Meet Leah Gilliam, an extraordinary lady who reached the pinnacles of academia early in her career and then shifted course completely to start all over in tech, only to find a perfect spot at Girls Who Code. Leah encourages us to find things that inspire, provoke or obsess us constantly -- to keep us stimulated, curious and on top of our game. Leah’s dream is to open an Innovation Hub so all the amazing ideas that are out there could get funded and built.
Fairygodboss of the Week: Leah Gilliam
Vice President for Education at Girls Who Code
New York, NY
FGB: Tell us about your career. How did you get to where you are now?
LG: I’m the Vice President for Education, Strategy, and Innovation at Girls Who Code. I’ve held the position for about four months now.
I’ve always been equally interested in learning, creativity, and technology—how machines and systems work, the specific human and sociological history behind inventions, and what is considered progress. A few years back, I refocused my career objectives to leverage those interests and to work specifically with youth-centered nonprofits around innovation, which amounted to connecting them to the people, funds, and resources to help them implement new technological tools and approaches. My work at Girls Who Code is an extension of that interest. For me, working at an organization that seeks to close the gender gap in tech by inspiring more young women to pursue computer science and experiment with computational thinking is a great way to inundate the world with new ideas and new solutions.
FGB: What is an accomplishment that you are proud of?
LG: I’m an academia drop-out. I was a tenured professor in film and electronic media at a small liberal-arts college when I was pretty young, but I decided to leave it all behind. I’m proud of changing courses and just starting over. It wasn’t easy or comfortable, yet it was really rewarding. After years of making my own art and teaching others about art/science and technology, I shifted gears. I went back to school (NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program) and used the time to experiment with a bunch of tools—game design, code, computational thinking, wearables, to name a few.
FGB: What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?
LG: To realize that I had achieved something that would make some people really happy—a tenured position in academia—but that no longer fulfilled me personally or professionally was a singular challenge. Facing that meant changing careers, getting more training, and really trusting that I could do something different and satisfying.
FGB: What do you do when you’re not working?
LG: I make sure to see people, places, and things that inspire me. It could be a book, a painting, music, podcasts, friends and fellow travelers. I just try to recharge and connect to my creative practice and other things that keep me curious. Recently I've been designing games.
FGB: If you could have dinner with one famous person - dead or alive - who would it be?
LG: I'd love to have dinner with Attorney General of the United States Loretta Lynch. James Baldwin or Octavia Butler would also be dynamite dining companions.
FGB: What is your karaoke song?
LG: “Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John.
FGB: What is your favorite movie?
LG: My Beautiful Laundrette, a superb 1985 film about a complex gay interracial romance directed by Stephen Frears.
FGB: What book would you bring with you on a desert island?
LG: Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren.
FGB: What is your shopping vice? What would you buy if you won the lottery?
LG: I have a deep fondness for sneakers and a weakness for bespoke shirts and pants. I love the gender-bending tailors at Bindle and Keep. They focus on suiting for the non-gender-conforming set. After years of thrifting, it’s a thrilling experience to have clothes made to fit.
There's such a lack of diversity in products and experiences, I'd invest in new ideas from some of the unlikely sources you don't hear from. I’d open an innovation hub or an investment mechanism to make and launch ideas until the money ran out.
FGB: Who is your Fairygodboss?
LG: My Fairygodboss is definitely my mom, Dorothy Butler Gilliam. She’s a true pioneer and is currently writing her memoir. She was the first black woman reporter at the Washington Post. She was hired in the 1960s, so DC—not to mention journalism itself—was very biased and segregated. She’s my model for how to break barriers, be yourself, and do you what you love—with style, wit, and aplomb.
FGB: What is the #1 career tip you'd like to share?
LG: My big career tip would be stay (or get) curious—even kind of obsessed. For women and underrepresented groups in any field, it’s important to keep yourself engaged with the people and ideas that motivate you. That motivator can be something inspiring or something infuriating. Sometimes inspiration comes from a strong reaction, positive or negative. But it’s those obsessions and areas of interests that keep you intellectually and emotionally engaged with the world—and ultimately with your work. Whatever that source of inspiration may be, be curious and learn everything about it.
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