Cloudflare TV

We Are Conquerors

Presented by Nikole Phillips, Erika Jefferson
Originally aired on 

In this segment of We Are Conquerors, the focus will be on Erika Jefferson's (Founder and President of Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWise)) journey in the tech sector, why she founded BWise and to get more insight into BWise, what is she currently seeing with all of the changes in today's climate, advice she has for tech companies as it pertains to growing, retaining, and developing the talent from D & I, and more.


Transcript (Beta)

Hi, everyone. Thank you for attending the first We Are Conquerors series here on Cloudflare TV.

My name is Nikole Phillips, and I am the Data Analytics Manager here at Cloudflare.

Now we have a lot to cover because we have a very distinguished guest today, Ms.

Erika Jefferson of Be Wise. So with no further ado, I would like to hand it over to Erika.

Hey, Erika, how you doing? Hi, Nikole. Hi, everybody. So excited to be here today.

So just so we can all get on the same page. Erika, can you tell us a little bit about yourself as well as who is Be Wise?

Sure. So I am a former or reformed chemical engineer slash reluctant entrepreneur.

I've worked in industry for many, many years and decided to go back and transition over to the commercial side.

And I did that. And it wasn't until six years ago that I had this idea of bringing together various women around the country in all areas of STEM.

So I started Black Women in Science and Engineering, also known as Be Wise, back in 2015, really with the thought that it would be local here to Houston and had no idea that, you know, almost six years later, we would have almost 2000 members around the country and six chapters, which I don't even know if that means anything anymore, since we're all at the house.

But yeah, you know, it's just been an amazing journey for me personally and professionally, I could not have ever imagined doing this as an engineer, we're usually very low key and introverted.

You know, that's right.

So you know, this is real far outside of my box. But it's been a wonderful opportunity to meet so many incredible women.

Now, what cities are you in?

So we're in Atlanta, we're in Austin. Yeah, we're in Chicago, Houston, Washington, DC, and San Diego.

And so prior to COVID, we had plans to expand to several other cities around the country.

But all the while I had an idea for this, you know, to be digital, because we've got folks who are needing, you know, connections around the country.

And quite honestly, you know, there's some parts of the country where we probably don't have enough, you know, members to justify a whole chapter.

So, you know, this is just the expediting our global dominance program to take over and reach out to women around the world, just a little bit earlier than we had planned.

But we're so fortunate that we've been able to connect with so many women virtually on, you know, platforms like Zoom for the last four months.

So it's been great. Now, what type of programs do you have online? So we've been doing really, like really high level, because, you know, when you talk to technical folks, I will say myself, there's sometimes the, I know how to do that.

I can extrapolate, I'm a, I can extrapolate, but you really can't, right? Like I am a chemical engineer, I should not be doing your wiring in your house, right?

That's not my forte. So we want to keep it high level. So we can give folks, you know, a place to go to find more information, like we've done a series in person, what we're doing in person events on blockchain and data analytics, and 3d printing and things, you know, that are technical, but we may not be in that area.

So as a chemical engineer, I may not have done any work in my career in quantum mechanics or quantum physics, right?

But that's certainly something that I may be interested in.

So we try to make sure that we provide our members and anyone really who wants to attend any of our events, you know, information to get a little bit more knowledge in an area you may not be familiar with.

That is wonderful. Now this leads me to my next question.

You come from a very accomplished background in STEM.

Okay, worked. All right. All right, girl. You worked at the top companies, Amoco, BP, Chevron, and many more.

What was the pivotal point for you to transition into stepping out on faith and building a nonprofit when you had such a successful career?

I would say it's, you know, several things in the making, and it probably came more from my personal life than it did from anything I had done in my professional life.

I, you know, gotten these degrees and have various levels of managerial experience, got an opportunity to travel internationally, you know, both as an individual contributor and also as a manager.

So it wasn't anything that I would say occurred in my career.

It was more so, you know, continuing to connect and meet, you know, these incredible women who didn't necessarily have a place to gather or connect.

And so when I relocated to Texas, I actually started another group, which was really the impetus for Be Wise for folks who are moving to the area.

So, you know, after I finished with that, you know, I said, now what else can I do with this new found event planning skill set that I've gathered?

And, you know, we started Be Wise with a handful of women in Houston.

And, you know, really, we're just trying to connect and, you know, share resources, experience, you know, sometimes you need to vent and, you know, whatever.

It really is very informal in the beginning.

And we had women asked to join from other parts of the country. And I, you know, I'm an engineer, not necessarily, I don't know about training.

So I'm like, how are you going to attend our events in Houston?

And you live in California.

