I learn a lot from Bianca St. Louis. We met via Twitter several years ago when she was studying at Howard University. Bianca moved out to the Bay Area after graduation and started to build both a career and reputation out here for being smart, hungry and open. If you’ve noticed that I’m doing more “Five Question Interviews” this year it’s because Bianca’s taken them on as a side project with Homebrew, assisting me in getting them collected and edited. So it’s time to take a peek behind the curtain and make sure you all know her too!
Hunter Walk: What would “Bianca of 2011” be most surprised about “Bianca of 2016?” Did you always know you wanted to move to Silicon Valley and work in tech?
Bianca St.Louis: Growing up technology wasn’t presented to me as a tool I could use to feel empowered and share my point of view. I used the computer to do homework, surf the web and help my parents fill application/forms. Additionally all the “successful examples” in my family network were nurses so to my parents that was what success looked like. Still to this day my mom asks me when are you going back to school to become a nurse – I kid you not. My parents were immigrants from Haiti who didn’t grow up with access to computers in their homes and consistent electricity so there was only so much they could share with me about tech.
I’d say I’ve always had the following characteristics in me problem solving, curiosity, challenging the status quo and a passion for people and making their lives better. I was always meant to work in tech/entrepreneurship just didn’t know how to name it.
The most pivotal moment was my exposure to Startup America through a meeting that NACIE (National Advisory Council on Innovation & Entrepreneurship) hosted at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. Prior to that event I thought tech entrepreneurship was reserved for old white guys. At that particular meeting Robin Chase was in attendance (I think she was the only woman entrepreneur) and I was in awe how she moved this idea to the product that became Zipcar. From then on I ended up interning with Startup America and have had a interesting journey to date.
Looking back, I’d be surprised at how far I’ve come with no prior connections to this space. I’d be surprised that I’m still here even when I worry about making mistakes since I don’t have a safety net. I’d be surprised that I would make it past the hard draining times and how resilient I am. I’d be surprised that I’ve gotten to work at the places that I’ve worked at and I’m only 25. I’d be surprised to see that the things that caused me embarrassment and anxiety (student loans) would be relevant pieces of motivation for advocacy. I’d be surprised at how much I’ve fostered relationships and community with folks I looked up to and would read about. I’d be surprised at some of the conversations I’ve had and the people that have invested their time in me regardless of their seniority. I’d be surprised that I’m an almond butter enthusiast that feels comfortable blasting rap tunes outside of Berkeley Bowl in Berkeley – carefree.
HW: You’re refreshingly blunt on Twitter about being a young woman of color in our industry. I appreciate the openness because it helps me understand a point of view that I don’t have access to personally. Twitter however is also a place where many outspoken women have been bullied and harassed. Do you find Twitter to be a safe space for you? I assume it’s been very positive overall?
BS: At the moment I will say Twitter is safe for me because I have manageable number of followers and the block button is my friend so I don’t feel the overwhelming impact of negative tweets. Additionally I will say my drafts folder and my DM’s truly hold the heat so I do place an extra filter – ha!
Lately my words have been reaching wider audiences without context. I’ve noticed an influx in random tweets in my mentions – some productive, some unnecessary but none have hit the overwhelming “I feel unsafe” threshold.
I will say having now worked on issues related to trust and safety there’s a great deal of opportunity for companies to foster knowledge sharing and collaboration to create a better experience for those who feel unsafe on their sites. Often company employees are ignorant to the issues that individuals in trust roles come across unless there’s an incident – example Uber. PM’s and engineers working on growth or personalization should be exposed and engaging with those who work on trust and safety issues and understanding the tradeoffs and holes that are often created for the sake of growth.
The reality is unless you been exposed or experienced the worse of a platform/tool you’ll never think to build solutions for those negative moments. I’ve come to notice that it’s often not a lack of care but a lack of understanding, awareness and knowing where to start to build solutions.
Looking ahead I do think it’s time we go beyond the block button–it shouldn’t be the primary safety tool One of my favorite Twitter features is the filtering of notifications based on who I am following. Looking forward, how might we design “time out” features that discourage abusive behavior? How can we create privacy and safety measures that neutralize negative and threatening comments?
HW: Should every kid be taught to code as part of their education? I’ve seen you tweet about a strong desire to learn more technical skills.
BS: I think everyone should have the opportunity to know how things work, understand this method of problem solving and feel empowered to build and contribute to the conversation on the ways we are building the future. As it relates to my desire to learn more technical skills – engineers are expensive and I don’t have the funds to hire someone to build (yet). Imagine if I didn’t have to wait to “create”. With that being said I sometimes feel like I’m stuck in idea stage and don’t know where to start on bringing to life the solutions I envision into the world to test them out. This is important because an idea and assumption will only get you so far. You truly learn from feedback.
