Part 2 of Processing My Struggle With Depression And Imposter Syndrome in Silicon Valley from 2017.
Trigger Warning. This post discusses depression, death, mental health, failure, and anxiety. These are my feelings.
How do I feel about depression?
I f*****g hate depression. I hate it with my soul. I despise how depression can make me feel. It’s a feeling of hopelessness, sadness, and loss of all confidence. Depression makes me feel as if I don’t matter, I’m not good enough, and I have no voice. Combine depression with imposter syndrome, with being an introvert with episodes of anxiety, and you have a perfect mix of a mental volcano that could remain calm for years, or you never know when or what could trigger it to explode. My thoughts could be as unstable as the climate unless I work on it daily. It’s a war with myself, and it’s a war with my brain to maintain a sense of hope and stability. So yeah, I f*****g hate depression!
The Back Story: What Caused My Depression, This time?
It’s been ten years since I first came to Silicon Valley before moving to San Francisco. S.F. is now home. I came to Silicon Valley with high hopes of changing the world, changing the tech industry to make it more inclusive and diverse, along creating opportunities for wealth and access for others. “The underrepresented in tech” was the term to use back then without triggering too many feathers. In 2011 the numbers that triggered the movement were less than 1% of venture capital backed founders were Black and only 8% were women via CBInsights. We were called underrepresented founders. The numbers were flawed and probably worse than reported because, in that 1% of data, there was hardly any data around Latinx founders or Black Women or LGBTQIA founders. In 2016, Project Diana data showed that only .2% of venture capital went to Black women. That time in the tech industry from 2011 to 2014 was the hardest in my life, as I wrote about it here. You see, bringing up the lack of diversity in tech and venture capital was like saying Candyman three times to your tech career back then. But I was stubborn, I wanted systemic change in the tech industry, and I did the best I could.
It wasn’t until 2014 the tech industry released its workforce diversity numbers, and then everything changed. I had more data, and I was like, see!
From 2015 – 2020 Melinda Briana Epler (friend, wife, and founder of Change Catalyst) and I started to see how we can significantly impact tech to have an inclusive tech ecosystem for everyone, especially for the underrepresented. We wanted the tech industry to look like the world—our beautiful, diverse world, full of hope, innovation, and opportunities. Thus, we launched Tech Inclusion conferences worldwide and started consulting with numerous tech companies on hiring, Allyship, and creating an inclusive culture. Over the years’ we introduced 11,700+ job candidates to tech companies, hosted events with over 28,000 attendees in 50+ Countries.
There’s the age-old saying that “diversity is hard.” It’s not! What’s hard is dealing with humans who live with a fixed mindset in positions of power and wealth which will stop at nothing to maintain their control. What’s hard is realizing humans can not care about another human because of their skin color or what school they didn’t attend. What’s hard is even with all the data in the world that shows the monetary gains, the benefits, the innovation of having diverse teams, someone will ask, “why are you working on diversity?” What’s hard is looking someone in the eye, knowing damn well they couldn’t care less about diversity, Black humans or LGBTQIA humans or Latinx humans. What’s hard is knowing the only reason people are even exploring a conversation about diversity or inclusion with you is that the manager or CEO asked them to, or they are afraid of negative press.
I don’t know at what point over the last two or three years that my latest round of depression started to creep in, but I know there’s a connection between doing work to try to make the tech industry more inclusive and diverse and my depression. I highly recommend companies to provide coaching and therapy opportunities to their employees who work on diversity and inclusion, lead ERGs, or even during their 20% time.
Murder Woke Up The Tech Industry:
At the start of 2020, even before the pandemic/ COVID-19 started to make global news, I was burnt out, depressed, ready for a change. With the uncertainty of the political climate in America, the tech industry seemed to be going back in time. The diversity numbers haven’t moved too far from the 2014 data, and then everything changed. On May 25, 2020, the murder of George Perry Floyd, Jr. by a police officer happened. To even type that gives me anxiety and triggers feelings of sadness and rage.
With the murder of George Perry Floyd, Jr. and the other unnecessary murders of Breonna Taylor, Manuel “Mannie” Elijah Ellis, and sadly more, the injustice of Black humans we have seen over the years, the world cried for change. At least some of us did. We took to the streets, and we protested, marched, yelled, screamed, tweeted, hopped on audio rooms, called for change, called for justice, called for reform during a pandemic with allies fed-up and wanting change now. All while we held our breath to see how the November election would turn out.
