In episode 156, Erik and Kerel talk with Ayanna Lott-Pollard, Executive Director at Resilient Coders, whose mission is social justice through economic empowerment through educating black and brown folks from low income communities to become software engineers. Ayanna is West Philadelphia, born and raised, just like her parents, is the oldest of 4 siblings, and graduated from the school of Communications and Theater at Temple University. From there, her career path has been nonlinear to say the least, getting opportunities to work in advertising, healthcare, government, including a stint at the White House, operations and now tech adjacent.
Ayanna talks about how her nonlinear career path came from following her heart, how life has directed her to places, organizations, and opportunities in which she deeply cares for, and why she loves learning and where she has developed her growth mindself. She also goes into the current landscape of technology, AI, automation, the importance of skills and diversity at the table, having a vision for yourself, and more.
“It's essential that these organizations, these multibillion dollar organizations and some of the smaller ones as well, that they become inclusive. And it's not just because like I said, it's an ethical, it's a moral issue, it's because we're creating technologies, we're creating opportunities, we're reinventing what this world will look like. And in order for that to be equitable, we need everybody. We need more people at the table.”
We want to welcome all of our listeners to another episode of MRP, Minority Report Podcast with Erik and Kerel. Each episode we talk with real operators and leaders in digital media. And today joining us is Ayanna Lott-Pollard, who is the Executive Director of Resilient Coders. Ayanna, welcome. How are you?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 00:28
I'm doing well. Thank you, Erik. Thank you, Kerel. Thanks so much for having me.
We're excited to have you. And also an exciting week for you in Philly. Tell us a little bit about what's going on in Philly right now.
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 00:40
Well, we're just finishing up Diversitech conference, a three day conference last week, sponsored by an organization called Tribaja. And this week is Philly Tech Week, which began today with the Shift Summit, was on a panel with a group of leaders who are in the tech ecosystem with Resilient Coders just providing opportunities for young adults, teenagers, adults to make entry for pathways into tech. So it's been a great day, a busy day. I did share, I've been talking a lot, so hopefully my tongue will participate with me in this process this evening.
Yeah, no, it's working. It's working well. Yeah, and I mean, it sounds like an exciting next few days. It sounds like an exciting, already sort of kickoff. And we'd love to hear a lot more, especially about some of those those entryways and those pathways and I want to circle back to that a little bit, but Ayanna, for those that don't know you, can you tell us a little bit about Resilient Coders tell us a little bit about what Resilient Coders does and the mission. What it is you're up to every single day.
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 01:56
One follow up question there, the folks that are students, are they currently employed, and this is a way to like level up the skills or they're looking for jobs in the coding field and this is a way for them to get educated, so they can go out and get that first job?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 03:44
The latter, they are looking for opportunities in the coding fields, so many of them, they're reinventing themselves, they are creating opportunities, to upskill, to increase their salaries, to increase their net worth. And some of them were teachers, we have one gentleman who was a gig worker. He worked for Uber Lyft, he was delivering for DoorDash and now he's a software developer for Uber, started with Draft Kings and now he's working for Uber as a software developer. So people have an opportunity to go through the program, you don't have to have experience. We find that the folks who do complete the program a lot more seamlessly. These are folks who are reinventing themselves and finding a pathway into tech.
Very cool, very cool. I want to circle back and come back to a lot of that actually and learn a whole lot more. And thank you for sharing that with us. So I want to learn a little bit more about you too. Ayanna, tell us about you. Where were you born and raised? Where can Ayanna sort of trace back some of the early days to?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 04:55
Well, I think Will Smith said it best "in West Philadelphia born and raised." I was born in West Philadelphia, my parents both were raised in Philadelphia. And so I have had the opportunity to move away a couple of times. I've moved to Delaware and I've also moved to Phoenix, Arizona. I'm the oldest of four. I was raised in a great community where my neighbors were like family members. I'm a product of the Philadelphia school system. And when it was time to go to college, I wanted to go away, and my dad said, "Temple University is a great school, you're going to Temple, you're going to catch that subway, and you're going to Temple." And the deal we had was that if I did well, for the first two years of my tenure, I could transfer to any school. But once I stayed at Temple for two years, I fell in love with it, and was just proud to be a Temple Owl, to graduate from the School of Communications and Theater. From there, I have had a nonlinear path in my career. I started out in advertising and that was just a wealth of knowledge and just being able to develop strategic plans and the thought process around building businesses and multiple industries. And that led me to working in nonprofit I worked for healthcare, client was McDonald's. I had an opportunity to work for government. Prior to graduating from college, I had an opportunity to work at the White House. So it's just been a full gamut of opportunities that allowed me to say, "Hmm, let me try operations." And having that fore knowledge of how business works and what the fundamentals are in business, I've been able to go through different industries. And now here I am in tech. I am not a programmer, I am tech adjacent. However, I've been really able to learn and grow in each position that I've had.
