WWCode Podcast #29 — WWCode Leaders Talk Black History Month
Written by WWCode HQ
Women Who Code Podcast — Episode 29 | Spotify — iTunes — Google — YouTube — Podcast Page
Samaria Rooks, Chief People and Inclusion Officer at Women Who Code, and Lise Robinson, Chief Financial Officer at Women Who Code, sit down for a discussion about Women Who Code turning 10 and Black History Month. They discuss their career journeys, transitioning to leadership roles, and their experiences as black women working in tech.
SR: I have been with Women Who Code since 2020. I started right at the top of the pandemic. My interview was with Joey and Alaina the week that they announced that everything was going to shut down. I was really motivated about being a part of this mission. I had never heard of Women Who Code so I was frantically looking at the website trying to learn as much as I could. My friends knew about Women Who Code. They actually helped me and it made me want to be a part of this mission so much more. For me, it was destiny. I knew it was purposeful for me to be here.
LR: Similar to you Samaria, I had heard about Women Who Code but didn’t know much. I did research and saw that the organization is a civil social organization, not just a technology-based one. Women Who Code provides an avenue for women who want to be in technology-related careers to get into those careers. This fell in line with what I really love, which is working with mission-driven organizations. My ability to bring a strategic, high-level perspective to Women Who Code’s finances, accounting needs, building the capacity to manage its finances as the organization continues to grow in size and in complexity, helps its members in an indirect way. I feel like my role is very purposeful for the organization.
SR: Before Women Who Code, what did your career journey look like?
LR: My career started in non-profit. I started with a non-profit in Florida that was focused on Human Services and Social Justice for youth who were adjudicated in the system. I realized immediately that it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to work for organizations that were mission-driven, changing the lives of underrepresented communities.
I realized, at some point, that I know what I’m doing. I considered myself a subject matter expert in the field of non-profit management and financial management. As we headed into a recession in 2007, I started to plan and prepare myself for what could be the worst. I started my own firm so that I can set myself up to be a Chief Financial Officer or a COO one day. I have spent 10 years making sure that I develop others who are new to accounting or new to financial management, that they can learn what I’ve learned.
Capacity development has always been really important to me. It’s not enough to know and to be good at what I do. It’s also important to impart and share what I know with others who want to be where I am. For the last 20 years, this is all I’ve been doing. I don’t know anything else. What about you Samaria? What has your journey been like?
SR: My journey has been very interesting. My undergrad degree was in therapeutic recreation and community health. I wanted to be in healthcare because I knew I wanted to help people. Once I did my internship, I realized that it was not for me. I needed something where I could help people but I needed to be more on the corporate side. I went into retail for a bridge gap and I ended up staying at retail for three years. I realized that I wanted to move into HR.
I was very strategic. I moved into corporate HR through retail. Ultimately it landed me in a role where I could finally figure out all the ins and outs of HR. To be honest, my first HR business partner role, I had no idea what I was doing, but I learned. I was very strategic in making connections in getting into different types of clubs and learning about HR. I became good at what I did. I really learned my craft, I perfected it.
Getting someone a new job or starting at a new company really impacts someone’s life. It impacts their trajectory and what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. I felt like it was the perfect blend for me. And currently I’m back in school trying to further my education in employment law and human resources, risk management, getting the law degree, trying to round out that whole piece.
SR: What has it meant to be a black woman in leadership, especially in the C-suite level?
LR: When I think about being a black woman in a leadership position, I think back to 2013. I had my MBA, had many years of experience doing this, and I was in an all-white space. I was the only black person in the organization that I worked for. There were 50 employees. I was the only black person in front of the board members to do a presentation of the budget or the financial statement. I remember not feeling that I was taken seriously.
I recognize that I was in my early 30s. It might have been my age, it might have been my sex, it might have been the color of my skin. I realized that failure was not an option for me. I had to find a way to have a voice in the work that I was doing to make sure that when I was presenting in front of the board and in all-white spaces, I represented black women in a positive way.
Being a black woman in a leadership position means that as an underrepresented person in a leadership role in financial management, I had not seen any black women as CFOs. I started my own firm in 2010, and I gave myself the title of principal and chief financial officer. I made sure that when I presented myself to potential clients that I said to them, “I know what I’m talking about. I’d love to work with you, I’d love to have you as a client.”
Share your experience with me, Samaria. Has it been as challenging for you being in a C-suite level or has it been easy for you?
SR: To be honest, I think I’m a little bit earlier in my career, and I’ve had a little bit of privilege using my Greek organization. I am a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated. Using my group organization and my connections to get into places that, honestly, I probably would not have been in without that affiliation.
When I tell people that I’m Chief People and Inclusion Officer at Women Who Code they are taken back. It always reminds me that I am qualified. I am able to be in those rooms and I am supposed to be there. I will say that I didn’t see many people who looked like me in these roles.
Having the conversation with Alaina and Joey when we were talking about transitioning into that C-suite role, I was terrified. I know as you progress in your career, it just becomes more of a strategic mindset. But it was more of the imposter syndrome because I hadn’t seen people that looked like me in these spaces. So for me, it was more of getting out of my own way and taking that step into a space that I hadn’t seen people like me.
For you, what was your intentionality around C-suite, getting into that role? I know you mentioned that you wanted to give yourself that title and move into those spaces and say you were qualified, but was there anything else around that space that you really were intentional about to make sure that you were in a C-suite role for other companies?
LR: I thought I was going to be a stockbroker and then the market crashed. I went through getting the CFA, Certified Financial Advisor license, and I started tinkering with the market, the stock market, and I realized that there was no coming back right away and I’m in this.
I needed to make money, I needed to get back into what I know which was non-profit work. I started applying for positions that were director roles. Most of the organizations that I worked with at that time did not have a CFO, it was more of an executive director. I was really intentional about making sure that at some point or another that that title was the ultimate title in my field that I would maintain.
SR: Did you feel like you had any adversity moving into that space?
LR: No. I don’t think it’s been a matter of adversity. The challenge has always been age, the fact that I’m female, and being a black woman. I don’t think that that’s been too much of a challenge that has been unbearable. I think, if anything, it’s made me stronger, it’s made me more resilient.
SR: So from a DEI space, what do you feel like it means to be a black woman in the C-suite?
LR: I don’t know about being male, I don’t know about being someone of a different gender, of a different race. For a black woman, it means that failure is not an option. And we’re literally under a microscope. Our integrity in the work that we do is important because there are others that will follow in our footsteps.
I think that it’s important that we continue to grow as black women in leadership roles. That we don’t just sit and be comfortable in just arriving, but find ways to continue to grow and also mentor others. How about you?
SR: I think that it is so important for me to give back in the sense of the generations that are coming up, but also my peers. Thinking of it as a black woman, I just want to echo the piece of you saying that we have to be very intentional. We have to have integrity and show up to work 10 steps ahead of anyone. Not only just be on top of the world in our careers but also in our personal lives.
What would be your pro tip in reference to being in the C-Suite and elevating your career?
LR: Be intentional about your career path. Where do you see yourself in 5–10 years? Map it out. Find out what the education requirements are around getting to that role, find out the networks that you need to join so that you find where job openings are, talk to your managers about professional development opportunities, but be intentional about where you want to go.
SR: I love that. You have to be intentional about everything that you do and I echo that if I had to give a pro-tip, it’s surrounding yourself with people who can affirm and motivate you. Surround yourself with the people that you can learn from as well as grow with, celebrate with, and cry.