We could all learn a lesson in fearlessness and tenacity when it comes to our careers, even as an intern!
What would you do if Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, asked you personally what you wanted to accomplish in your career? While you think about that, I’ll tell you what I, a current intern at LinkedIn, did.
This past week was a normal Tuesday as an intern in Silicon Valley. I packed up my LinkedIn backpack, put on my LinkedIn sweater, and double checked that I had my LinkedIn badge. I knew I was forgetting something, but meh, I shrugged and continued on my way to work.
Ping! Ping! My phone went off around 3pm. “Jeff Weiner – Intern Q&A starts in 10 Minutes,” Siri so kindly reminded me. Excitedly, I grabbed my front row seat and was ready to hear from another extremely successful white guy in tech.
A little about me for context, I’m a rising senior at Yale University double majoring in Computer Science and African American Studies– weird combo, I know, right? If you knew me, this makes total sense. Last year, I was a Software Engineering intern at Facebook and am now an Associate Product Manager intern at LinkedIn. Anyway, that’s all stuff you can find on my LinkedIn profile.
“What you can’t find, however, is that I’ve struggled with
imposter syndrome deeply in the tech industry,
especially as a software engineer.”
My dream is to one day lead a major tech company that drives change by empowering people to see beyond the boxes society puts us in. For as long as I can remember, technology has inspired me beyond measure. Working in Silicon Valley, I’ve been extraordinarily privileged to witness how just a few lines of code can literally change the world. Yet, every day when I went to work, I rarely saw anyone that looked like me writing that code. This void pushes me to be the best in my field and pave a path that those before me have fought to begin.
So, back to my story. Hopefully, you’ve had time to think a bit more about my initial question: “What would you do if Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, asked you personally what you wanted to accomplish in your career?” This question is incredibly important because it’s the first piece of advice Jeff gives to his audiences.
As you can imagine, in the intern Q&A when he posed this question to a room full of 300 interns, guts hit the floor. However, something in me that day felt bold. I raised my hand, slowly stood up with shaky knees, and proudly declared,
“Hi Jeff, I’m Erika Hairston an APM Intern here, and one day I want to be a Head of Product at a large tech company that affects children.”
“OH SH**! OH SH**!” darted through my head as I began to sit down.
“That was a very clear and concise career goal that I have no doubt Erika is already working towards. Now, all of us in this room, including me, know about her career goal and will keep it in mind,” Jeff responded while pointing in my direction.
“He continued to emphasize the importance of
being able to articulate your goals and passions”
…but being totally honest, I was still internally freaking out. This was my first encounter with Jeff that day.
As the Q&A ended, realizing I was late to my next meeting, I rushed out passed the other interns towards my building. Like any normal person, of course I was immediately texting my mom that I just declared to the CEO what I wanted to do with my career!
In my giddy haste with eyes glued to the phone, I was absolutely oblivious to my surroundings. For a brief second, however, I looked up to hold the door for the person behind me and well, “Oh! Hi Jeff. I’m literally texting my mom right now about my answer to your first question.”
My heart started racing and then the “OH SH**! OH SH**!” came back screaming in my head.
I soon realized this was going to be at least a 5-minute walk of just me and Jeff Weiner going from one building to the next. I took as deep of a breath as I could and began to settle into myself again. In that moment, we were both just people. Not intern and CEO – but two people discussing how we want to make an impact on the world and putting that out there to bring to fruition.
And then it happened. For my first time in the tech industry, what was just a fantastical and far off dream of mine, I now saw myself in his shoes. This is real and I’m a person that can get there. I have a voice that does more than make noise, it shatters glass ceilings. I have an eye in tech not worth doubting and I have a dream that I’m capable of bringing to life.
Jeff showed me a side of tech that was human and attainable. I wasn’t just a black girl in tech – perceived as lost. He and I both knew I have a path that I am ferociously shaping and a goal I am determined to achieve. Saying this aloud made it feel even more possible.
“Surprisingly, this isn’t a story about Jeff.
In fact, it’s not even a story about me.
It’s a story about humanity and passion.”
So, I ask again, what would you do if Jeff Weiner, or Obama, or even your mom asked what you wanted to do with your career? Own it, declare it, and believe in it. Everyone has something that gets them this weird excitement that can keep them up at night with curiosity and joy. Especially for us minorities and underrepresented groups, when we don’t see people that look like us in those roles that we dream of, it’s even more important to bring them to life ourselves anyway that we can.
Jeff, I know you consistently discourage people from praising successful people for being down to earth; But, I’m about to do it to you. Thank you for our casual conversation. Thank you for making me feel a step closer to my dream job and showing me that I am seen in this industry.
Originally posted on LinkedIn by Erika Hairston