Meet TeLisa Daughtry, Founder of Flytechnista
TeLisa Daughtry is a social entrepreneur, self-taught developer of 19 years; and multi-disciplined creative. She is the Founder & CEO of FlyTechnista, an online platform that seeks to bridge the gap between women & girls and access to education, resources, and career opportunities in technology; and Founder of STEEAMnista, a non-profit that seeks to increase the participation, visibility, and leadership of women across S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, arts, math), entrepreneurship, and makers. Both initiatives have been in partnership with The White House in 2016, and Samsung.
Can you give us an overview of your latest venture, Flytechnista?
I started off as a self-taught coder. I began my journey with technology in 1998. I had no idea what kind of career possibilities were there, or what education; path I needed to take in order to make something happen. What drew me to creating Flytechnista was my own journey as a woman in technology over the last 19 years. I realized that providing women and girls with technical skills but not giving them access to career opportunities was a problem. It was a problem I faced myself, and I wanted to help alleviate that issue. Before Flytechnista, I was already connecting women to career opportunities in tech. When a company would reach out to me, I would point them to another great woman who was capable of doing that work. So that’s how I started: passing on opportunities or mentoring women across coding and design. And then I realized that a lot of people don’t have access to someone who could give them these kinds of referrals, and that it would be more beneficial to provide platform where women could look for these resources.
So if a woman wants to get involved with Flytechnista, what does that look like?
We offer three types of monthly membership packages: 3 months, 6 months, and annual. Members of Flytechnista have access to speaking engagements across technology where there has been gender gap of women on panels. Event organizers reach out to ask if we have female talent and founders to feature on panels. Members also get access to these conferences at discounted rates, and have access to other partner companies that have nothing to do with tech. Maybe it’s a self-care/wellness product, or discounted hotel/travel arrangements for trips that will help them further their careers. They also get access to entrepreneurship tools and resources, including vetted funders interested in increasing women-led ventures.
We don’t charge women who are looking for career opportunities or connecting to education resources. That should be free.
How would you describe a typical member of Flytechnista?
We’re exiting our beta in the fall, so right now members who have been approved to utilize the platform range from parents, educators, to college-aged and entry-level women, to senior-level women at executive and founder levels. We also serve K-12, but not as a membership; they have free access to activities we offer like STEAMnista.
Can you talk more about STEAMnista? I know that there’s STEM, and now people are amending it to STEAM. The A stands for the arts, right? I love seeing that “A” there, as an arts/humanities person myself. What role do you think the arts play in what would otherwise be STEM?
Because I began my journey in tech as a coder, I’m a digital artist. I was also a classically trained ballet dancer. I really didn’t see myself as being in technology. I never imagined it would be my career path, and I’ve always approached tech as artistic and creative. I see code as creative. It’s so intersectional, because you don’t just develop a technical product. The aesthetic and the beauty is married to that: the way the corners curve on your cell phone, or the way these screen has hues. That’s all art and design. So it’s very important to marry that “A” and make sure it’s not just STEM. Mathematics and science are creative.
So Flytechnista is your 5th company. What were your previous companies, and how did your journey lead you from one to the other?
My first company was really created out of frustration. I was out of college and unemployed. I couldn’t find a career opportunity. At the time I assumed it was because I didn’t have agency experience. So I became a freelancer, and then I landed a lot of high-end clients. When I started looking for employment again, other companies wouldn’t hire me because they thought I was a company. I created my own creative web/digital agency early out the gate, in my 3rd year out of college.
From there, I had a jewelry line. That was also a result of my creativity merging technology with metalsmithing and jewelry. I formed a company called Brass Knuckle Ballerina. I would take recycled weaponry and then turn it into jewelry. So I would get bullets in gold and silver, stone-setting them with diamond and pearls. It became a really expensive hobby. I did tradeshows, but the problem was that I don’t have the space to do it, and it was so expensive. Those pieces ranged from $600 - $1,000, because I needed to cover the costs. But because of Brass Knuckle Ballerina, I became a merchandise buyer, and then I had a successful online store in ecommerce / retail. I was making laptop skins and covers for devices. That company didn’t fail. I just no longer could afford to do it. I was too early on in my entrepreneurship journey to know where to look for funding and capital to keep growing. That forced me to put it aside.
From there, I had two other companies that failed horribly. I didn’t know enough about scaling, or building a team. I was tired of making beautiful, functional products that didn’t make a difference to society. It’s not where my passion was. So that led me to pursuing Flytechnista.
What does failure mean to you? I think it can be hard for women to use the word “failure” when it feels like we’re representing all the other women in our field. Do you have that sense of responsibility, and if so, how do you deal with it?
I define failure now as those times I was educated, smart, underpaid, overworked, not really adding value to society or myself. So that’s what I see as failure. Doing these things that generate no positive result or profit, and not having a clear mission or purpose, and having too much pride to ask for help.
