5 minutes with Erika Hairston

Erika Hairston’s impressive and impactful career began with a high school research project. The assignment led her to discover the documentary She++ about the lack of women in tech, sparking her interest and motivation to change that reality. Hairston became passionate about creating access for those who are historically underrepresented in all career paths. With this mission in mind, Hairston received her BS in Computer Science and African American Studies at Yale. During her senior year, her passions for tech and social impact converged as she began working on her senior thesis. Her research eventually resulted in her creation of the app Zimela to help underrepresented groups enter the tech pipeline by establishing mentorships and making users aware of career placement opportunities, like internships. The app’s unique and powerful mission has earned it significant recognition, most recently from Apple; the App Store featured Zimela and Hairston on their homepage in honour of Black History Month.

Zimela eventually ended up inspiring and turning into Edlyft, of which Hairston is co-founder (together with long-time friend Arnelle) and CEO. Edlyft, a startup to close the massive tech talent gap by helping create 1 million new computer science college graduates in the next 10 years. Edlyft helps college students through their toughest STEM classes, starting with CS, by providing access to group tutoring sessions, study groups, and a playbook on navigating CS from peers who’ve done it before.

Hairston virtually sat down with The Bloom to share her story, and all the valuable seeds of wisdom she’s picked up along the way.

If you had to represent some major milestones in your life in pictures, what would they be and why?

The first major milestone is when I graduated from Yale University with a BS in Computer Science and African American Studies, where I had my entire family by my side. I highlight this moment because I’m the youngest of 5 siblings and family has always been at the core of everything I do. Studying computer science was one of my greatest feats, while African American Studies opened my eyes to so much of my own history that had been missing.

These last two photos highlight my first steps into the startup world. Zimela was the first product / business I had ever built that people actively wanted to use. It felt so empowering to build something with my own hands that I had dreamed about in my head. Zimela ended up inspiring and turning into Edlyft. The final picture is of me and my co-founder, Arnelle Ansong, on the night she said yes to go on this journey with me into startups. Finding a co-founder, especially one you love and respect is one of the most important days in a founder’s life. The only person I could imagine doing this with was Arnelle and this day the rest of our lives changed forever.

What brought you to computer science, and what kept you there?

I fell into computer science by luck. My entire high school career, I thought I wanted to be an ambassador. However, my senior year of high school I stumbled upon a documentary by Stanford women in CS (She++) who talked about the lack of women and minorities in tech. They also happened to show all of the possibilities and opportunities that came with computer science. Overnight, my entire path changed and I knew I needed to understand why so few people who looked like me pursued CS; That’s when I realized I was going to be a CS major.

What kept me in CS wasn’t much different. In fact, when I go back to my journal entries while struggling through the major, I often re-inspire myself by the passages that read: “Erika, you can’t drop CS because you’re doing this for more than yourself.” For context, I severely craved more friends and mentors I could relate to in the tech department; unfortunately they just weren’t there. That was my motivation to stay -- I wanted to be the role model and mentor I so desperately wanted, for every girl and student of color to come afterward. Not only that, but the power of tech blew my mind -- it almost felt magical how one line of code could impact millions of lives. That was the impact I wanted to have and understand.

You wrote a wonderful article in 2017 about your experience meeting Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn while you were working there as an intern. The article has been read and liked by over 10,000 people: why do you think it has been so appreciated? And…did Jeff reach out after?!

Fun fact, that article actually started off as a journal entry! After I wrote it in my journal, I realized how much I wanted to share it with my friends and family to get them to speak their dreams into existence. I think it’s been so widely appreciated because it was so authentic and honest, which many people could relate to. I didn’t shy away from sharing my fears and embarrassing thoughts because I wanted readers to feel like they were alongside me as the events were unfolding, that way they could better picture what they’d do themselves in that situation. Jeff did respond to the article and is now one of my most unlikely, but favorite mentors. You never know the power of writing and sharing your story. I always encourage students, peers, and friends to capture and share their stories however works best for them. If anything, the process of reflecting is reward enough.

Your journey in Silicon Valley began at a very young age: What have been the most challenging barriers you’ve faced, specifically as a “unicorn”, a young black woman in tech? And do you continue to face the same challenges as you build your career?

