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Opinion Editorials

An inspiring thank you letter all women in tech should read

(OPINION EDITORIAL) “We owe it to ourselves and future generations to disrupt and shift the culture, and create a more inclusive environment.”

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Bringing positivity into the world

Fellow AG writers Jennifer Walpole and Taylor Leddin shared last month their UNFUCD assignment of thanking a teacher (here and here). Now, I would like to offer mine:

Dear Mary Dorman,

I feel that I should open this letter with an apology – for not comprehending your efforts to instill confidence in a 16 year old girl, and for not making more of the opportunities you opened up to me.

I owe you a lifetime of gratitude for recognizing and fueling the undying fascination I had for science and technology.

What was it that you saw? You may have realized that high school didn’t start out all that exciting for me. I vaguely recall signing up for a Computer Math class in ninth grade at John Foster Dulles Senior High, which was quite innovative in 1979. There was a teleprinter and an IBM card punch machine in the corner of the classroom, and I was fascinated how the cards and paper tape could contain information.

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That next year I was moved to a brand new and smaller high school – Willowridge Senior High School – as Dulles was overcrowded. At first I was disappointed, as there was no computer class or science club established at Willowridge.

However, as one of my science teachers, you encouraged me not only to join – but also preside over — the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS), which was dedicated to promoting engineering and technology careers.

You encouraged me to take on my first true leadership role.

I had no interest in engineering, but the desire to please a teacher who time and time again demonstrated confidence in me was invigorating.

Choosing the right path

While my other tenth grade teachers would just give me extra work because there weren’t enough eligible students to have an honors program or computer class, you went beyond. You gave me special assignments that I would complete on the school’s Commodore computer – I think I was the only student who ever used that computer its first year in-house. I learned how to create flowcharts, as well as how to use Microsoft BASIC.

“You can be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond.”

The school administration notified my parents that they were having trouble accommodating me. I could continue at Willowridge, and be given extra advanced coursework. There just simply weren’t enough students to justify an honors program.

I was offered the choice to transfer back to my old school, where there was an honors program. After much debate and trepidation, I chose to transfer back to Dulles. I was sad to leave behind many friends and my favorite teacher – who encouraged me to spread my wings — but thought it was the best decision at the time.

You were truly a gem amongst teachers in a time when young girls and women weren’t encouraged to pursue careers in STEM.

Had I known that, I might’ve chosen differently and stayed in that positive microcosm. You would’ve been disappointed to hear that I spent most of eleventh grade struggling to adjust. I was from “the wrong side of the tracks,” a lower middle class student who wasn’t from the more affluent neighborhoods surrounding Dulles.

The backlash

I disengaged and became withdrawn as I felt bullied in Chemistry class, by boys scoffing at any girls who showed an interest, being told that I should go back to Willowridge. Discouraged by my eleventh grade Honors English teacher who essentially said, “I set the “A” by Mary A.’s test score, and then distribute grades below that accordingly.” Even if in jest, that statement implied that the rest of the class would never excel or meet the highest standard. I rebelled – why bother trying?

You’d probably be even more disappointed to learn that although I enrolled in a Physics class taught by a female teacher — who had even received several “Teacher of the Year” awards — it was not a learning experience for me. I would raise my hand to answer a question – and never be called on. Instead, the same boys were always called on, the ones who huddled around the new Apple III while the rest of us were pushed out of the way, returning to our seats in the back of the room.

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I transferred over to Newspaper Journalism for the final semester, as my enthusiasm for science and technology dwindled.

Or so I thought. For you see, this letter is truly about UNFUCD, and finding the good where there’s been bad.

It’s okay to be a “late bloomer,” and you can have multiple or concurrent careers in your lifetime.

After high school, I floundered a bit through a couple of years at college, and ultimately dropped out, but I did do well in an Introduction to Microcomputers course. I received an 89 in that 8 am class that I barely recall taking, simply from what I’d learned from you.

Rising up

Later I took a few classes at the Houston Area League of PC Users (HAL-PC) campus just for the fun of it, learning how to work with DOS, Lotus 123, and dBase III. I was encouraged by my Uncle Ronnie, who was a founding member of HAL-PC in 1982. He later helped me set up my first personal email account, and educated me about chain e-mail hoaxes and to vet on this site called “Snopes” in 1995. HAL-PC is the world’s largest PC user group.

I won’t bore you with the details, but you’ll be glad to know that I found other mentors when I went back to college ten years later, who encouraged and helped me and many other students focus our passion for biological sciences – and data.

I received a Bachelor of Sciences in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology from UT Austin at the tender young age of 33 years old, and even spent a month in Costa Rica for entomology field research.

Since then I’ve been an aquatic taxonomist, an environmental educator, a web developer, a water operator, and a drinking water quality specialist.

I now own my own water consulting business, partner in a data firm, and advocate for open source software development.

