Alumni Feature

Alexandra Holien – Feminist disruptions of the tech industry

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photo of Alexandra HolienAlexandra Holien (’15, Cultural Studies) identifies as an African American woman. She currently works as a Sponsorship and Engagement Manager at Ada Developers Academy, a non-profit that works to train and place women in the tech industry. Holien grew up partly in Louisiana and partly in Washington state, two very different parts of the country that gave her early insight into how race and gender can play out in different environments.

Holien first heard about the Master of Arts in Cultural Studies while she was an undergraduate student at UW Seattle, majoring in American & Ethnic Studies. She fell in love with the critical lens of cultural studies during a class there, and wanted to pursue it further.  A classmate mentioned that they offered a degree in cultural studies at UW Bothell, so Holien applied to IAS’s Cultural Studies program, where she eventually worked closely with Christian Anderson and Ron Krabill researching space, place, diversity, and their effects on community development.

When asked how she made the move from the Cultural Studies program to her current position with Ada, Holien replies: “I knew I wanted to work in the tech industry – I mean, it’s Seattle and that where a lot of the movement is here. And I knew I wanted to keep my cultural studies roots – after two years talking about social theories, about Marx, about Gramsci, it’s deep. You just can’t let that go. You can’t unsee it.” Holien also has a background in sales and marketing, so when she found Ada she knew that she would be able to combine her interest in the tech industry with her professional skills and the critical perspectives she gained in the cultural studies program.

I consider myself a pretty outspoken person when it comes to the issues I care about, and Ada gives me the chance to really talk about those issues and to have a place and a space to impact change.

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As Sponsorship and Engagement Manager at Ada, Holien works to develop company engagement and company sponsorship. Ada is a not-traditional non-profit. They do not rely on typical fundraising campaigns for donations. Instead, the 50+ companies Ada partners with pay a fee to buy into the mission of creating equity in the tech industry by addressing the gender gap in hiring, wages, and workplace culture. “Tech right now is more than 73% male, mostly white male,” explains Holien. The Ada program is tuition free because of corporate sponsorship. 

Ada’s innovative year-long program involves 7 months of classroom instruction in downtown Seattle, followed by a 5 month paid internship also funded by the corporate sponsorship fees. Ada’s stats are impressive:

  • Since 2013, 61 students have graduated from Ada.
  • Graduates from the program have a 97% placement rate in the industry.
  • The average salary post-graduation is $87,000.

photo of Ada classBecause of this success, entry into Ada’s program is highly competitive, with a 10% acceptance rate. Yet Ada is committed to inclusivity, as all women (cis and trans*) and people with non-binary gender who feel a part of women's community are encouraged to apply.

“Ada’s program is a way to really disrupt the pattern of gender in tech. Software engineering is a really lucrative career that shouldn’t just be for white dudes,” says Holien. “So we try to make this whole professional area available to as many women, women of color, and women from underrepresented minorities as we can.”

Ada students collaboratingIn addition to engaging with companies who sponsor and participate in the program, Holien works directly with Ada’s students to prepare them for the professional culture they will encounter in the tech industry. “Since this industry is and has been historically dominated by white men, there is a culture that goes with being a part of tech. That culture is often just not representative of the women in our classrooms,” explains Holien. She sees her role here as another moment for feminist disruption, changing the whole culture of the industry from the inside as more and more women enter, prepared both to navigate the current culture successfully and to change it.

In placing students in their internships, Holien struggles against a gendered divide in the types of work that are sometimes offered Ada’s students. “Front end work is supposed to be more women-focused because it’s about design and how things look, while back end work is for men because it’s ‘logical.’ So I’m constantly fighting with executives who want to simply place our students in front end positions.” 

The culture of tech industry can irritate you until you can’t do it anymore, so we try to teach our women how to sustain themselves, and how to change it. When I see a woman engineer working in the industry, I have to grab her and hold onto her as a mentor, because so few women get to see themselves in these positions. And we’re going to need these women to stay in the industry because I want my kids to be able to see them, to let them know that it’s at least a possibility.

Holien notes that there is a trend in many industries, including the tech industry, to create positions to help diversify their workforce. “There’s been a slew of hiring people who have any sort of expertise around how to diversify,” she says. But the results are not always on target:

One of our companies came in to give a presentation to our students and the representative was talking about ‘color blindness.’ Afterwards he wrote to me saying he felt during the presentation that he’d said something wrong. So I gave him two articles that I’d read in the Cultural Studies program. One was pretty heavy, and the other one was on color blindness versus color consciousness. The next morning he wrote to me again having read both of the articles I sent him – who reads academic articles like that overnight when they’re not in school?! But he did. And he asked where he could find more articles like that. So I knew there really was room for cultural studies to move into the tech industry.

Holien helped draft the diversity and inclusion curriculum now in place at Ada. “I feel like I was brought on at Ada because of my background in cultural studies, to give language to what we’re doing here. The language I’ve brought in to Ada from cultural studies just gives us that much more power.”

photo of Holien with Ada staff