Why don’t we start from the beginning? Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from?
So I’m from Virginia originally. I have always done fine arts my entire life, as long as I can remember. Then, in high school I was introduced to graphic design. I think illustration will always be my first love, and I thought design would be a good route to follow for that. I went to college for graphic design, the program I was in was very print-design oriented. After college, I worked at a pretty small creative agency in Richmond, Virginia. Pretty much within a year of being in the industry there you work with everyone you’re ever going to work with there because it’s just so small. At some point, I visited the Bay Area with some friends. I really liked it and I was like, “At this point I could go to New York or San Francisco, I guess I’ll try San Francisco [chuckles].” I really wanted to live in a big city and NY and SF felt like the only options to me. I also wanted to live far away. I didn’t really understand the implications and impact of moving to the Bay Area. I knew that “tech” was happening but I was very isolated from the culture of tech. I didn’t know anyone in tech but I guess that’s really my bad for being naïve and not doing my research. By the time I was in it, it was too late. I was like, “Oh, shit. I’ve spent so much time and energy breaking into this new industry and now I’m in this industry that’s really problematic.” Not that any of the other ones are any better, but, I don’t know, if you want to be doing big work, I feel like in design, tech is where you want to be. That’s how I guess I ended up where I am at now. It’s not to say that I don’t like tech, I really like designing and illustrating for screens and tech brands but the culture around it is so toxic.
“I knew that ‘tech’ was happening but I was very isolated from the culture of tech. I didn’t know anyone in tech but I guess that’s really my bad for being naïve and not doing my research. By the time I was in it, it was too late.”
I definitely want to dig into that with you. I’m curious, as someone who also grew up in a small town in the south, what it was like for you growing up? Especially as someone who eventually came out as queer?
My dad was a pastor. I grew up going to Christian school. I had to go to church every Sunday and Sunday school with all the youth groups and mission trips. I was really heavily involved in the Christian community and lifestyle. My parents really threw me into it when I was super young and continued to make me participate as I got older. When I was younger it was the only thing I really knew, all my friends were in the church, it was my whole life. I went to this school where they told us your skirts have to be a certain length so you don’t distract the boys in the class and all that kind of stuff. It was super conservative and old school.
I really hated it and I became really disenchanted in middle school and high school, and I think I absolutely carry that with me as an adult, I really have a chip on my shoulder. I don’t know, ideally I wouldn’t have come out in my twenties, but I just internalized so much of the queer-phobia and homophobia around me that it was just for me not a possibility at all. I was in denial and really “othered” anyone queer I ever knew. I mentally categorized queerness as a perversion as a young child as a result of what I was being taught and that really stuck with me. Then when I lived in a small town called Roanoke. This is like southwest Virginia.
“Ideally I wouldn’t have come out in my twenties, but I just internalized so much of the queer-phobia and homophobia around me that it was just for me not a possibility at all. I was in denial and really ‘othered’ anyone queer I ever knew. I mentally categorized queerness as a perversion as a young child as a result of what I was being taught and that really stuck with me.”
So Roanoke is like, I mean, there’s a lot of nice things about it, but there’s a lot of pretty shitty conservative culture there. Once I got to Richmond it was better, but it’s still like, I don’t know, people there are not forward thinking at all. Richmond is better but it’s still pretty bad there too. So I feel like I didn’t really get to make my escape ’til I got outside that area, I think.
So what was it like first getting here? What were your expectations of Silicon Valley?
I think I was pretty naive about Silicon Valley. I had never been. No one around me did anything in tech, and in college my program was very focused on print design. I spent a lot of time making print mocks and doing book crafts. I didn’t even have anyone in my life who knew anything about it. So I think that I came out not really having any idea, and being kind of optimistic, and like, “Oh, it’s a cool environment to work in. It’s fun, it has all these opportunities.” So I think that’s what I thought to be the case. And obviously there are a lot of opportunities, and there are fun environments sometimes, but yeah, I had no idea that it’s ripping San Francisco apart. The community and people, and it’s such an intense rift here. So I didn’t know that, and I was basically getting into tech around the same time I was coming out. So I was meeting all these queer people, and building that community, and they all really hate tech. So I feel like every time I meet a new queer person, I have to come out about working in tech. It’s super strange, it’s like existing in two different worlds, and I had no idea it would be like that. And they’re upset, and rightly so. A lot of my friends are getting displaced, it’s really weird. I just had no idea [laughter].
