Breaking into the Tech Industry and How Shana Sumers is Raising Her Voice as a Queer Black Woman in Tech
Shana selected music therapy as a discipline after receiving encouragement from her high school music director to consider music therapy as a college major. The decision made sense to her because of her interest in psychology and passion for music. After graduation, Shana spent several years providing music therapy services to children, many of whom suffered from trauma, abuse, and/or neglect, before uprooting her life to pursue her master’s degree in Australia! Her decision to remain in Australia after graduation was taken from her after tearing her ACL during a competitive travel league soccer match— she needed her parents insurance to cover the surgery and rehabilitation. Returning to the U.S., Shana worked a couple of “stepping stone” jobs before she was able to begin re-establishing her career, this time at a special education institute in Arizona.
Now serving as the Content & Community Manager for HER Social App, Shana curates partnerships and content with an intention of creating opportunities for LGBTQ+ inclusion and empowering diversity. With over 3 million users in over 55 countries HER Social App is the largest community for lesbian, bisexual and queer people worldwide.
I connected with Shana Sumers through the Facebook Group, Black Tech Women, an online support and resource group for black women in or affiliated with the tech industry. Our chance connection characterizes Shana’s M.O. being in the right place and staying ready, so when the right time happens she can make moves and new experiences. I talked with Shana about her pivot into an influential role within a technology company despite her non-tech background as well as her experiences as a queer Black woman in tech. She offered plenty of life advice for career women along the way.
THIS CONVERSATION HAS BEEN EDITED FOR CLARITY AND LENGTH OF CONTENT.
Name: Shana Sumers
Current Career: Content & Community Manager for HER Social App
Current City: San Francisco, CA
Education: Bachelors in Music Therapy from Shenandoah University (Virginia). Masters of Special Education from University of New South Wales (Australia)
Connect with Shana: Instagram | HER Social App Website
Christa: How would you describe what music therapy is for someone who doesn’t know?
Shana: Music therapists work with all ages, from right out the womb to just before you’re about to pass away. We work with physical or developmental disabilities, mental health issues, and everything in between. Music therapists use musical interventions to help accomplish non-musical goals. Here is an easy example: You are in rehab because you have a broken leg. Our goal is to make your leg stronger and get you back walking with a normal gait. We use drums or instruments to emphasize a specific beat. You have to be able to move to this beats per minute to the song. Then we will start to speed up the beat and incorporate different exercises different. The key combination is musical interventions and non-musical goals.
Christa: I’m curious. How can women integrate music therapy into their lives as self-care?
Shana: There is a difference. Music therapy is led by a board certified music therapist. Music leisure is being an active participant in music. One of the best ways you can practice self-care in music is completing breathing exercises to songs. If you enjoy playing an instrument or if you sing like, find opportunities to devote time to those activities. If you have drum circles in your community, those are awesome because you can healthily express your emotion. Also, you can use music to motivate you while working out. If you allow music to do what it's supposed to and not just be white noise in your ear, those are some of the best activities that you can do.
Christa: So, why the career switch from music into tech?
Shana: While I was in Australia, I was following HER Social App. One day, they reached out to me while looking for HER ambassadors. I had free time and just came out a year or two prior. I thought to myself, “You know what? I'm going to put myself out there. I’m living in a new country. Nobody knows me. Who cares? Let's try something.” I reached back out and they replied, “Well you're in Australia.” I told them I will be back in the U.S. at the end of the year. This was prior to me deciding later in the year that I wanted to stay.
I asked what I could do from a distance. They asked if I can write. I started writing blogs for HER, and even reviewed Australia Pride. Since I tore my ACL, I started adding more responsibility such as calling people to tell them about HER Social App. When I moved back to the U.S., they thought I was great with people and asked if I could work on the HER Social media platforms. Slowly, I became in charge of all of their social media platforms.
While side-hustling with HER Social App, Shana found promising employment within the music therapy realm. She eventually received an offer to join HER Social App full time. The decision to leave Arizona for San Francisco was easy for her.
Shana: I told HER Social that could not keep managing all social channels unless I was getting paid full time because I found a job. So, we agreed that I would take over one platform. I chose Facebook our Facebook following to over 30,000 followers. That accomplishment switched the game for me. All of a sudden, I gained a lot more responsibility within the app. Within the first six months of living in Arizona, Viv, who was my boss, promoted me to Social Media Manager. I became in charge of a team and that rolled me up to our CEO who is now my current boss, Robin Exton.
I found myself at the point where I've earned my master's, I did everything correct, but I thought to myself, “Now what do I do?” I was very motivated by the work I was doing for HER. Within the first month of me serving as Social Media Manager, Robin reached out to me again to ask if I wanted to work with HER Social App full time. That is when I realized, I was only living in Arizona for six months. My current job looked for over a year for a music therapist before I arrived. There was no deciding factor, if I was going to leave. It was when am I going to go? This happened in April. Thankfully, my current boss was willing to wait until September for me to transition my kids to the new therapists.
Shana’s coworkers were her biggest supporters throughout her time side-hustling and during her transition to San Francisco.
Shana: All of my coworkers were really happy for me. They knew all the work I was doing. After work, I went to the gym and then I went home to continue working for HER. I traveled for events. They were very supportive. I could not be more grateful for my coworkers in Arizona. When I got an offer, they told me, “Go, because it is amazing for you!” Their support helped a lot in the process.
Christa: What advice do you have for women wanting to make a career change?
Shana: Do It! Okay, I have to give better advice than that! There is so much room for change. Switching careers is not as taboo as it was before. Find your network. Find what you want to do. Then, research and ask people questions. People, especially in tech, are willing to sit and talk. Utilize them as a resource to grow your knowledge. Rely on the skills you have; those skills are a gift and are going to help move you forward. Find a way to incorporate your skills into a new field. Your existing skills can be highlighting factor to start that new path.
