How the coolest kid on the block became a Tech Baddie: An exclusive interview with Reboot Representation’s CEO, Dwana Franklin-Davis. By Afifah Darke.
It was only during her grandmother’s funeral in 2011 that Dwana Franklin-Davis found out that the 91-year-old woman was a dissertation away from accomplishing her doctorate degree.
“She never [told me] what to study. But she said, Dwana you must study because once you have your education, they can’t take it away from you,” says Franklin-Davis. “She had a master’s degree and for a Black woman, to be born in 1920, and have a master’s degree…” she trails off as the facts speak for themselves.
Franklin-Davis is undoubtedly championing her grandmother’s philosophy and pride in education within her own life story. Today, the 44-year-old is the inaugural CEO of Reboot Representation, a coalition of tech companies dedicated to doubling the number of Black, Latina and Native American (BLNA) women receiving computing degrees by 2025.
With 13 years at Mastercard in leadership roles, a Masters of Information Management from Washington University, and a Bachelor of Science in Management from Purdue University, it is clear that Franklin-Davis does not shy away from trying hard, learning continuously, and aiming high.
Easy peasy computer squeezy
It is 10am on a sweltering New York morning. After dropping her children off at camp, Franklin-Davis is escaping the Big Apple heat with an iced coffee in her air-conditioned office. Speaking to QS-GEN on Zoom, the self-professed “cool nerd” wears a bright golden yellow T-shirt that reads: <TECHBADDIE/>.
“I’m not really the stereotypical nerdy person. I’m kind of nerdy still, as nerds are smart. And I love that about me,” she says. As a child, with her father working in Atari, a company known for its video game systems, Franklin-Davis thought that every other kid was also surrounded by computers, motherboards and testing consoles as everyday toys in their homes.
“We had PacMan everything. It was fun and exciting and exhilarating. I mean, what kind of what kid doesn’t like a video game?
“We were essentially the coolest kids on the block.”
Tech ran in her family’s blood and it only seemed natural for Franklin-Davis to also log in to the world of tech as she started thinking about her career path. “My mom did it. My dad did it. Their friends did it. My uncles did it … This is what everybody did. So, I had this weird perception that everybody did tech. My family does tech, doesn’t your family do tech?”
But tech wasn’t the only thing on Franklin-Davis’ mind. Watching her father frequently help with Boy Scouts in the community, when it was time for her to enter university, she dabbled with the thought of majoring in Social Work. “I really like to help people, that’s something which is a passion of mine,” she says. Although eventually she chose a different path in studies, Franklin-Davis’ desire to help and uplift people did not disappear.
During her time in MasterCard, Franklin-Davis became a founding member of the financial company’s Leveraging Employees of African Decent (LEAD) Business Resource Group. For two years, she also served as President of the St. Louis chapter for the Black Data Processing Associates, which focuses on enabling the upward mobility of African Americans and other underrepresented groups in tech and STEM fields.
In an article published on Evoke, a community website hosted by philanthropist Melinda French Gates, Franklin-Davis wrote: “Throughout my career as a woman of colour in corporate, technical environments, I’ve experienced first-hand the power and strength that comes from gathering those who share a common purpose… I know that we can change the outcomes for underrepresented groups when we join forces.”
She has told this story countless times in many interviews, but Franklin-Davis good-naturedly recounts her journey of switching from Computing Science to Business during her junior year of university. “Computer science is hard, regardless of what school you went to. It’s meant to challenge and stretch you out, and I was still very passionate about it. But it was isolating, and it was lonely. That’s ultimately why I changed my major.”
The only Black female student in her class, she clearly remembers how unhappy she felt at the beginning of university life. Engineering school, which can sometimes be individualistic for assignments and studying, can be very lonely, she recalls. “We’re there to learn, but we also should be having a good time. And I was not having a good time.”
Franklin-Davis says the turning point was when she decided to walk out of a Java Programming class. “I already had two internships under my belt, I had already learned in the previous summer how to program in Java … I’m the only Black person.
“I’m just like, I don’t want to do this anymore. And I walked out of class … three weeks into the semester, went over to the guidance counsellor and changed my major.” The decision wasn’t without any consequences. Franklin-Davis took an additional year to complete her university degree, but she cites the commonly-used philosophy in business: Fail fast. “I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. But I knew that I didn’t want to be miserable for the rest of my life,” she says. Eventually, to cover the costs of her final two years of schooling, she became a Resident Advisor.
For her, the decision to change majors is a matter of perception, and she says it wasn’t an act of giving up. “I found it more of a relief, than, oh, I failed at that… The weight that was lifted from my shoulders was immense. I knew there was a freedom for me, choosing for myself, what my future could look like, and not being sad because I’m stuck.”
Used to being “the only”
As a young girl growing up in Naperville, Illinois, which is 45 minutes west of Chicago, Franklin-Davis has always been “the only”, in her words. In second grade, there were only two African American kids, including herself. “We never had classes together, they separated us so that each class could have a black kid… and an Asian kid. They divided all the minorities up so each class would be diverse.”
She says matter-of-factly: “I’m used to being the only. I’ve been the only my entire life. I have never been in a position where I thought that I couldn’t, because I was Black, or because I was a woman. It’s already been instilled in me that I can do whatever I want to do.”
Black, Latina and Native American women make up only four percent of the computing workforce according to Reboot Representation. Where many might feel intimidated being “the only” in a male-dominated degree, or “the only” in majority white companies, Franklin-Davis says she developed a thick skin earlier in life than most people. “It wasn’t something that I had to learn when I went to college or something that I had to learn how to deal with when I went into corporate America. That was my life.”
She wholeheartedly credits her parents for inculcating the enormous sense of confidence she and her brother have when they were children. Today, as a mother, she also believes in trying to emulate the same philosophy with her little ones. “I look at my children and I’m also trying to raise them as very confident children.”
No sugar coating
Woman in Tech, Creator of technologist, Wife, Mom X2, change agent, force for good, teller of truth. Rarely do people describe themselves so boldly on their Twitter profiles, but then again, Franklin-Davis has proven again and again that she is unlike any other. “I am one that is not afraid to shake things up,” she says, as she explains her bio on the social networking site. “I think that sometimes you have to shake things up for things to be different.
“I am leveraging myself, my lived experience, my voice, my platform to give others a different thought perspective, and hopefully, that will make some kind of change for good.” She smiles as she also acknowledges that she is “a candid person”. “I say the things that are necessary and not sugar coat, and not meant to harm or intimidate. It’s just meant to enlighten and spark conversation.”
Franklin-Davis’ candour draws people in. YouTube videos of her leave many listeners, especially young women, inspired and more confident of themselves. QS-GEN’s time with her is no exception. Sitting there, a world apart with only screens to connect us, our time comes as goes in the blink of an eye.
When asked how she overcomes feelings of insecurity or self-doubt, she says simply: “I didn’t have doubt in my abilities as a woman or as a Black woman.” She continues: “For those that are entering into a place for the very first time, and they are the only or one of few, that can be very scary and you could have imposter syndrome. Do I actually belong here?”
The question, however, Franklin Davis says, should be, do I choose to be here?
“What I tell young people is, you absolutely can and should be in the place that you aspire to be. My advice is that your differences are your superpower. And that’s what’s going to add value to that team, that organisation, that project, and if they’re biased, their perception is their problem, and not yours.”
This article was from the QS Global Education News Issue 09. Download the full edition.