Ayanna, I've also had a nonlinear career path as well, too. So I'm curious to hear from you, why do you think that's been sort of your path? Right? Why do you think you've maybe gone from one industry to another or one sort of functional role to another, as opposed to sort of a traditional path?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 07:12
For me, it's because I followed my heart. It's been like, "Oh, I'm interested in this, well let me try it. I'm interested in this industry, how about I try it? Oh, I've never done this before, this looks like this is going to be a challenge. Let me jump in and try it." So, I've often been attracted to organizations that have missions that align with my personal values. And it may have been something like, back in 2006, I lost my fiancee to cancer. And so when he passed, I felt like, "How can I give back?" and my path led me to the American Cancer Society. So sometimes life will direct you based on your experience or your passion. But yeah, that's been for me, it's been the things that have attracted me to those positions, as well as my personal values at that time and place.
That's great. And thank you for sharing that because I think that's something that's going to resonate with a lot of people. And I want to ask you a little bit more about what I feel and I detect is, also, on top of Temple, this importance around learning, and growing, and kind of a continuing education aspect for yourself. Can you tell us a little bit about what sort of drives that? I'm thinking about your ongoing leadership education across a number of different opportunities to continue to enrich yourself, tell us a little bit about that journey.
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 08:43
I've always been inquisitive. I'm very curious. And, you know, now we call it a growth mindset, but I enjoy learning. I enjoy growing. And as I've matriculated through my career and have had opportunities to manage, I've been able to see "Whoa, you need some support in some of these areas." Managing people, dealing with conflict, developing solutions, providing feedback. So being in those spaces has allowed me to take classes. I've taken classes at Harvard, I completed a coaching program at Columbia, and my previous employer, there was a university, an internal university that you could just take classes. And you're able to put the work or the knowledge that you get from those classes into action right away. And so being a leader, I always want to add value to my team, I want to add value to the organization. And I want to know what I'm doing. I want to have some semblance of, "Hey, I read about this or there's a case study or a white paper about this. Let me look and research and see how I can empower myself so that I can empower others."
That's awesome. I want to ask you a little bit more about the skills that a lot of the Resilient Coders, are sort of developing. And I think there's an aspect to skills kind of being like the new degree requirement, right? So I think that's brilliant. I think a lot of folks don't think about the importance of the skills and almost a trade, like skill set, right? That's really important for companies. Can you talk a little bit about why skills are the new degree requirement?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 10:33
Sure. So I think about two things, the first thing I think about is automation. And how automation has impacted not only the worker, but the employer. And when we think about automation, we think about or I think about just looking around, like I'm at an age now where I can look around and say I'm the person now that's the OG where I can say, I remember when there was a toll worker, or I remember when there was someone who pumps your gas, I remember when we didn't have to pay for our own goods, bag our stuff, scan it, put our cards in and put our code in like we're doing the job. And so as we look ahead, by 2026, a million jobs will be automated. And just an average onlooker, we may not notice it. However, by 2026, there will be 13 million tech jobs added to the economy. So when we start to think about a talent shortage, we think about the number of companies and government agencies that have to hire and rebuild the workforce, we got to look at the requirement, we have to look at, like making sure that the folks who are coming in industry, have the skills, have the opportunities to do these jobs. And do we have time with how quickly technology is moving today? Do we have time to look at those folks who are from low income communities and those folks who may not have an opportunity to go to college? Do we leave them behind? Or do we include them in what's happening in the workforce and be able to one, decrease the wealth gap? And two, satisfy those opportunities and the needs of those communities and organizations that can benefit from the workforce?
