This post is part of the "Self-Made Women" series featuring women who came from a world without power or wealth, but with the support of family, teachers and mentors, they found their way to success.
Picture this: You're 25 years old. Your mother is the daughter of Cuban refugees, your father is Colombian, you were born and raised in South Florida and you did not learn how to speak English until you went to kindergarten. In high school you go from getting all As to failing because you're bullied and don't fit in. However, with the support of your parents, you make it through, confident that you can make something of yourself. You're accepted to American University in Washington, D.C., and three and a half years later you graduate with a double major in IT and international business. The problem – you don't have a clue what you're going to do next because your passion isn't exactly aligned with your degrees. Then suddenly you're working at the White House where everything starts to make sense.
How did you get to the White House? That was the first question Andrea Guendelman, (cofounder and CEO of BeVisible) and I asked Vivian Graubard, founding member of the United States Digital Service at The White House and former Senior Advisor to the United States Chief Technology Officer. Following is our edited and condensed interview with Vivian Graubard.
Chapter 1: I Changed My Mind
I originally planned to study political science at American University because I thought I wanted to work in politics; however, two weeks into my freshman year, I changed my mind and transferred to business school. By then, all of the cool prerequisites were full but there was an opening in Intro to IT, so I signed up.
I had my reservations. More than that, I felt sure I wouldn't succeed in that class because I believed I was bad at computers and tech. I was one of three women in the class. My professor was a woman who had worked at Oracle. She championed me then, and to this day she's one of my mentors.
When course registration came around again my professor said, "I think you're incredibly talented and if you're interested, you could have a great future in tech. I really hope you'll consider enrolling in more IT classes next semester." In fact, I began to expect this same speech every registration period. And she delivered every time. She would email me to say, "Stick with it. I know it's hard. I know that you don't feel like it's totally your thing, but you're really good at this. There are not enough women in tech. Stick with it." I stuck with it and graduated with a double major in IT and international business.
Chapter 2: A Guy Got “My” Job
Once I graduated, the only plan I had was to visit my younger brother who had been living in Beijing. A friend of mine said,"The Office of Presidential Correspondence has a volunteer program. It's unpaid, but you can do it for a few weeks or until you find your next thing."
I was accepted into the program and a few months later I had a full time job in the Office of Presidential Correspondence as a tech coordinator. I was only 21 years old at the time, but I was supporting all of the office's tech efforts – including digitizing the White House comment line, improving how we communicated with constituents and supporting the use of data to make policy decisions.
I loved it, but nine months later I was overlooked for a promotion I thought I deserved. I was already doing the job (the person who was in that role left and the job was being handled by the two-person tech team — me and my boss!). The job was offered to a male colleague who didn't come close to having my experience. I felt crushed. Despite all of my hard work, this guy was given the raise, the title, and the office with a door. Not to mention the fact that I knew I'd still have to do all of the heavy lifting. I knew that I needed to find a new job.
Around the same time, Todd Park had recently been named the White House Chief Technology Officer and he was looking for an assistant. Although I wasn't interested in being an assistant, I started doing some research into Todd Park and I knew immediately that I wanted to work for him. He is an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and someone I could learn from. I made it through the first few rounds of interviews for Todd's assistant. A friend who knew other people that were interviewing for the job said, "There are people with incredibly impressive resumes [also interviewing]. If you don't get it, don't worry. Something else will come your way."
On a Thursday afternoon, I received a call informing me that I made it to the final interview. The person said that Todd was traveling and asked if I could come in the following week and interview. That was perfect because I had plans to travel that weekend to visit my college roommate in Denver. I boarded the plane, took my seat, and I looked up to see Todd Park walk onto the plane and sit two rows in front of me.
I wondered, "Should I say something to him?" I decided to go to the bathroom and then look surprised when I pass him on my way back. On my way back from pretending to use the bathroom, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Mr. Park, you don't know me. My name is Vivian Graubard and I'm actually interviewing to be your assistant.”
He looked up at me as if to say "What are you doing on this plane?" I assured him it was a coincidence, and said, "I promise you I didn't follow you onto the plane. I'm going to visit my friend in Denver and we happened to be on the same flight." He said, "Okay, well it's nice to meet you." I went back to my seat thinking for sure I had blown it.
I saw him again when we were deplaning and we ended up walking together through the airport, then onto the train to baggage claim – talking the entire time. It felt like an interview. He asked me about my work and my interests, and I asked him how he was finding his new role at the White House. Then we parted ways.
