I-Yana currently works as a Talent Specialist at Wattpad. I first met her during her internship at Wattpad, and was immediately drawn by the positive energy and excitement she brought to her role. (I was also very happy to see someone like me join the team!) To me, she serves as a great example of what you can accomplish with hard work and a lot of determination. It was inspiring hearing about her unconventional path into the startup world, the impact it has had on her life, and her hopes for the future of women and diversity.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your journey so far.
My name is I-Yana and I work with Wattpad Studios as a Talent Specialist. My parents were immigrants from Jamaica, so I’m a first generation Canadian. My mother was a teen mum, so for me education was really important because I knew how hard it could be if I followed a similar path. I went to college for Social Work – I really loved helping people through their journeys, but I would get way too involved with them. So when I realized that it took so much to accomplish what I wanted, I pivoted and went back to school for my Bachelor’s in Communications at U of T. I always had an interest in literature and writing, and thought I was going to be the black Carrie Bradshaw. So I moved to the city and tried a number of things, but when I wasn’t getting where I wanted to be I decided to do a Certificate in Publishing at Ryerson. This led to my internship at Penguin Random House and eventually led to Wattpad!
Do you have any people that have influenced you and guided you to where you are today?
In terms of celebrity, 100% Oprah Winfrey. I’m inspired by her determination, her achievements, and the fact that she exhibits everything that society tells you is not good: being an overweight woman of color. She’s not afraid to be emotional but at the same time is strong and determined, so I definitely look up to her as an influential person.
Also, my friend’s mother was a social worker and she was the one that geared me in that direction. I really admired the way that she communicated and handled herself. In my experience as part of a Caribbean immigrant family, you rarely talk about your feelings or show emotion. And the emotions that you do exhibit are really happy or really angry – there is no in-between. So seeing, from my friend’s family, that it was okay to show emotion and that the reaction to emotion could be positive really shaped who I am today, how I handle myself, and the goals I’ve set for myself. Even now, we still have a great relationship – she is my no.1 cheerleader.
What is a saying that you live by, or that influences your daily life?
One of the things I definitely live by is the idea that people will show you who they are from the very first moment you meet them. They’ll throw you a pebble, but you won’t react and it’s not until you get hit by a boulder that you finally get it. I really believe that you have to pay attention to the pebble because by the time it’s a boulder, it’s already too late. And I live by that in terms of my work, friends, family, and lovers. When people show you who they are, believe that.
What is one of the best decisions you have ever made?
Pursuing my post-secondary education. I’ve always been an advocate of education, and especially being a woman – being a woman of color – there’s always going to be some form of discrimination against me. But one thing that no one can ever take from me or judge me on is my education. It’s expensive but worth it, and if it wasn’t for my education I wouldn’t be here today. If it wasn’t for me deciding to go into the publishing program at Ryerson, I would never have even heard of Wattpad or that it was an opportunity within reach. The other best thing I did was taking that interview at Wattpad, because it has literally changed my life for the better. I’m proud of what I do, where I work, the people I work with, and the direction we’re going.
In my About section, I spoke about the various barriers I put up for myself. Is that something you relate with? If so, what is the one thing you wish you could stop doing?
The moment I have a bad sign from a person, I am very quick to cut them out of my life. It sounds really harsh, but I can’t help it – I’m Jamaican at heart [laughs]! I really need to work on my ability to give people second chances, or, if people do something I don’t necessarily agree with, give them a chance to explain themselves. I have to be able to give humans the ability to be human. I set a high standard for myself so when somebody close to me doesn’t match up, I’m very quick to react. So I’m trying to work on that.
Can you speak to your past internship experiences and how they impacted you?
It was definitely difficult; a lot of the time, I felt like a full-time intern. With social work, I was really good at what I did so securing a job was very easy. So when I made that decision to move on to something more challenging, I really had to humble myself and start from the bottom in a world I knew nothing about. I learned a lot, but then, unlike with social work, one internship didn’t immediately turn into a job! There was a different system in place: they weren’t desperate for great people – they were just desperate for free labor. In the end, I’ve lived my life as a black woman – nothing has ever come easy to me, and I don’t assume it ever will; I’ve always had to work hard and believe that hard work will always speak for itself. So as much as it was difficult, I felt like this was just par for the course. And now, being at Wattpad, it feels worth it. I feel vindicated!! [laughs].
What drew you to your current position in tech?
When I got my internship at Wattpad, I had very little experience in technology so it was completely beyond what I’d ever thought I’d be involved in. But the basic mandate of Wattpad – the space and opportunities it provides for both creative people and those who love being engaged with stories – is something I am super passionate and excited about, especially coming in from the traditional publishing world! As the Talent Specialist, I love working with the people we have identified as influencers on the platform. I also love the fact that I’m a part of something no one has ever done before! For the first time, I think in my whole life, I feel like I’m part of something that’s new, exciting, impactful, innovative, and overall amazing!
Can you describe what your role entails?
I work with Wattpad Studios as a Talent Specialist, which primarily means I help manage what we call the Wattpad Stars. With the help of the Engagement team, we identify writers who could potentially be stars then I reach out to them, send them agreements, and add them to Salesforce. I also help connect the Brand Solutions team with influencers for their Native Ad campaigns, based on their clients’ needs. We also get requests from different entertainment groups wanting to know more about popular titles on Wattpad, and sometimes no one in the company has read these stories, so I have also taken it upon myself to read these stories to find out why our users are interested in them. So, it’s a lot of connecting – I connect brands with the people that can represent their brand while doing a great job of representing Wattpad. And I’m a personal cheerleader for writers on the platform [laughs].
