The Power to Say Yes

I always talk to my Lyft driver. Today was no different. I instructed her on the best way to turn around in my hairpin driveway, slid into the back seat and then “How are you today?”
Unlike in a taxi, there was no plexiglass wall between us, nothing to suggest that the person behind the wheel had no desire to connect.
She smiled in the rear view, and I could tell there was much story behind her round eyes. Her reply rang with an African lilt. Somewhere west, maybe?
I have found that for most people, you don’t have to ask directly. If you show a little interest, they will tell you all sorts of things about their lives that help you understand how they came to be in the space they occupy at the present moment.
My phone rang, interrupting me. My husband was catching me on the way to a different airport to fill me in on how his recruiting trip had been going. We work for tech industry competitors, (but not competitors), and he joked that he has to get to the would-be interns for his company, before my company did. There was a new study, he said, that Amazon (my company) had now become the most desired place to work for new MBA and software engineering grads.
Check in complete, we laughed it off, sending our air kisses and hung up.
I thought I was going to resume my Lyft inquisition, but that was not the case.
My driver almost turned around in her seat.
Is your husband a recruiter? She asked.
Please keep your eyes on the road. “No, not really. He is not in HR.”
She proceeded to tell me her story.
My Lyft driver, as it turns out, was an experienced software engineer with a MBA. A unicorn. A black woman. Sought after by everyone.

Yet, here she was, a Lyft driver. Hmm.
I thought that maybe she had recently immigrated, or something. Had to be something, right? Why else would she tolerate making small talk with strangers in her car on a daily basis?
She’d worked for a big bank in engineering, but then moved to the area with her husband. This is a place where the jobs grow like weeds and it feels as if everyone not from here makes at least a six-figure salary. Just about everyone in our circles works for as tech giant or booming startup and struggles with top-of-the-first-world problems, like which electric car they should drive and whether they should pay exorbitant rates to live in the city or the same rates to live in the suburbs and ride to work on company provided Nerd buses.
She continued. After moving, she’d stayed home for 6 months to take care of her sick child, and now she couldn’t find a job.
I was so confused. I am also a unicorn and I work at a place that can’t find enough people to hire so they want to build another headquarters somewhere else and will even pay you for a referral that ends in a hire. I also deflect weekly calls from recruiters.
She asked me if she could contact my husband. She wanted to talk directly to a recruiter at Microsoft because several people had told her that she would not be hired at Amazon.
“Did they say why?”
She said that the people she’d talked to, both white men, had said that they had both interviewed over and over at Amazon and they didn’t get in. If they couldn’t, they’d said, she most certainly wouldn’t be able to as a black woman.
So many things wrong with this statement.

Sample size of two
and
Clearly, not true. I work there, and like I said, I’m also a unicorn.

More appalling though, was the assumption inherent in those statements that she was less qualified than they were, with her double degree from fancy institutions. If they couldn’t, then she certainly
wouldn’t be able.
She had to be less than an equal.
She was black.
She was a woman.
She was a woman that had chosen (poorly) to step back and take care of her family for a while.
Wait for it though. They suggested that this woman, although back-end engineering was her passion, that she should try for an HR job instead.
Why must women, even when they have all technical background and skills, be steered to areas perceived as “soft”?
Because we choose to take care of others in our lives, does that automatically mean we have the people and social skills necessary to do that as a job? Does that meant that HR is perceived as women’s work? I had so many questions.
My Lyft driver proceeded to tell me about her consulting work, and how she was driving for Lyft to fill the gaps in the meantime. She felt as if she’d met roadblock after roadblock since coming to the city with some one the lowest unemployment in the country.
But what she really wanted was to work for one of the tech giants.
Go get that then, girl.
As she spoke and told me about herself, my anger mounted. Not at the series of white men whom she claimed told her that she would never be hired, I found, instead, that I was getting angrier at her.
Whether or not those men had actually said what she claimed they had or not, the fact was, she had accepted what they’d told her as truth and had let that alternative facts they’d presented with change her plans and alter her dreams.
My ride was ending, and there was no way I could solve any of her problems. I thanked her and left her with my business card and one question:

“Have you always allowed people to tell you no that didn’t have the power to say yes?”

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