“I was basically getting into tech around the same time I was coming out. So I was meeting all these queer people, and building that community, and they all really hate tech. So I feel like every time I meet a new queer person, I have to come out about working in tech. It’s super strange, it’s like existing in two different worlds, and I had no idea it would be like that. And they’re upset, and rightly so. A lot of my friends are getting displaced, it’s really weird.”
What excites you about tech, and what activates you work-wise?
There is a lot of opportunity in tech. I consider myself to be a pretty hungry and ambitious person to make change, and do things that affect people. I think that has always been exciting. I also feel like it’s happening, and I can either avoid it or I can ride the wave, and do good for myself and try to make the space less toxic. I mean tech is happening and I really believe that technology can save lives and do incredible things, but unfortunately a lot of tech companies are focused on solving rich people problems. I just want to be around when the focus switches.
“Tech is happening and I really believe that technology can save lives and do incredible things, but unfortunately a lot of tech companies are focused on solving rich people problems. I just want to be around when the focus switches.”
Okay, let’s go into the dark side. What have been some of the biggest struggles for you?
Yeah, I was hesitant about this interview, because I feel like I have some more bad things to say than I do good things, unfortunately.
Yeah, bad things. It just feels like, in office environments I’ve made a conscious effort to try to make the workplace safe. Safe for myself and safe for other people, and it just feels like an uphill battle. And I feel like I really want to be someone who’s being active about things and calling people out for problematic behavior. But that’s really exhausting, and so then when I don’t do that, I just feel like I’m internalizing all these bad feelings. It’s pretty soul-sucking. For me it’s really toxic for my mental and emotional health. It’s very bro-y. I walk around and see women getting interrupted and being shut down, and all sorts of people feeling shut down.
It’s these people coming from other cities and they went to some Ivy League school and they immediately get a job. They don’t have any sort of idea of the privilege that they have and all of the sudden they have so much money. It feels like college. All these people live in these fancy apartments right where they work and they’re all best friends. All of a sudden they’re planted in the heart of a community that is experiencing violent gentrification and they just step around its citizens and order fancy food from an app to their apartment. And they don’t even have to really go outside ever. I was having a conversation with someone from San Francisco one time and they said that in San Francisco, life really happens on the streets, and if you’re never on the streets how can you possibly respect that? I feel like that’s really true. It’s just weird. It’s really like it feels like a sci-fi novel sometimes.
“I feel like I really want to be someone who’s being active about things and calling people out for problematic behavior. But that’s really exhausting, and so then when I don’t do that, I just feel like I’m internalizing all these bad feelings. It’s pretty soul-sucking. For me it’s really toxic for my mental and emotional health. It’s very bro-y. I walk around and see women getting interrupted and being shut down, and all sorts of people feeling shut down.”
You’ve kind of touched on this a little bit, but what’s it like being queer and working in tech and straddling those two worlds, one of privilege and one underrepresented?
It’s really weird. I feel in a way out of place in both environments. I actually met someone at work and we ended up dating. And we were dating very obviously for a while. And people were just like, “Besties.” And they just did not at all see it as a relationship. And beyond that with a lot of my friends, like I said, I’ve known people to get displaced. A lot of my good friends are social workers and artists, it’s just an entirely different experience. So, it’s super weird. I feel like I have to be really careful and intentional in how to talk about my work in my queer community. And I have to be really careful and intentional about how I talk about my queer community at work, because people don’t understand it. I end up doing a lot of educating to folks in tech. I have many times become the point of contact for trans and queer issues. Or rather, cis/het people having issues with queer and trans folks. People will just throw their confusion at me, and it’s not typically malicious but they just expect me to explain all queer/trans experiences. I’m not even trans… but people will be like “I know this trans person, why did they do this thing I don’t understand?” I don’t know every trans person and even if I did, no one owes you an explanation. I am definitely happy to educate people most of the time but folks so frequently aren’t even respectful of my time or the fact that I may be feeling tired or burnt out that day.
Only share what you’re comfortable with. But, can you share more about your experience with anxiety and PTSD in the workplace?
So, that’s something that is really hard for me to deal with. I think there’s a bigger problem with just the conversation around mental illness and mental health in America. I’ve had so many days where I’m just having a really bad anxiety day. I call in sick. I’m allowed to do that. But then I feel like I have to lie, you know? Because for some reason I feel like I’m not allowed to say, “I had really horrible nightmares all night. I’m exhausted. I need to think about myself, do some art, and then chill out.” I’m always like, “I have a cold. I have food poisoning,” or something. To have to lie about things like anxiety and PTSD, things that are already shameful or shame-inducing for me personally, and I think for a lot of people it’s just this big shame spiral. It feels really inauthentic to talk about it like that. That’s always really tough for me. And I know for a fact that a lot of tech offices and companies are taking really intense initiatives to promote physical health. They encourage people to take sick days for the flu, to genuinely rest and recover. I’ve never heard anyone encourage mental health days. I mean vacation is one thing, everyone needs a break but there is a special kind of rest and retreat needed for folks with mental illness and no one talks about that. I don’t know.
“To have to lie about things like anxiety and PTSD, things that are already shameful or shame-inducing for me personally, and I think for a lot of people it’s just this big shame spiral. It feels really inauthentic to talk about it like that. That’s always really tough for me. And I know for a fact that a lot of tech offices and companies are taking really intense initiatives to promote physical health. They encourage people to take sick days for the flu, to genuinely rest and recover. I’ve never heard anyone encourage mental health days. I mean vacation is one thing, everyone needs a break but there is a special kind of rest and retreat needed for folks with mental illness and no one talks about that.”
Getting to work in San Francisco and being in an office with a bunch of people, and particularly men, make me very anxious. I don’t know. I’m super jumpy, and people will tap me on the shoulder to tell me something, and pretty much nine times out of ten, I jump. That’s just part of my anxiety and my trauma. And always people are like: “Oh, [chuckles] didn’t mean to scare you.” I mean, people think it’s kind of funny that I’m jumpy. I guess I understand that, but at the same time, I don’t know. That’s really grating, and that’s really hard, and it’s frustrating that people won’t see that and maybe understand to approach me in a different way. I know it’s ridiculous, but if someone jumps up, if someone startles me, I get really, really freaked out.
People have intentionally startled me as a joke. For me, most days are struggling with a sort of ongoing fight or flight response. That’s what my brain feels like. Of course I’m jumpy. I’ve asked people to be respectful about it and some people are really great and other people… just don’t listen. So then I have to sort of consider outing myself as someone who struggles with this stuff. Like, will someone be more respectful if they understand I’m struggling with PTSD? Maybe I don’t want to talk about it. Maybe I don’t trust this person with that information. It’s frustrating that I’m put into this situation instead of someone just respecting my request in the first place.
Little things like that, I don’t know. Not knowing how to address these stigmas in the workplace has been something that’s caused me to really back out and internalize this. And it manifests in a pretty bad way. Actually, Riggins (my dog) is my emotional support animal. He’s been my little anxiety helper. So, he’s really great. I would like to bring him to the workplace. And I know a lot of offices are dog-friendly, but some aren’t. I think there could just be a lot more accommodations for people struggling with mental illness.
Knowing that this interview will launch after you quit your full-time job job, what was the thought process behind leaving to go freelance?
Specifically what happened was I came back from Christmas break and I was like, “I’m great. I’m feeling so good.” I went back in the office and I was like, “Oh, this is bumming me out.” So I got in touch with Ryan Putnam to see if he had any tips or anything. He was like, “Oh, you should come work with me.” Basically the timing worked out really well, but more specifically as a contractor and a freelancer, people are much more intentional with your time. For example, if you’re a full-time designer, you’re probably going to end up designing ads every day regardless of how experienced you are. And I’m like “I don’t want to do ads. I want to be illustrating.” So that’s something that I’m looking forward to, having my time being more valued, specifically. And also, I just want more flexibility. I’d rather be home more.
I will say, as someone who is now freelance, it is amazing to have control of your time, and who you work with, and what you choose to get better at. As long as you’ve figured out how to first create a savings account. Once you have a little bit of savings, then it’s good. At first, it’s really scary. But then it’s like the most wonderful decision you’ve ever made.
I’m starting this. I don’t know what is going on, but I’m not worried about it at all, for the most part. I’m just sort of letting it set over me and I’ll figure it out. I will be okay. And it just sort of creates this nirvana that I’m ready for. I’d rather take the uncertainty and the control over my time and my life.
Have you found mentors, or people you’ve looked up to for inspiration?
I think that I’m still finding that. Working right now with Ryan Putnam has been great because he has shared a lot of wisdom with me. It’s really nice working with him because I feel like he has been really successful as an emotionally aware and vulnerable person as opposed to shouting the loudest. It’s really nice to see that work out well for someone.
What are your biggest motivators, like, what do you think drives you?