The ripple effect

Most importantly, I’ve been an environmental educator, an afterschool program leader for Girlstart, and I currently serve on the Advisory Board for ChickTech Austin. Girlstart and ChickTech are wonderful non-profit organizations dedicated to engaging girls in STEM through education programs.

Because that’s the greatest lesson that you ever taught me — that young girls as well as under-represented socioeconomic groups need positive role models to guide and empower them to pursue their passions in science and technology.

We owe it to ourselves and future generations to disrupt and shift the culture, and create a more inclusive environment.

You also taught me that I can be a leader in that mission. For that, I thank you immensely.

ibm-card-punch-machine

#UNFUCD

Debbie Cerda is a seasoned writer and consultant, running Debra Cerda Consulting as well as handling business development at data-driven app development company, Blue Treble Solutions. She's a proud and active member of Austin Film Critics Association and the American Homebrewers Association, and Outreach Director for science fiction film festival, Other Worlds Austin. She has been very involved in the tech scene in Austin for over 15 years, so whether you meet her at Sundance Film Festival, SXSWi, Austin Women in Technology, or BASHH, she'll have a connection or idea to help you achieve business success. At the very least, she can recommend a film to watch and a great local craft beer to drink.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Danny Brown

    September 13, 2016 at 11:52 am

    Hi there Debbie, and thanks so much for writing this letter – what a powerful statement about encouragement, and sticking to your beliefs! So thankful for Mary Dorman and all she meant to you, and others like you!

    #unfucd

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  3. Pingback: Women in IT more likely to be promoted than men - The American Genius

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Opinion Editorials

The truth about unemployment from someone who’s been through it

(EDITORIAL) Unemployment benefits aren’t what you thought they were. Here’s a first-hand experience and what you need to know.

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unemployment

Have I ever told you how I owed the government over two grand because of unemployment in 2019, and only just finished paying it back this year?

This isn’t exactly the forum for memoirs, but this is relevant to everyone. So I’ll tell y’all anyway.

It all started back in 2018 when I came into work early, microwaved my breakfast, poured coffee, and got pulled into a collaboration room to hear, “We love you and your work, April, but we’ve been bought out and you’re being laid off.”

It was kind of awkward carrying my stuff out to the car with that Jimmy Dean sandwich in my mouth.

More awkward still was the nine months of unemployment I went through afterwards. Between the fully clothed shower crying, the stream of job denial, catering to people who carried rocks in their nostrils at my part-time job (yes, ew, yes, really), and almost dying of no-health-insurance-itis, I learned a lot!

The bigger lesson though, came in the spring of the following year when I filed my taxes. I should back up for a moment and take the time to let those of you unfamiliar with unemployment in Texas in on a few things that aren’t common knowledge.

1: You’re only eligible if you were laid off. Not if you had quit. Not fired. Your former company can also choose to challenge your eligibility for benefits if they didn’t like your face on the way out. So the only way you’re 100% guaranteed to get paid in (what the state calls) “a timely manner”, is a completely amicable split.

2: Overpayments have to go back. Immediately. If there’s an error, like several thousand of Texans found out this week, the government needs that cash back before you can access any more. If you’re not watching your bank account to make sure you’re getting the exact same check each time and you have an overpayment, rest assured that mistake isn’t going to take long to correct. Unfortunately, if you spent that money unknowingly–thought you got an ‘in these uncertain times’ kinder and gentler adjustment and have 0 income, you have a problem. Tying into Coronavirus nonsense is point three!

3: There are no sick days. If ever you’re unable to work for any reason, be it a car accident, childbirth, horrible internal infection (see also no-health-insurance-itis), you are legally required to report it, and you will not be paid for any days you were incapacitated. Personally, my no-health-insurance-itis came with a bad fever and bedrest order that axed me out of my part time job AND killed my unemployment benefits for the week I spent getting my internal organs to like me again. But as it turned out, the payment denial came at the right time because–

4: Unemployment benefits are finite. Even if you choose to lie on your request forms about how hard you’re searching for work, coasting is ill-advised because once the number the state allots you runs out…it’s out. Don’t lie on your request forms, by the way. In my case, since I got cut from my part-time gig, I got a call from the Texas Workforce Commission about why my hours were short. I was able to point out where I’d reported my sickness to them and to my employer, so my unpaid week rolled over to a later request date. I continued to get paid right up until my hiring date which was also EXACTLY when my benefits ran out.

Unemployment isn’t a career, which is odd considering the fact that unemployment payments are qualified by the government as income.

Ergo, fact number five…

5: Your benefits? They’re taxed.

That’s right, you will be TAXED for not having a job.

The stereotype of the ‘lazy unemployment collector burdening society’ should be fading pretty quickly for the hitherto uninformed about now.

To bring it back to my story, I’d completely forgotten that when I filed for unemployment in the first place, I’d asked for my taxes NOT to be withheld from it–assuming that I wasn’t going to be searching for full time work for very long. I figured “Well, I’ll have a tax refund coming since I’ll get work again no problem, it’ll cancel out.”

