Communities at Handshake are a place to build an internal network that encourages conversation and support amongst colleagues. One of Handshake’s twelve communities is Wakanda, an employee resource group for people that relate to the African Diaspora or those of African descent.
The name Wakanda comes from a fictional African country in the Marvel Comics series Black Panther. First appearing in a Fantastic Four comic from 1966, Black Panther stormed back into the pop culture spotlight in 2018, starring a nearly all-black cast led by the late Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, the Black Panther and King of Wakanda.
As a nod to the complex, empowering, and political story of the Wakandans, the “Wakanda: For us, By us” Employee Resource Group was created at Handshake.
Similar to the Marvel nation, the Wakanda community at Handshake is a group that belongs to its members. It’s a space where folks are free to focus on their unique struggles and challenges yet also make space to celebrate black excellence, their progress, and triumphs.
Tony Sidhom is an Enterprise Account Executive at Handshake and one of the co-leaders of Wakanda. He started on the sales team at Handshake in the fall of 2018 and rose quickly through the ranks. And while he had leadership experience, he didn’t know much about leading an employee community.
As a leader, Tony’s goal is to advocate for the members of Wakanda and create a space where they can come together and feel seen and understood. His leadership style is about challenging the status quo, with goals that stretch beyond simply fostering community. He prioritizes understanding intersectionality and creating a truly inclusive space. Every member of Wakanda belongs in the group – there are no expectations and no mold they have to fit.
Since his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt, Tony is also a member of several other Communities at Handshake, including the Immigrants community. While he contributes to other groups, he focuses on his leadership role with Wakanda.
Around the beginning of 2021 Handshake launched into hypergrowth. As the Wakanda community grew, there became a greater need for consistent programming, peer-to-peer support, and educational opportunities for colleagues outside the group. When Tony started as a Community lead, all the members of Wakanda could sit around one conference table. Today, there are around 60 members, and the numbers keep growing.
At the start of 2021, with the need for support and the desire to take this community to new heights, Tony knew it was time to bring on a co-leader. Tony tapped McKinley Dickerson, an active member of Wakanda who has taken seamlessly to leadership.
Before joining Handshake, McKinley worked in retail management with the goal of eventually moving into Talent and Recruiting. After navigating the complexities of a career transition and entering the tech space, McKinley decided to join Handshake in December 2020, and within a year, his professional career truly blossomed. First, being promoted from Recruiting Experience Coordinator to now a Sales Sourcer, and secondly, joining Tony to co-lead Wakanda.
With little knowledge of employee-led communities, McKinley was eager to connect with other Black colleagues who have shared some of his lived experiences. He started going to meetings and felt an immediate connection with the members of Wakanda.
McKinley said, “Communities at Handshake provide an opportunity for people to really be seen in their various identities or lived experiences.”
When accepting the role as a co-lead, McKinley understood he would be taking on a new kind of work, which holds an emotional weight. But for him, this role was about stepping up and contributing positively to a space where he felt welcomed, supported, and appreciated.
Wakanda is a place where he can show up as his whole self to nurture and be nurtured by colleagues who assume positive intent in an open-minded, non-judgemental space – a very powerful benefit.
As Wakanda continued to scale, Tony and McKinley have strived to be extremely intentional about every event and engagement hosted for the community. And a large part of being intentional is being able to look at the whole picture.
It’s not lost on these leaders that historically, tech has been a tough industry not only for their community but for women and for all people of color, groups that are often underrepresented in leadership.
As Tony and McKinley strategized the kinds of events and opportunities they wanted to provide for Wakanda community members, they kept circling back to the topic of amplifying and celebrating intersectional perspectives and experiences, which quickly became a top priority.
“People of color [in Tech] are significantly more underrepresented, especially among Black and Latino groups,” said Tony. “And then, if we look at the intersectionality of women of color, they’re now a fraction of a fraction.”
With a shared focus to elevate the topic of intersectionality, one of the first events that Tony and McKinley collaborated on as co-leads was a Juneteenth x Pride event. This event was especially significant because 2021 was the first year it was recognized as a federal holiday. The programming was created in collaboration with the LGBTQ+ Handshake community, and this event paved the way for many more intersectional, knowledge-sharing, community-based events to take place at Handshake.
