Big Tech Needs Black Women’s Perspectives

7 minute read
Charles is an activist, musician, and technology executive, currently serving as the Head of Global Diversity & Inclusion Communications at TikTok. She is the author of Black Internet Effect

I was 16 years old when I stood in the living room with my dad at my house in Southeast San Diego and watched a TV special that would change my life forever.

It was a hot Saturday morning in 2007, and I rushed through the house, toothbrush in one hand, flute case in the other, scrambling to get dressed for a scorching day of marching band practice at Helix Charter High School.

“Look at this! Look at these people, can you believe they’re at work?” my dad touted.

I looked at the TV to see clips of 20-to-30-something-year-old adults napping in lime-green pods, eating ice-cream sundaes, and riding down bright red, forty-foot slides. I stood there with my mouth open, in awe of this pictured utopia. A few seconds later, Google’s colorful, bright logo flashed on the screen and my dad said, “Have you ever seen this? They work for Google! You should look up working for a place like that one day.” I was bewildered by the thought. Me? Work for a search engine website?

Working in tech hadn’t ever really crossed my mind until that day in the living room. My eyes scoured the TV screen in search of a person of color, a Black person, anyone that could give me a sense of familiarity and otherwise convince me that this utopia was a welcoming, real-life possibility for someone who looked like me. Even then, it was hard for me to fathom the idea of seeing a Black woman, a person like me, working at a place like Google.

Read More: Black Women Have Consistently Been Trailblazers for Social Change. Why Are They So Often Relegated to the Margins?

30 minutes passed, the episode ended, and that bright feeling of hope and curiosity was quickly followed by an overwhelming sense of anxiety as I sat in the living room with no blueprint or knowledge of how to pursue a career that would ever lead me to a company like Google. Technology wasn’t often brought up as a possible professional path for me or any other Black students. The only reason I was ever introduced to HTML coding in the first place was because I wanted to customize the color and template of my Myspace profile.

At the time, my friends and I didn’t view technology as a standalone concept or industry—it was simply interwoven into our everyday lives as the main way to forge community and stay connected to one another. I also grew up in a household with parents who were Black small-business owners and always preached about the importance of me going to college to get a “good job.”

There’s a negative societal stigma that says women and girls aren’t supposed to code or be interested in technology or computer science. According to a 2020 study done by the United Nations, women hold only 25% of computing jobs in the United States, with women and girls making up just 19% of students who receive degrees in computing, and represent just 23%of high school students sitting for advanced placement exams in computer science. It’s only gotten marginally better since: A 2022 study by the National Girls Collaborative Project found that women made up only 34% of the STEM workforce. Factor in race, and people of color, especially Black women, have even lower representation in the tech industry at every level. If I wanted to work in the tech industry, I had to stomach the fact that the odds were quite literally stacked against me.

I officially started my career in the tech industry at 21 years old with my first full-time job at Twitter, where I led the company’s global music and culture communications out of their San Francisco headquarters as the youngest and first-ever Black woman to be hired onto their public relations team. After Twitter, I worked at Instagram, where I launched their Los Angeles office and managed all of the app’s global music, teen, and youth culture communications, again, as the youngest and first-ever Black woman to be hired onto their marketing and communications team. At both Twitter and Instagram, I personally carved out my professional roles, and since then, I strive to bring my advocacy for voices of color into every room I’m in. I am the founder of my very own creative group, Future of Creatives, and I started Magic in Her Melanin, a community organization created with the mission to elevate the stories of women of color and drive equitable career development for next-generation creatives and people of color across the tech industry.

My path has led me in many directions and down so many winding roads—all with the hope that in the spaces in which I am the first, I won’t be the last. From childhood through early adulthood, I struggled to be accepted and welcomed anywhere, all because of what I looked like and what I represented as “the only Black girl in the room.” Against all odds, I had to value myself enough to know that my voice and perspective mattered. I’ve carried these survival tactics throughout my life, and it’s all thanks to the superhero Black women who raised me. Through them, I figured out that I’d have to forge my own path and dare to write my own story—even if I was left out of the fairy tales altogether.

We’re in a critical time, where freedom of voice and self-expression too often come at the cost of our safety and state of wellness online. Our collective impact and ability to shape a safer, more inclusive internet relies not just on underrepresented voices, but also in the knowledge that without our voices, without our communities, without our creativity and active participation, the internet and social media ecosystem cannot thrive. In fact, in 2021, Nielsen conducted a series of studies where they determined the measurable magnitude of influence the U.S. Black population yields across consumer economy and today’s pop culture lexicon. According to the study “Seeing And Believing,” Black buying power landed at 1.57 trillion dollars in 2020 while their viewing power reached to 1.06 trillion in 2021.

Whether it’s Black viewers and television writers driving online and offline success for media like HBO’s Insecure (a #BlackTwitter favorite) or Black consumers who showcase just how influential their online spending habits are and have catapulted Black-owned brands like Telfar to the top, it is clear that our voices, identities, and perspectives will continue to shape the internet into a desirable, inspiring place. Today and every day, we must actively choose to recognize and intentionally yield the very power, value, and influence of our ideas. Through our lens and perspective, we can create and custom-code environments that reflect our values and protect our creativity.

The polarizing role of social media (and the internet) in our lives isn’t changing anytime soon. What can evolve is our perspective on the impact these tools have on our lives, along with our ability to positively shape and fine-tune the function we’d like technology to serve within our communities and everyday existence. Shared accountability and collective action is the only way we accomplish more inclusivity and visibility within tech and across the social spaces we occupy. Because in order to be seen, we have to see each other first.

Adapted Excerpt from Black Internet Effect by Shavone Charles, published by Penguin Workshop, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Shavone Charles. All rights reserved.

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