When you are describing that the one thing I think about there is sort of the thought of social justice through economic empowerment, because what you're talking about, at least the way that I heard it is training people for the future skills that they're going to need to be economically independent. There was a saying that I saw one time and it was that, it was something to the effect of, and I'm not getting the quote right, but it was something to the effect of like, "Automation isn't going to replace you. The person building the automation is going to replace you," right? And so like there will be jobs, it's just people gotta learn new skills, right?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 13:10
Yes, absolutely. I love that saying like, I don't want to go down this path, but a lot of people now are talking about AI and the dangers and you hear multiple, you know, bifurcated conversations about AI. Some people say, "Oh, it's great." And then some people say, "Oh, you know, I was reading an article in the Wall Street Journal, and it was like, 'Oh, we're in big trouble because AI is here, and it's going to one, it's going to take entry level software engineering jobs, it's gonna take people's jobs.'" But when we have people at the table, who are black and brown, are providing and adding value to building those technologies, I like to hone in on this, like, we're providing them with high growth career opportunities, right? Another thing that we're doing is we're decreasing the risk of discriminatory design. Because now if you create something, and you have everybody at the table who looks the same, there's going to be a glitch, there's going to be something in there that doesn't work. And when that happens, not only is it an ethical issue, it becomes a financial issue. Because if you're a big conglomerate, or a big hotel, for instance, years ago, there was a huge hotel, and I won't say the name, but in all of the bathrooms across the hotels, they put in this new technology for the sinks. So when you put your hands under the sink, the water automatically comes on. The screen did not detect the darker skin tone. So for darker skin tone, the sink wouldn't come on so those folks couldn't wash their hands and the water wouldn't work. How much money did it cost to take all of those sinks, all of that technology out of all the hotels for the organization to replace them? That could have been prevented if you just had one person at the table that would say, "Hey, well, let's try it with my hand. [inaudible] work, let's change the data, let's change the algorithm and let's get it to see diverse complexions."
It's interesting, as you described that, I also was, before you described that, literally just thinking about how there's a tremendous opportunity for technology to not be attached to what you just described, which is, you know, sometimes color being a barrier, or what you look like, or, you know, the shade or the tone or the color of your skin, right? Like the technology almost doesn't care unless you teach it to.
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 15:15
So there's almost this amazing moment where, you know, level the playing field, as you were saying, prior to that, too, right? We can almost design an environment where tech doesn't care about that, right? But if you build it at the right moment, or if you build it early on, and if you do that early on, right? I'm interested, I'm curious about companies, and the importance of companies getting involved to help support what you've just talked about doing and what you're doing and what, you know, Resilient Coders is doing all the time. How important is it for companies to get involved to be a part of making an impact there through support?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 16:28
You know, when George Floyd was murdered, a lot of companies stepped up and they talked about their commitments, their DEI commitments to folks from black and brown communities, from underserved communities, those from the LBGTQ+ community, QA+ community, there was a lot of discourse around being more inclusive and amalgamating those folks. And unfortunately, if you look at the data, I was working on a grant recently, and I saw some data that said there were $50 billion in commitments from these organizations, from corporations to these communities, to these underserved communities. When we look at it three years later, the data shows that of the $50 billion in commitments, 1 billion was actualized. So a lot of organizations have made commitments that haven't come to fruition. It's essential that these organizations, these multibillion dollar organizations and some of the smaller ones as well, that they become inclusive. And it's not just because like I said, it's an ethical, it's a moral issue, it's because we're creating technologies, we're creating opportunities, we're reinventing what this world will look like. And in order for that to be equitable, we need everybody. We need more people at the table. I won't say everybody, but we need diverse people at those tables. And it's essential.
What excites you about the future of what you're working on today, the future of technology? I mean, we just talked a lot about the challenges, but also some of the benefits. So I'm curious what, like what excites you about the future of it?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 18:25
Kerel, what excites me most, I would say, it's the people. It's the people that we are able to impact. I have been able to meet these young adults that come through Resilient Coders that have a dream, that have a vision or need to pivot or have been impacted by the pandemic, or have been laid off or, you know, aren't able to take care of their responsibilities because they're underpaid. And to see them blossom, to work with them, to coach them to encourage them and say "You can do it! Come on, you can get through the program. It's possible, keep interviewing, keep talking, keep studying." And then to see when I get that message, or I get that email to say "Ayanna I've got the job." When they're crying and they say "I think I did horribly. I did horrible in my interview" and then to hear the joy, elation in their voices when they say "I got the job." and I say, "Tell me more about the offer." And it's an offer that is, like I said, three times what they were making previous to going through the cohort. They have opportunities. Some are working in organizations that do tuition reimbursement, so they're getting their bachelor's or their masters and then they're able to show their families like "Hey," their siblings are like, "Wait, what did you do?" because I heard someone say, like, "My brother isn't that bright and he's doing this so I know I can do it." So it just doesn't impact that person, it's the effect on the family, the cousins, the siblings, the children. The children are now saying "My mom is a software engineer, I'm going to be a software engineer." It changes the landscape of an entire generation.