I moved out to Silicon Valley for the first time when I was 19 y/o for my first tech internship at Facebook. I was quite naive at the time, yet filled with the drive of a bull. I knew one day that I’d be in the seats of the great tech leaders, even if none of them looked like me. After that first summer in Menlo Park, no time has been the same in Silicon Valley for me since, and I think it's because I grew a ton alongside my time here. I learned more about unconscious bias and stereotype threat; I was less afraid to speak my truth as I witnessed problematic cycles of exclusion and privilege proliferate. This unveiling in a sense is what made my relationship with Silicon Valley feel fraught, lonely, and temporary. The most challenging barrier has always been finding my voice in rooms that constantly (implicitly or explicitly) tell me I don’t belong. For example, whether that be as the only woman engineer on my team, or the only black person in my building, or the only black technical woman peers have ever met. However these challenges only pushed me to be 10x better and work 10x harder - they never became an excuse, just hyper self-awareness and fueling my drive.

I do continue to face these challenges today; however it’s in a whole new ball game. Ventures Capital and startups are an even heightened level of homogeneity. Last year only 2.2% of VC funding went to female founders, very very few of whom are underrepresented female founders. I’m still learning how to navigate these challenges in a newer environment, however I still have the same response - work 10x harder to be 10x better.

Could you walk readers through the evolution of your personal projects? Is Zimela very different from your current company, Edlyft?

My junior summer of college while I was a Product Management intern at Linkedin, I met with the Head of Product and asked him, “if you had one year left of college, what would you do?” He responded, “I would build something people want and get them to use it.” I took his advice very seriously and used the opportunity of doing my computer science thesis project to do exactly that. This project was Zimela, an iOS app that crowdsourced and made personalized recommendations of career resources and stories for women and minorities. While I taught myself iOS, I built this app because it was something I so desperately wanted. Eventually I heard from friends that they wanted it as well. So, I made a website to describe the project and 100s of people who signed up. That was my cue - it was time to share my app with the world and I spent the year after college learning more about design and iOS to release a better version of the app. This time however bled into my time working as a full time PM at LinkedIn where I had to navigate doing both, but made it work. Luckily Arnelle joined the team shortly after and it started to feel more real. It was becoming more than just a fun side project, but instead a vision for the future of the world I wanted to see.

Once we released Zimela, it was well received, especially among college students. As we spoke to more college students, that’s when we learned we weren’t actually building a product that interjected at the most pivotal point in their career. If our goal was to truly help students land great careers, we realized studying Computer Science was the biggest place of impact on our trajectories, leading us to work at Facebook, Google, Linkedin, and Bain between the two of us by 23 y/o. That was our light bulb moment when we realized that we could help more students study CS by packaging the support we built for ourselves and Edlyft was born. Our vision for Edlyft is to equip every learner with community, tools and personalized support to study the most in-demand fields. We’ve built a paid support program and platform that helps college students through their toughest STEM classes, starting with CS by providing group tutoring, study groups and playbooks for navigating CS. We just graduated from YCombinator working on Edlyft and are serving students at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and UCLA today.

What was it like to get your first bad review/criticism of something you created? How have you managed criticism since then?

The best piece of advice I’ve ever read was the quote by Paul Graham that stated, “if you're not embarrassed by your startup, you launched too late.” This is one of the truest and hardest pills to swallow as a founder. Building products is all about failing fast, learning deeply, and iterating quickly. If you are only hearing positive reviews, you are not learning much about how you can improve. That said, hearing my first bad review still feels hard because you spent months, potentially years, getting it to this point and all it takes is a few seconds for someone to tear it down. While that hurts, I had to learn to discern constructive criticism from trolls that were just being rude. Once I could identify helpful criticism, I valued it almost more than positive reviews because this was a person who was helping me make my product better.

If you could share a meal with anyone living or alive right now who would it be and why? What would be the first thing you would ask them?

Michelle Obama. It would be her because she was one of the people who gave me the most courage to quit my job and believe in myself when I heard her speak last October at a conference in Texas. I woke at 5am to sit front and center and bawled my eyes out like a baby at every word she said. Our forever flotus has a way of making you feel seen, heard, and empowered. She’s celebrated for her brilliance and kindness. She also happens to look just like me. I would want to share a meal with her to thank her for being a role model during the most transformative years of my life. The first thing I would ask her is, “what do you do you do to protect yourself?”

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