?
Diana: Absolutely. We've experienced them severely, whether it's microaggressions, questions about our hair, questions internal, even comments about our body shape and how it compares to another woman's body shape from a different culture. There have been so many instances and moments, even when walking into buildings, where I'm very conscious to have my badge very visible. Because when I enter these corporations, it's easy for others to assume that I don't belong here, that I'm a secretary, or that I'm just here to drop something off.
Many times, I've noticed being stopped at doors and asked, "Do you work here?" whereas others are rarely stopped. These are small but significant things that make you realise you're different. I was the only Black girl on my first team, and even on my second team, where my director was a Black woman, I remained the only Black woman on our team.
Rebecca: And so – this was back in JP?
Diana: At Google. Yeah. And even within Google, you know, we had a summit for black women. And I couldn't help but notice that almost all of the women there were, especially all of the women who were speaking, were light-skinned. And I remember I had another mentee of mine who's Kenyan, very dark-skinned. And we used to talk about submitting complaints to the Google Meets team that people couldn't see us on Google Meets.
Rebecca: As in too dark? The screen is too dark?
Diana: Yeah, like they couldn't see us because of our complexion with the way the camera was set up in certain rooms. So I went up to her and I was like, and she knew, I was just looking at her, I was like, "Did you notice something?" She was like, "Trust me, I already peeped it." And even the fact that we could notice that there weren't many dark-skinned black women in almost all of the settings that we were in was even another part of our intersectionality that we had to deal with every single day. So there are countless stories and countless things, whether it's being dark-skinned, whether it's being a woman, whether it's being black, whether it's being first generation, whether it's not coming from the Ivy Leagues, right? And especially in those areas, those are things that you notice quickly.
Rebecca: Yeah, showing up your authentic self. Yeah, but even my biological self is something that I cannot change. And it's hard for even the technology to accommodate.
And speaking about that,
So, as a Female Founder, Tell me more about how your tech, your AI, is going to improve the hireability of Black sisters out there. Tell me how it works.
Diana: Yeah, so our tech, the way that it works, is that we're basically building a bespoke LinkedIn for Black women. And this is because although around 50% of Gen Z has a LinkedIn account, over 90% of them use it rarely or never. And that is because LinkedIn is built in a way that really doesn't speak to their experiences or lack thereof. It really doesn't speak to the gig economy. It really doesn't speak to how they can find and be found as people with lesser experiences or different type experiences than these influencers on LinkedIn that you see who have worked at every single company.
Even myself, all my girls typically say, oh, we look at your LinkedIn and it kind of intimidates them because they can't build a profile like mine because they don't necessarily have all of the brands and experiences that are online on LinkedIn. And so they kind of stop. It naturally pushes them away. And it also doesn't highlight the beauty and what it means to be a retail worker. It doesn't highlight the beauty and what you learned in working at McDonald's for three years in high school like I did. It doesn't highlight the beauty in being a babysitter for four years in high school that so many of our students have or selling food in the market with your mum for 15 years.
LinkedIn doesn't do that well, and Black women have unique circumstances where that is likely what we have before we get to university. All the time we are in university, so we're very entrepreneurial and we have a lot of skills, but the way LinkedIn is set up, you wouldn't respect it because it's not tied to Goldman Sachs. It's not tied to Google. It's not tied to Morgan Stanley. It's not tied to Fortune 500 companies. It's tied to companies that don't even have an account on LinkedIn.
And so how does AI play a role in that? So which bit that that AI would help our sisters?
Diana: Absolutely. So in building up your skills portfolio based on the experiences you have, we basically build that out for you and help you understand what some of those skills likely are. Also, in matching you to opportunities, whether they're internships, jobs, or scholarships, and school-based opportunities. And also matching you to mentors and other women in what we call our six-figure sorority. So we are able to basically build out a scalable pen pal system that allows women with similar interests and goals, but from very diverse geographic locations, to connect and build at the same time.
Rebecca: Yes, that is so important. And what would your, then what would your pitch be to investors? Because this is a non-profit endeavour.
So how's your pitch so far to the investors?
Diana: Yeah, absolutely. Our pitch to investors is really simple. It's about supercharging their relationship with Black Gen Z women at scale, instead of just providing them with numbers, data, and a pipeline, which a lot of organisations tend to do, but not even well when it comes to Black women. So being a black female-focused organisation, it provides a significant lift in their diversity initiatives towards Black women. It provides opportunities and access to build mindshare, to build relationships, and it also provides opportunities to invest in and be a part of the growth and the overall next generation or next wave of people in tech and business.
So when we say that we're revolutionising the face of tech and business, we are giving companies the opportunity to invest and revolutionise that face with us because most of the time they were part of the problem. Now we're giving them the opportunity to be part of the solution.
Rebecca: That is beautiful. And this is going to be my last question.
So what would your advice be to the sisters out there, especially from the African diaspora, how should they build their profile and online presence to make them more hirable?
Diana: I always tell people the same advice that was given to me:
Master a skill. Master a skill that aligns with your purpose, dreams, and desires, even if you don't know your whole purpose yet.
This could be sales. If you know you're going to revolutionise the hair industry, for example, you'll still need sales skills. If you want to be a leading chemist with groundbreaking research, you'll still need sales skills. I truly believe that sales is a foundational skill for everyone. So I encourage all women to develop their sales skills.
Apart from sales, identify a skill within your dreams, desires, and purpose that you know will be valuable, and start mastering it. Even dedicating just 15 minutes a day to it can make a significant difference. By the end of 2023, you'll be much further along than if you simply pondered about your dreams without taking action. The 1% rule is powerful. Even by improving just 1% each day, you will transform into a new person by the end of 2023 compared to where you started.
Rebecca: Oh, absolutely. Amen to that. I mean, it's just that incremental change is far more important than making a New Year's resolution, manifesting and putting up a vision board on your Pinterest until it goes, it's just collecting the proverbial dust. But yeah, absolutely. Sales and communications skills are non-negotiable. Would you say that?
Diana: Yep, I truly believe it. I think anything, I don't care what you're doing, you're going to need to sell it, or you're going to need to sell yourself. And so I always tell people, sales and marketing. If you master them you can really master almost any field that you want to be in.
Rebecca: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for these lovely pieces of advice. And I wish you good luck in everything that you do for our Black Sisters.
Diana: Thank you.
Rebecca: So in the next chat, all of you listeners can expect more guests coming in from all sorts of female representation. You can also ask us career questions directly on our Slack channel or our email address at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will try to answer them and invite you into our group as well. I'm going to close this with a powerful quote by one of my favourite black comedians, Leslie Jones. Hear it out.
The reason everybody is so amazed and enamoured with me right now is because I have worked every angle. I have worked every formula. I have worked on every equation. I have seen every club. I have seen every performance, every joke I have studied. I've done my job. That's why I'm good. It's not because I got up one night and decided I want to tell some f-ing jokes. Everybody was telling me to sit my arse down. Everybody was telling me to get a real job. Everybody was asking me, what are you doing? You're ruining your life. You're embarrassing your family. That's all I got. So you can't listen to that. You have to listen to yourself.
Isn't that powerful and beautiful at the same time? So with that, I'm wishing you all a fun and fearless career journey. If you liked this episode, please give us a five-star rating on Spotify. It will help other sisters find our podcast too. Thank you and see you in the next episode.
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Upgrading Women Media Group was founded by an immigrant woman-of-colour, mother of three who puts mindset over matter and kindness over frame