The Month of May was just cloudy for me. You see, I’ve been harassed by the police in the South, just standing on the sidewalk doing nothing. In 2011 while in Mountain View, CA walking back from the cafe from working on the accelerator, I was running at the time; four Police Officers pulled up on me, asking me what I was doing in the neighborhood, all with their hands on their guns. I just knew that night was going to be my last. Those thoughts and feelings trigger me as I know I’m lucky to be alive today.
During the following weeks after the murder of George Perry Floyd, Jr., the tech industry woke the F**K up. Not the entire tech industry but a good portion of it. Black people in tech had enough of P.R. diversity in tech talk with many tech companies and some venture capital firms releasing statements about supporting the #BlackLivesMatter movement and addressing the inequalities in tech, especially for Black people. I have never seen so many non-Black people trying to understand racism or ask if I’m ok or to say I’m sorry in my life. Sorry for not doing more for equality or ashamed for not understanding that racism is destroying our capacity to live as humans, as Black humans.
My love for the tech industry has always been the potential of how technology could make the world a better place for all humans. Now I realize the tech industry is more about capitalism, power, and navigating the systemic gateways of opportunities. As more tech companies and leaders continued to speak up about #BlackLivesMatter in 2020, Tiffani Ashley Bell came with the fire tweet of the year: “Make the hire, send the wire!” Tiffani’s tweet emancipated everything I’ve been trying to do in tech since 2011.
Throughout the rest of 2020, the tech industry made pledges and allocated capital toward programs supporting Black people in tech! Yeah! Finally! Sadly for “some” or “most” tech industry, it seemed the only thing worse than the potential of bad press was for numerous murders of Black people captured on video by Black Women (Darnella Frazier) during a pandemic for change to happen on a massive scale. Thank you to Darnella for your bravery in recording the video.
2020, So What Had Happened Was, I Got A Job
Going into 2020, Melinda and I had high hopes of starting something new. Our company, Change Catalyst, was in acquisition talks with a Y.C.-backed startup for four months. I’m not sure if it was the fear of the pandemic or a board member who didn’t support the CEO’s vision around diversity and inclusion, or some of my old SJW tweets when I called everyone and everything out or what. The company backed out of the deal. We were close to signing too. We had negotiated numbers for our employees (3 at the time). We were plotting investments with our signing bonuses, and the lawyers approved the terms. If I was just a little depressed in early 2020, I would be full-on depressed now. Still, as an entrepreneur, you push on. Shortly after the lack of acquisition news, the pandemic started to freak people out, and our business at Change Catalyst was in a hold, wait and see what happens mode. Like many small businesses, we had to let staff go and cut hours as we rode out the pandemic.
As early 2020 progressed, I had no drive left to continue to do any more Tech Inclusion events or anything around diversity inclusion. I wanted a job. I wanted a job working at a startup with intelligent people I could learn from and impact a different segment in tech. I wanted a position where I could use some of my other skills of creating community, marketing, and advocacy. Partly in panic and unsure of what the rest of the year would look like, I reached out to my network for any leads. I was in talks with about five companies. Most companies said I had too much experience for the roles I was considering. Also, a few people who know me well were like, “Wayne, you don’t want a job” or “I can’t see you at a company” because I love being an entrepreneur. Still, I pursued job opportunities and landed at Observable, leading their community.
On April 20, 2020, I started working at Observable. Observable is the destination for data visualization founded by Melody Meckfessel, CEO, and Mike Bostock, CTO. Melody leads Observable with empathy and wisdom. When I saw the Observable platform and the potential to tell stories with data visualization, I was excited. The nerd in me lit up. I joined Observable as the Community Manager. Little did I know a week and a month after starting Observable, on May 25, George Perry Floyd, Jr. would be murdered and change everything. I “slacked in” Black several days. I was numb, angry, and sad many days in my first three months at Observable.
The Observable team may be small, but it’s diverse. Proving if you just put in the work to hire diverse employees, it’s not “hard.” As a small startup growing through a pandemic and the most significant racial justice movement in the country in years, at Observable, we took time to acknowledge what was happening in the world. Melody advised the team to take as much time as needed for their mental health. I’m grateful for Melody’s leadership and guidance during the emotional time.