Amazing. I asked you earlier about kind of the importance of companies, you know, having a deeper sense of involvement. And what I hear from you, too, is that now as folks move through the program, in the boot camp, and move on to great things, what's the importance of alumni and other folks that now have been through all that and now are on this other side. Can you talk a little bit about that? What's the importance of alumni and other folks who are now part of all of what you just talked about?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 20:46
Alumni - we have 300 alumni who've completed the program now. And we're at the point, Erik, where some of the alumni who have gone through the program are our hiring partners.
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 21:03
That is amazing. Like, the folks who are going through the program are now coming back as mentors and coaches and sitting on our advisory board. We call them Community Fellows. They are making an impact in the program in more ways than one, they're adding value, contributing to our curriculum. And so I see it as a power base, you know, when you have 300 people and growing who are part of the program, who have graduated from the program, who believe in the program, we've become a power base for folks who look like them in community. So now, when they have a question, they can talk to each other, when they have a challenge, they come talk to each other. Our help channel on Slack is filled with, "Hey, can someone help me find...? What's the issue with my code here? Can you tell me what my issue is with the code?" And then you have 10 people who will jump in and say, "Hey, you forgot to put this here or put that there?" Or "You didn't put a paren? Okay, close it with this." They're "Hey, I need to figure out, has anyone bought a house using this program?" "Yes, I used that program two years ago." So now it's a power base where I'm learning how, "I want to become a leader. Has anyone taken this class?" "No, take this class, so and so teaches this class, tell them I sent you." We're making referrals, we're creating conversations, there's a nexus of joy where people can come and just let their hair down and hang out and fellowship and talk about their first world problems, you know, "Oh, yes, I had money in SVB. And I-." You know, it's just so awesome that they have a community that they can go to where they feel safe, where they can trust one another, and empower one another to do great things.
Tremendous, Ayanna, I want to ask you a little bit about what drives you there and that sort of connector of dots, you know, that you are, the connector of dots and where do you sort of learn that from? What inspired you personally, to sort of help to want to develop teams and want to be that transformational sort of leader? Where did you learn that from?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 23:14
I think it's because of what I needed. My goal is to become what I needed at some point in my life. There were times when I wanted a leader or coach and I'd go to my supervisor and my boss, and they would say, "Oh no, that's not me. I'm not a coach," or "I'm not a mentor." I would ask, "Can you sponsor me?" Or "Will you champion for me for this A, B, and C?" and I would be told no. And so my goal is to become what I needed in some space. Not necessarily to usurp authority in any space, but to grow to a place where I can become what I needed. I remember graduating from college with a degree in journalism. My family was so proud of me. And I had my degree and I was ready to take the world. And as I started going into interviews to be a producer, I was offered $9.50 an hour, $10 an hour, $8.75 an hour. And these jobs as a producer weren't in the Philly market. This is a main market. Those opportunities were in Yuma, Arizona. And so to go back to my family and say, "Hey, yeah, I know I graduated but I need to go to Yuma, Arizona, and the job was paying $9.50 an hour." My family, they were befuddled. They were like, wait a minute, you graduated, you have a sister at Drexel, you have another sister in Lincoln and your brother is about to graduate. We can't, we can't help you. And so I understand what it feels like to be the working poor and to have to pay debt and bills. And so this opportunity with Resilient Coders provides an opportunity for the folks who don't necessarily have a degree, or who are the working for, who are the folks who have a degree in some other liberal arts or another field and to be able to say, "Okay, all right, let me pivot, and to be able to do so in a way where it doesn't cost them, they don't have to acquire any debt and they're able to see visible results within 20 weeks." And that's what drives me, to be able to help the next generation, to be able to, you know, see their families do well. That's what drives me, that's purpose to me.
