By Anne-Marie Mulumba
Let’s imagine that you are at a networking event. As you move around and chat with more strangers, a familiar question gets thrown at you. This question comes in many forms, but ends up sounding like: where are you from? Did you grow up here? Or, are you African or Haitian?
What do you answer to this type of question? Seriously, I am curious, so share your stories here (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let’s have that conversation.
Don’t get me wrong; those who ask probably don’t have malicious intentions. The answer you provide is most likely correct. However, it may trigger something in you, even so slightly. So, the focus here is, how can you ensure that your answer springs directly from the core of your operating system? What I mean by that is, how can we all learn to answer back with confidence, knowing that we have done the work of embracing who we are and where we come from?
Recently, I learned that the foundational principles of artificial intelligence (AI) haven’t evolved in decades. However, those principles were commodified into inventions we know as smartphones, self-driving cars, AlphaGo, and so on. The same can be said about you and I. On a daily, we run on a set of principles that inform the way we think and act in the world. These are shaped by our past and continue to be informed by our choices. Therefore, you are already running on a system of beliefs, whether they are beneficial or detrimental to your wellbeing. The question here is, how can you ensure they reflect the values you want to convey in your personal and professional life? Let’s explore that through an example.
At birth, I was given my paternal grandmother’s name: Anna Wabala Mulumba. Growing up, I wasn’t sure how to relate to my middle name “Wabala.” Honestly, I didn’t even know what it meant. Most recently, I discovered that it is Arabic for “to pursue” and to “fall in great drops,” like the rain. So, however small and insignificant this revelation may be, it belongs in the dictionary of what defines me as East African. Still, it is far less impactful as another aspect of my family history: the story of my father. The truth is, I am the child of a refugee. My father escaped Congo during the war after his own father died in the army. He left his country for Tanzania where he met my mother. When I was six years old, we left our land for Canada as my parents made the conscious decision to grant us the opportunities they couldn’t afford. And that is why and how I am here today. You see, testimonies like these are legacies that matter. My family history matters to me because it helps me to remain grateful for what I have and where I am today. It defines the guiding principles that drive me as a human and professional in the world. My personal operating system leads me to continually seek to contribute to causes that provide opportunities and justice for others, whether in health, science, education and so on.
You have a personal story and a family history too, whether similar or extremely different from mine. Take a look at them. What do they mean to you? Who are your ancestors, and what did they strive for? How does that past shape your beliefs of the world and of yourself? Acknowledging and embracing your past will establish stronger foundations within yourself so that you can answer other existential questions such as:
What overarching principles drive you as a black professional in technology?
How are you going to face injustice in the world through your professional and personal contributions?
What is it that you care about, and where can you have an impact?
Integrate what was passed on to you into your life to strengthen, motivate and drive your decisions. Become ruthlessly unapologetic to walk your truth. Just as Cisco’s Vice President Joseph Bradley mentioned at BFTUR in October of 2019: “don’t worry about what you don’t know. Challenge what you believe to be true each and every day.” Then you will be ready to confidently answer, with ease to the question that will follow you the rest of your life and career as a black professional: “We have heard great things about you. So…where are you from?”