I had my final interview the next Tuesday and was offered the job. I had just turned 23.
In my first month on the job, we received a call from the White House Counsel on Women and Girls. They said, "We're interested in doing something to combat human trafficking on the Internet. We don't know how to stop it, but we know that it's happening." Todd said, "I know exactly who you should talk to in my office." They asked, "Who?" probably expecting it to be one of his many senior advisors who were more advanced in their careers. He said, "Vivian. She actually spent time in India and abroad working in the anti-trafficking space."
I spent the next two years working on combating human trafficking and violence against women through the use of data and technology. I finally felt like everything was coming together – I had found a way to combine my passion to combat modern day slavery with my skills. And I was getting paid for it!
I owe so much of my success to Todd for taking a chance with me, championing me, and believing in me. Ten months later, I became an Advisor to the United States Chief Technology Officer.
Chapter 3: At The White House
I'm grateful that I was able to find one of my greatest passions while I was in college. Like most college students, I had many possible paths to explore and one that I explored with vigor was the opportunity to work on protecting women's rights, internationally and at home. In my junior year of college, I was a fellow at the Polaris Project, a national non-profit dedicated to eradicating modern day slavery. I also had the chance to spend a summer at the Emancipation Network, in Calcutta, India, volunteering at an orphanage that housed girls who had been rescued from sex trafficking. These experiences prepared me for some of the projects I took on at the White House, years later.
At the Office of Science and Technology Policy, I led the White House Initiative on Combatting Human Trafficking through Tech. We worked with agencies, stakeholders, advocates, and survivors of human trafficking to identify ways that technology could be used to aid law enforcement in identifying human trafficking as well as better connect advocates and survivors to the services they need.
As part of the President's Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault, we found that there was a lack of transparency and a lot of misinformation about how to prevent and respond to sexual assault on college campuses. Students didn't understand their rights, and school administrators had a difficult time dealing with and understanding this issue. Even worse, sexual assault victims often feel isolated from those around them, making it that much more difficult to talk about.
As a result, I worked with Presidential Innovation Fellows and 18F, the digital service team at the General Services Administration, to build NotAlone.gov, the first comprehensive government website that brought together the information students, survivors, and universities need to understand the rights of a survivor and the responsibilities of a university when a sexual assault complaint was filed. We also worked with our agency colleagues to open over 100 datasets related to campus sexual assault.
As a Latina working in tech, I've also dedicated time to promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), which has also been a priority of the President's administration. We know that women account for roughly 24% of the STEM workforce, despite accounting for 49% of the U.S. workforce – and that women in STEM earn 33% more than those in non-STEM jobs and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men. This is important when you consider that women workers earn, on average, 77 cents for every dollar earned by male counterparts – and the pay gap is even greater for African-American women (64 cents) and Latinas (56 cents). But in order to get women and people of color into these high paying tech jobs, we have to make sure they're adequately trained and positioned to fill them.
Last September, I left the Office of Science and Technology Policy to join the newly created United States Digital Service (USDS). There, I have been working with a team to modernize how our government delivers immigration benefits. Along with the Department of Homeland Security and a team of engineers, designers, and a product manager, we're reimagining how millions of immigrants will apply for and receive their benefits – making the process more efficient and easier-to-use. Our goal is to scale these efforts across the government to provide a better user experience for the public and transform how the federal government works for the people.
Chapter 4: How Did I Get Here?
From a very young age, my parents taught me that you just have to take everything that comes your way and find a way to work through it… no matter what. And in order to make the best of a daunting and overwhelming situation, you work hard and take it step-by-step until you're able to sort it all out.
Even though my career has just begun, I still wonder, "How did I get here?" I guess it was a hundred little things. It was deciding to work on the Polaris Project while I was in college because I was committed to helping end modern slavery. It was choosing to switch schools at the very last minute, which prompted me to move into tech, meet an important mentor, and discover how I could use a background in tech to advance all the social justice issues that I care most deeply about. It was in choosing to not let being overlooked for a promotion get to me so that I could move forward and find a better place for myself working for Todd Park.
Some people might look at my career and call me lucky.
Sometimes I feel a little bit lucky, but most of the time I just feel grateful. Grateful that my parents were right – work hard and the rewards will follow. I hope to spend the rest of my time serving this Administration helping uplift the voices of those who need to be heard the most. I'm excited to see what's next.