20 August, 2020
Episode 01 — It’s about time for courage
IBM Visual Designer Lydia Samuel embodies the courage it takes to show up as a young Black woman at a college with little diversity. Hear how she responded to social injustice and acts of racism by creating change among the faculty and her student peers, and how that experience impacts her work at IBM.
Transcripts are edited for readability and clarity.
Nigel: Hello, my name is Nigel Prentice, and I’d like to welcome you to the Racial Equity in Design podcast. I’m going to start by relying on and leaning on the strength of my ancestors, and I’m going to pull some energy from my ancestors in a couple of different ways. Firstly, what do you think about this?
“I am always doing that, which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.“ This is Pablo Picasso. Secondly, “Be courageous if you would be true. Truth and courage go together,“ and it’s with those ideas, as I thought about talking to you today, that spring forth from meeting our guest. My guest today is Lydia Samuel, and she is a designer here at IBM.
And this idea of courage came to me than just our very first conversations with Lydia, and so I’d like you to welcome Lydia to the podcast. And Lydia, welcome to you.
Lydia: Thank you. Thank you, Nigel. I’m super excited to be here, excited for our conversations, excited to share my experience, my identity, and how that really pushes my passions and motivates me to wake up every day and always fight for equity fight for who I am, so excited for our conversations.
And thank you again for having me. I’m honored. So, I’m excited to get into this.
Nigel: Awesome. Awesome. Let’s start with just a little bit about you. A little background.
Lydia: I am from San Diego, California. I was born and raised here and then I moved up to Northern California for school to pursue my education. I went to Santa Clara University and I graduated June of 2020. So, in the middle of a pandemic, and after that, I was able to pursue a career here at IBM.
I am currently a design intern working on Cloud Pak for Data, so excited for my new projects and my new endeavors here at IBM.
Nigel: Awesome. Good. So, let’s talk about design a little bit. Tell the story about what you designed at a meta-level? Not only did you get a design degree, but you designed the design degree. If I understand.
Lydia: I knew I wanted to go into design after my first or second year, but I didn’t know exactly how I was going to pursue this. I didn’t think it was the best idea to major in biology but wanting to pursue a design career.
So that’s when I started searching more about UX design, visual design and human computer interaction. As I was searching these different topics and these different paths and fields, I was looking into how did people get to where they’re at as a UX designer, and what were the steps that they did take?
As I was searching up these different people, I see a lot of them did go to design school, and if they didn’t, they either majored in graphic design or art or human-computer interaction. I was stuck. I was stuck. I felt myself jumping around from major to major, trying to find something that would best fit into this path, but I just couldn’t.
So that’s when I petitioned to create my own major, and through that, I was able to intersect all of the different fields that go into human computer interaction. So, it’s a mix of some art classes, all of the graphic design classes that we offer, some sociology classes, a couple of math classes as well, had to throw that in, and a couple of computer science classes.
I am the first to graduate from Santa Clara University with a BS in Human-Computer Interaction. But the path was definitely not easy at all. I had a lot of people against me telling me that it wasn’t a good idea. I had a lot of professors telling me that I shouldn’t do it. I should just major in art or I should just major in computer science.
But it really didn’t fit for me. And if I did do that, they said I would have to like triple major and triple minor. And I had to stay for seven years. But after those meetings with those professors, I just left and tried to find someone new. So, it did take a lot of petitioning, a lot of trying to get professors and deans on my side.
And thankfully, I was able to accomplish that. So yeah, I designed my own career in design. So that’s a little bit about my path.
Nigel: That is amazing. I love how you did that. Sociology, computer science, math, and probably other things. Definitely, other things sprinkled in there. How did you know what needed to go into an HCI degree?
Yeah. How did you find those kinds of mentors or guidance? Lydia: Yes. So, I did a lot of connecting with people at other universities, and I almost mimicked another school’s program. So, we did have a lot of classes that would fit into creating this program. So, all I had to do was merge all of those into one.
So, I was able to pick a little from here a little from there and create that path and create those classes that would help guide me and prepare me for a career in design.
Nigel: So, did you have role models? Did you have any designer role models? You talked about other universities and you talked about how you were exploring and finding people whose paths you resonated with or whose careers or their impact in the world. Could you talk a little bit about that? How did you find role models? And were you able to find, I’ll just be direct. Were you able to find Black women designers or did you, like your degree plan, did you pull different kind of role model elements from different people?
