Diversity, Women in Tech

Women in Tech Spotlight: Tiffany Mikell (@mikellsolution)


Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazsedky).

“What programming does is allow you to build something that addresses a problem,” says Tiffany Mikell in a 2014 interview from Dev Bootcamp. It’s a philosophy she’s adopted on a much wider scale, creating and collaborating with companies that tackle difficult social issues by using technology and spreading awareness among the tech community.

As CEO/CTO of BSMdotCo and Technology Director of Trans*H4CK, Tiffany Mikell uses her experience in software development, education design, and tech entrepreneurship to improve access to education for adult learners and promote the work and needs of gender non-conforming communities.

I would argue that the nature of technology is to make possible what seemed impossible before. Tiffany Mikell takes this idea several steps further, for the people who need it most.

Tiffany Mikell’s current projects

With BSMDOT.co (formerly BlackStarMedia), she’s built technology and digital media tools to increase the accessibility of education for adult learners, including tools for virtual conferences, virtual hackathons, Twitter chats and virtual business courses. What sets them apart is the focus on building experiential environments that help students engage in distance learning programs.

AerialSpaces™, their flagship virtual learning SaaS offering, is being piloted by the White House ConnectHome digital literacy training initiative. ConnectHome made headlines in 2015 as a pilot program to give free or low-cost internet access to 275,000 homes in 27 cities, along with digital literacy programs like AerialSpaces™.

Then there’s Trans*H4CK, where Tiffany is the Technology Director. It’s a company devoted to creating open source tech products that:

  • Promote economic advancement and financial sustainability for trans, gender non conforming, agender and non-binary people. Since 2013, they’ve had more than 600 transgender developers, designers and aspiring coders presenting at their hackathons and helping to develop products.
  • Promotes attention to and improves services for trans people without homes, who are sex workers, or who are incarcerated.
  • Increases gender safety.
  • And support the overall well-being of the community.

Considering that non gender conforming people are unemployed at twice the national rate (4x for transgender people of color), are more likely to be harassed, discriminated against or fired from their jobs, and one in five transgender people in the U.S. have been discriminated against when seeking a home (one in five transgender people have also experienced homelessness at some point in their lives) – this is life-changing work.

A winding career path

Tiffany Mikell began her career in tech as many great minds seem to – by dropping out of high school. Of her brief stint at a Chicago public high school, she says “the lack of structure and other necessities, such as books, was hugely disappointing.” An autodidact both by nature and necessity, she didn’t let that stop her. She taught herself programming, enrolled in the i.c.stars program, took a 30-day JAVA boot camp and crossed her fingers that she would be hired by Accenture.

Five years later, not only was she an Accenture software engineer, she also devoted her time to the African American Interest Group – which put her back in Chicago public school classrooms as a presenter on her career in tech. She then helped launch Dev Bootcamp in Chicago, one of the first code schools of its kind that gives a complete software development program in 9 intense weeks. She says they had 150 students in their first class, only five of whom were black.

“It was a wakeup call for me because I believed it was all about access. If we can lower the access barrier to technology careers, make it a shorter experience than a 4-year computer science degree, then we would see an increase in diversity. But it has more to do with the culture of traditional educational spaces, and how people of color feel in those spaces. I started to examine the problem of how to create inclusive learning environments and an educational pedagogy that speaks to people of color, specifically.” (Listen to the rest of this interview here.)

That was when Tiffany and BSMdotCo Co-Founder Kortney Ziegler decided to focus their efforts on the technology of education. Her most recent project is creating a series of virtual collaboration tools to make online learning more engaging for all users.

It’s this winding career path that perfectly paved the way for Tiffany to become an “education disrupter,” finding ways to help people teach themselves skills – no brick-and-mortar classroom required.

I was happy to have a Q&A session with Tiffany to gain more insights into her incredible work.

How do your experiences in education vary and overlap with your experiences in tech?

As a self-directed learner, I’ve always rejected the idea that educational opportunities should be limited to classrooms and traditional institutions.  As a young independent scholar, technology was incredibly important to me as both a research and communication tool.  Later in life, the industry itself provided the creative autonomy and flexibility I’d come to demand in my career.  My curiosities and interests drive the projects I start and to which I contribute; very similar to the how I designed educational programs for myself.  Additionally, the constant learning required to stay relevant as a software engineer was ideal for my “always be learning” attitude toward life.    

What are some things that you’ve learned, and some ways that you’ve grown as a person, as a result of being the CEO/CTO of @BSMdotCo and the Technology Director for Trans*H4CK?