With Flytechnista, I feel the responsibility of my role, especially as a woman of color. This venture can’t fail, because what would that mean to other women? How does that change how they look at women like me, or women with similar ventures? It’s a blessing to take on that challenge. I also feel a sense of responsibility not just to my partners/clients, but to the girls entering into my field. And even though I am a woman of color, I’ve realized that my gender has affected me more than my race.
Really? In what ways?
There can be other men of color in my workspace, but they’re not treated the same as other women in general. Men will always connect with other men, provide them with mentorship and opportunity. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen guys with less experience than me come in and get promoted before me. That’s when I realized my race wasn’t as much of an issue as my gender. The same thing happened with another role. I had 8 years of experience, but they brought in a guy from NYIT to be my senior and payed him 3x more than me. I found out because they left the offer letter on the fax machine. Fortunately, one of my business mentors worked for the IRS and was able to audit the company. She wanted to see why women with the same education and experience weren’t being given the same opportunities as the men, and why we weren’t being paid fairly.
What did she find?
Multiple cases of discrimination. That company totally went down. I was really happy I spoke up, because the women who worked there were underpaid and overworked. I mean, I had 12-15 hour workdays, with a 30-minute lunch. It was bad.
What would you say to someone who’s thinking of speaking up about an instance of discrimination at work, but is too afraid right now?
This climate is so toxic for that. I mean, look at the leadership of this country. But being a person of color, I just can’t stand to see injustice against anybody. I’ve been so discriminated against on all sides, I just can’t imagine standing idly by and letting things happen. I have to say something about it. Unfortunately, speaking up hasn’t always gotten me response I knew I needed. At one company I worked for, I went to HR eight times in a year, but their sexism and racism never changed. They wouldn’t fire me because my work was good, and they didn’t want to give me unemployment. Instead, they kept making my conditions miserable.
If you speak up, you can lose your job. Or you can get blackballed. People might not want to work with you on new projects, or give you new opportunities. And so lot of people might be afraid to speak up. But how long can you let the injustice go on? I believe that if you’re already in a position of power, or have access to someone in power who will listen to your voice, then you’re obligated to share your opinions about injustice.
I know that you’ve turned down working with big companies before, because of their lack of diversity. This is something I’ve learned Roxane Gay recommends doing. How was those experiences unfold for you?
I just couldn’t come into another company spearheading another diversity initiative, knowing that I’m becoming some kind of diversity whisperer. That’s not what I want to be. That’s not what the company’s paying me for. As a woman, and especially as a woman of color, I feel like a lot of companies bring in the “other” to so that this new person can take on the burden. I would go through interview processes thinking everything seemed great, that the salary was awesome, the team was cool… but where were the women? I’d ask myself: Am I going to now have to hire another person of color? Or am I going to be the token? Being the “only” is lonely. It just sucks.
Has the gender/race disparity in tech gotten better since the beginning of your career?
Well, I often credit the fact that I didn’t know the staggering statistics in my field. That allowed me to continue on. My mentees ask me, “It’s almost 20 years! How do you keep going?” I tell them, “Because nobody ever told me I couldn’t!” If I had seen these discouraging statistics daily, I might not have been bold enough to pursue this career. My ignorance really allowed me to proceed. Now, some women and girls feel they can be a part of tech, but some are like, why should I even try? I’ve been a part of Women Who Code and Girl Develop It since the groups began, back when they had 50 members. Then they got up to 500 members. Now they have multiple chapters. The fact that these initiatives even exist and have existed for 5-6 years is encouraging. I know things are changing. I don’t hope -- I know. I’m working with these partners to help them continue to change.
What was it like to be a woman at MIT?
Not as lonely as most people would think. Because I’m a versatile person, I fell into multiple groups: student-led groups, diversity groups, technology groups. Being a Boston native, it wasn’t hard for me to find community. But being at an institution like MIT was overwhelming at first. You start off in your computer science (CS) class, and there are 70 students, and 10 are women. When you get to the middle of your semester, those 10 women go down to 6. Then by the time you finish the semester, there are 3 of you left. That continued to happen. The higher I rose in my CS classes, the fewer women and people of color were there. I saw them in other engineering classes, like chemical engineering. But when it came down to computer science, it was less and less. I thought maybe people were pursuing other majors. I didn’t put too much thought into it at the time. It was until I continued onto my higher education that I started asking why: not enough access to mentorship, lack of funding, not knowing where to look and find these things. These factors were constant throughout my career, but I didn’t know why enough until years when I started mentoring and exchanging stories 1:1 with other women. Then it finally made sense.
Something else I know about you, which I’m hoping we can discuss if you’re comfortable, is that you were once homeless. Are you open to speaking about that?
It was after the collapse of Wall Street. I was working for a media company owned by Hearst, and it went under so I lost my job. I still had an apartment, but I couldn’t afford to commute between New Jersey and New York to get back into the city for the freelance opportunities that I had. Then I had a really, really crazy landlord sexually harassing me. I found out that he had a camera in my house. He was recording me, filming me in my house, intimidating me. He blocked off my personal entrance. He would come into my house when I wasn’t home and barge in when I was there, too. It left me in a vulnerable space as a woman. I was alone and afraid. One day some friends visited me, and they told me to get out of there. So I chose to become homeless.