Lydia: Yes. So, a little bit of both. I did find a lot of Black women designers. So just reaching out to them, telling them a little bit about me and what I’m trying to pursue. Everyone was super open, super willing to be that hand to grab onto.
So, they all were very supportive, but also picking and choosing characteristics and different traits and different things that worked for other people helped me, accomplish what I have. But as for people who really inspire me, not specifically in the design world, but my parents have always pushed me to be the best person that I can.
I know that sounds pretty cliche, but my mom has always told me, like the only person that can stop you is yourself. So, going back to once someone told me no and closing that door and opening another, the only person that was really going to close that door was myself. So as long as I continue to open doors, as much as I can for myself, I know that I’ll be able to achieve my goals and achieve my dreams.
So, my parents really do inspire me and push me to continue to achieve whatever I want to achieve. Despite whatever anyone tells me.
Nigel: Awesome. That is so timely. So important. just briefly, I’m a little bit curious about your family and your parents. Was race and race relations, a topic at home, growing up?
Was this something that was top of mind for them and therefore it was comfortable for you to also work in this space or was it something that inspired you outside of there? I’m a little bit curious about just that. Family dynamic, and the race conversation happened at home that made it comfortable for you to step into it, and then in the way that you have.
Lydia: Yes. So, growing up, ever since I was little, my parents have always told me that, my race can’t stop me. Like the color of my skin cannot stop me. So even when I was little, getting those microaggressions or getting comments like about my hair or features or skin color, like whenever I did come home complaining about that or crying about that or whatever it may be, my mom really wouldn’t let those get to me.
She really taught me that those words don’t hold value. And after that, I’d never was able to really get touched by those things. I never let those words like carry value, and I’m glad that I did have that support system growing up because if I didn’t like words like that and instances would really affect me and affect how I perceive myself.
So, I really was led and raised by strong Black parents, and super thankful for that.
Nigel: That’s great. That’s great, and I think that is key to a lot of success. No matter where it is having a strong base. Talk a little bit about your senior year. Let’s follow that thread for a little bit of how you came to be an IBMer.
Lydia: Starting to look into internships, full-time positions, and I came across an IBM design position and I really wanted to pursue it, but before just cold applying to it, I wanted to see if I had any connections, and funny enough, the point of contact that I had from the nonprofit organization works at IBM. So, I reached out to her and we caught up a little and she was actually able to connect me to a designer in the San Jose office.
And from there, I was actually able to get a little tour of the office and get a little insight on what a day in her life actually looks like. So, after that, I fell in love with the office. I fell in love with that environment. And from there, I applied to the position. I got an email; I believe like a couple of weeks later.
And then a couple of interviews after that and everything went well, and I got the offer. That’s a little bit about my path to IBM. So very much intertwined with initiatives that I took in the past.
Nigel: Nice. Okay, I will say this about you, Lydia, when you were interested in the thing, you just go find the answer don’t you?
Lydia: Yes, because I’ve seen that things aren’t handed to me, doors aren’t open for me. So, I have to fight to open those doors myself.
Nigel: That is that’s great. That’s great. And so, IBM got you on board and it was this right about the same time you were graduating?
Lydia: Yeah. So, this was a little before I was graduating, so it was a co-op. I started in February, so I was in the office half of the week and in class for the other half of the week.
Nigel: Okay. So, February, so we all know what happened in February 2020, right? Slowly, but surely the momentum was building around COVID, and so that probably influenced actually your first experiences with the company. So, let’s get into that a little bit. So, I’m curious about what it was like for you. Everything came to a head for you at the same time. So, you were in your co-op, you are an IBMer at this time.
Lydia: Trying to finish finals.
Nigel: Got your finals going on. June is when graduation is happening, you’ve already got a job situation happening. So, you can’t slip up at all with a school and work because you’re doing both now, and now we’re moving into a situation where things are starting to change and on May 25th is the day that George Floyd did die.
So, reflect back on that for me a little bit, what were you doing? What was going on? What was your mindset? How did you learn about the situation in Minneapolis happening? George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police there? How did you learn about that?
