Simi Awokoya is a Technology Evangelist and founder of Witty Careers, an organisation that equips Black and Minority-Ethnic women with the skills they need to succeed in the Tech industry. She speaks to NNC on her passion for technology and creating an impact in her community.
Please give an introduction on who you are.
Hi, I’m Simi Awokoya, I’m a Technology Evangelist and the founder of Witty Careers, an organization which focusses on getting more Black and Minority-Ethnic women into the Technology industry. I’m passionate about technology and community impact, so I make sure everything I work on revolves around my two core pillars. I started my career in Tech as a Software Engineer in an Investment Bank; I developed java applications for infrastructure and asset management teams. 4 years after, I transitioned to a Technology Evangelist role in a Tech company which is my current role.
What first sparked your interest in Tech and how did you decide to have a career in it?
I’ve always loved solving problems, so I naturally chose STEM related subjects in primary and secondary school, knowing I would want to study a practical degree that allowed me to use my problem solving skills. I studied Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College London. Half-way through my degree, I started to attend some computer science lectures and hackathons. This developed my interest in coding and motivated me to start my career as a developer. I believed knowing how to code would give me the ability to solve problems across multiple industries.
How much of an impact would you say that Tech is having on changing the world?
Technology is a huge enabler; not just in traditional industries but in our everyday lives. The advancements in healthcare have been incredible over the past decade. Even what we may call simple is having a huge impact. Social media has revolutionized the ways to break news and music streaming is changing the way the music industry works. One great thing I love about my day job is that I am able to observe the impact of Technology in multiple fields.
What do you enjoy about working in the industry?
I love that no two days are the same, and that I am able to apply my problem solving skills in different contexts. I am a technical person but I also love talking to people. Engagement is still at the core of what I do and I truly love that.
We hear a lot about women facing discrimination in STEM in general, but being a black woman in Tech have you ever faced any form of discrimination and if so how have you handled such situations?
People have made assumptions about me in the past, for example, I would introduce myself as a software engineer at a Tech event and people would ask to see my LinkedIn profile to confirm or ask me follow up questions to verify I really was a Software Engineer. It has happened a number of times and I’ve learnt that it has nothing to do with me and more to do with other’s biases. A lot of work needs to be done on dispelling myths on what a Technologist should look like. I try to address these myths through the diversity and inclusion initiatives I participate in- including Witty Careers.
Why do you think there is a lack of representation of black and ethnic minority girls and women in technology, and what do you think can be done to tackle this?
First of all, you can’t be who you can’t see; role models are very necessary. We need more Black and Minority Ethnic women in senior leadership positions championing diversity and showing others that it is possible to succeed in the Tech industry. I was very happy when the ‘Hidden Figures’ movie came out because it showed that Black women have a background of being the game-changers in STEM. Except now we are going to strive to do it differently – we will not be “hidden”, we will be visible.
Another reason is because women often doubt their ability to succeed especially when it comes to being technical. As a Software Engineer, when most people met me they didn’t think I could code because I didn’t have a degree in Computer Science. I want this mindset to change in the future, I want people to see coding as a life skill that is as important as learning how to play an instrument, ride a bike, read or swim. Coding is writing a logical set of instructions a computer can run. It takes some practice but it is not as hard or impossible as people make it out to be. I once participated in a workshop to teach 8-12 year olds how to code using Scratch (a programming language) and they picked up the fundamentals quite quickly.
I would also encourage women thinking about entering the Technology industry to fight against imposter syndrome. There are a lot of specialisms in Tech and it is very easy to fall into the cycle of diminishing your progress in up-skilling when you are actually doing very well.
You founded Witty Careers to support black and ethnic minority women to build a career in technology— was this something you had been thinking about for a while and how did you make it happen?
Witty Careers started off as a passion project and I have been doing a lot of work around it for about 3 years. Black and Minority Ethnic women are the most underrepresented group in Tech, Witty Careers aims is to equip these women with the skills they need to succeed in Tech.
The idea for it started to form when I started attending Tech events to decide if I wanted to start a career in Tech. I would go to these events and there would be a very small number of women and no black women. I also left without any practical steps to get a job in Tech.
When I started my career, I decided to commit to paying it forward by getting involved in diversity initiatives and hackathons. After a couple of iterations, I set up Witty Careers with a team of black women who all work in tech. Witty careers provides events, free career resources and mentoring focused on equipping Black and Minority Ethnic women with the skills needed to build a career in Tech and succeed. For now, our target audience is women in universities thinking about how to start their career and women who are already working but thinking of transitioning to their first job in Tech regardless of their background.
Witty Careers team pictured above in black T shirts with the logo. Team includes: Dolapo Ososanya, Buki Thompson, Phoebe Amoako, Manétou Gueye and Adiba Maduegbuna
What is your vision for Witty careers?
First milestone is to scale up to host more events in the UK. In the next 2 years we hope to have reached 2,000 black and ethnic minority women and have more success stories from our event attendees. We would also hope to operate in multiple continents where women are still underrepresented in tech. In general, we’re looking forward to seeing the impact of more BME women in the Tech industry.
Witty careers is doing its own part for BME women in tech, but what more can schools, professional organizations and companies do to empower BME women entering tech?
I would like to see more school initiatives based on spreading awareness of technology careers and Computer Science should be taught in schools. Adding these 2 things into the school curriculums will make more BME women aware of the career opportunities in the industry. A couple of companies are doing a good job at engaging with organizations that work on initiatives for black women in Tech- I’m hoping there are more in the future.
I also would urge parents to encourage their young daughters to play with toys and games that develop spatial awareness and problem solving skills. These toys and games are often considered as “boy’s toys” but we need to dispel this label as quickly as possible – the goal should be to have girls in their formative years feel like they will belong in the Tech industry when they are older.
What advice would you give to a woman considering a career in the tech industry?
First of all figure out what you would like to do as a day job; is it talking to people, is it developing a strategy or is it building a product from the ground up? Next, figure out what Tech jobs are available for you, there are so many jobs in the industry, from Project Manager to Data Scientist to Software Engineer. After that, prepare your CV and figure out what transferable skills you have, especially if you do not come from a Tech background. Start going to networking events that could help you find out more about the industry and talk to people about what you want to do. There are resources on the Witty Careers website to help you navigate this process and our events and mentoring initiative will also help you work through this as well.
A lot of the things you are involved in are about connecting people and empowering them. As a young Nigerian in diaspora, do you think it is important to be connected to each other and do you think it has any importance to them or even the country in the future?
While we are not in Nigeria, it is important to connect with others abroad because not only are we building our networks, we are also sharing and learning skills we can use to pay it forward if we move back. It’s easier to make an impact when you are on ground, but I also believe it is possible to make a change back home even if it’s done remotely.
What’s next for you?
I’m excited about learning about more applications of technology in other industries. It’s a good time to be in Tech and I’m looking forward to being involved and witnessing the next generation of impact. I want to use Witty careers to revolutionize the pipeline of talent into Tech. The plan is to continue to put on more practical events and develop an on-going training programme. I’m also looking forward to collaborating with more companies and organizations that are really championing diversity – diverse Tech teams build the best technology and create the most impact.
Follow Witty Careers on their social platforms @WittyCareers: