Young, Black And Working In Tech Without A STEM Degree

Young, Black And Working In Tech Without A STEM Degree

STEM degree
Women of Color in Tech stock images/Flickr

A history and literature major, Meghan Onserio is graduating this month with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University and she has landed a job at one of the hottest companies in the world – Google.

“When I say I’m working at Google, people are like, ‘We didn’t know you knew how to code,’” said Onserio, who will start off her professional career as an associate product marketing manager. “And I’m like, ‘Ha, surprise, I don’t.’”

Onserio told Moguldom that nine out of 10 people are shocked when she tells them she will join the ranks of a select few at the tech giant’s headquarters in Silicon Valley.

Before obtaining her full-time job at Google, Onserio interned there last summer and at Facebook’s office in Austin, Texas in summer 2017. She believes it is important for people to know the many opportunities available in tech without having a background in STEM — science, technology, engineering or math.

“I think it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole other side to running tech,” Onserio said. “There’s marketing, sales, human resources, and a whole realm of possibilities for people to go into.”

Armed with a Bachelor of Science degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania (The Wharton School) in May 2018, Olivia Nelson
raises a few eyebrows when she tells people she works at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, WA. As a global brand manager, Nelson makes no excuses for her accomplishment.

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“You can have all of the tech skills in the world,” Nelson said, “but if you don’t have people to market it, watch over finances, doing business development, etc., then you’re not going to have a company. As tech becomes more ubiquitous, more will realize that tech companies have more parts to them.”

Working in tech without a STEM degree

Nearly half of the job opportunities at tech companies do not require STEM degrees, according to a 2018 study by Glassdoor, an employment and recruiting website. The top five non-tech jobs at tech firms listed in the study include account executive, project manager, sales representative, operations manager, and account manager.

The study also pointed out that non-technical roles usually pay less than technical roles, roughly $50,000 to $90,000 compared with $80,000 to $120,000. However, the research also showed that these non-tech jobs can pay in the six figures in management roles in marketing, finance, and strategy as well as in legal departments.

Chase Mitchell graduated from University of Southern California with undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration in 2014 and enjoyed the perks of working in tech without a STEM degree. He interned at Google in Silicon Valley two summers before landing a job in sales as an account strategist. He quickly rose up the ranks to become an account manager.

“I can’t really complain about my experience,” said Mitchell, who stayed in his last Google position for four years. He left to start his own on-the-go sports cooling product company, Chill Systems, with his USC roommate.

Mitchell added, “It paid well. The people I worked with were great and talented. It’s one of those places where you walk into a room and there are so many talented people surrounding you. It’s a big opportunity for growth by being surrounded by such high caliber individuals. I can’t really complain too much about the opportunity.”

Madoree Pipkins is a Black millennial and head of people and talent at Luma Health, a health tech firm in San Francisco. She said she believes more people should be aware of the varying opportunities in technology.

“There’s just an overall lack of exposure that’s still reaching the people that it can really benefit,” said Pipkins, who has worked at three other tech firms in both human resources and communications. “Working in tech is not like working at a traditional corporation. The average tech company is not like working for a bank, the educational system, or the government. It is its own industry. And with a non-technical degree you still have to see how that career path will look like for you.”

Shantell Williams, a Harvard economics graduate, interned at Facebook and Tesla before taking a job as a program manager at Amazon’s corporate office in Seattle. When it comes to non-tech majors working in STEM, Williams said, “You have to have a very clear understanding of what the mission is for the company. And when you have that you can sit in a room with engineers and say, ‘Hey, are we driving toward this mission? What are we actually doing to make sure we ultimately hit our goal?’”

As the opportunities for non-tech roles grow in the tech space, will diversity and inclusion also improve?

Fewer than 5 percent of the digital workforce is African American at most companies, according to the National Urban League’s Digital Inclusion Index, part of the larger State of Black America 2018 report. And at least half of the workforce in these companies is white. The percentage of African Americans in all jobs in the tech industry is less than 6 percent. In Silicon Valley, the numbers hover around 3 percent for Black employees.

“To see many people that don’t look like you and with the lack of awareness, is something I find surprising at times,” Nelson said. “Those numbers, I guess, I didn’t realize how low they were, but I don’t think it would have stopped me all the same.”

The lack of inclusion and diversity in tech is real for African Americans and especially for Black women.

Ashley Williams expects to graduate from USC in May 2019 with a degree in business administration, then she’s heading to Microsoft as a product marketing manager. She is ready take on the challenge as a young Black woman.

“I think the pro is that you stand out and the con is that you stand out,” said Williams, who had two internships at Facebook. “But I feel like when standing out you can really use your voice and be heard. There are so many limitations placed against Black people and it’s hard to get out there and find your community. I think it’s a tough area to navigate and I’m glad I have experience navigating it.”