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Holding the door and overcoming the eye roll

Name: Mignonne Hollis Organization: Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation | Cochise County, Arizona

Hometown: Hereford, Arizona

What does it mean to 'overcome the eye roll'? Mignonne shares how persistence and tenacity have unlocked opportunities for her throughout her professional journey.

Breyana Ray: What is your connection to rural?

Mignonne Hollis: I’ve always had a love of rural. As I mentioned, I graduated from a very rural high school — there were 30 people in my graduating class. I just had such a great education at this little, teeny, small, school that had no more than 150 students total, that I always wanted to get back and I always wanted to do more for my community. I never want to work anywhere that’s not a champion for a rural community.

BR: What did you want to be when you were growing up?

MH: I wanted to be an archaeologist. I just liked digging in the dirt and finding things. My parents always took us out hiking, so I just always loved digging and finding stuff, and my father, being such a realist, always told me, “That would be a really nice hobby to have.” I was nowhere near doing that in my adult life.

BR: What is your current job and how did you get to where you are today?

MH: I think all of us that are in economic development, it’s a windy road to get us to where we are, and there’s not a clear path. I majored in accounting. I really, really liked doing the books and the accounting and tax returns for small businesses. And then that translated into me having such a vested interest in the businesses themselves, and that passion led me to be the director of the small business development center — working full-time with entrepreneurs and business owners. And I sat on the board of where I’m currently, now, the executive director, the Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation. Through that I shifted a lot of work and focus from where we were so that we were much more of a champion for the rural communities again and for the entrepreneurs.

BR: And what’s your current connection to tech?

MH: It was probably about seven years ago that the drone industry really started to take off … and I was just fascinated by it. Being in a rural community, again, you have all of the resources where that’s an industry that can really grow. So all of a sudden, I’m thrown into aerospace and really had no idea how anything flew, right? And I was trying to have to learn what all that was about, and having a passion for that. Of course, that all came out of economic development and trying to grow an industry for your communities.

BR: How does the lack of representation in tech affect women of color?

MH: It’s really lonely. Because in other areas it’s lonely, too, just being a woman a lot of times, but we could look around and maybe find some woman somewhere, but being in tech, and being a woman of color, I go to things and there’s no one. You get this overwhelming sense of just loneliness and an inability to connect with anybody because there’s not anybody to connect with.

BR: What has been the biggest challenge for someone like you, who’s essentially disrupting the industry? Or, really, all the industries.

MH: To be taken seriously and overcoming stereotypes. Because to be taken seriously, you take it seriously and they just think you’re mean. Then you’re that mean Black woman. But the whole thing is you can’t be taken seriously unless you come across more forceful because otherwise you’re just walked on and perceived as, “Oh, she’s just the token, cute, little Black woman over there who will stay quiet in the corner.” And then when you’re not, then there’s that added piece to it — “Oh, now she’s this disrupter.” There’s a lot of that eye-rolling that happens that you’ve overcome, especially when you’re trying to really show you actually might know what you’re talking about. And, again, that becomes so lonely, there’s no one else you can really speak to. Even if your male counterparts who may be minorities sort of, kind of, get it, I find a lot of times they still don’t want to be your champion because they’re afraid of their own repercussions.

BR: What is starting to change for women of color looking to be involved in tech or that are currently involved in tech? And what do you think is staying the same?

MH: I think what’s starting to happen is, I’m hoping anyway, is this level of acceptance and this level of us actually supporting each other. Oftentimes, women, they’ve had to fight so hard to get in there, they forget to hold the door open for the next person and have a tendency just to be in that fight mode, to further themselves. And that’s not to say you’re being selfish or anything, but I think it’s just that sort of survival of the fittest. A lot of times what I see is I come in and I see the men close the door like, “OK, see, we have one woman — we can now close that door.” And then they can carry that story out for, gosh, I don’t know, 20-30 years. So it’s having to remember and having that obligation (as women), I feel, to hold the door open and help that next woman coming to the door to get through the door.

BR: That kind of answers my next question, which is how should employers, allies, and supporters step up for women in tech?

MH: Yeah, that’s exactly what they should do, hold that door open. We’ve had that conversation too with the whole diversity piece — they’re uncomfortable, they’re frightened by it. “Why do we have to let you in?” We have to have a greater conversation about this, about supporting women. It’s not just letting minorities in, it’s creating a better vision and a bigger platform for the industry. I’ve had to come up with different arguments to get to the same point, by saying, “The more people you have in the room, the more conversations you’re having in the room, the better ideas you’re going to get out of the room.” If you all have the same experiences, you’re all going to have pretty much the same ideas, and there’s never a new idea.

BR: Is there a woman of color in the field that you’ve looked up to in your professional journey? And, if not, what would’ve it looked like if you did have someone?

MH: I would’ve loved that. I really would’ve loved to have somebody that I could have talked to, that I could find, and I think it would’ve been much less lonely. It would’ve been someone where you just have that nod, right? Because you both know that somehow, on their path to get there, they would’ve seen the same obstacles thrown at them. And then there’s that strength in numbers that comes from that, a confidence, because I think you always, at some point, still second-guess yourself as you look around the room and that whole imposter syndrome that happens. If there’s someone else, I think that imposter syndrome is a lot less significant because there’s two of you and you can talk about that.You respect that person, they respect you, you see that they’re not an imposter and there’s sort of that mirror effect that happens.

BR: Looking back, when was the first time you realized that being and remaining a woman of color in this industry would be challenging?

MH: I think it was always challenging for me, from the time I grew up to now. I never thought that it was easy. I think now, as I get older, when your current self looks back at your younger self, you almost feel sorry for that person. You wish there would’ve been somebody there to help them along the way. You know you were very strong in doing that, but you could look back and see how truly hard it was for you now that you have a platform where you are a little more accepted..

BR: What does an inclusive future of tech look like for women of color?

MH: I’m trying to be an optimist here but I think there’s still such a long way to go — and I’m specifically focusing on the aerospace industry because that’s what I see. As I’m leading the DEI for the Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, it’s still, when I look around the room, now there’s more women but there still aren’t women of color, and it’s still such a very small percentage. I am hopeful that there will be other advocates and sometimes, you know, your best advocate is someone who doesn’t look anything like you. But it’s still such a narrow margin of minority women in the industry.

If you would like to be part of the Rural Slice, please be sure to fill out our application form. Our team is always looking to chat with women in tech.

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