Ananda Leeke, Digital Storyteller and Strategist #NSBE #BlackStemLikeMe
Ananda Leeke is a true STEAM (the 'A' is for arts) polymath and the CEO of her self-named consulting firm. She weaves her expertise in law, finance, digital communications, media, and mindfulness to help business entities craft mindful ways of telling their stories via today's powerful digital platforms. In addition, she is a published author, speaker, yoga instructor, artist, and Reiki practitioner. Currently, she serves as the Director of Digital Policy and Engagement at the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council. She reflected on her personal and professional journey with me, a fellow blogger, recently over Skype. Our in-depth interview is summarized here.
Q: You are a self-described storyteller. What is your story?
A: I am not your typical tech person. I studied French and pre-law in college, and the first time I ever used a computer was for law school research! I was an information junkie: I spent a lot of my time on LexisNexis. My mother was an early tech adopter and sent me those old AOL CD-ROMS to make sure we stayed connected. During a trip to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, I was struck by the amount of women at terminals in the internet café I visited. In my third job after law school at the Hamilton Securities Group, Inc., an investment and financial software firm, I started as a transaction manager. With the CEO's blessing I created a new role for myself: knowledge manager, after reading a Fast Company article on knowledge management careers. Around that time, I began writing online columns for NetNoir's spirituality and women channels, at the urging of my friend who was working there. After my investment firm adventures, I became a business consultant and provided trademark and domain registration research. Next, I worked as a nonprofit manager and created a social media technical assistance program that served over 25 social services agencies. During that time, I built my first website with the help of my investment firm colleagues, integrating art, spirituality, writing, and coaching.
Q: Would you say that tech served as your 'gateway' to your creative side?
A: Yes! It is my tech – evolution, or ‘tech – a –lution’ (chuckles).
Q: What was the next phase of this evolution on your creative path?
A: I discovered that a career in law was not for me, after I hit my spiritual, financial, and emotional wall. Over the years, I've learned that this process, which I call "flatlining" (I've had three) has a purpose. Everyone does it. It is meant to break you open so you can see where you need to heal. Part of this work involves surrender, accepting yourself, and focusing on what is really important. When I couldn't finish my first book, my editor insisted I set up a blog and write daily on Blogger.com. I also shared my journey on MySpace and YouTube. By the time my novel was done, I had built an audience. I became even more visible in communities in the blogosphere, and I created my own digital community via my first podcast.
Q: Did you experience sacrifice in your journey?
A: Yes. You have to make choices in life that honor your spirituality, health, creativity, and finances. Choices require leaving something behind. We live in an abundant universe. I spent 16 years placing energy into my education.
Q: Can you share a bit about some of the mentors or inspiring figures you had along the way?
A: Yes, I met several women in the social media and tech worlds during my travels. My first blogger conference was Blogging While Brown in 2008. I sat in the same room with Ava DuVernay. I also met Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder of BlogHer. Months later, I met Suzanne Turner, founder of Feminism 2.0 and Ana Roca Castro, founder of Latinos in Tech Innovation and Social Media (LATISM) as well as the founders of Blogalicious. My conversations with these women and many others I met inspired me to write Digital Sisterhood: A Memoir of Fierce Living Online, a book that celebrates the impact women in social media and tech have had on my digital life. The Digital Sisterhood Network was born in 2010, as I was writing. My yoga teacher Faith Hunter, founder of Embrace Yoga DC, showed me how to weave mindfulness and creativity into my business. Tranquil Space Yoga founder Kimberly Wilson also taught me similar lessons.
Q: Do you have any advice for other women who are pursuing a path in STEAM?
A: Yes, I do: Engage in self–reflection: ground yourself and ask yourself the questions you seek the answers to. Say yes. Allowing is important for recovering Type-A personalities. Prepare, then release. Be still, trust your process, and practice patience. Show up. Have flexible goals. Build your toolbox based on what you know you need. Surround yourself with loving truth tellers. Be proactive in your learning. Ask questions, and if you find that you are the smartest person in the room, find another room with smarter people. There is always a way into the rooms where you want to be. Volunteer, ask questions, hustle, and network.
Q: There is a clearly documented racial and gender divide in representation in traditional STEM spaces, but less so in the social media platforms such as Twitter and the blogosphere. Have you even encountered racial and/or gender divides in the course of your work? How do you propose closing those gaps via your work?
A: I look at this divide in two ways: one is a question of access. My definition of tech expands to a digital communications platform because access to tech in that vein can be as simple as the use of an app. Many apps are free, open-sourced, and easily downloaded on devices many of us already use. This means less of a gap for POC and women. Lack of business capital for an entrepreneur in tech is still a great barrier, and the access to this is definitely still an issue. The entities I see addressing these gaps are Black Female Founders, Black Founders, Blacks in Technology, CODE2040, digitalundivided, Digital Sistas, Latinos in Technology Innovation and Social Media, Latinos in Information Sciences and Technology Association, Latino Institute for Corporate Inclusion, Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, NewME Accelerator, The Ola Initiative, TechInclusion, Women of Color STEM Conference, and others. They are building networks, providing information and resources, conducting training, offering mentoring and networking opportunities, and sponsoring pitch competitions that help reduce the barriers. There are also publications including Black Enterprise, Facebook groups like Tech Family, podcasts, and Twitter chats that provide a wealth of information, tech entrepreneur interviews, and resources.
Q: What is next for you?
A: My current professional focus is inclusion, using STEAM to close gaps for people of color and women. Personally, I am focused on more promoting, teaching, and writing. My current writing focus is "mindfully me every day", teaching people who work in tech how to care for themselves while tech –ing!
Many thanks to Ananda Leeke for sharing her wealth of insight and intel with us!