I was still freelancing, working at top music companies in media, blogging. But because of everything that happened with Wall Street, no companies were hiring, and there were pay freezes. I documented myself as a freelancer, chasing record labels and media companies for checks. I realized it was an ongoing thing that a lot of freelancers were experiencing. I would do something for 2-3 months, or for a week, and it would take a few months to get that money. Even though I was steadily working, doing multiple projects for top media companies, I wasn’t able to consistently secure enough revenue to sustain myself. It was like, “I just came from the MTV Awards, and I don’t have a place to live. I’m walking everywhere because I can’t even afford a MetroCard.”
I had no family in NYC, and too much pride to go back home to Boston, because I didn’t want people to think I failed to make it in New York. There was a lot going on psychologically. I wanted to have that New York dream, and then I found myself, in my own stupidity, almost in danger. I lived on the E train for about 6 months. I had a suitcase and a backpack. I would sit on the train and ride to Jamaica Center, and then back downtown, and I’d be there until 4:00am. Maybe I’d go to a diner if I had money. I was still dressed, and I wasn’t just sleeping in a train car, looking dirty. But there were so many nights that I was hungry. I couldn’t afford anything other than slice of pizza that cost 99 cents, and that would probably be my last change. Even when I did have $30 in my pocket, it wasn’t enough to provide myself with a room or a place or stay. Sometimes I would stay overnight at one of my jobs and sleep at my desk. That ended when one day a colleague asked me, “Where are you going? You always have that suitcase.” I confided in her, and she provided me with a room.
I’m really grateful to be where I am now in life, and in general to be safe. I never had to compromise myself for a meal or a place to stay, and I know that’s not always the case for women. You think of these basic necessities. If I had $3.00, I had to know where to get pads, and where to brush my teeth and do my hair, because I was working on-site at an office for the day. Hygiene issues were very big for me, so I made sure I had enough money to get that stuff. Even though I lived on the train, I also had places where I could go clean up or eat. I just couldn’t stay there, because those places would already be packed with 8 people in a 2-bedroom, or even a studio-sized room. So I was never able to stay overnight.
Those were challenges, but there were also the blessings and random acts of kindness That one woman I worked didn’t know me well, but she allowed me to stay in her house in the Bronx. That was risky for her, and for myself. What enabled me to get back on my feet was finally getting offered an admin role through the city. It wasn’t within my technical realm, but I had experience answering the phone, managing a calendar, budgeting. That allowed me to sustain myself.
Having lived through a homeless period, what stereotypes about homelessness do you wish that people would dispel?
I’ve been involved with homeless prevention and issues since I was younger. My mom was very big on that. For years she’d provide things to the community. I knew there was a different lens to homelessness. People still hold stigmas that homeless people are lazy, uneducated, have substance abuse problems, or money problems like gambling. They don’t realize that sometimes you might even have a job, but are underemployed or underpaid, and you can’t afford the current living conditions. In order to be on some of these housing lists, you have to be in extreme poverty. Even having $136 a week is too much to qualify.
I’ve known and met a lot of homeless people who have traditional educations. One woman who was homeless with me had a PhD from NYU! When I went to the HRA to receive help, they told me that I wasn’t alone, and that I should feel stupid or lazy. Because of the recession, they saw a lot of people they couldn’t even give jobs too, because the people were too qualified. So then that became an issue. I was overqualified for the jobs the city had available, and so they wouldn’t give them to me. Then one day they called with that admin role, and I took it.
If people are in a position to help the homeless, what can they do?
Fortunately the resources in New York now are significantly better than when I was in need. One of the programs called Bottomless Closet was amazing. I had no professional clothes, but they provided homeless women with business attire for job interviews, as well as job readiness and resume writing. Because I am educated, I was able to volunteer my services back to them, helping other homeless women redo their resumes and assemble work-ready attire. They were also super helpful to me for providing me with clothing to wear for interviews. This wasn’t crappy clothing. They’re in a hotel, and they provide you with stuff from Saks Fifth Avenue, like Armani jackets. It’s amazing. They allow the homeless women to shop, and not feel like they’re a charity case. That’s so reaffirming to the spirit when you’re broken and need a job. Then there’s the HRA. If you know you’re going to be on the edge of homelessness,they provide emergency assistance and some jobs. But these aren’t 21st century jobs. They’re factory and admin jobs, which barely pay enough to live in New York City. So there are still challenges.
What can readers do to support you and Flytechnista right now?
We’re always looking for more partners. That includes anyone doing anything to help increase the visibility and participation of women in STEAM-related fields. We also welcome partners committed to closing the gender pay and access gap, and women who want to help other women launch their ventures through expertise and mentorship. Really, anybody who wants to engage women and encouraging them to be active in technology.