Questioning “what if” is my least favorite thing to do. If you sit on your “what if”, and miss out on the positive moments, that will bother you forever.
Christa: What challenges did you have transitioning to life in San Francisco and the technology industry?
Shana: I had more of a cultural shock working in San Francisco than I did living in Australia. I initially thought that everybody in tech has been working for years in tech. Then I discovered people lucked into the industry just like I did. It took me months to figure that out. Once I did, I thought, “Cool, I can do this!”
Initially, I felt so much pressure to be the best because I though there is always somebody here to take my job. I felt that I needed to put out 150 percent and not sleep. It was horrible. I loved my job and I loved what I was doing. But the stress was very new to me. I've worked with people with anxiety. Then all of a sudden, I was feeling my own personal anxiety. That was really a hard adjustment for me.
Christa: How did you adjust? Are you still overcoming that adjustment today?
Shana: I place less stress on myself now. Before moving to San Francisco, I was very outgoing and I would not hold my tongue in different scenarios. In meetings, I would be the first person that would say: “No, that's not correct.” or “I disagree with you.” Here, I would bite my tongue. During my review, my boss pointed that out. She told me that when we are having discussions, if I get overwhelmed, I would shut down. I realized she was correct and that is not characteristic of me at all. I immediately had to face that truth.
I used my circle a lot. I used my friends. I started to network. I wanted to hear about how people did their jobs, but I also want to hear how they handled doing their jobs and their experiences. I also started to make sure that I was traveling more. Traveling is one of my core values. Those were my starting steps.
I started to be more honest with my boss because she is looking out for me. I know not a lot of people have that same luxury. I would talk to her about how I always feel like I'm incorrect. I never felt like that with music therapy. I knew this is what's due, this is what I had to do, and this is how I had to explain it. Here, you never know 100 percent if you're right. Even if you are correct, it's going to change at any moment. I'm getting used to that idea of going with the flow.
Christa: Tell me about your biggest win this year.
Shana: I co-hosted a panel for Queer Women of Color in tech with Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech Facebook Group, founded by Alexi Butler. When I first moved to San Francisco, I reached out to her and we talked. She mentioned the idea of wanting to host a career panel to discuss Queer women of color and their experiences in tech. I told her that's what HER Social wanted to do also. So, I said, “Yes! Let’s do it!” The event sold out in less than a week. We had panelists from Uber, Linkedin, from Lesbians Who Tech, a founder of her own company. It was such a cool mix of women in the room. To see a gathering of a lot of other women of color, queer women of color all coming in to this one space that was a huge win.
Christa: Being a queer, bisexual woman of color in tech, have you found that you gravitate towards having a certain mission or have you discovered your “purpose in life”?
Shana: I don't know if I have gravitated toward one specific purpose yet. I've never had to address me being a woman, or a Black woman, or a queer Black woman in tech. Putting it all together into tech feels like a different, big category that I didn't know was there. It makes sense because the this tech world is led by cis white males. I feel super lucky because HER embraces all of this.
I also realize that I am still the only person of color in my office and my boss is very aware of that. When I told her, “Hey, I want to work on this issue,” she responded, “Yes, please. I know that I don't have an entry point.” People would tell me that they are building off of my tokenism. I have to tell them, “No, I asked to be put in this position to give opportunities to other people.”
One of the goals that I have is to be a voice for the LGBT community. HER social app has over 3,000,000 users worldwide. We have to represent them. Being able to provide that voice for people who may not be out, who may be living in the south, or even living in the Middle East is important. People see that it is okay because they see someone who looks like them, who is from where they are from, when they have that representation.
Christa: What words of wisdom would you give people of color within the LGBT community who feel discouraged working, especially as a newcomer, in the tech industry?
Shana: I highly suggest finding their community, even if it's not within their office. Join Facebook groups and Meetups. If you are new, people in these resource groups will be the most helpful, guiding force for you. If you don’t have a group inside your company, be that person that pushes the boundary and encourages that to happen.
Never apologize for you being you. If there's any company that is not okay with your identity, then there was always another who will be. That is what I think is great about the tech world, there is always more.
Shana shared a valuable gem about building and utilizing your network, and then paying it back for others– stressing the importance of being ready.
Shana: Continue to find your network. Those connections are going to help move your resume up. Then you can be that connection for someone else. If you have the skills to bring to the table, those connections will help bring you to that table. In Black Women in Tech Facebook group, members announce when there is job opening and offer to be a referral if another member applies. Obviously it's not a guarantee you're going to get this job. But, if you bring the skills to the table, I will bring your chair for you— that’s been my theme for the year.
She also shared why the is power in making deeper connections with your counterparts at other companies.
Shana: I am great friends with one of the members of Lesbians Who Tech because I reached out to her. We found out that we both do the same role for our jobs. We have the same frustrations, but she has different strengths and I have different strengths. Us working together is making both of our jobs that much better though we are both at two different companies. To be able to find another group of women of color that is in my same exact position is what gets us through. We stick together. It's community. We have to take advantage of it.
Christa: What's next for you? What do you hope to accomplish?
Shana: I want to speak about being women of color in tech without a tech background and how to build a community. I hope that in the future, we can launch an outreach with kids. Working with kids is one of my strengths and I still love working with them.
My immediate goal right now is to continue to building a community where people can just come and feel like they are at home, even if it's in their hand. Sometimes we can't feel like we're at home where we live, which is terrible.
Within the first months of me being with HER, I've reached out to Matt Lopez. They are non-binary. They are a person of color. They give haircuts to homeless LGBTQ youth in L.A. We conducted a fundraiser for them. We are working and partnering with more diverse groups. We are community based brand, we should be working with the community. I want to do as much in the community as possible.