Lydia: Yeah, so I was still in college at that point. We’re all always on our phones, always on social media and news on social media spreads like wildfire. So, I started to see George Floyd’s name pop up a lot at this point, I still didn’t watch the video. We still haven’t seen it, but I did see a lot of hashtags saying justice for George Floyd and that sort of thing. And when I did see that pop-up, like the only thing that kept coming to my mind was like, not again, because this isn’t the first time this has happened, obviously, but this is something that we shouldn’t be used to, that we shouldn’t be familiar with. Like I said, I kept saying not again, like trying to not believe this to be true, but after I did watch the video, it was just so heartbreaking and like very tragic.
But the thing is, this has happened in this happens many times, but we were fortunate. Sadly, to see it and to have it recorded and have it on video, which is why so many people I believe were affected by it.
Nigel: Just reflecting back on that time in May and how it affected us all, right. This, it was a trigger, but it wasn’t the first. 2014 was Ferguson, and the names, from Philando Castile to Eric Garner.
Eric Garner was the first time, the phrase, “I can’t breathe,“ came to the sort of national consciousness. And I just can’t imagine what it was like for you being on campus, and that’s what I want to ask you about. What happened on campus? Were there marches? Were there movements? Did you get involved? It was a small amount of time, so I want to, I’m not sure even if it overlapped really, but was there anything that you did immediately or during that moment when everything seemed to be on fire in May /June of this year? Lydia: Yes. So, thank you for sharing, by the way. At this point, everyone was off campus, so we were all home. We had to leave all of our dorms and that sort of thing. So, I wasn’t able to connect with other students as much as I would, but like I said, affected all of us and I think, I didn’t know how to react like many people.
And I turned to my design. So, I feel like the most that I could have done at that point was use my skills to amplify this movement. So, I created different illustrations, posted those on Twitter, on Instagram. I’m doing what I can at that point.
Nigel: So, it was tough being isolated. Were you back in San Diego at this point?
Lydia: Yes, I was back in San Diego.
Nigel: Okay. All right. And since then, the world keeps moving, and just to timeline the conversation today, as we’re recording this, we’re in August 2020. How has it been at IBM? Then we can talk about it on a couple of levels, professionally, being a designer on Cloud Pak for Data.
Let’s start there. How has it been acclimating to a new team?
Lydia: Yeah, so I love my team. I feel like they’ve been very welcoming from the start and I definitely have to give kudos to my manager, Ana Manrique. She definitely has been a great leader and exemplifies all of those traits that really embody who and what a leader should be. Definitely leading by example. She does a great job at really being there for you when you need it, but not stepping on your toes and hovering over you, which is great.
But initially, while I was meeting everyone in the office and on my team, I didn’t see any people of color or any Black people, which, like I said, I am familiar with those environments, but it’s not something I’ll ever get used to. So that is where I started seeing where I could make a change, where I could take on some initiatives. So, diversity is an issue, I do see here. I feel like there should be a lot more diversity within the design department, but also within leadership as well, just as important as it is to bring in young Black designers. I feel like we should be promoting them, and advancing them just as equally, and moving forward. I am like going off of all of the racial incidents happening in June, and within this summer as a whole, it has sparked up a lot of conversations. I was able to speak to many allies that did tell me that they were here for me, genuinely. So super thankful for those people as well.
Nigel: Oh, okay. So, people, did they reach out to you directly, like almost proactively, a few months ago? Hey, checking on you that type of thing?
Lydia: Yes. Yes, definitely.
Okay, good, and you mentioned that you like physically, when you were in the building, you’ve looked around, and there’s just no Black folks there, which was your first impression. Since then, have you been able to find any Black folks in your division or your business unit, or any of the teams that you’ve maybe been able to connect with?
Yes, so I was able to connect with a couple. It’s weird now that we’re remote, trying to find people online, Slacking them, that sort of thing, but people are very welcoming and open either to connect you to someone else or just reaching out to them, just coldly, and telling them a little bit about yourself.
Nigel: That’s great. That’s great, and you and I came to know each other through the work that’s being taken on in the design at IBM world. We are spearheading what we’re calling Racial Equity and design, and Charlie Hill, my friend and colleague, and IBM Fellow have introduced you to us, and so we’re working through as a workstream, how we show up in this moment and not just we, a few of us, we, as a company, we as IBM Design, what is the voice that we should have? What is the response that we should have? What’s the meaningful long-term sustainable cultural behaviors and substance of changes that need to happen?
