Being the only woman of color in her programming classes inspired Marlin Williams to help minorities who work in technology. She joined Compuware and went on to become its first chief diversity and inclusion officer. She held a similar role at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. She also served as deputy chief information officer for the City of Detroit, developing the city’s first e-government initiative as well as leading a team that supported the technology and infrastructure for Super Bowl XL. Since joining TechTown in January, an urban research and technology business accelerator based in Detroit, Williams, who also founded the organization Sisters Code, has spent her days creating ways to help diverse groups start new businesses. We talked to Williams about the importance of opportunities in technology for women and people of color.
Hour Detroit: What is TechTown?
Marlin Williams: I think of TechTown like a think tank. This beautiful think tank where all these beautiful minds come together and they’re able to collaborate. Aside from that, [TechTown] is a place where if you are an entrepreneur and you have an idea, no matter where you are in the process, this is a place where you can come. The expertise here is so vast that either we can help you grow your business or we can point you in the right direction.
What is your role in that?
I’m the diversity and inclusion resident. …There is so much talk about jobs, and the lack [of] women, and the lack of people of color in technology. With diversity, it’s one of those things where you have to be very intentional. When you walk in the door [at TechTown] you see diversity; you walk around Detroit, it’s diverse. But what happens is that it isn’t diverse in some areas, and that could be because people may not feel included, or they are included and they just don’t know what’s happening around the city or they don’t understand the offerings that TechTown could [provide]. I was brought here to bridge that gap … around women of color.
How do you make everyone feel included?
One of the things I know is huge, and I’m already talking to our parks and rec department [in Detroit], is how do we take [TechTown] into the neighborhoods? For instance, we have open office hours at [TechTown] during work hours. Some people are working. They aren’t entrepreneurs yet; they can’t come here at 12 or one or two. So how do we not get rid of that, because there are some people that benefit from [open office hours], but how do I take that to an activity center? In order to build an inclusive environment, you can’t just say, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ I need to be doing something in the community, you need to get to know me, you need to trust me. So how do we start bridging that gap? I pick up what we’re doing here [at TechTown] …and take it [to the community].
TechTown already seems to be relatively diverse; how do you improve that?
We want to increase [our diversity]. We’d like to see more women in this technology space. Probably most of the women that you [see at TechTown] may be entrepreneurs, but it’s in areas [not necessarily in] technology. So, how do we get more women, more people of color, to say ‘Hey, I have an idea for an app,’ or … ‘I’ve been sitting on this idea, and I just didn’t know where to take it.’
How do you reach out to women through Sisters Code?
We say our mission is to empower and educate and entice women [ages 25 to 85] to explore the field of technology, and this was started almost three years ago. Since then, we’ve had over 300 women walk through the doors. … We have a two-day program called Weekend Website Warrior. Wherever we hold the class, they have to have computers. I’m not asking you to show up with a laptop or anything because you may not have one, so that’s bridging the digital divide. … We teach HTML and CSS. … My intent has always been to empower women to know they can do something different.
How does Sisters Code tie into your message?
It has helped me, my family, my community. It has propelled me to places I never thought I would be able to go. It also brings this element of diversity that we don’t talk about a lot: age. As a 25-and-older woman, we already have responsibilities. Some of us are moms, employees, caretakers. We’re all these things, but we’re overlooked sometimes.
Is Detroit unique when it comes to diversity and technology?
I do think we have this advantage, and this empathy, and a big heart where we do want to help people startup whatever it is they have a dream to start or get them started on their way. What I love about [TechTown] is [someone’s] idea could just be a dud, but at least someone is willing to walk you through the steps, so you can realize ‘oh, maybe I don’t want to look at [it like] this.’ Sometimes that’s all you need.
Name: Marlin Williams
• DePaul University, Certificate of Organizational Development
• University of Detroit Mercy, M.A. Liberal Arts/Sociology
• Wayne State University. B.A. Public Relations
• Entrepreneur-in-residence for diversity and inclusion, TechTown
• Founder, Sisters Code
• CEO, Knowledge Brokers
• Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA)
• Deputy Chief Information Officer, City of Detroit
• Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion, Compuware
• Techweek Detroit Executive Advisory Board
• Hacker Fellows Advisory Board
Number of Languages Coded: 13