Except, it was a problem. Because of the nine month situation.

I’d completely forgotten about it by the time I threw myself into my new job, but after doing my taxes, triple checking the laws and what I’d signed, it was clear. Somehow…despite being at my lowest point in life, I owed the highest amount in taxes, somewhere around the 2k mark.

Despite being based on a system that’s tied to how much income you were getting before, and all the frustrating “safeguards” put in place to keep payments as low and infrequent as possible, Uncle Sam still wants a bite out of the gas-station Hostess pie that is your unemployment check. And as I’m writing this, more and more people are finding that out.

I’d like to end this on a more positive note…so let’s say we’ve all been positively educated! That’s a net gain, surely.

Keep your heads up, and masked.

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Opinion Editorials

COVID-19 acts are unfortunately too short sighted

(BUSINESS NEWS) The biggest flaw in the CARES act is simply that it won’t last. Numerous issues have extended the life of COVID-19 but the act hasn’t matched it.

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rev pay issues act

The CARES act gives an additional $600 weekly to those on unemployment assistance. The idea being that, combined with the $380 already granted by unemployment, the payments would roughly equal the wage of the average worker prior to the pandemic- about $1,000 weekly.

But on July 31st, the expansion that CARES provides will expire, and benefits will return to pre-pandemic amounts. Those currently receiving the maximum payment will see a 61% decrease in their income. In states that offer lower benefit payments, that percentage goes even higher. All of this comes during a national rental crisis, and moratoriums on evictions across the country are also nearing their ends or being extended last minute.

This isn’t the first or only “yuge” hole in the federal government’s COVID-19 safety net. Many Americans (this writer included) have seen neither hide nor hair of their promised stimulus checks. The HEROES act, which is being billed as a second round of stimulus money, remains under debate- as it has been for several weeks.

And the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires certain businesses to provide two weeks of paid leave to workers who may be sick (or caring for someone who is) has plenty of problems too, namely the laundry list of exceptions to it.

This is just the most recent push to return to the pre-virus economy before effective protective measures have been put in place for workers and consumers alike. After all, with cases of COVID-19 spiking again in the US, it’s apparent that the act is still absolutely necessary. Our lawmakers either lack patience, or compassion – take your pick. Frankly, I say it’s both.

Not only have countless health experts warned that reopening too early will be disastrous, but if a second lockdown is in our future, all of the time, money, and human lives that went into reopening will be wasted.

There is a silver lining among the storm clouds on the horizon. Because ballooning unemployment has created long wait times for benefit applicants, unemployment assistance programs are shelling out retroactive back payments to those deemed eligible.

Good news, at least, for laid off workers who have been waiting months to hear their fate.

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Opinion Editorials

Women-owned businesses make up 42% of all businesses – heck yeah!

(EDITORIAL) Women-owned businesses make a huge impact on the U.S economy. They make up 42% of all businesses, outpace the national growth rate by 50%, and hire billions of workers.

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women-owned business

Women entrepreneurs make history in the U.S as female-owned businesses represent 42% of all businesses, while continuing to increase at DOUBLE the national growth rate!

Women are running the world, and we are here for it! The 2019 American Express State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, states 13 million women are now self-employed entrepreneurs. From 2014 to 2019, women-owned businesses grew 21%. Think that’s impressive? Well, businesses owned by women of color grew 43% within the same timeframe, with a growth rate of 50%, and currently account for 50% of all women-owned businesses! Way to go! What this also means is that women employ over 2.4 million workers who together generate $422.5 billion in revenue.

What can we learn from these women that’ll help you achieve success in your businesses?

  1. Get informed: In a male-dominated business industry, women are often at a disadvantage and face multiple biases. So, know your stuff; study, research, and when you think you know it all…dig deeper!
  2. Stay hungry: Remember why you started this journey. Write down notes and reminders, goals, and inspirations, hang them up and keep them close.
  3. Ask for advice: Life is not meant to go through alone, so ask questions. Find a mentor and talk to people who have walked a similar path. Learning from them will only benefit your business.

Many of these women found ways to use their passion to drive their business. It may not be exactly what they thought it would be when they started out, but is it ever? Everyone has to start off small and rejection is part of the process. In fact, stories of rejection often serve as inspiration and encouragement to soon-to-be self starters.

Did you know J.K Rowling’s “Harry Potter” book was turned down TWELVE times? Seven books later with over 400 million copies sold, the Harry Potter brand is currently valued at over 15 billion. While you might not become a wizard-writing fantasy legend like J.K Rowling, you sure as heck can be successful. So go for it, and chase your dreams.

If you want to support women-owned businesses, start by scrolling through Facebook or doing some research to find women-owned businesses in your community. Then, support by buying or helping to promote their products. Small businesses, especially women-owned, black women-owned, and women of color-owned, are disproportionally affected by the current economic crisis ignited by a health pandemic. So if you can, shop small and support local. And remember, there’s a girl (or more) doing a happy dance when you checkout!

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