At Observable, when I wasn’t completely depressed, I did my best to grow the community and provide product feedback and strategy to help the community grow and connect. I hosted several virtual events on data visualization. I was also managing Observable’s Twitter account, launched the Observable Instagram account and meetup community. In 2021 I lead the launch of Observable’s Ambassador Program and community newsletter. It was great to learn how the community was using data visualization to share their stories or create passion projects. Most importantly, it was great to work with some of the awesome humans at Observable.
As the rest of 2020 panned out during the new civil rights and equality movement, along with the new “woke tech mindset” to support Black lead programs, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) started to sink in. Add that weight to my mind, holding on day by day. I was like, really? I’ve always felt that I’m either too early in tech movements. It’s a bad trait of an introvert and overthinker. I knew one day the tech industry would wake up to want to do more to correct the inequalities in tech, but I didn’t think the reasons would be the combined trauma we experienced in 2020.
As I started to get better over the year mentally, I led a couple of culture talks at Observable, but I wanted to do more. I watched some of the newer voices and old school voices in the Black In Tech and Diversity In Tech movement make moves on Twitter and Clubhouse. I felt like an outsider looking in. That’s one thing about the tech industry. Unless you’re hyper-successful, it’s not about what you’ve done in the past. It’s about what you’re doing now. It’s about what story you are telling and how you are growing, making money, or helping others.
I remember joining a Clubhouse conversation not too long after Clubhouse started, and I was a little worked up, and @Web called me out in a Clubhouse room. I can’t remember the entire conversation, but it was about underrepresented founders, race, and venture capital. It was a reminder that I’ve been holding too many emotions. I’ve had some traumatic experiences in tech. From being called the N-word, to being called a nobody to my face by some Black elites in tech, to being told I’m not “as dumb as I look.” After that Clubhouse conversation, I felt even more disconnected and old. I decided to shut up, do my job at Observable, and find other ways to support Black humans doing the work.
I saw Sherrell Dorsey, founder of the Plug, announce a Data Fellows program; I did what I could to support financially. I saw Khalia Braswell was looking for more funding for her INTechCamp for Girls program, so I gave what I could to help her. I started to do some mentoring as well.
I Ghosted Myself on Two Wheels
In 2018 Melinda and I started riding motorcycles in S.F. I had learned how to ride as a kid growing up in N.C. from my dad. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I love riding my motorcycle on epic adventures, riding to see the sunset, and doing mods on my bike. Riding motorcycles is like therapy, but it’s not therapy. You ride and have to focus on your surroundings while also enjoying being close to nature. Riding has made me appreciate our beautiful planet greatly. Recent studies have shown the benefits of motorcycle riding and mental health, which explains why I enjoy riding soo much. I’ve done close to 50k miles or more in the last three years.
While riding a motorcycle is my side passion and part therapy, it can also be escapism and avoidance. Looking back over the past year and a half, I’ve ghosted myself and others. Mentally I ghosted myself out of opportunities. I stopped communicating on social media. As the 2020 Black In Tech movement started to grow in the second half of the year, companies began to reach out for job opportunities. News outlets started reaching out for quotes or interviews. I passed them over to others or ignored them. I feel terrible about this, but the team at HBCU.vc, lead by the awesome Hadiyah Mujahid, was working on the book Black Founders at Work: Journeys to Innovation and had reached to me out about the late Hank Williams, who passed away in November 2015, but I didn’t respond. Thinking about Hank always makes me sad as he was like my “tech father.” Hank was our “T’challa” in tech. Thinking about the deaths of Black men in 2020, Kobe, Chadwick Boseman, talking about Hank, felt like another traumatic experience. I’m sorry!
I also had two book publishing companies contact me for a possible book deal. They wanted books on diversity and inclusion in tech. You can sense the movement of companies trying to support Black people in the air. I tried one weekend to write an outline but just couldn’t put together my thoughts. I did suggest a book on Mental Health in Tech, but the idea didn’t get much traction with the Acquisitions Editor. Again, I think I’m too early as my gut says that we’ll see more books on mental health in the next two years. I dropped the hope of becoming an author at the time.
That’s the thing about depression; depression can make you feel like you don’t have a way to achieve anything.