Oh wow.  This is a huge question.  I often say that 1 year of running a startup is the equivalent to about 3-5 years in any other professional setting.  It’s amazing how much I’ve grown as a person since the almost 2 years since the launch of BSMdotCo (Formerly BlackStarMedia).  One lesson I’ve had to learn has been to guard my time/mental energy with as much force and intentionality as I do acquiring customers.  Both are equally as critical to my startups’ success.  In my role, I have to say No a lot more than I want to – I’ve learned to do so often and as the default response.  

What was the inspiration for @BSMdotCo and how does it bridge the B2B and educational tech worlds?

Because my cofounder Kortney and I both have extensive education and technology experiences – we wanted to explore creating accessible and inclusive learning environments for people of color specifically.  We started by creating an online learning model similar to that of General Assembly and/or CreativeLive —  for a specific niche of students.   

Although we built traction for our brand, we struggled to successfully monetize our “courses” – as the MOOC space has been saturated. We decided to structure our curriculum in a “virtual conference” format and had a MUCH easier time selling conference tickets than selling course access.  

We then began to evaluate technology that would allow us to broadcast an entire conference online. None of the products we tested served us well, so we hacked together an alternative in a period of 3 weeks.  

Our conference attendees and speakers alike were blown away.  We sold more tickets in the first hour after we opened the doors to our virtual conference center than we had in the entire month prior.  We received several requests from individuals and organizations interested in hosting their own virtual conference on our platform. It was one of our biggest moments of validation.

After months of experimenting, we’ve been able to not only create radical models for delivering education, but also develop a technology platform that is being used by our customers to shift the delivery of education in ways that matter to them.

What are some of the products that have been created as a result of Trans*H4CK?

Trans*H4CK has become the hub for transgender visibility in tech and entrepreneurship. Our hackathon and speaker series has traveled the country fostering visibility for trans* technologists. As a mini-incubator, we’ve launched dozens of new applications used across the globe; had over three hundred transgender developers, designers, and aspiring coders attend our hackathons; help secure tech employment for 15 attendees and helped to birth several startups and social enterprises: (Some of which are: Trans*Code (UK); TransTech SE (US); RadRemedy (US))

A sample of the apps developed at Trans*H4CK:

  1. YO Restrooms: Send a Yo to YORESTROOMS and find the closest gender safe bathrooms using REFUGE Restrooms data.
  2. Who Did I Miss: Simple to use form site that contacts conference organizers to encourage and recommend diverse speakers.
  3. An app that lets people bypass web filters to access sites about transgender issues and only transgender issues. Check out its feature in WIRED.

We also deliver technology education and product showcase opportunities on the Trans*H4CK {Collaboration} LOFT– a collection of virtual spaces developed internally and designed specifically for collaboration, sharing and building for the trans and gender non conforming community.  Recaps from recent virtual events can be found on our blog.

Who are some of the educational speakers that have been featured at Trans*H4CK and what ideas do they have to share?

Our speaker series has featured the stories of leading transgender executives, innovators, and emerging leaders–stories which were previously absent from the tech landscape.

Here are videos from the online speaker series which profiles transgender developers making important moves in tech and entrepreneurship:

  1. Lynn Cyrin, Founder of Quirrell
  2. Harlan Kellaway, Developer of Refuge Restrooms for iOs
  3. Dr. Vivienne MingScientist

What do you think others can do to help create spaces for transgender tech innovators and entrepreneurs? Are there other communities that we can support in addition to Trans*H4CK?

It’s critical that we support transgender technologists and their work financially.

Trans*H4CK and other communities like it are so important – what are some of the reasons that you think they’re important?

Shortly before deciding to start a company together, I had the opportunity to work with Kortney Ziegler as a Trans*H4CK volunteer when he brought the hackathon series he founded to Chicago. Although I’d spent several years working as a software engineer at the time,   I was blown away by the inclusivity and collaborative (vs competitive) energy felt during the 4 day event. I had never attended a tech focused event that was as warm and welcoming.  Trans*H4CK provides a safe space where individuals from all walk of life can bring their skills and life experiences to the exciting process of building solutions that matter to them through the use of technology.  Trans*H4CK teaches me every day that intentionality and empathy can be the catalyst for shifting the culture of entire communities in incredibly short periods of time.

How do you think the tech community can help amplify the voices of Trans*H4CK community members?

Attend our virtual events.  Engage with us on Twitter.  Support our organization financially.

Here are a few reads that were significant to Tiffany during the last few years while venturing:

  • How To Be Black, Baratunde Thurston. I’m such a huge fan of Baratunde’s career. He too follows his passions and is able to bring such a unique and multi disciplinarian approach to digital innovation, problem solving and storytelling.  
  • The Personal MBA, Josh Kaufman. Hands down one of the most useful business books I’ve ever read (and re-read).
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