designing for difference


is this nuanced?: Mihira Tamrat

Natalie: Hi, folks. Welcome to this episode of "is this nuanced?". Today, I'm joined by Mihira. So maybe you can do a little bit of an introduction. 

Mihira: I'm Mihira, I just recently graduated from Cornell University majoring in economics and history, and I moved to S.F., sort of randomly to find jobs in tech, and I ran into Natalie, at a happy hour, and she just offered me a job right there, and I jumped on it. So here I am.

Natalie: Awesome. So we literally knew each other for a few minutes and Mahera said that she wanted a little more experience in the tech industry under her belt. I offered that we could spend the week with her, shadowing me as I ran frantically between meetings and shuffled lots of different pieces of paper. I've found her input, advice, contributions insanely invaluable. So this has been really great and this is kind of our reflection piece at the end of the shadowing week, where we've just had a conversation around, looking at things that worked really well, we can improve on. The context in which specifics sorts of demography find themselves when they're beginning their careers in tech. And specifically we were looking at our experiences both as East Africans who identify as women in the tech industry. And that's quite a specific experience, but there's a lot of shared understanding that comes with that. So this conversation led by Mihira, will be a new interview where for once I'm on the other side of the podcast. So why don't you kick off.

Mihira: Alright. So why don't you tell me about how you got started. How did nuanced come about? How did nuanced come to you?

Natalie: It's a very good question. I left my old gig working for a very big tech company in Cambridge, who I absolutely adored and I still go to their Christmas parties, and still friends with a lot of people there. And moved back to London and decided to start freelancing. My initial plan was to work on a start-up so I'd been reading on a lot of stuff written by Paul Graham and it resonated because I had studied Philosophy so I really liked the way he wrote. It seemed as though the things that he was saying had a lot of logic to them. 

So I was like, "Yeah! Start-ups Yeah! Let me do that, that sounds great!". And so I started working on something called Harbour which would make it easier for people who were learning how to code. And it took a lot longer than I anticipated to kick that off, which is the case with pretty much everyone I know who's done start-ups. By the time it got to the six-month mark, I still hadn't made any profit and I still hadn't secured any funding, in fact, I wasn't actively looking for funding so that made it even more difficult. I think the one VC conversation that I was having I decided not to go forward with it for a plethora of reasons. And so at that point, it was really a case of right what can I do to make sure that I'm sustainable, that I'm bringing insufficient income, to make sure I can look after myself. 

So I started freelancing and my first client was an art historian and then it kind of kicked off from there. Did some work for an opera company who wanted to do more immersive experiences for people who'd never really seen opera before. Then got another client who was fashion house who had launched a range of hosiery for women of color, that was a really exciting campaign. And it went from just building websites to full on art direction to brand campaigns to full digital strategy. And I really loved it and I was like, "Huh!" Not only is there a space for this kind of work, but all of these people, art historians who haven't really integrated into the internet age or opera companies who aren't as savvy with marketing their services or e-commerce platforms which need to be created for very niche user groups. Which is not really that niche at all because women of color are the biggest population on the planet. That was really interesting working on that project and dealing with the facts of demography. 

But besides that I was like, "huh, there's something here". There's something around working with people who on the business side working with companies who have a lot to offer and are coming from spaces which aren't the traditional spaces but the things that they're building, the value that they're putting into the marketplace is huge. And if they could just pull the right levers in the online space then that value could be more, not more quickly, but more sustainably realised. On the user side I just thought it was great working with people who were centering users who'd long been ignored by the tech industry. And so the more I did that work I was like, "There is really something here". There's all sorts of other projects that we worked on and I think for every project that we do work on there's maybe 30 that I've pitched. So it's not to say that the work has come in a flood stream. It's been a lot of pitching a lot of refining what we’re about, a lot of changing the understanding of what sort of services we can offer tangibly and streamlining the services that we offer. 

