After landing in over 70 publications, speaking on the TED stage, and being labeled ‘12 AWS Heroes you should be following’ for her achievements as both an AWS Machine Learning Hero and Alexa Champion, I’m only scratching the surface of what Kesha Williams has accomplished during her 25-year career in tech.
While Kesha is pioneering work in the field of artificial intelligence, she is also serving as a mentor to thousands around the globe. I wondered what it was like to be such a powerful woman in a space dominated by males. Did things get easier when you not only have the technical skills, but you have the accolades to back it up?
Kesha was kind enough to allow me to dive deep and ask some difficult questions about her reality working for over 2 decades as an African American woman in tech.
Sage Advice from Kesha: “People will treat you how you allow them to treat you. That’s in the workplace, in life, and just in general.”
How has gender played a part in your journey?
I am going to tack on race to this question, because for me, gender and race go hand and hand. When I look at being an African American woman working in the Deep South, I’ve always felt like I’ve been held to a different standard than my white male counterparts. I have to prove myself over, and over, and over.
In all the roles that I’ve been in, even at places where I’d worked a long time, each project, each assignment, for me was a reset. I’d notice that I’d be given assignments not based on my potential, like my white male counterparts, rather I’d be given assignments where I’d already proven that this was something I could do.
When I think about how gender and race played a part in my journey, it has been exhausting. There is a term called intersectionality. It’s a fancy term that I just learned last year, and thought “Oh okay, there is an official term for what I have experienced.” Essentially what it means is as an African American woman, the black part of me might experience racism, whereas a white woman will not experience racism, and then there is the female part of me that might experience sexism, where a black man isn’t going to experience sexism. So, it’s double the adversity to overcome.
But, I’m the type of person that finds the positive in every situation. The rewarding piece is that it has given me a really strong work ethic. It has trained me to put 110% in everything I do. In every task, I go above and beyond.
What advice would you give to a woman considering a career in the tech industry, who may be put off by the preconceptions?
First of all, I would say tech is an awesome industry to be in. It’s opened so many doors for me. It has allowed me to take care of my family, and it allows me to be challenged on a daily basis to continue to learn new things.
My advice is that you have to be strong, have thick skin, and stand up for yourself. You have to find validation from within, and not from external sources. And you can’t let how other people treat you make you question your own abilities.
Typically in the environments where I’ve worked, there isn’t anyone advocating for you the way they advocate for others behind closed doors, so you have to stand up for yourself. One thing I learned over my 25-year career is that people will treat you how you allow them to treat you. That’s in the workplace, in life, and just in general.
In a time with as much power as ever, women are not comfortable claiming their power. What have you done to feel comfortable claiming your power?
Once I hit a certain age, I stopped caring what people thought about me. I don’t know what that age is, because I’ve felt this way for a while now, but it’s really freeing. My advice is to stop overthinking things, and just learn to be yourself unapologetically. If you’re working in an environment that doesn’t allow you to do that, that’s a toxic work environment that you should leave ASAP.
When I started my career, I had this little voice in my head that would tell me, “You know you’re not good enough. You’re not as smart as everyone else. or You’re different, you’re not like everyone.” Because of how I was treated, I’d go into work everyday thinking, “Why did they even hire me? Did they just want to hire an African American woman? Am I just a number?” It made me question myself, and that impacted how I interacted with others. I would always have my guard up, and when you’re operating like that, it really impacts not only your work, but the relationships you build with other people.
For a long time, I was sad, and it was hard. It took a lot of prayer to overcome, but once I started believing in myself again, I stopped caring what other people thought about me, and a weight was lifted off of my shoulders. I found validation from within. Every time that voice came back that said I wasn’t supposed to be there, I told that voice to shut up.
On LinkedIn, I started building a profile where I put every interview that I’ve done, every presentation that I’ve given, and every course that I’ve taught. I’m not doing it for other people. I’m doing it to remind myself that I’ve worked really hard to be where I am, and that I shouldn’t question my ability.
Who are your strong female influences and role models, and how did you find them?
I haven’t had a lot of female role models, and that’s one reason why I’m so passionate about working with the younger generation. I want to be for them what I never had. When I reflect back on my life in general, there were 2 major female influences. The first was my mother. She showed me that it was possible for a woman to work a full-time job and raise a family. She demonstrated the perfect work-life balance which inspired me to do the same.
I found my other female role model in my second job out of college. This has been the only time in my entire career that my direct supervisor was an African American woman. She pushed me and challenged me, and she saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself. She helped me to blossom by stepping outside of my comfort zone, and we are still friends to this day.
How does A Cloud Guru celebrate your uniqueness?
In the past, I’ve worked in organizations where people lacked humility. They had huge egos. You could hear the egos coming down the hallway. When I’m around people like that it causes me to close up.
But working here, everyone is so humble. I haven’t seen an ego yet, and it’s very refreshing. It just allows me to let my guard down without fear of being judged, and let the real quirky, sometimes funny, sometimes silly side of me come out and shine.