Navigating Silicon Valley as a person of color
Machines and their inner workings fascinated me as a kid. I loved taking things apart and putting them back together. My folks weren’t too happy about coming home to disassembled electronics every other week, but they encouraged my interest in technology.
That support helped me get into the University of Alabama. There, I received a Bachelor of Science in Management Information Systems with a minor in Computer Science, a master’s in Electrical Engineering and my doctorate in Interdisciplinary Engineering with a concentration in Computational Engineering (say that three times fast!).
From there, work and my professional network eventually led me to the AT&T Foundry office in the Bay Area. There are six Foundry innovations centers across the country where many AT&T future products and services are first dreamed up. As a senior product development engineer, I am always looking to see how I create new, innovative products.
I love my job and the exciting work I get to do. But moving from Alabama to Silicon Valley was an adjustment, especially as a black man.
Moving was a culture shock. I had no illusions about that. It was different from the world I came from. In Birmingham, there is no shortage of black people. In the Bay Area, however, black people are a little harder to find. There’s plenty of reasons for that: the high cost of living, lack of local family ties and little diversity in the region’s thriving tech industry.
You miss little things that make you feel grounded to the place where you lived. Things like a barbershop that knows how to “line” you up just right, the little church house where the gospel choir sings gospel hymns and the soul food joint that makes you long for home are hard to find.
But, here’s the thing: You can’t wallow in cultural loneliness, hoping a black co-worker will appear and join your water-cooler discussion about the latest viral meme. You have to get out there and make friends, even if doesn’t seem like you have much in common. But you can’t do that if you’re faking the funk. You’ve got to be yourself.
So how do you bring your authentic self to work when you feel so different from everyone around you?
Joining the right company is a good start. For me, that meant joining the AT&T Foundry. When most people think of Silicon Valley they think of young, mostly white guys skateboarding to work in hoodies. You probably wouldn’t think of someone like me.
But, at the AT&T Foundry, diversity is stronger than you might realize. Here our differences are the very essence of what makes each of us unique. This drives a culture of innovation that’s not only welcomed, but also celebrated.
While an inclusive culture definitely helped, I also had to get to a place mentally where I was comfortable standing firm in who I am as a person. I am a smart, funny, family man and a talented professional. A Fortune 10 company hired me to join their flagship innovation center—because I was the best candidate for the role. I am the only person who can put limitations on me. So in the words of President Obama, “I got this!”
Though my zip code changed, I have not. I didn’t have to. Simply being the best Dr. Jerry A. Higgs that I can be every single day is good enough. Living a successful and satisfying life in the Valley is less about “fitting in” and more about adding your own complimentary flavor to the culture. I’m not “Jerry, the black guy.” I’m just “Jerry.” The way it should be.
Jerry Higgs is a senior product engineer at the Palo Alto AT&T Foundry. He focuses on projects that touch on artificial intelligence, cloud technologies and deep learning,