I think someone who's been incredibly influential for me in that regard has been Araceli Carmago who is one of the co-founders of the co-working space that I'm often in when I'm in London. And I think being surrounded in that environment by people who've created sustainable businesses which had lasted often 5 to 7 years, created this long-term vision which was missing when I was encountering literature around start-ups which is very fast-paced, very deliver value immediately so that you can get investors that you can IPO or exit as quickly as possible. So it's been a journey, I'm still learning a lot. I'm still encountering lots of people, trying to ask the right questions. Trying not to take anything for granted. Trying not to overlook anyone, whether it's an Uber driver or someone I meet in a coffee shop, or someone I meet in a boardroom. I try really hard to treat every single person exactly the same because at the end of the day that's what makes the work nuanced.

Mihira: So, that's interesting. Do you feel that people who are interacting with you do that as well? Do you think that as a black woman have you had experiences where you feel like you've been treated differently, whether it's better or worse?

Natalie: I could write a book about that. Yeah definitely, and I don't think that's unique to the tech industry. So you get it in acting, and you get that in retail, you get it in any industry that you enter. Doesn't make it right, doesn't make it acceptable but I think we need to be aware of the exceptionalist language that sometimes we use in tech. It's happening everywhere and it's shit everywhere. How do I handle it? I think the thing I'm most cognisant of when it does happen is how can I make sure that the next cohort of people coming through, like you, are equipped with the tools to keep moving forward, and equipped with the supportive community that you can go to and unload and not feel like you're alone. 

And that's actually how nuanced dinners came along. It was this feeling of, okay I'm a founder and I'm going through this stuff and finding it really difficult to place these experiences in a context whereby I can understand or compare them to other experiences or there's a precedent of what to do when this happens. And the dinners just became a space of unloading and constructive moving forward where people could say, "Oh my God it happened to you as well!" Or "I'm not the only one". And then also connect with people and sort of say okay how are we gonna hold each other together, accountable, and also strengthen ourselves collectively by having a constructive and pragmatic way of supporting each other. 

So for example when we met and you said, "I need work experience". That's a thing I can do so let's just do it, right? And I think if that conversation has happened two years ago when I had just started nuanced I wouldn't have had the amount of experience to recognize how needs emerge and how you can contribute to supporting those needs.

Mihira: So with regards to you, I've seen you for the past week and I've seen that wherever you tend to pick on something with them right away. You recruit people for dinners in a Lyft, and you connect with people in elevators. How do you do that? Is it something that you've always had?

Natalie: No

Mihira: How can someone learn how to connect with people so easily?

Natalie: I'm glad you think it's so easy because inside most of the time I'm just like, "Oh my God please don't think I'm weird!" So I think that when you start owning your own truth it becomes a lot easier to share who you are with other people. And I think that that comes with time, that comes with experience, good and bad. I think that if you're self-aware enough to recognize that some bad experiences are opportunities to learn and opportunities to grow you'll be more forgiving of yourself. 

I think there's also something around prestige. I'm a huge disbeliever in prestige. I don't believe that because someone has a title because someone has an association with a certain institution that they ought to be held in higher regard and that someone else who's missing that ought not to be. I think coming from an immigrant family what you often see is family members who have worked so hard in their home countries to gain all of this accreditation and degrees and diplomas, and the minute they cross borders those go out of the window and they have to either re-train or are looked down on by certain societies. And if you witness that as a child growing up you understand the inequality that happens with prestige. And how prestige is structured in order to create an artificial hierarchy.

And so I don't believe in prestige. I try really hard to have a group of people around me who are both loving and kind but also critical and hold me accountable to being the best person I can be at any given point. And then there's also something again comes from being an immigrant which is tomorrow this could all be gone. Tomorrow, there's absolutely no guarantee for the next day. And so why not try and live as honestly and as openly as possible because it might trigger something in someone else. And I particularly believe this when I meet people who have been told by society that they're worthless or that they've been told by society that they don't have any voice so when I meet people in Lyfts or when I meet people in random situations and I recognize that there might be a narrative in society that's telling them they have no right to any space or right to any voice I'm like, I'm not going to be a part of that narrative in any way possible. Which is simultaneously why I feel so comfortable holding people who have prestige to account.



