This Trailblazers series takes a look at the pivotal milestones that make up the life trails of inspiring women from a diverse array of backgrounds and experiences. We all know what social media profiles display about the end results women have achieved. This series is intended to take a deeper, more authentic look at the journeys they have taken to get there.
Alexandria Storm is an entrepreneur, co-founder of Investing in Inclusion, photographer, and engineering intern working at Microsoft Artificial Intelligence. She is passionate about empowering queer women of color.
After learning more about the trail that Alexandria has blazed, I got the chance to ask her some questions.
Rebekah Bastian: You have a really diverse background in music, activism, writing, entrepreneurship and computer science. Do you see a common thread between these passions in your life?
Alexandria Storm: While attending Garfield High School in Seattle, I learned that only 11% of computer science positions are held by women. Alarmed by this discrepancy, I decided to teach myself how to code after school. I founded a Girls Who Code Chapter, which increased female enrollment to 48% in AP Computer Science, a 300% increase in one year. This was achieved by organizing coding lessons and creating partnerships with companies like Google, SpaceX, and Facebook. I developed these relationships with engineers as a high schooler by networking at local tech meet-ups.
I am now a Software Engineering Intern at Microsoft in Artificial Intelligence & Research under Natural Language Understanding. I was able to work on a side project: a search engine extension for users with visual disabilities to hear image descriptions, utilizing computer vision and NLP. I discovered that I love Artificial Intelligence because it’s completely interdisciplinary. It’s not just programming—it’s linguistics, mathematics, psychology, neurobiology, ethics, and more.
Women have been the minority in most of the areas I’ve ventured in. I’ve been the only woman in a trumpet section of ten, and one of two female engineers at an entire startup. It’s okay with me if I am the only or first, as long as I am not the last.
While all of the fields I have experience in may not be explicitly related, they all contribute to the person I am. As scientists and engineers, we cannot dismiss the social implications of our actions, nor as social scientists can we ignore science. As an interdisciplinary person, my goal is to explore as many different fields as possible and utilize the skills from the previous to help me.
Bastian: You shared how embracing your identity as a queer woman of color has been both liberating, and has opened you up to mistreatment in some environments. How have you kept yourself safe, happy and successful in a world full of biases?
Storm: I am proud and empowered by my identity. However, I still recall the first instances when I realized I was being treated differently in academic and professional environments, to the point where people nearby noticed. As frustrating as it was having my intelligence and technical abilities unfairly questioned, these incidents have only served as motivation for me to persevere and better myself. While initially I was too afraid to speak up, I gradually learned to stand up for myself, and I have been happier ever since. There’s always someone who’s going to think you aren’t smart enough, so you might as well prove them wrong.
Bastian: Tell me about the conference you co-founded, Investing in Inclusion. What led you to focus on helping founders of color access capital?
Storm: I co-founded the conference Investing in Inclusion, which is coming up on April 25th, 2020 at the Adobe Headquarters in San Jose. We are sponsored by Adobe, Microsoft, Binomial, First Republic Bank, VC firms, and more. Our mission is to build a pipeline for founders of color and underrepresented backgrounds to gain access to capital. By bringing together entrepreneurs and representatives from organizations like Backstage Capital, and creating open fundraising and financial education, we are preparing underrepresented founders to create businesses of the future. Speakers include Morgan DeBaun, CEO and founder of Blavity, and Shaloo Garg, the director of Microsoft Start-Ups. We are providing scholarships for entrepreneurs from around the country to attend and potentially pitch to VCs on our demo day.
While 40% of entrepreneurs are women, less than 2% of VC funding goes to them. This number is even less for women of color, queer, and trans founders. There are no other conferences that exist to tackle this discrepancy, although there are diversity events for entry-level software engineers and for entrepreneurs in general. These resources are not specific enough to tackle the challenges that entrepreneurs of color face and they do not help women of color, particularly, to become CEOs, CTOs, or founders.
Bastian: You describe experiential learning as one of the goals for Investing in Inclusion. What does that look like as it relates to helping founders access funding?
Storm: At most of the conferences and events I’ve been to, there is a lot of talk about how diversity is important. But there is no follow-up or concrete support. There is no ensuring that these individuals get a job, funding, or learn a new technical skill set. While talking about the problem is the first step, it’s the follow-through that matters.
We’re hosting a demo day for founders to pitch to VCs and industry professionals and receive feedback and mentorship after the conference. Success to me looks like: can we help get these founders seed or Series A funding, or one step closer to it? Can we teach them financial literacy and the options of fundraising from VCs, angel investors, bootstrap financing, and more? Can we expose them to potential mentors and investors? Often times, people from marginalized backgrounds don’t grow up around the jargon used in the entrepreneurship world or have existing connections that other entrepreneurs might.
Experiential learning is so important because women and people of color are not allowed to fail like white men are. Marginalized people are not afforded the same opportunities to safely take risks, experiment, and learn from their mistakes without inhibiting consequences.
Bastian: Based on the many leaps you have already taken in life, what advice would you give to other women who want to make an impact in areas that are new to them?
Storm: If you want to make an impact in a new area, go to related local events, and network on the basis of forming relationships, not transactions. Plenty of successful people are not necessarily the world’s leading experts in a certain technical field. Being able to bridge the gap between both technical and non-technical people is a very powerful thing. Lastly, the best things in life do not come easy, and they typically don’t work out on the first try. My mother likes to say, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil change.” As women, it’s imperative to build confidence in yourself and your abilities. Rejection is a part of life, so it’s important to build perseverance, and not to give up after your first failure.