Is it about institutions? Is it about recruiting? Is it about policy? Is about all of the above and more? Those are the things that we’re working on. And I’m very glad that you’re with us, that Charlie saw to it, that we connected in that honestly, you are having the background, you have, you have done so much already, and you continue to do it. I have no doubt that you’re going to be an amazing IBMer because you’re already just killing it and whatever that you do. So, what would you like to have happened in your first two years at IBM?
Lydia: Yes, I definitely want to grow both professionally and personally through a various range of experiences. So, through leadership experiences, I don’t think everyone needs a leadership position to be a leader. I think we could be a leader at any scale. Even as an intern now, I hope to lead others. I think the best way to be a leader is through example, and also, I want to advance my craft as much as possible. Being at a tech company, we’re always about innovation, and I’m always eager and curious to learn, and to break boundaries, and to come up with something new, always thinking outside of the box, whether it is while I’m working on Cloud Pak for Data or while I’m working on an initiative within our design department.
Nigel: Okay. Great. Fantastic. Have you yet found that support system at IBM knowing that you’ve always been able to find one at every point in your life so far, have you yet found that at IBM and if not, what’s missing?
Lydia: Yes. I do believe that I have found a support system, but I believe that I am lacking a community within my position. I’ve been connected with amazing leaders, amazing mentors. Kyle Richards, one of my mentors, very outspoken, and of course Charlie Hill. I’m very super thankful for our conversations with him. All of our conversations have been very open, super humble, very much willing and eager to listen to me, but also fueling me with all of the knowledge that he has really planting me, so these people really are advocating for me and they are my support system, and I am super thankful for them. But there is a community, I believe that is lacking.
I wish there was a stronger Black community within the design department. Maybe I’m a little still too new here to where I haven’t been fully connected to it, but I’m hoping that we can flourish that community. And through that, bringing in more Black designers. Recently, I was told that there is a lack of Black talent, which is not true at all. I could connect you to thousands and thousands of Black designers willing and eager to take on a position at IBM.
I think it’s our responsibility to get into those Black spaces, get into those Black communities and really open that door for them because sometimes the door needs to be open for Black people as well and I think that since we are in these roles and are in these positions, now we have that opportunity and privilege to do so.
Nigel: Very well said. Thank you for that. Thousands of Black designers and the talent pool does exist. I hear that also quite a bit, just like you do, speaking on behalf of maybe some of the managers that are hiring, they might say, I never see the resumes. I never see their portfolios. They don’t come through my pipeline. While those might be statements of facts, and while those people might be fully willing and want to hire Black folks, that’s the symptom, I think. That’s not the root cause of them not hiring enough Black voices and people into these positions, and I’m really curious, and it’s not something that I think we can solve with the snap of a finger, but I’m really curious to push on the root cause or the multiple factors that go into causing this perception that there’s a lack of a pipeline.
So, let me then ask you this next question, which I think gets at that and is a little bit aspirational, but I think that’s a good place to be right now. You’ve pointed out some of the shortcomings or gaps here at IBM, and it might probably be duplicated in other places. Diversity is an issue that still needs to be solved. We need more Black designers, more Black design leaders, and let’s not hide behind this; there’s not enough talent in the pipeline. Let’s not hide behind that. These are valid concerns that you bring up. Let’s say you’ve got the magic wand. It’s in your hand, you’ve got the power. What are your top couple of things? What is it that you would do immediately to make IBM a better place with this conversation in creating this meaningful, sustainable change?
Lydia: Yes, so I did touch on this a little about increasing the numbers, creating a more diverse community, and I think that could start by creating programs at a younger age. So, opening up these opportunities to students who have no idea about tech, who have no idea about this world, I think it’s really important to introduce them to it. So, creating programs, creating a pipeline from school to design or from school to tech is really important. That’s something that I hope I would be able to do or something I would like to do if I had a magic wand right now.
I also want to touch on that it’s really important to diversify the department and increase these numbers because it’s not just so that the company looks good and that the numbers look good, but having a diverse environment is really important for design. I know we always talk about empathy and how to be empathetic within our designs, and I feel like we also have to be empathetic people to be empathetic in our design.
Also, we always talk about innovation, innovating, and I don’t believe we can innovate if everyone in the room has the same experience and has the same background. Diverse ideas come from diverse people.