Mihira: You said something earlier about owning your truth. That's what helps you become more open to other people and introducing yourself. I come from a culture where you can't really talk about yourself in a positive way because that's boasting. In America, I find that that's very different, you have to sell yourself. How do you resolve these two cultures?

Natalie: Yeah for sure. I think one of the things in the culture I grew up is humility and stoicism. The two tenants that uphold most East Africans. So not only do you have to make sure you don't talk about yourself in a light that could be seen as self-aggrandizing or up yourself. If anything bad is happening to you, you have to grin and bear it, make sure no one knows about your pain or anything else. I think those two things are a context which exists in a culture, however, don't necessarily translate across generations and across borders. So when I go back home I look at my family and I experience life with them and it makes sense that these cultural contexts exist in this context right? A lot of immigrant families like ours find it really difficult to get out of that context because they're older by the time they come here, but then we as their children have to sort of have one foot in one world and one foot in the other. 

How do I deal with that? Oh gosh. I think I'm seen as a bit of an oddball and a bit of a rebel in my family so I don't think that it's fair to say that my transgressions are well received. It comes at a risk, you have to risk possibly upsetting some people who are the cultural apostles of your family. And those people are incredibly important because without them the language doesn't come over, certain cultural practices which are crucial for grounding your identity in the sea of unknowns and unknown situations. It's important to know where you come from otherwise you can't fully know your truth right?

When it comes to selling myself or promoting what I'm doing, I go back to what you mentioned which is I try to do that through collaboration. Which makes it feel less like me, myself, and I and more like we're working towards something and this thing has a greater purpose than just the two of us or the community that we're involved in. I could speak for England, and I have absolutely no problem talking or presenting ever, but I try really hard now that I'm at a different stage in my career to share the platform. To bring other people into that and to keep checking myself because it's one thing to sell yourself but make sure you're delivering as well.

Mihira: You brought up race too now, and you've owned being black.

Natalie: Yeah, it's a constant negotiation I think. Especially because, again, the African context is very different to the American or the British context. I think growing up in Africa you don't recognize race because there is no race to recognize in many ways. I'm not saying that there's an absence of that but growing up in East Africa everyone I knew was black so why would I have to think about anything else. And that still very much exists when I have conversations with race with my family. If I tell them there has been a racist incident they're like, "They're just stupid". They don't really understand the implications on your personhood when something like that happens, so even though I'm coming from a different context I still have to deal with it.

So race is a constant negotiation for me. I'm aware of it. I'm engaged in conversations which I think are pragmatic and proactively trying to dismantle this narrative. But it's still coming from an African context. I often feel as though in the black British context and sometimes in the African-American context which you know more than I do because I've never lived in America for an extended period of time, whereas you've lived here for quite a while in college. All I can speak to is the black British context and I think black British as an identity is something that's becoming more and more well formed and I worry sometimes the voices of immigrants, and asylum seekers, and refugees aren't included in that narrative. And that we need to create more space to engage this community within a community to help all the discussion about race, which isn't just about race but is also about the different sorts of hierarchy within that discussion of race.

Mihira: Yeah that's great. Earlier we spoke mentioned... Because I was talking to you about not feeling like I could announce my presence here or that I felt like I had to repress a part of myself so that I wouldn't be in the way of anyone else that I was around. And I want you to talk more about what you said to me then, you said that a lot of it you're winging it. And how do you wing it? And what is it that drives you to say, "I need to do this, I need to make myself, I need to own my truth, I need to be who I am".

Natalie: I don't know. I feel like I'm not sure if there's one specific source or cause or reason for why I do things the way I do. I think there's a plethora, specifically around the conversation of owning your truth in the context of owning the space that you are in as you enter a room. I think that came as a consequence of just kind of witnessing what happens when you don't and experiencing what happens when you don't. And seeing that, I mean we had this conversation, in certain contexts people will have negative or sub-optimal perceptions of you regardless of your behavior. Just for existing you will cause friction. And so, if that's the baseline in some contexts then surely you should exist to your fullest. So it doesn't matter whether you're making yourself small in order to make other people feel comfortable because it won't work in context whether they were never ready to feel comfortable around you, so that's one thing.