I know how that works. And so it wasn't until I went to Washington, D.C. for an event and a young lady there, who ended up becoming our first chapter director said, Hey, I would like to start a chapter here in Washington, D.C.

And she is a brilliant scientist.

And I was like, yeah, she could probably do this on her own if I don't.

So she launched our first chapter in the D .C.

area and also one inside the FDA. And we've got a tremendous group of incredible, talented women in Washington, D.C., you know, probably as diverse as any other city.

And, you know, so many PhDs, right?

We do events all the time, or we did events all the time, and people would just be astounded.

Where did you find these 30, 40 black women with PhDs in computer science and engineering and biology and chemistry?

So it was, you know, fortuitous that this all happened.

I certainly did not foresee this for myself. I was going to be a, you know, a corporate person and do that.

But, you know, God had other plans.

And here we are. Turn that passion, that passion into action. That's what we do.

That's right. That is what we do. So this may be a pulse check question for some people.

So right now, we all know we have a world pandemic that has completely put the world into a standstill.

Then we had the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd during the pandemic.

Mm hmm. So now the current climate that we have going on in the world is now people are really paying attention to what we've been talking about for so many years.

It seems as if, and I'm talking about the tech sector specifically, it's been an epiphany.

Organizations are now saying, we weren't qualified before, but now suddenly we have all these great qualifications.

We'll be a good fit for this. And in addition to that, if you really get into the weeds of it, it seems as if it's more of a diversity head count than actually doing something about the situation.

And this is why BeWISE is so vital in this type of situation because BeWISE is bridging the gap of leadership for Black women to grow into those leadership positions.

So in today's climate, how has it changed for organizations as they engage with BeWISE?

Well, I think going back to your original comment about folks coming into this awareness, if you have eyes and you have a computer and a TV, you have to have seen these things occurring over the last 10 years.

These are just the most recent of a long line of African -Americans being killed.

And so I think it's just so, two things, it's so in the forefront.

You have video of these terrible things happening and also we're not even recovered from COVID.

So I think all this comes together and we're in the house, right?

So we're not roaming around the streets, doing our usual things.

We're stuck in the house watching TV and looking at the Internet all day.

So it's in the forefront. So I think there are some companies that were like, oh my gosh, that was terrible, bad marketing.

We've got to say something, right?

We don't necessarily want to do anything, but we definitely have to say something.

So you still have those companies who I think wanted to make a statement, but either did not or could not or whatever reason chose to take it much farther than that.

Then I think you have some companies who are really awakening because even though they saw it, it just didn't resonate.

Just like some of the folks we're seeing that are unfortunately being stricken with COVID.

If it doesn't hit your house, if it doesn't impact someone that you know, then it's out there.

So when you see all these things, I think it's forcing some tech companies to say, you know what, we probably have opportunities to do better.

And I believe certainly from our wonderful corporate partners, that there are folks who are serious about making change.

They're serious about learning how they can improve the workforce for everyone.

And then that just makes good business sense.

When I talk, because I'm certainly not a diversity expert, I'm talking about the shortage of talent.

And there really isn't a shortage of talent. It's just a shortage of people knowing where to go.

So, you know, the usual pipelines of getting folks are drying up because once upon a time, there was just a few companies that needed software developers and full stack developers.

Now everybody needs that, right?

And so the market is crowded for that talent. And so instead of, you know, the traditional, you know, top schools or the top companies from recruiting, we're going to have to come up with some more creative ways to find talent.

I just had a call earlier today, and I was mentioning that I've been to multiple events for women, underrepresented groups in technology.

There's never been a recruiter there.

I've never seen a recruiter at these events. So when I hear folks say, oh, we can't find the talent.

I was like, well, you certainly can't sit sitting at your desk all day, right?

You certainly can't buy, everybody's doing that.

Everybody is using, you know, these tools. So you have to get from behind your desk.

Doesn't necessarily mean you have to have a whole full blown budget, but you know, certainly doing Boolean searches all day is not going to get it.

So I think that for companies who are serious, and there are companies who are serious.

Some of them are forced to be serious because they've got work to do and not warm bodies to do it.

So they're serious because they have to.

There are, I see more activities beyond just the Black Lives Matter statements.

They're actually, you know, reaching out to organizations like Be Wise, you know, getting involved with other activities.

So that is a positive. That's really positive.

So what type of advice, if you don't mind, elaborate and do you provide to some of your partners in building out their organizations and providing them with the resources in order to, you know, be good fits for those orgs?


You know, I, it's amazing that, you know, we kind of operate in between the two spaces.

So we're very technical, but because I have been engaging with both, you know, our corporate partners, government partners, academic partners, I see things that the tech folks don't see.

Okay. And I know folks that HR folks don't know.

So I'm kind of, you know, in that unusual space of straddling both, both sections.