I don’t know that I really know how to do anything else. Illustration is all that I really want to do. Sometimes I think about what it would be like if I went in a different direction with my career and I don’t even know what that would look like.
Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely tough as a creative who wants to make art that feeds your soul but also has to survive financially. That’s hard to do in this city.
Yeah. It’s really tricky. I definitely do a lot of fine art on the side, but I still really enjoy the visual design that I’m doing. And it is really nice to be doing what you love for money. It’s like the ultimate hustle, I really enjoy it.
How do your friends and family from home feel about how far you’ve come, and the work that you’ve done, and how you’ve turned out? How does your pastor father feel?
[chuckles] They’re actually really supportive. They have come a long, long way. They voted for George W. Bush, and now they’re voting for Bernie Sanders.
Yeah. It was a big change. I mean, when we were growing up, at some point when we were kids, my little sister was diagnosed with epilepsy, and they really, really had to fight to get her health insurance. So, they started to see the light of socialism [chuckles]. And that was kind of the tipping point. And then over the years I’ve just seen them grow. I mean, they’re still the same people, but they think really, really differently now. So yeah, I came out to them, and they have been really great and supportive. I get along with them really well. We have a lot of tough talks about their religion, because they’re still Christian, and the things that I believe in. But they are supportive and we get along really well. My mom sends me job listings that are in New York. She wants me to be on the east coast again. They really want me to come back and I don’t think I’m going to go, ever hopefully [chuckles], but it’s really nice to have their support.
That’s really great.
Yeah, it’s nice.
How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? How have you seen it change in your short time here? What is exciting? What is frustrating? What do you want to see change?
Why do I feel bad now? I personally feel really, really, very torn about it. As much as I am in the camp of tech is happening, whether or not you’re in it. There’s all these ridiculous apps that get funding and fall through. It’s super weird. I don’t know. I see some good efforts happening and I see also really shitty things. I have a few friends in tech who are women and they have had okay to awful experiences. So I don’t know. I feel not too optimistic at this point. I think that the whole culture needs to shift for any of this to actually be sustainable work. I think the only reason I’m going to be freelancing with tech companies, and the reason I’m continue to freelance with tech companies is because I kind of do it on my own terms, and I think you have to make it work for you, for it to work. But I really hope that it changes, I just want it to be a safe place for people like that. So, not optimistic.
How do you think tech could be more accommodating to folks who are suffering from PTSD or anxiety, or other mental health issues, just based on your own experience?
Yeah, it’s a great question. I think just being able to talk about it. I think that it seems so much of work, even at happy hours, people are talking about work. I think that bringing some shift of people being willing to talk about what’s really going on with them. I just think that mental wellness puts me at my best in the workplace. People are working long hours and it’s demanding work, and I think companies need to create structures and places for people to be able to talk about that. I think if companies are willing to talk about, it would sort of open the floodgates for people to be able to talk about their own experiences and make it easier. I think just facilitating where to talk about it.
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?
I would like to be able to get over my fomo enough to move somewhere that’s a little less intense than the Bay area. I don’t know. I think like, ideally, I see myself freelancing or working with like a small dedicated group of really rad designers or creative people. I don’t really see myself in any tech companies.
What about 2016, are you working on any projects either for work obviously building your freelance business, but like personal goals or anything like that?
I’m taking a break from doing artwork outside of work. So I think my focus right now is to do my work and then focus on some more of my crafty hobbies. So nothing big coming up, no projects. I think this year I want to learn how to garden and I’m going to learn how to do woodworking. Those are my very chill goals.
I’m all about it. Learn how to not work for a minute [chuckles], it is its own discipline. Let’s see, my last question for you would be, what advice would you give to folks from similar backgrounds or who have gone through similar struggles, and are getting started in tech?
I know we talked about mentors. I think what’s more important than mentorship or anything like that, and what’s always been more helpful to me, is finding peers and building your community. Just finding other women at work, or finding them outside of work, and really building that community to go back to and have a safe space. I think it is super important. I think at the end of the day, if you’re struggling with something, or having a bad day, or wanting more overtime, I think the most important thing to always remember is you are number one, the company isn’t. It’s so important to focus on yourself and not lose yourself in the noise that is all of this stuff. I think that those two things have really been what’s kept me going.
“I think at the end of the day, if you’re struggling with something, or having a bad day, or wanting more overtime, I think the most important thing to always remember is you are number one, the company isn’t. It’s so important to focus on yourself and not lose yourself in the noise that is all of this stuff.”