Alexandrea (Drea) Alphonso, a Senior Program Lead for Product Support Strategy at Google as well as Head of Partnerships for Black Tech Women, the premier community for Black women in the tech space, has made conscious efforts around allyship and its approachability for career development. Gentry sat down with the San Jose native to discuss relationship building both in her own career and in broader terms today in Silicon Valley.
Jennifer Massoni Pardini: You were a field organizer on the 2012 Obama Campaign. What was that like?
Alexandrea Alphonso: From a historical standpoint, it was important for me to get actively involved in the reelection campaign. In my lifetime, I don’t know if I will ever see another Black president; I had a personal conviction to myself and the community to get involved. Overall, it was a very intense experience. Political campaigning is a different beast. But when it came to Election Night, especially in a battleground state like Pennsylvania, and you saw the votes and numbers come in, and you witnessed the joy so many people had, it was worth it.
You came back home to California and started at Google?
Alphonso: When I worked on the Obama Campaign it was the first time I really got my hands dirty using collaborative digital tools. Seeing the impact that it had on what we were able to do from a scale perspective, seeing what technology was able to do, I decided to chart my next career path at Google. Here we are seven years later.
Tell us about your current role.
Alphonso: I really fell in love with this idea of innovation and design thinking and how you can approach any problem with this framework. Today, I work with teams and look at our support strategies to help optimize for the user experience across various consumer products. How do we help educate users on our products? How do we help ensure our solutions are meeting the goals of our users? These are questions that I work on and help to drive more user-centric strategies around. Inserting design-thinking strategy into this lane is what I’ve been leading over the last few years. I’ve been able to carve out a niche where I can bring my workplace skills and interests to the table.
Let’s look at allyship. How can an ally network help someone’s career?
Alphonso: As Vernā Myers (VP of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix) puts it: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” I look at allyship as a way to move the needle on that inclusion piece. Both are equally important, of course, but I think both require a different approach. It’s important to do great work but it’s also critical to have others—mainly senior leaders—speak on behalf of your impact. Also, thinking about allyship from an authentic point of view has been important for me. I’ve tried to connect myself with senior leaders who had the same shared interest that I have in a working context. By working on a few successful projects together, an opportunity for career allyship presented itself. For me, authentic allyship developed as not only a relationship with shared interests, but also a necessity for senior leaders to get involved and lead through their platform and privilege. It’s a mutually beneficial thing as well.
Do you have an example of yourself as an ally?
Alphonso: I’ve been able to leverage allyship in a way to help my career, and I want to start amplifying that concept. The topic of allyship can be daunting. It’s difficult as a Black woman to go to someone who doesn’t look like you, who may not be able to empathize with you, and ask for help or support. What I want to do next is really think about how we are making allyship a more approachable type of avenue as it relates to career development. I think when done well it can have an impact on both inclusion and retention—and retention is the piece that gets overlooked. When you are supported by your allies, by your sponsors and advocates in the workplace, it has an impact on how you are seen and respected in the organization. Ultimately, I’ve seen this have an increasingly positive impact on the trajectory of my career.
You’re currently a Partnership Lead with Black Tech Women, which you joined soon after it was launched in 2017 and that now has chapters here in the Bay Area as well as Atlanta, New York, London, and elsewhere. Tell us about that.
Alphonso: The premise was really around creating a platform that was all about connecting, retaining, and advancing Black women in the tech space. There’s a lot of conversation around pipeline and bringing more people in, which is equally important, but again that retention piece: how are companies and organizations developing the Black women who are currently in the technology ecosystem? From my own experience, not enough is being done. That’s why it was important, necessary for me to join and help lead efforts for this organization. Over the last three years, Black Tech Women has grown to a global member base of more than 3,000 Black women professionals who are driving impact at tech companies, startups, and even the venture capital space. Our impact is also supported by various partners and sponsors who believe in our vision and believe in creating and serving this community of Black women in tech and those looking to get into the industry.
Is there one piece of advice you’d offer to women, especially in tech, looking to build their ally network?
Alphonso: I think the one thing is being very intentional and clear with the allies you’re inviting into your network: Mainly, what is your ask of them? Even before you get to the ask, map out the impact you’ve had. This package is an effective way to bring in allies, sponsors, and advocates. Getting people, who more than often don’t look like you, to champion your work will amplify your efforts in ways that speak volumes.
Given recent events impacting the Black community, please speak to the critical need for allyship outside of the workplace as well.
Alphonso: I’ve been talking a lot about allyship in the workplace from a career development perspective. It doesn’t miss me that my presence in tech is a disruption that affords me privilege. Given the recent, tragic killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, I have a personal duty and obligation to use my voice to spread awareness and action in any physical space I occupy. While I am not at the front lines of this battle physically, to those that are my peers, mentors, advocates, and sponsors, I have asked them to educate themselves and donate to social justice organizations and causes, like the Equal Justice Initiative and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), that are a part of our employee donation matching program. I’ve also asked senior leaders to create spaces where we can have these difficult, necessary conversations. Allyship is most critical and most impactful when we can be agents for change. If we are not being active in this moment, our silence is just as destructive.