And, you know, we like to just enlighten and educate folks.

You know, I don't know how you can take action on something that you have never measured.

When I ask folks, you know, I heard you say that there was a problem with the tech pipeline, you know, have you seen any numbers in regards to how many people there are?

And they're like, what numbers? I've never seen numbers.

So I don't know how anybody could, you know, have a goal or a target to improve things when they don't even know what's the benchmark.

Right. So I frequently, you know, share the numbers, the best numbers that we have from the National Science Foundation that says 25 ,000 black women get degrees in science and engineering every year.

There's not a company that can hire all those. So where are those women?

They're here. They didn't, they didn't evaporate. So they're here.

And, you know, when I hear folks say that we just can't find the talent, and I say, if you're not a scientist or engineer or a technologist, how would you?

How would you?

If you're an accounting person, you probably know lots of accountants. But I dare say you probably don't know that many engineers proportionally.

So just trying to educate them on both the ecosystem who's out there, where places of talent, untapped talent are also making your, your organization a desirable place.

And I share with folks that when I go to these websites, and I see no diversity on your website, and that is the same thing that, you know, potential candidates are seeing.

So everything is bright and shiny and pretty and pretty colors. But there's not one.

So nobody wants to be the only I don't care. Yes. Gender. Yes. You know, race, ethnicity.

Nobody wants to be the only anywhere. It is a very lonely feeling if you've never experienced it.

And so I encourage them, you know, are you even ready, maybe you just need to work on some things internally.

And before you can start down this pathway, I feel like there's a lot of diversity and inclusion work that is advanced the level, right?

It's advanced level. And we can't skip the levels just to make head count, right?

You've got to do the work. Yep, that you can get to that point.

I am not a diversity consultant. And if you need a diversity consultant, I can't help you, you should already be on that path.

Yes, these are the things that you want to accomplish.

Now, how can we attract more black women scientists, engineers and technologists?

That's where I meet. If you're before that, I'm going to have to refer you to, you know, someone who can, you know, address those needs specifically, we don't do that we are advanced level, you should already be on the path of wanting to do this.

You know, to not not for, you know, as you know, a goodwill or nice marketing, you just need people to do this work from a business standpoint, you can't let work go undone because you have not got the talent to do the work.

And you know, to add to that, there needs to be buy in at all levels of leadership, not just at all levels, at all levels, because honestly, managers need to be held accountable hiring managers, because I talk about this frequently that, you know, the senior leadership or the C suite will say we're very focused on diversity and making sure this is a, you know, inclusive environment.

And then they go on back to their corner offices. And then at the open workspace, places, black, and other underrepresented employees are catching hell.

Yes. The folks who don't believe in diversity think sham or whatever.

Yeah, that they had to take this training, they're mad that they have to talk about those things.

So they're going to take it out on their direct reports, exactly, colleagues on whoever else.

So you need to have it engaged, you know, at all levels, it can't be top down.

Certainly, the upper management should be reinforcing things and putting procedures and protocols in place to ensure that things are continuing to go on.

But if you do not have buy in for from middle management, yes, it's not going to work.

At the end of the year, if you measure such things, your numbers will look just as bad.

It's not worse. I'm seeing a lot of pushback from all this diversity training.

I am 100% on board with that. And as a hiring manager, I hold myself accountable.

Now, as it pertains to you touched on something with these organizations that had back in June, everyone had their BLM.

Mm hmm. Everyone was emailing out stuff. BLM, be wise, helping these companies to put their words into action.

So we're really number one, trying to level set help people level set, we've got a corporate partner, we're going to announce shortly that we actually did a internal town hall with them on Juneteenth.

And working with their senior leadership, their head of diversity, you know, because what happens is I tell people frequently, you're burdening your black staff, doing their job.

And now they've got to be the DNI, unofficial, unpaid person.

And, you know, jeopardizing their working relationships with colleagues by telling things that certainly should be told, but maybe they're not ready to tell them.

So in consulting with them and getting ready for this town hall, I told both the CTO, the head of diversity, and I can't remember who the other senior leader was, I was like, this is the opportunity where you are to be quiet.

And you are to listen. Yes, you're not to interject.

You're not to, you know, well, let me explain. We don't need explaining.

You are to listen with both ears. Yes. I gave you two in one mouth.

And so, you know, I could see the faces, they probably had never been told to be quiet before.

But I can also see the faces of the black employees who were like, yeah, be quiet.

And, you know, for us, we can serve as that buffer, right? So, you know, providing, you know, counsel to senior leaders to say, okay, I don't even need to talk to anybody.

I already know what's going on in your workforce, because it's happening at all these companies.

It's the same story, just different faces attached to them.