Thinking back on your career so far and the roles you have held, what are some of the challenges/obstacles you have faced that pertain to being a minority?
With social work, you’re constantly dealing with people who have to rise above whatever circumstances they are in, so I shared those feelings as a woman of color from an immigrant family. However, with time you realize that everyone at your level, and maybe one or two above, looks like you, talks like you, and shares similar experiences; but it was the opposite when it came to the decision makers. That was really difficult for me because I felt like the people at the bottom were really passionate and would give their all to their jobs, and I didn’t know if that was always shared at the top. Working in an environment where part of the income is based on government funding or charitable contributions – you really have your hands tied. And at 17 – working as the youngest person at a Rape Crisis Center – the sky was the limit when it came to things I thought we could do in the city! I don’t think they took me seriously, and the ones that did, again, I feel like their hands were tied because it was up to the decision makers.
Overall, because I feel like I’ve always kind of landed in traditionally feminine roles, I haven’t had too many issues in terms of feeling slighted or discriminated against. But without there being overt discrimination, I think as a woman and as a black woman you always feel like you are the only one like you in the room. You always feel like you’re going to have to try much harder, or bite your tongue a few more times than the average person in the room. But since it’s just become an expected, normalized part of my life, it hasn’t necessarily affected me in a negative way because I’ve always been a fighter and a hard worker. So although for the most part I haven’t had to experience that in a work situation, it still exists in a big way without having a negative personal experience. Whenever you’re the only person in the room that looks like you, and talks like you, and has experiences like you, you’ll always feel like you have to work twice as hard. So I’m glad I found you [laughs].
What do you want to accomplish with the next phase of your career?
I feel like I’ve finally found my footing and found the career path that I really want to be on so I’m super happy with what I do, but I’d like to be the person making the final decision. Do I think I’m at that point where that should be 100% of my job? Not yet [laughs]! But I would love to not only be a part of making my writers’ dreams come true, but also literally be the one that signs that dotted line and makes those dreams come true.
What is your definition of a feminist?
Feminism is the belief that everyone is equal, regardless of race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, educational background; it’s just treating everyone equally. It’s about giving people opportunities that they would normally not have, that you innately already have. It’s acknowledging that you’ve had privilege – if you have – that they don’t have. The best analogy I can give is if you are a middle-aged, Caucasian male in North America, and you are in a race with a gay, visible minority female, you are not only starting that race 100 meters ahead of them, but they also have to jump over hurdles to get to the same finish line. That, to me, is innately the definition of privilege vs non-privilege, and understanding that, acknowledging that, and trying to change that is being a feminist.
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female advancement?
Opportunity and exclusion. Because you can’t get anywhere if the opportunity isn’t presented to you, but the opportunity will never happen if you’re excluded out of the boy’s club. I think the first part to making this happen is providing education as an equal opportunity to everyone. Getting an education is very expensive beyond high school, and not everyone has the same access to it. But education brings forth opportunity and inclusion; beyond the things you learn in school, you get to interact with people from different backgrounds and build relationships or form connections that essentially benefit you. So I feel like if there was less exclusion, and more opportunity it would be a better playing field.
What are the things we should do to move towards diversity and inclusivity in tech?
I feel like giving people more of a chance where you normally might not is the first step. At my old job, I wasn’t in charge of hiring but I did take part in some interviews and there were a few times when I could feel discrimination happening because somebody was too old, or had an accent… Or sometimes they might not have had the full credentials that another person had, but after talking to them you knew that they that they were the type of person that was fully committed and would work hard for you. And I feel like that’s the key: it’s not just what you know before you walk into the door, it’s what you’re able to take on after. I do feel like whether I had my degree or not, I would still be doing an amazing job because the way I was raised — if someone is paying you to do something, you do it to the best of your ability. And like I said not everyone has the same access to education, but I don’t think that takes away from them being a good worker, or being a quick learner, or adapting to a new environment. So I feel like chances need to be taken where they normally wouldn’t.
What advice would you give girls/women looking to pursue a career path similar to yours?
That even when it feels uncomfortable, even when it feels like you don’t belong, try it anyways! Because that’s what I did! A peer of mine from Ryerson also applied for this job and she fit the script! She was Asian, super smart, knew a lot about math, sciences, and computer technology. So when she told me she was going to apply for the internship at Wattpad, I thought it was perfect for her. She got an interview but hadn’t heard anything back, and when I saw that the posting was still up I thought – what’s the worst thing that could happen? So I went for it, and I got the job. There was this preconceived notion that somebody of her cultural background, educational background, and experience – which was the opposite of mine – would be perfect for that job. So my advice for anyone trying to get into technology is just to be confident in yourself and try it. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you; but I promise you, you’ll never regret taking the chances you feel like you should.
Do you have any book or blog recommendations that have inspired you as a woman in tech?
Shonda Rhimes’ autobiography – The Year of Yes. Society has created these stereotypes and misconceptions that are very much enmeshed in racial culture, gender, education, and so on. So what I love about Shonda is that she has changed what primetime television looks like; what she did was just cast people into roles and have them interact accordingly. There was no significance to their race, gender, or what have you – they are just people, in places, doing things. And that’s a sentiment I share.
Also, when I got to Wattpad I felt like I didn’t belong and I’ve joked to my team before that one day someone is going to tell me that the jig is up! And I feel like she shared the same experience in the TV world – she felt like she didn’t belong even though she was working as hard as everyone else if not harder. So I feel like it applies in the tech world because there’s definitely an idea of who should be working in this world and what they should be doing.
And I hate to bring Oprah back into this but [laughs] I got one of her books, What I Know For Sure, as a birthday gift. That’s another really good one.