In 2020 I had a job; Melinda started a podcast on Allyship and began leading workshops and doing executive training on Allyship, empathy, and microaggressions while preparing for her book (How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace) released in September. Mentally I was struggling and knew I needed help.
Finding Help and Hope
One day late 2020, I knew something needed to change and to get professional help. I started seeing my current therapist in October 2020. From 2017 to October 2020 is the longest time I’ve gone between therapists since 2013. My current therapist has helped me unpack so many thoughts connected to my mental health, self-awareness, and goals in life.
During some of my early sessions with my therapist, they helped me unpack that I struggle with being different. I live for freedom from the capitalist system. I do my best work, and I’m happiest when working on solutions to help other humans reach their goals and address what I would call a badge of honor in being an introvert and how being an introvert relates to isolation. Mentally I’ve become isolated, too much in my thoughts, fearful, afraid of what others think in the last year. I’ve been feeling like a failure and avoiding conflict or just sharing my thoughts. That’s not me. That’s not how I survived the tech industry so far, and that’s not going to allow me to help myself or others. My therapist has helped me find hope in myself.
2020 wasn’t all doom and gloom. Along with finding a job, I received a grant for the Icon Project from Brad Feld and the Anchor Point Foundation. The Icon Project was an idea I had in 2018 initially around self-awareness and community for Black Men in tech that evolved along with a Slack channel where I used to host AMAs and interviews. In 2019 I held the first Icon Summit at Instagram NY H.Q. focused on Black and Brown men in tech around and their success. You can read the history of the Icon Project here. While at Observable and getting better through my therapy sessions as we crossed over to 2021, I knew it was time to make a change and take some risk, as that’s what entrepreneurs do. In May of 2021, I decided to leave Observable and relaunch the Icon Project with a new mission and focus.
The Icon Project mission is to address Black and Brown Men’s mental health and professional development needs in tech.
My Mental Health Solution
The number one question I get asked today is from Black men asking how I find a therapist. That’s just one of the problems I want to solve with the Icon Project.
The Icon Project programs consist of a therapy fund to access mental health and coaching opportunities through our partner network. A fellows program launching fall of 2021, a community network, and an annual virtual summit.
Data also shows only 6.6% of Black Men receive mental health services, which is the lowest compared to women and other ethnic groups. Data also indicates humans with mental illnesses and are uninsured are less likely to get the treatment they need. Other data shows humans who identify as two or more races (24.9%) are most likely to report any mental illness than any other racial/ethnic group. 16% of Hispanics and Latinx humans have reported a mental illness within the past year (2019-2020). AAPI humans make up only 6% of the U.S. population, but of those, about 15% have reported a mental illness in the past year (2019-2020). We’re currently in a mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, historical trauma, years of oppression, and racism.
The Icon Project nor myself can solve any or all of those problems alone, but I can try to help provide solutions to problems I’ve experienced myself. Also, I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunities to benefit from having a therapist and career coaches over the years.
I’m now working on the Icon Project full-time. I’m just getting started, and I know it’s not going to be easy. A fund for access to therapy for Black and Brown men, an upcoming virtual summit is enough to stress you out, but I’m grateful for the support of Melinda, friends, and donors.
The Icon Project is a fiscally sponsored project of the Tech Inclusion Foundation Inc. (EIN: 83-2119758), a 501c3 non-profit organization.
On July 28th-29th we’re hosting the annual Icon Summit for Black and Brown Men in tech. Join us!
I have not written a blog post in over three years. Writing this post is part of my mental health journey if you have made it this far, LOL. Thanks!
A big thanks to my amazing wife and friend Melinda Briana Epler for her patience and support. I also would like to give a special thanks to these humans for their support, friendship, or just showing up over the years to speak at an event or just checking in to say, “You Good“?
Chris Genteel, Sonja Gittens Ottley, LaFawn Davis, Dr. Freada Kapor Klein, Brad Feld, Alexis Ohanian, Ulysses Smith(+BLEND team), Katelin Holloway, Natalia Villalobos, Rachel Williams, Mekka Okereke, Bobby Goodlatte, Cedic Brown, Joshua Krammes, Lesly Simmons, Micah Baldwin, and “The Fam”( Sian Morson, Leslie Miley, Robert Murray, & Jeff Namnum). A special thanks to the Bay Area motorcycle/scrambler crew as well.
❤️ You all!