I think of learning how to code as an opportunity to learn a new language. Can you go through life only speaking one language – absolutely. Conversely not learning that other language there are conversations you may not feel comfortable participating in even though your voice would add value. You may not be immersed in another culture and limit your experiences because your proficiency allows you to only feel empowered in one space. While you can use a translator there’s something powerful about understanding the nuances and communicating in an authentic unfiltered form. I think learning how to code cultivates an opportunity for many to feel empowered to create and build.
I think it’s important for the “learn to code” proponents to assess: Why do we have some kids that learn to code at a young age and others who are learning in college–what is causing that discrepancy? Some questions to ask: What are the social and systemic barriers that are hindering students in understanding the value of learning how to code? Why aren’t these coding classes even being offered at their schools? Why aren’t parents of these students proficient in technology? How many students have access to a computer/WIFI in a safe and stimulating environment?
While we push for digital literacy we must also understand the nuances of the issue and the opportunity for all to contribute meaningful solutions and dialogue. For those encouraging students to code let’s make sure we’re encouraging people to have an understanding around socioeconomics and social justice issues while investing in those structural solutions.
HW: What’s the vibe among your peers regarding startups. Are people optimistic about the types of companies being formed and latest generation of founders?
BS: The good:
- Overall it has never been easier to start a company (emphasis on start – not maintain and grow that is hard). Too many resources to name but the cost to enter and create has been lowered. I think more and more people have been developing the confidence to go out and build and solve problems.
- Company culture is improving somewhat. It’s been super positive that issues around inclusive workspaces and awareness on the issues many are facing at these companies are being surfaced.
- Some of my peers aren’t too happy that the growth of the industry is coming with a major cost and contributing to major income inequality. Having to watch areas change and become increasingly less inclusive and diverse has not been the most encouraging. I’ve seen a lot of my friends move to cheaper areas in other states since it was too expensive to see a future here in the Bay Area.
- From a structural standpoint there needs to be thoughtful time investment in solving is the lack of black and latino women founders and the lack of diversity in the venture realm. The reality is that as an industry tech should be cultivating the most inclusive space that encourages and equips the best ideas to come to fruition and thrive.This will be important in making sure that the companies being built don’t just represent one subset of issues and opportunities.
HW: Apps you couldn’t live without? Bonus points if I’ve never heard of them 🙂
- Twitter: This app has truly changed my life and has opened up so many doors of opportunity for me. Communities like #blacktwitter have provided laughs, digital grieving and general inspiration. I will say I wish there were some product improvements around generating collections, safety (privacy) and cultivating dialogue and knowledge sharing among communities ie. what would a Branch 2.0 look like like..but overall I’m a fan.
- Clue: The clue app is a free period tracker for iPhone and Android. Yes that kind of period. I’m super fascinated with data and extracting trends particularly on the data science and predictive analytics end. I appreciate apps that leverage insights to help you make the most of your data and the most optimal choices. Additionally I like it because it is simple and isn’t designed as though the user was a 16 year old teen. Jenna Wortham had an awesome article in the New York Times recently highlighting the opportunity in the changing habits of cell phone users and how much we track “information about our habits and well-being”.
- Bible App: My personal faith has been a super important part of my journey. I love to find encouraging tidbits from the push notifications so this is one of my favs. Growing up with a dad that’s a minister my dad would often have to send money to Haiti to purchase translated bibles for those at our church that didn’t speak English. This is a super cumbersome process so I’ve always appreciated this app for its simplicity and the ability to switch between bible translations with ease.
- MintBills – Personal finance is such an important part of our lives since it impacts so many components of our well being. Financial literacy has been a learn as you go adventure for me. I’ve been relying a lot on technology to provide insights and best practices. Mint bills has been great In allowing me to get a snapshot of my finances, and to stay on top of bills avoiding the evilness that are late fees.
- Nuzzel – Since I’m not a professional tweeter and on the internets all day (contrary to popular belief lol) I appreciate this app. It gives me the opportunity to extract information and value from the conversations being held on my timeline via my favorite signals and sources. Another cool thing is seeing who’s sharing certain types of articles. It’s encouraging to see faces of non diverse folks show up under inclusion articles or posts related to social justice and not just tech posts.
- Instagram/Snapchat – This is a tie because I like them for similar reasons–exposure and inspiration. I can go on for hours about these two products and the opportunity. The power that people have to control their narratives and expose the world to their point of view and their humanity is major.