Ashley Turner had always dreamed of a space where women of color could teach each other.
The organizer of Philly Tech Sistas, a group that trains and provides resources for women of color who want to build careers in technology, had studied as a sound engineer for the theater arts. But soon she pivoted; the lifestyle of long and unpredictable hours wasn’t for her. She knew her skills were transferable, she said, and she now works as an academic technologist at Swarthmore College, teaching students and faculty how to use digital tech in the classroom.
In 2014, Turner’s dream for a space for women of color in tech materialized. She’d noticed a meetup called Philly Tech Sistas pop up, and joined immediately. A week after, the organizer stepped down, and Turner said she felt it was the right time to jump on a project.
At first, the meetup started as a way to organize for groups of women to go to tech events, conferences and networking sessions together.
“But I didn’t just want us to be going to events,” she said. “I wanted us to get in on the skills.”
Five years later, Turner and a group of volunteers run the organization and its programs, which include a beginner’s code bootcamp, a mother/daughter code workshop, a quarterly networking series called Tech Talks and a career development panel series called Fierce Conversations.
The organization runs on volunteers who are mentors, teachers and overall resources in the tech community.
We talked with Turner about the last five years of Philly Tech Sistas, building a career and a community and advice she’d give to her younger self. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Technical.ly Philly: What has your journey into the tech world been like after switching careers?
Ashley Turner: I started to think about my transferrable skills, and started attending coding workshops, web design workshops, tech events — just immersing myself in the culture of technology. I just wanted to learn and see what else was out there, and eventually I landed a career in higher ed tech. I started working as an audio/visual specialist, but even then, I knew that wasn’t the end of my career development.
I knew I still needed to learn and grow, so I started attending conferences, more networking events. They were great, but what I always noticed, there just weren’t a lot of Black and Brown people and women in those spaces. Even at the all-women events. That was kind of disappointing, you know? When you walk into a room of people and nobody looks like you? It’s lonely, it’s chilling.
Was that a driving force behind Philly Tech Sistas?
I’ve always had this dream of having women of color teach each other, but the actual start of the organization was very serendipitous. Someone created this group on Meetup.com, so I joined immediately, but she stepped down as the organizer the week later, and I stepped up.
It’s always been about having a low barrier to entry. There are tons of tech and coding programs out there, but I wanted this to be place for women of color to one, come together and not feel marginalized, and two, be easily accessible. Workshops are typically on the weekends so we’re not interrupting the work week and childcare can be easier to figure out. They’re also really low cost [$25 per session], we provide lunch so you’re not trying to figure out time to eat. These workshops are geared toward women of color and we’re partnering with tech companies and doing projects so women can see themselves working there, being a part of this community.
What’s some essential career lessons you’ve learned?
Along the way, I have found really great support system with a lot of women. I found a mentor who has helped me really navigate my career. I think the largest lesson is just building this network of people around you that you can get support from and also learn from, because you cannot go at your career alone. You need people who are going to lift you up, and teach you, because you don’t know what you don’t know.
I’ve pushed past a lot of stereotypes or negativity and immersed myself in all sorts of opportunities, and it’s disappointing to not see other women of color in these situations. People don’t always know about the context regarding the tech field, and they’ll ask me, “What’s in it for me if I learn how to code?” Our community has not historically been exposed to the tech field, so they’re asking “How can I grow?” Learning these skills can be about creating opportunity for yourself.
What are some of the best coding skills to be learning in 2019?
What do you see for the future of Philly’s tech scene?
I do think that it’s going to be more inclusive. I see a lot of organizations and companies working on this. I believe people are trying to make it more inclusive and I’m seeing partnerships begin to grow — that’s the way we’re going to do it. In order for it to happen, we’re going to have to do it together. To keep good people in tech, we’re going to have to come together, and I’m already seeing a bit of it.
What career advice would you give to your younger self?
Your career is not going to be a straight shot, it’s going to be a windy road, and that’s OK. Don’t focus on being perfect, it’s not going to look perfect, but that’s OK. I’d say to follow your interests, grow your skill set. You will find that your career will find you. It’s OK to change your mind, you can always pivot.
You also need to know when to call on your support system. They’re able to help you gain perspective, and in moments where you’re overwhelmed or feeling under-qualified, they help remind you that you deserve to be here. Regardless of accomplishments, you deserve to be valued because you’re a human being.-30-