Every successful entrepreneur has one sentence in common: “My parents thought I was crazy.”
So it goes for Stacy Kirk, one of the only Black female founders of a major software firm. In her case, it happened in 9th grade, when Stacy insisted on switching from private to public school. “Some of my teachers were biased against girls, and specifically against African American girls,” says the Texas native. “They refused to enroll me in AP classes, even though I was top 10 in my class! Sure, it was a ‘prestigious’ place, but that doesn’t mean much if it won’t support its young women.”
One transfer slip, many AP classes, and a Stanford degree later, Stacy has become a renowned STEM expert at the top of her field. Today, Stacy has been working in the tech sector for over 20 years and is the CEO of her own company, bringing her wealth of knowledge and experience at numerous widely recognized brands. Her experience encompasses diverse industries which include entertainment, security, and healthcare; and she has worked with such companies as AT&T, BB&T, NBCUniversal, Symantec, FedEx, and Fandango.
In 2010, Stacy founded QualityWorks Consulting Group, a global leader in software quality innovation and delivery, based in Los Angeles, California. In 2015, she expanded her offices to Kingston, Jamaica to service clients in the United States, the UK, and the Caribbean. She leads a 45+ and growing team of brilliant technologists and innovators representing diverse backgrounds, including over 46% women of color – something that is very important to her personally as a Black women in an industry still very much dominated by white men and white male founders overwhelmingly.
Here’s how Stacy is leading the way for female software engineers and what she really thinks about Alexa and Siri listening into your private life.
What empowered you to be a leader and how do you define leadership?
I think knowing that just by leading, I would be making a difference in the world. Women, especially women of color, are underrepresented in tech, especially at the executive level. But I grew up used to being different, and in fact, I thought of it as a positive thing. “Oh, I’m a girl! I’m African American! I love engineering. I will be different! Isn’t that cool?”
There is no one leader who knows it all. In order to do great things, you have to be surrounded by a great team. Being able to bring together a team of diverse brilliance and giving them the opportunities to become the best that they can be, allows you as a leader to be successful based not on your own individual knowledge and expertise, but rather the collective diversity.
There’s a lot of talk about diversity in Artificial Intelligence—how facial recognition programs can be racist, for instance. Do you think we can make AI less biased?
It’s not easy. I’ve had a couple conversations with Jason Arbon, who leads a company called Test.ai. He’s worked at Google specifically on bias in AI; it’s something he’s very passionate to resolve, and it’s so hard. As coders, we have to ask ourselves, “How do we program for consideration of all people, and all mindsets?” It’s very difficult, but I do think we should be farther along… I make a joke that Netflix sometimes puts movies at the top of my queue just to [troll] me. Like, “Netflix, why would you ever think I want to watch that?!” I’m mildly offended! But that’s what happens when everyone on your coding team looks the same and has the same gender. Ten dudes from the West Coast in their 20s talking about removing bias? Come on.
So diversity isn’t just a buzzword—it can also raise profits.
Absolutely! I preach about diversity of perspective being the catalyst for innovation. With the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m hoping there’s a consistent push for more diversity, for more Black and marginalized people in the executive level. When we look at problems from more than one angle, we get multiple solutions, and that’s how we get better and smarter solutions. Diversity of perspective leads to bigger gains all around.
Can you share three reasons why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?
- Your team has to be as diverse as the market you are going after. It is important to be able to see that over the next 10-20 years, this country will only continue to be more diverse.
- Diversity is part of the quality of product and its value. You can’t have a quality product without diverse points of view.
- Diversity enables the company to respond to the market more effectively.
- It is not possible for one person to see the perspectives of every person.
- The more diverse your executive board is, the more equipped you are with the unknowns of the future.
- Companies that want to be competitive and able to address the needs of the diversity of this country and this globalized world, need to be able to have a voices at the executive level to help with strategic planning
More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?
We live in a society where we are able to see a lot more than we did 30 years ago via Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Ted Talks. The visibility of people of color in the public sphere doing great things means that there are more visible possibilities for young people of color entering their careers. Visibility provides inspiration and inspiration is motivation.
When you see there are people at the executive level that look like you, that’s motivation. When you know there are people at an executive level that can help pull you through the ranks and give you feedback and guidance so that you can grow, that’s motivation. There is motivation in mentorship and sponsorship. There is motivation in opportunity.
Here’s the problem, the roadblock to equality: there is discomfort when we experience something unfamiliar. A lot of people are afraid – not necessarily just afraid of you as a woman or a person of color – but afraid of what’s going to happen in their world if there is this shift, this new factor they are unfamiliar with. They are so caught up in the fear of unfamiliar representation and diversity, that they don’t realize there is actually nothing to be afraid of. As we expand diversity, what seemed so foreign will then seem normal. What used to scare people will no longer scare them because they see it everyday.
For example, a metaphor: my son struggles with algebra. We’ve both grown to become scared of it due to its mystic adversity. My way around this fear is practicing algebra a little bit everyday. If you do it everyday, it becomes familiar and then you are no longer fearful of it. Once you get out of that fear zone and you’re not afraid, that’s when you can start elaboration. That’s when you can learn, experience and expand.
Practice makes perfect. The more we’re able to include a more diverse group, especially in executive leadership, the more we can open up the doors for people to get the opportunities they deserve.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?
- Community: we have to continue to keep our voice out there for equity and inclusion. Before this summer of protests, it was hard to get people of different races together to agree there is disparity and injustice. My ask for the community is that we keep that fire going. Progress is not enough until we have a fair and balanced society.
- The tech industry: People say, “We just don’t have POC in our organization that are ready to be promoted.” That’s BS! If they are given support and mentorship, they can absolutely become industry leaders.
- It has to be a priority that executives will identify POC to get to the next level. They need to clearly and transparently define the criteria of what it takes to be an executive. Hold everyone to that standard. When you omit the convoluted mess of bias and create a clear cut path for POC to move up the ranks, diversity will naturally follow.
These actions should be a top priority at every company. After all, businesses with more diversity in leadership perform better.
In your expert opinion, should we be scared that Alexa is spying on us?
Ha! If you use the Internet, there’s already so much information about you already out there. Personally, I’m a big fan of Alexa. She’s my assistant… But I’m a risk-taker when it comes to tech. I think privacy is a serious issue, because information, security and privacy? That’s the new oil. It’s even more valuable.
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