In early 2022, about a year after McKinley joined as co-leader, they welcomed the first woman leader of Wakanda, Jordyn Elliott.
Jordyn started at Handshake in September 2021 as the Public Relations Manager, joining the small but mighty communications team. She was attracted to the company’s mission of democratizing access to career opportunities for students, no matter their background. Her focus on the team has been elevating student stories in the media and sharing their successes.
While looking for her first job out of college, she was already familiar with the potential value of employee communities, making a point to ask about this type of peer support during interviews. Knowing that employee communities are integral to Handshake’s culture was a huge perk for her.
When she came aboard, she was instantly attracted to Wakanda and liked that it predated the 2020 protests that brought racial equality into the national spotlight and boardrooms across the country.
Within her first week, she joined Wakanda; shortly after that, she was already looking to take on more responsibilities within the group.
In her first month, she advocated for several group members to attend AfroTech, a popular conference for and about the black experience in tech. Not only was her proposal approved, but it was funded by a portion of Wakanda’s learning and development stipend – a perk that all Handshake employees enjoy.
Soon after, Tony and McKinley started discussing bringing on a third co-lead to help manage the group’s growing numbers and need for additional programming. Jordyn officially joined as a co-lead in February 2022 during Black History Month.
The theme for Black History Month this year was Black Health and Wellness, and Wakanda had a month’s worth of programming centered around this important topic already in place when Jordyn started the leadership role.
Other events during Black History Month included a fireside chat with an executive, a Zoom movie night, a book club, a community chat, and a few happy hours.
Jordyn moderated the fireside chat for members of Wakanda with Edua Dickerson, VP of ESG and Finance Strategy for ServiceNow, another local tech startup. The hour-long chat for Wakanda members-only focused on centering yourself in your career. It was a huge hit, and Jordyn was proud of her contribution to the event’s success, an excellent start to her leadership role with Wakanda.
The group’s emphasis on intersectionality is particularly relevant for Jordyn, and it’s something that she plans to continue focusing on in the future. As a person of African descent who also identifies as Japanese, she has spent a lot of time in spaces where no one looks like her, especially those in leadership roles. She attended a predominantly white college where she studied Business Administration, with few people of color in her business classes. As an athlete, she often found herself in mostly white spaces, and a coach or teacher who shared her identities was a rarity. Finding a community of people who understand her unique life experiences became a priority for her, something she has found in Wakanda and at Handshake.
This year has been a milestone for the Wakanda community, particularly under the leadership of Tony, McKinley, and Jordyn. Outside of the fruitful programming these three planned for Black History Month– they have continued to make space to celebrate black excellence and partner with other Handshake employee groups to honor intersectionality within the communities.
This month, Wakanda partnered with the LGBTQ+ Community to host Loud & Proud: Liberation Across Communities, for the second year running. The presentations, panels, and discussions aimed to elevate conversations around allyship, bring light to the history behind Juneteenth and raise awareness to the current issues facing the LGBTQ+ community. Opening this event to the entire company was extremely important for both communities. Tony said, “If we keep our shared experiences to ourselves, then we lose the ability to get the advocacy of people who want to be in our corner.” It was an extremely successful and powerful event honoring both communities, with nearly 200 Handshakers in attendance.
When asked, “what’s next?” it’s clear the future of Wakanda and its programming is busy and bright. Tony, McKinley, and Jordyn intend to incorporate a focus on mental health, a topic that is important for all employees. They’re currently working on getting a monthly yoga class up and running and are planning future collaborations with the Mental Health Allies community. Other avenues the leaders are exploring include; creating programming focused on women of color, particularly around Women’s History Month and Equal Pay Day.
The bar for effective diversity and inclusion practices for employers is still set relatively low. Still, the co-leaders of Wakanda all agree that Handshake is taking the right steps to support their community and is moving toward a more equitable future for all employees. And they’re excited that future employees at Handshake and beyond will benefit from their hard work and commitment.
For Tony, McKinley, and Jordyn, being a part of Wakanda has been an empowering experience that has provided them with opportunities they never expected. As these three impressive young leaders continue to show up for their community, they are inspiring the next generation of leaders.