Yeah, this is what's happening. Now, if you want some anecdotal information, we can get you that just so you can feel better sleep at night.

I'm telling you, there's discrimination, there's harassment, there's all kinds of shenanigans going on at all companies.

I wouldn't press the finger at any one in particular, although I'm sure there's some that are worse than others.

Yeah. And so getting them to listen, listen, you can't, you can't give me a solution to my problem if you haven't listened to the problem.

Yes. And so I think for us, we're able, like I said, to be that buffer between the employees, they should not be, you know, we all have enough to deal with, right?

So we're already all of us struggling with COVID.

Yes, the aftermath of that, you know, some of us have been ill, some of us have family members who've been ill, certainly, our world is, you know, totally different.

We're working from home, kids are at home, it's a lot going on, we should not then add, you know, these issues.

And some of it is traumatic, you have folks who've had traumatic experience, they may not be ready to relive that and share that.

So I said, you know, I could tell you what needs to be done initially.

Yes. In working with this, I can, you know, it doesn't bother me.

I'm like the psychologist, I hear it all day long. So it just doesn't pass.

So being able to communicate that to senior management so that they can start thinking, because this is a long process, right?

You know, for the folks who thought I'm going to put this Black Lives Matter statement out.

And, you know, I'm done everything.

Good. No, you're not, you're just getting started.

So, you know, making sure that for the folks who are ready, everyone is not ready.

Right? Who are like, I want to learn, I want to listen, I want to be a better ally.

Then we help our corporate partners with that. Yeah. And I feel as if BLM, the statements were acknowledgement, but now we have to continue, right?

You have to move past that.

And, you know, some folks made them because it was, you know, a mistake not to, right?

It wasn't that, oh, I really feel these things. Just like my competitors are making these statements and I'm going to make a statement if I don't make a statement.

My non-statement is a statement. We have a lot of folks who put these things together and, you know, we're still waiting.

I just posted an article on LinkedIn yesterday about strategy, right?

Strategy is big in most corporations, right?

That's an entry level type responsibility. So you need to put the same strategy behind your D&I efforts as you do to revenue.

Yes. Right. Yes.

I like that. That is very, very true. So we have a question from the listeners and one person asks, could you please offer some suggestions on how we can all be better allies in the tech sector and what can the rest of us do to help?

You know, that's a good question.

And when all this happened, I was getting, you know, I'll say bombarded by folks with positive intentions on how can I be an ally?

Yes. And I think the first thing is to educate yourself, right?

So, you know, that doesn't mean, you know, going out to your, all your friends of color and asking them, tell me how you were you know, don't, don't make them relive that.

Right. You don't know how they, you know, kind of stuffed it down just to get by every day.

There are a ton of wonderful books out there that are doing, you know, a good starting point, how to be an anti-racist is a great one so that you can at least have an idea because, you know, the social media, the Internet, there's stuff everywhere.

And so I think that becomes a problem. Which do you read? Which do you believe?

But there are certainly things on LinkedIn. You certainly can follow us that we talk about, you know, resources that you can get information.

And then probably the best way to be an ally is A, be quiet and listen.

When you are on a team or you've got diverse folks, you'd be surprised how frequently we get over talks and minimize.

So be quiet and listen. And then when you see something, say something.

We used to say that right after 9-11, when you see something, say something.

So if you see someone in a meeting, you know, not being able to voice their opinion, say, oh, I, I, I think Nicole was making a point.

Right. Could be as simple as that.

You know, nobody's expecting folks to go out and march and protest.

But what can you do where you are? I think that's most important. Start there.

That's a great way to start. Meet me where you at. Exactly. So we have five minutes.

So I want people to learn how to stay in touch with Be Wise and follow you. Awesome.

Awesome. So we would love to have you connect with us on LinkedIn. That's probably the platform I use the most.

Erica Jefferson. I think it's MBA. I can't remember what I've got there anymore.

Erica Jefferson. But you'll see me connected to Be Wise on LinkedIn.

We also have Be Wise USA on Twitter and also on Facebook.

Beyond that, we have a website. That's You can find some of the things that we've done and worked on.

And we're in the print in the maybe we should talk to Cloudflare.

We're redoing our websites. Maybe need to hire Cloudflare.

Get a special Be Wise discount too. All right, girl. Well, I'd like to thank everyone for tuning in today with Erica.

Erica, thank you. It looks like we lost her based on connection.

But I want to thank her for coming out. And I would like everyone to stay tuned to the next We Are Conquerors series.

Please continue to support.

I appreciate it. Bye. Oh, Erica, you're back. Okay, you're muted. Okay.

Yeah, I was just tuning out. Thank you so much for the info. And we're signing off.

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