“If I think back, every step of the way – from middle school and high school to college and then on the [oil] rig – there’s just something that people who haven’t experienced it can’t imagine. Being the only person who looks like you in the room, you start to wonder if you belong there.”
This month at Code2College, we’re highlighting Black Excellence by interviewing one of our volunteers each week to learn more about their challenges, triumphs and what makes them amazing. For our first interview, our Executive Director Matt Stephenson spoke with Jessica Odeyemi, a Product Manager at IBM and Code2College Mentor (2 years).
M: What was your first introduction to Tech and STEM?
J: My mom had an old computer. It was old – and kinda crusty. But one of the first things my Mom said was that if I was going to play with the computer that I needed to learn how to type. So I used a book to learn keyboarding and after some time knew had to type. I just remember feeling like I was really good at computers because I knew how to type before my classmates.
M: That must have really given you an initial push then. I’m hearing that that gave you some initial confidence in computers.
J: Oh absolutely. I think that early exposure was such a critical piece of the equation for me. I felt like I was ready to tackle something big that others thought was difficult. Computers didn’t feel impossible to me, in fact, working with them felt very achievable.
M: So it sounds like you had a strong start to STEM – but I’m sure you’ve faced some challenges. I’d love to hear about some of the challenges that you’ve overcome.
J: Before I earned my MBA, I was a drilling engineer. I’m also black and a woman. If I think back, every step of the way – from middle school and high school to college and then on the [oil] rig – there’s just something that people who haven’t experienced it can’t imagine. Being the only person who looks like you in the room, you start to wonder if you belong there. Impostor syndrome is very real. Another challenges that I faced was that my parents got divorced when I was only 2. So before my Mom remarried, she was working full-time and raising me on her own. And looking back at those odds, I know that I’ve really overcome a difficult family dynamic.
M: You’ve definitely overcome quite a bit and ascended to excellence. I’d like to hear more about the ‘How’. How did you overcome so much? You must have had some incredible role models.
J: The women in my life. My mom and grandma have been great role models. Their strength is unreal. I had a hard time in my engineering program and had to keep in mind, “If my Mom is strong enough to get through what she’s gone through, I can do this. Ask for help if you need it, but you can do this, Jessica.”
M: On that same topic of role models, why are you volunteering with Code2College?
J: If I think about how I got to where I am, my mom and stepdad always made sure that I was exposed to more than just my day to day activities. They would register me for a bunch of after-school activities where we learned college subjects, etc. I really believe in the power of exposure. Basic intelligence is one thing, but the people who go on to achieve great things have been exposed to a multitude of subjects and people when they’re young. I feel like I’ve benefited from a number of programs that provided that exposure and this is my way to pay it back. I also really believe in the Code2College program model. I know that there are programs that show students how to code, but coding skills, but group activities and professional development and exposure to companies is the right model. Even in my work now, there are people who have the technical skills but not necessarily the rest of it. I just think that this is a great approach and the right approach.
M: What are you listening to right now?
J: Ha! Well, as far as podcasts I’m feeling really entrepreneurial and have been listening to “How I Built This” and I’m a huge fan of Alexis Ohanian and have been listening to “Business Dad.” I also started to learn how to play the drums and have been listening to this band “Hiatus Kaiyote” for inspiration.
M: One final question. As you know, Code2College has four student values: “Lift Up”, “Dig Deep”, “Ask More” and “Thank Relentlessly”. I’d love to hear what your own personal values are that drive you to be so successful.
J: The first I think aligns with the Code2College value “Ask More”, but it’s being curious. It’s really important to explore more than what you learn in school. I experienced that when I was working in the oil industry. I said to myself “there’s this whole other industry that powers mine (i.e. Tech) and it would be great to learn more about it.” The second is to be unafraid to be bold. What I mean by that is that going through these various fields as the only one who looks like me or the youngest one in the room was difficult, but being OK with that initial discomfort has really served me well. If I got used to being comfortable throughout my life, I wouldn’t have taken some of these risks. Being OK with discomfort is how I’ve succeeded in life.
M: This was incredible, Jessica. I wish I had this on video. Would you be willing to schedule a follow-up video interview?
J: I’d love that!
Jessica Odeyemi has served as a Product Manager at IBM in Austin, TX for the past 1.5 years. She’s a native Houstonian and holds Bachelors of Science Degrees in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Princeton University and a Masters of Business Administration from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. We’re proud to call her a Code2College Mentor.