That's great. I love how you describe that, too. Sometimes, you know, you have to become what you need. You know, sometimes it's not just out there, you can't find it or it's not built there and sometimes you have to become what you need. And I love how you describe that because I think that's a very real thing that a lot of folks will be able to connect to. So thank you very much for sharing that with us.
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 26:00
Ayanna, what's some of the best piece of advice you've ever received, personally or in your career?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 26:07
I think the best piece of advice I got was, have a vision, carve out a vision for yourself. Like, what do you want to do? And the way it was said to me was, "If you don't have a vision for your life, someone else will have a vision and they will [inaudible] what they want you to do. You will be able to help their bottom line if you don't know how to help your own." And so when I got that revelation, I stopped looking for folks to add value to me, to see the good in me, to see my talent, to see my skills, to see my worth. I started to say, "Hey, I want to go for this. I think I can, therefore I will try." I'm not waiting for someone else to say, "Hey Ayanna, I think you'd be a great fit for this." If you're waiting for that, you may never get it because that person may need you on their team because they know that you can do A, B and C. But when I started to say, "Hey, I'm gonna go for it, I'm gonna go for it. And if it works, great, if it doesn't, we'll figure it out, we'll recalibrate, we'll try something else." So for me the best advice was have a vision for your life. If you don't have one for yourself, someone will have it for you.
Gotcha. Okay, that's awesome. Awesome advice. All right. So a different type of question for you, but a fun question. What's in your music rotation right now? What motivates you?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 27:37
So I've been listening to, I can't tell you the year this album is from, but it's Incognito and the song is Deep Water. And it's kind of like a groove. Like, it's just, it's just a groove that I really enjoy. And so I've gone from that to like, I have a Philly playlist because we did a networking event last week. So I've been listening to the Philly playlist with Eve, with some of The Roots, with Jill Scott. So I've been listening to that. And then it goes to like my gospel music that I listen to in the morning. So I love music. I go from one extreme to the next. And so it could go from like, if you listen to my playlist, it could go from Stevie Wonder to Fetty Wap.
Gotcha. Gotcha. All right, one, one last Philly question. Have you checked out Bel Air yet? How do you like it?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 28:33
I love the show. I was sad that the finale occurred last week. I think they're doing a great job with adding the drama to, like, Carlton's character, to the depth of Will's character and just how the family functions. I love the characters that they've selected. And just the diversity. Like I can't say, "Oh, I saw this person in this production before," but they're all phenomenal. I love it. Like, on Thursday nights when my husband comes home. He's like, "Are you ready?" Like that's how our Thursday nights are. Like, [inaudible] He's like, "Okay, sit down. Okay. Did you? Did you do everything? Okay. Are you ready? All right. I don't want to start watching it without you." Like, that's the show.
Yeah, I like the show and I watch it too. I think that they've done a really good job of capturing black excellence, while at the same time talking about real issues that people deal with today.
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 29:34
Yes, and they look great while doing it
That's the black excellence part, right?
I got a really important follow up to that too. So getting ready for the show, when you gotta get up and go get something or do something, do you hit pause?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 29:50
So, we're usually like watching a commercial or something on the Peacock app. "Do you have like, okay, do you want, do you want water? Do you want this? Okay, because-" once we get started, we don't want to push pause. You know, all the way through and like all of your feedback and comments must wait until the end of the show. Don't pause in the middle to like make a comment. Let's just watch and then we can discuss it afterwards.
Love it. Ayanna, what a fun time talking and so much I think that we've learned and thank you for sharing so much. What are some ways that our audience can stay in touch with you and learn a whole lot more about Resilient Coders and also get a deeper analysis of Bel Air?
Ayanna Lott-Pollard 30:37
Sure, I love to talk about Bel Air. So I can be found on LinkedIn, Ayanna Lott-Pollard. Resilient Coders is also on LinkedIn. We're on Twitter, as well as Instagram. And our website is www.resilientcoders.org. If folks want to join our network, receive our newsletter, donate, find out about enrollment, they can go to our website, and all of our information is there. I love talking to folks, my calendar is open for folks to just have conversation. So I'm always looking to continue the conversation with people who are aligned with our mission and our goals.
Excellent. Ayanna Lott-Pollard, thanks so much for hanging out with us and spending some time with us. We're thrilled and excited you got to spend some time with us. And thank you everyone for listening and watching another episode. You can find a lot more episodes where you find all of your audio and video and just search Minority Report Podcast and look for the logo. Thanks everyone.