Life after graduation

Handshake employees’ best career advice for students of color 

"Be all of who you are as soon as you are able" and other advice for your career.

At Handshake, team members share their experiences and get advice in dedicated identity-focused communities called employee resource groups (ERGs). Five members of Wakanda, a community of Black professionals ranging from interns to executives, spoke to the Handshake intern class and shared their career journeys and advice.

Read on for their stories of breaking into tech from very different backgrounds, making peace with imposter syndrome, finding mentors, and more.

Our experts:

  • Joel, Software Engineer
  • Carmen, Head of User Experience Research
  • Valerie, Chief Legal Officer
  • Stephanie, Manager, DEI Recruiting Programs
  • Tony, Enterprise Account Executive and Wakanda ERG lead

How did you all break into tech? What did you study in school?

Joel: I was a social worker before becoming an engineer. I even got a master’s degree in clinical social work! When I decided to switch careers, I started teaching myself coding. I also took classes at Udacity and eventually completed a bootcamp, which led me to full-time engineering work. 

Stephanie: I started out as a reporter. In school, I studied journalism. Later, when I worked as a content marketer, I started helping friends with their resumes. As more and more people asked me for help, I actually started doing resume workshops for women of color to help them break into tech. I felt so fired up doing this work that I realized I had discovered my “personal legend.” I eventually quit my job and became a recruiter in 2020. I love this work and I feel proud to do it.

Valerie: Before Handshake, I was the VP, People at Tesla, after over a decade in legal leadership roles. I heard about Handshake from my son, and I was so fired up by the Handshake mission that I joined as Chief Legal Counsel.

Carmen: I went to Florida A&M, an HBCU, and studied computer information science, which included programming classes. I graduated in ‘99—exactly when the dot-com crash happened. So I went on to get a master’s degree because I wanted to focus on human-computer interaction. And in my current role, I focus on how humans interact with tech. I took this role at Handshake because I wanted to work at a place that really aligned with my values. 

Can you tell us about a time you had to negotiate salary, and what you learned?

Joel: The first time I was negotiating my salary for a tech job, I was feeling very self-conscious about my nontraditional background. I was ready to take anything just to get my foot in the door. That mentality hasn’t always been all bad—I have always learned a ton from taking on many projects. But ultimately, I didn’t value my self worth as much as I should have, and agreed to terms I wasn’t completely satisfied with. In hindsight, I would have been more honest and more firm about what I wanted and needed.

Stephanie: I got a content marketing job, and I was so grateful for the opportunity that I didn’t negotiate. I really hustled at that job, and did a ton of work beyond the scope of the role. But a year in, a friend of mine shared her salary—and I was shocked! I was so grateful that she felt comfortable sharing that information. After that conversation, I searched every salary platform. I wrote a list of everything I accomplished in that year—and not just the tasks I did, but how my work impacted the business’ bottom line. I presented all that to my boss, and I got the raise! But I wish I had done that research before I accepted the job. You can be grateful, but still acknowledge your worth and ask for more when you deserve it.

How did you find your mentor?

Carmen: I was lucky enough to be introduced to a group of UX researchers who were also women of color. That group of women became my mentors. Even though some of them have changed careers, we are still a support system for each other, from salary negotiation to evaluating job offers. The idea of sponsorship is very important to me as well: my sponsor here makes sure that I am in the right meetings, and connected to the right people, so I can use my voice and explain how I can bring value.

Valerie: When I was working at Wyndham Hotels, I found someone at the parent company who was leading compliance, so I emailed her and said, “I want to do for our subsidiary what you do. Can we talk?’ She was so excited that someone was interested in her career path! And she became my mentor. I now get messages on LinkedIn from people seeking career advice, and I always try to pay it forward by responding and helping guide as many people as I can, especially students. 

What advice do you have for dealing with microaggressions?

Tony: I was transitioning to a new sales team and was attending a sponsored training. We were discussing what is deemed “professional” on client calls, and the facilitator immediately started talking about my hair. As soon as that happened, I got Slack messages from my boss, essentially saying “ignore that, don’t worry about it, we want you to be yourself, and we will handle this.” My advice is, surround yourself with people who offer that support and reassurance without being asked.

Stephanie: In college, and in my professional career, I’ve had to deal with a number of microagressions. People have made comments about the way I speak, touched my hair without permission, mistaken me for the “other Black woman” in the group. The worst part about these microaggressions is when your colleagues observe them happening and do not speak up on your behalf. So, if you observe someone being “othered” and you are in a position of privilege, please speak up, and please check in on your colleague.

How do you cope with imposter syndrome?

Joel: I was always one of the few Black students in my schools so imposter syndrome started early for me.  But I always find my crew: the people who will cheer you on when you are struggling. I resonate with the growth mindset; it gives me freedom to not be perfect. The imposter monster” can jump out, but don’t forget to celebrate the wins and don’t forget how far you’ve come.

Valerie: There is no level you will rise to where everyone knows everything except for you. Some people might act with more confidence, but everyone is struggling to understand what’s going on. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something. Ask questions and be willing to learn in real time. You will get smarter faster and your confidence will grow exponentially. 

Stephanie: It helps to remember the moments where you feel, “I’m killing it!” I wrote a report at my journalism job—not a typical writing assignment for that role, but I really wanted to do it—and two weeks later, it was one of our top most downloaded reports. And I thought, huh, maybe I’m ok at this! Maybe I really have something to say.

What do you wish you knew earlier in your career?

Carmen: I wish I took time to understand the business. You can have a much stronger impact when you understand what the goals of the business are, and how your work fits into that. When you know how the “small” thing you are working on connects to the bigger picture, it can help you tell a better story about the value of your work

Valerie: I wish I had been proud of my natural hair when I started my career. It’s amazing how much you doubt yourself when you are not proud of your hair—it was a lack of self-acceptance, and it made me question myself so many times. Be all of who you are as soon as you are able. You’ll be much happier and you will make better career choices.

For even more wisdom from the Wakanda community, read our blog post, 14 Black professionals share their advice for your career journey

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