I think the other thing is I have two young siblings who I love more than anything in the world. And I would really like that by the time they're my age they don't feel like they have to be anything but themselves. So I have that in the back of my mind and I'm thinking about how I'm behaving and how I am engaging with people. It's like I'm trying to create space not just for me but for other people who I love and care about and want to feel like they too will have space.

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Mihira: This reminds me, back home a friend of mine described me as being the white, blonde, blue-eyed version of what I would have been here. The equivalent of my status would have been that. And he suggested that perhaps why I feel this way and why I feel like I can't be as confident is the context change because I came from a place of being "elevated", sort of quote unquote. And I felt comfortable because I sort of owned the world didn't I? I had so much privilege and there's no way that I could fail. Whereas when coming here there's so much history that is embedded in my skin color now and my gender and all of the sudden I'm not as confident and not as self-assured. Have you experienced feeling that?

Natalie: Oh my God. You are literally like...yes, 100 percent, 100 percent. There is a specific sort of privilege that comes from the respectability of being a sheltered and well-educated young East-African woman. And that has been my experience I completely see where you're coming from and there's this movement where it shifts and all of the things that you were sure about in the world, all of the things that you had been educated about, and all of the theoretical that you'd been exposed to. Categorically insufficient to prepare you for the reality that you enter. And it is a shock to the system and it feels like the rug has been pulled from under you. And you're also flying blind because there's very few of us, A. who are talking about this or having this conversation because going back to humility and stoicism being the central tenants of our culture. And, B. Because there's very few of us who find a safe space in activist spaces or in the kind of classic narratives about race that are happening across both Britain and America.

It's only now that I really feel like I can be like, "Yeah, even me, I can have some contributions here" You know? It's only now where I feel like I can engage with this I feel ownership with some part of this dialogue. I feel like I can contribute somehow, but it's taken like, I don't know, five or six years for that feeling to emerge. I really don't want it to take five or six years for you. But yes I want to sort of say I 100 percent understand where you're coming from and it's terrifying. But it's also a huge opportunity to recognize that we do have privileges embedded in us. 

And one thing that's really challenging for a lot of people to reckon with is that two sub-Saharan African women from an East-African culture have privilege. Which is why I find it really useful to use an intersectional lens on understanding these issues and sort of being able to say it's not one or the other you can be a sub-Saharan African woman with a certain sets of privileges, the privilege of respectability, the privilege of education, the privilege of not having had to encounter this until a certain age, the privilege of not having to engage with it if you don't want to. These are all sorts of privileges that come with the territory and it's terrifying at the beginning but then it's humbling at the end. Or, I don't know what the end is because I haven't quite got there but it's definitely humbling.

Mihira: Thank you so much, I really...just observing you for the past week has been-

Natalie: Oh God.

Mihira: I know you think that I'm just saying this but really it's been really informative, it's taught me about myself and about what I could be. This doesn't have to be this way. I don't have to feel limited just because I feel like I don't have a certain amount of skills or certain amount of years in this country. And it's been a great opportunity just being around you.

Natalie: It's absolutely my pleasure and I think we've spoke about this before but you've really...I think I've gone through a couple of things over the last couple of years which shook my confidence about my ability to, A. Mentor people, B. I'm still pretty young should I really be talking about mentoring people, I'm still making like very big mistakes quite publicly most the time. I've had some bad experiences that have hurt me in all honesty so I still feel this kind of...I think over the last year or so I've just retreated into a cocoon of work, research, and Twitter. So I'm really grateful that you've pulled me out of that and kind of given me an opportunity to test out all of these theories I have in practice, kind of through the conversations that we've had over the last week it feels like it's been really...I've learned a lot so I'm grateful, thank you. 

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