Tennessee Diversity Consortium
Preparing Formerly Incarcerated Individuals for Tech Careers with Alex Qin
Alex Qin, a multidisciplinary actor, technologist, activist, and the founder of Emergent Works, highlights the key changes that need to happen to make the tech industry more diverse and inclusive.
Alex Qin didn’t fully understand why she was experiencing discrimination and harassment at her job as a software engineer. But when she shaved her head and people started treating her differently, she recognized that the problem had nothing to do with her work.
“I realized, ‘OK, I don’t have to change.’ This is not my problem. It’s the industry’s problem, and it’s a societal problem,” she shared.
In this episode of Speak Up for Equity, Tennessee Diversity Consortium Executive Director Robert Lawrence Wilson talks with Qin about her journey of becoming an advocate for underrepresented groups in the tech space. She also discusses her transition to working in film and offers advice to anyone who feels discouraged as they fight for equity.
Experiencing Discrimination as a Woman in Tech
As one of the only women of color in her college’s computer science program, Qin started noticing people treating her differently as soon as she enrolled in advanced computer science courses.
“I was hypersexualized and underestimated at the same time. I couldn’t really go through a class without getting hit on by the students or by my professors, which was even worse. For group projects, people didn’t want to work with me,” she shared. “It was very isolating and I felt very confused.”
Unfortunately, these same patterns showed up in the workplace, and Qin struggled with feeling depressed and excluded. Around the time that she decided to shave her head, she also started learning more about the structures of oppression that were contributing to the things she and other women and people of color were experiencing every day.
“I became an advocate for diversity and inclusion in tech, public speaking and opening schools for people from underrepresented backgrounds so they could learn to code for free,” Qin explained.
A Multi-Pronged Approach to Diversity
Qin started by trying to bring as many underrepresented people into the tech industry as possible, but she soon realized that this was not enough. The tech companies themselves also need to change in order to hire more diverse candidates and create inclusive environments where they can thrive.
“The way that we get more folks from underrepresented backgrounds into the tech field and other fields, it’s a multi-pronged approach. It’s not just one solution,” Qin explained.
First, people need representation that allows them to see people that look like them in a variety of roles. Second, companies need to change their hiring processes.
“I’ve seen so many great candidates who are folks of color, who are women, get passed over, even though I know they have the skills,” Qin said. “The interview processes and the people who interview, they are trained and designed to fit a specific type of hire. So we need to redesign those, and then once folks are in the companies, we need to make sure that they can thrive and progress along the ladder of management and leadership.”
In 2016, Qin learned about mass incarceration, and she decided to focus her efforts on training and employing formerly incarcerated software engineers.
“It’s really hard to get a job after prison, so if you know how to use a computer, know how to use the internet, know how to code, it’s definitely a leg up,” she explained. “Having a high-paying job can make a huge difference in keeping people out of prison.”
The Power of Pursuing Your Passions
In 2021, Qin stepped down from her role as CEO at Emergent Works, and she’s now pursuing filmmaking.
“A great film can really change the way someone thinks, can make a huge impact on someone’s life. We need more stories featuring people from underrepresented in film: people of color, women, people from the LGBTQ community, people from the disabled community, etcetera,” she explained. “I want to tell stories with characters that you’re not used to seeing, characters that defy your expectation of what this kind of person should be.”
And though Qin misses her on-the-ground work of teaching and providing services at Emergent Works, she wants to remind both herself and other activists that it’s OK to pursue your passions.
“The most radical act that we can take is to pursue our joy,” she argued. “I have also felt the burden of, if I’m to exist in this world, I need to be constantly changing the world. But I can change the world without trying to force the world to change. I can change the world just by being the happiest version of myself in the world.”
To learn more about the ways you can get involved with the Tennessee Diversity Consortium, visit tennesseediversityconsortium.org/join-tdc. And be sure to subscribe to Speak Up for Equity wherever you listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode.