The Power of Community: How Sista Circle Supports Black Women in Tech
In 2017, while working for Airbnb, Alexandria Butler — better known as Lexi B. — walked out of a difficult meeting that made her feel unheard and undervalued by her colleagues and into an empowering, eye-opening conversation with a mentor. She learned that “if you want to be successful, you have to be able to walk into a room and tell people, ‘that’s not gonna work,’” which isn’t always feasible for Black women, especially those working in tech roles.
Eager to find a connection with other Black women in tech, Lexi started a Facebook group and invited 30 women to brunch — the first Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech event. Soon after that first meeting, she found herself bumping into other Black women in her office who were also members of the group. What started as a personal pursuit to feel less alone turned into a community of women who were all looking for support — a place to have real conversations you wouldn’t necessarily have with a coworker.
“It was this very transformative thing of people collectively having a conversation in the middle of the day, whether it’s about ‘How are we helping this woman in London handle her boss?’ or a huge thread about dating.” The Facebook group now boasts over 8,500 members supporting each other in every step of their careers.
“The backbone and soul of this group is professional help,” said Lexi. “You’re seeing women say ‘I had this problem at work, how do I handle it?’ and you’re seeing 127 comments of ‘this is what we’re going to do.’”
Community has the power to help us reach individual success, but it’s up to us to find that connection — or in Lexi’s case, create it. Through the Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech (BWiT) community, Black women in tech across the globe have access to a support system that empowers through information. We recently sat down with Lexi to learn more about how members support one another, what inspires her, and how allies can use their privilege to empower Black women in tech.
Tips for Black Women in Tech
Show up for Yourself
Lexi knows that thriving as a Black woman in tech doesn’t mean ignoring the difficulties of navigating the corporate world as a person of color — but it does require a fair amount of resilience and perspective.
She further explained that Black women and other marginalized individuals are not afforded the same options and opportunities as their white male counterparts and can forget to really think about their own goals as a result. “I want to give marginalized individuals a chance to sit down and decide what they want.” When members of Sista Circle: BWiT have figured out what they want out of life, they are then able to more easily navigate the often unfair landscape of the corporate marketplace.
One thing is clear: It’s on companies to do the hard work and build a culture of inclusivity. But as a Black woman, being able to identify your wants and goals — and the determination to meet them — can help you create strategic choices that you can control. “Your complaints might be 150% valid … but what do you want? What you want will define how you fight these battles.”
Find Your “Why”
If I didn’t have to work, what would I do? “If you can answer that question, your life will change,” said Lexi. So, how do you determine what you want so you can fight the right battles? It’s all about finding your “why.”
“I always ask myself, if I had all the money in the world, what would I do?” Lexi said. The power of understanding what motivates you can be helpful when navigating the challenges of being a Black woman in tech. Your “why” is a reminder of your big picture goals — whether those goals involve professional achievements, world travel, or a focus on family — and becomes the fuel that feeds your inner fire when obstacles arise.
Members of Sista Circle: BWiT have a built-in sounding board to support their self-discovery, breaking goals into manageable pieces: figure out the budget, figure out the career, and map out your strategy to get there.
“There are times where I’ve said, ‘I’m done,’ but I haven’t stopped really because I have to pay my bills, and because I am gravely aware to a fault that there are 8,500+ women somewhere out there in the world who are looking to me to hold the baton, and I don’t want to quit (even when I do) because I don’t want them to say, ‘Well, if Lexi couldn’t do it, what about us?’ and then they stop.”
Find Your Community
Lexi started Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech as a way to build her own community within the tech world — it came from a combined drive to connect and a need for support. The Black Women in Tech Facebook group is a single example of how community can empower and uplift people in those times they want to give up.
“I don’t care what color you are, I don’t care what food your Mama made you when you were little, I don’t care who you’re married to, I don’t care if you’re a morning or a night person,” Lexi explained. “It is very important for you to have community — to have a group of people that you can go to who are in solidarity with you, because times will get tough.”
As a Black woman, Lexi has also grappled with some hard truths when it comes to community; namely, the fact that not all Black individuals share a single idea of what solidarity looks like. “You still need people who can protect and take care of you,” she said.
Your community shouldn’t be afraid to tell you when you’re wrong or call you out when you’re operating from pure emotion or a triggered response. Find a group of people you can trust and turn to — people like your immediate family or spouse, your friends, mentors, or colleagues you feel close to.
Tips for Allies
What Businesses Can Do
Since the early months of 2020, many businesses have prioritized diversity and inclusion in tangible ways. That said, Lexi was careful to explain her expectations in terms of what companies should be doing to combat racism in the workplace. “These companies are going to be themselves,” she said. “[Racism] started thousands of years ago, I don’t expect any of these tech companies to solve racism.”
Rather than adopting world-changing missions to eradicate hate or developing inclusive marketing campaigns, Lexi urges company leaders within any organization to hold middle managers accountable when it comes to conscious and unconscious bias.
“I don’t expect companies to change quickly. I do expect companies to have accountability matrixes, so when people do act the way they shouldn’t, there’s accountability that’s lacking currently in all corporate environments, including the tech industry.”
If employees have a clear understanding of the expectations around interpersonal interactions — and what will happen if they fail to meet those expectations — they’re more likely to consider their words and actions to be appropriate, respectful, and professional.
What Colleagues & Managers Can Do
Not everyone within an organization is in a position of power, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help make your workplace a space that welcomes diversity and embraces different perspectives.
As a colleague, you can lift up your Black coworkers by encouraging their ideas and supporting them in meetings and other group situations. That might look like starting a new brainstorming group, recommending individuals for projects or events that you may have overlooked in the past, or simply getting to know your Black coworkers. “There is real power in putting in the effort to get to know the people you work with,” explained Lexi. “That is freedom fighting.”
Lexi spoke from her own experience to explain how some of her previous managers failed to nurture her talent and help her grow within her company. Whether it was a manager throwing her under the bus for mistakes made by other colleagues, being denied work-from-home privileges, or not being able to decide the projects she worked on, these experiences left Lexi feeling unfulfilled and unrecognized.
As a manager or leader, supporting your Black reports comes in a variety of forms — but ultimately looks like the support you would give any employee. Take some time to reflect and uncover any of your own unconscious biases — you can’t tackle them unless you know what they are — and find areas within your leadership style that you can incorporate more inclusivity.
Whether you’re a Black woman in tech seeking a community of support, or you’re an ally looking for more ways to learn and lift up Black women, one of the strongest ways you can make an impact is by connecting with others. Find groups like Sista Circle: BWiT, explore meetups to engage with people from diverse backgrounds, and use your resources to empower others. When diversity, inclusion, and equity are woven into your everyday life, you open up pathways for Black women in tech — regardless of your race, gender, creed, or orientation.