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  • Writer's pictureArika Lawrence

Black Woman Who Have Inspired My Career Journey

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

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Happy Black History Month! I always look forward to Black History Month as an opportunity to reflect on all the black excellence that has helped paved the way for me and others to be where we are today. While Black History Month is nationally recognized once a year, I make a point to celebrate it every day. In the last decade, I have witnessed many invisible glass ceilings be broken by Black people across many industries. It excites me and inspires me to push myself to be part of the change I want to see. However, it also brings me a bit of sadness that we are still living in a time where a lot of “first” are still happening. It is easy to get caught up in the observation, but I prefer to focus my attention on how far the Black community has come because when one of us wins, we all do. The end game is: my generation and those before me are building platforms or carving pathways for younger Black generations of children to see themselves in these future roles or better.

In this Black History Month post, I want to highlight a few Black technology influencers, inventors, designers, and leaders who have inspired me on my career journey. Over a year ago, I made the choice to make a career pivot into the tech industry, and I know that this would not have been possible without acknowledging a few Black women whose legacy inspired me to take this leap of faith. My entire career journey has been a faith walk; there have been many sleepless nights, creative bursts of ideas, frustrations, barriers, joyous wins, and blocks, but in the end, I have never let anything or anyone deter me from living out my fullest potential. I could write a whole dissertation on countless Black professionals who have inspired me along the way, but these five Black women have been a motivation to get me where I am today as a UX professional and a member of the tech community. I am honored and forever inspired by their work accomplishments and legacy story.

Hidden Figure Queens: Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician and “Human Computer;” Mary Jackson, NASA Mathematician and Aerospace Engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan, NASA Mathematician and Computer Programmer

Fun fact about me: I’ve always been obsessed with space! Outside of excelling in my English classes, I loved science class growing up as a kid. While math was a challenging subject for me, I still managed to make good grades there, too. All that to say, I love Ms. Katherine Johnson. It annoys me that I didn’t learn about her; and fellow NASA mathematicians, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson in grade school because it might have encouraged me to stay on the STEM path. I came to know who they were through an incredible movie called, Hidden Figures. I remember watching this movie and becoming overwhelmed by so much emotion (they went through a lot). Johnson went from not receiving the same respect as her White colleagues to having to go to the “colored” restroom across campus, which often interrupted her productivity.

It wasn’t until Johnson gained a White male ally in her boss, Al Harrison, who stood up for her and the rest of the Black women to receive better workplace treatment. Plus, Johnson had the support of her fellow Black female colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, and together they stepped into their greatness. Johnson was a mathematical genius who calculated the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. Without her knowledge, and Vaughan and Jackson, I’m not sure if we would have much of a space program today.

What I learned from them was: perseverance. Despite the adversities they faced, they never gave up, and they allowed their work and intelligence to speak for themselves. I also credit these women for being part of my inspiration in seeking out a STEM career. There was a time in school where I was exploring engineering (shoutout to NSBE) or medicine (Pediatrician), but I ended up falling in love with writing. And now, I'm a UX designer --- it's crazy how life works!

HeLa Cells Bittersweet Legacy: Henrietta Lacks

After reading the book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” left me with bittersweet emotions. A short synopsis of the book: After enduring a medical emergency, Lacks went to the only hospital in the Baltimore area that would treat Black people at that time, John Hopkins University Hospital, to receive medical attention. While in their care, she unknowingly had her cells extracted and donated to John Hopkins University Hospital for medical research. The kind of sweet part that came out of this discovery is it led to breakthroughs in medical science. Now, her "immortal cells” are called “HeLa” cells, which are the only known cells in science that can divide an unlimited number of times, as long as certain laboratory conditions are met to support their survival. To this day, HeLa cells have helped solve some of the world’s most challenging health problems, including treatment for polio, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, and more.

While Ms. Lacks’ cell story is controversial and it is a story that had to be told because it affirms why Black Americans today still have uneasy sentiments towards Western medical practices (there are endless stories). On the flip side, it still stirs in my mind how her cells have inadvertently helped millions of people across the world. It’s a catch-22: I wonder if she was still living, would she have donated her cells to science? And if she chose “no”, I wonder if we would have had the medical advancements we have today?

What I learned from her story: Integrity. In everything we do, we should always lead with integrity. Back then, Lacks didn't receive that at the time when she received care because back then, Black people weren’t seen nor given the same rights as their White counterparts --- and we are still fighting for that equality today. In everything I do, it is important that I lead with integrity. My name is all I have in the end, and I want my legacy to be a positive reflection of that. The Lacks family continues to keep her legacy alive by sharing her story because it is still relevant to the medical community and the world.

Fashion Designer Extraordinaire: Ruth E. Carter

If I could pick the brain of Ruth E. Carter, it would be a dream come true! Her design aesthetic is unmatched because I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing her work shine across 40+ of Hollywood’s silver screen in productions including Black Panther, Selma, Malcolm X, The Butler, and Coming to America 2 (coming soon). By far, I have been most impressed by her Afrofuturism work in Black Panther. The elaborate, jewel-toned, metallic designs truly shined majestically on camera and it piqued my interest in learning more about Afrofuturism as a whole. Overall, what I loved most about the entire Black Panther production is it felt regal, rich and real. I still watch the film and get giddy about all the fashion and technology connections throughout the film! Within the last year or so, I leaped into a design-forward role, and I plan to take some of Carter’s inspiration with me into my new position.

What I learned from her: Futuristic design inspiration. Our world is changing daily and it’s going to take people like Carter and others, like myself to be on the frontline guiding the needle in how we design our future. One of the main reasons I got into UX design is that I wanted to be part of designing the future in the way that we all live, learn, work and play. Seeing films like Black Panther gave me a glimpse of what a future Afro-utopia looks like, but even bigger than that, it was a real picture of where our world is headed today.

The growth of tech-forward wearable fashion and experimentation with driverless cars and pilotless planes is happening now. Additionally, the way people will safely integrate these technology products and services into their lives is going to take empathetic designers. The design industry is shaping the future, and we must have diverse voices and skills at the table collaborating on the design processes, so we are creating an ethical world that is inclusive and accessible to all.

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