RTC Conversation with Elaine Montilla: Thriving in Tech as a Latina Lesbian

“RTC Conversations” is an interview series with mentors and advocates of Rewriting the Code. The series is spearheaded by two RTC alumnae: Lucy Zhang, a software engineer at Apple, and Alice Chen, a software engineer at Two Sigma.

Elaine Montilla is the founder of 5xminority, a company and social media brand dedicated to empowering women and minorities, especially in tech. She is also the Assistant Vice President and Chief Information Officer for Information Technology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). We spoke with Elaine over Zoom about her experience as a woman in technology.

L: What made you decide to found 5xminority?

Sixteen years ago, I started as a help desk supervisor at the Graduate Center for CUNY and gradually got promoted to where I am today. But I look around and I don’t see enough women in leadership positions like me, not to mention women of color. In 2019, I delivered a TEDx talk on the value of mentoring women and minorities in tech and as a result received many emails from young ladies like yourself. I began to realize that the problem I was facing was way bigger than I thought.

As a woman in tech, immigrant, lesbian, Latina, and non-native speaker of English, I started 5xminority as a blog to share my thoughts and wisdom casually. In the middle of the pandemic in 2020, I decided to make it into a company with a focus on elevating the voices of women who are underrepresented minorities in tech because I now see it as a responsibility. I do a lot of related public speaking and writing on relevant topics, and we lead workshops for women.

L: How did you find your way into tech?

I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. My older brother loved gaming and computers. I would watch him play with an Atari or change the memory of an open computer all day, which is how my interest in tech started. After high school, I moved to New York without knowing any English. My first job in tech was desktop support at the computer lab. But for me, it was more than IT: I enjoyed helping people. I always loved psychology and enjoyed seeing how I was able to change someone’s mood by fixing an issue with the printer or a Microsoft application.

When I finished my associate degree in liberal arts, I wanted to start making money as quickly as possible to help my mom with household expenses. My advisor told me it would take a few years before I could get a job if I got another degree in psychology, but I could make money right away if I studied tech. Initially, I didn’t even like programming. I remember my first C++ class: I wanted to pull my hair out because I couldn’t follow. But I think part of that was me trying to learn two languages at the same time: English and C++. Years later, I took C++ again and got an A.

L: Would you consider language one of the biggest barriers to studying in the US?

Yeah, language was the first and foremost barrier. I didn’t understand people and I didn’t know if people understood me. Today, I’m comfortable asking people to paraphrase what they said, but back then, I felt ashamed. I also had a strong accent. I felt that I didn’t belong to many groups because I didn’t sound like them. It took many years to build confidence and understand that being different is one of our superpowers.

Another barrier was the preconditioned thinking, especially in the Latinx community, that if you’re a girl, you’re supposed to do girly things, not play with an open computer. I had to deal with that too.

L: How did you build up confidence?

With time and practice. Practice makes perfect. I had to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Our intuition is to get out as soon as we’re uncomfortable, but in order to change for the better, we have to stay there and be uncomfortable.

For me, one defining moment was coming out to my mom. I’m lesbian, and in my culture at that time, that was a big no-no. I felt ashamed and hid it for many years until one day, I had the courage to share that with my mom. I then came out to my boss, who said, “So what?” I felt this relief: oh, you don’t care, you see me for me, as a human being. Slowly we realize that we are in charge of our life and we decide who’s going to be part of it.

A second defining moment was when I was asked to do new student orientation for the university. I was terrified of public speaking so I joined a local Toastmasters to practice. That gave me the confidence to speak in public. With practice and as we start to watch and control our thoughts, we see that we make things bigger and scarier than they actually are.

A: What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered?

Fighting to have my voice at the table will never end, but I already know what to do about it. When something is coming, instead of reacting immediately and getting defensive, I make space for it to happen, think about it, and then respond.

My biggest challenge today is getting out of my own way. Sometimes imposter syndrome comes back and I don’t even notice it. It happened to me recently: I was nominated after submitting an application to the South by Southwest (SXSW) EDU Conference and immediately doubted my eligibility. That’s when I told myself I needed to get myself out of the way to allow things to flow.

A: You mentioned you had great mentors and sponsors in some of your talks. What can we do to become better mentors to others?

A lot of my success (although not all of it) is thanks to the mentors I’ve had in my life. From them, I learned how to be humbler, be a better listener who does not judge, and give feedback that helps others. A good mentor in my opinion lays out the expectations from day one so that both parties understand what they’re getting themselves into. It’s not just the mentor giving and mentee taking. We’re both learning from each other. Also, find and mentor someone who looks nothing like you to share some of their wisdom.

A: Do you have any advice for early-career women like us facing all of this uncertainty since 2020?

There’s a pandemic, but the internet is still there. Keep growing and learning as much as you can. There are so many free courses online. I recently took a diversity and inclusion course on LinkedIn Learning. I also got the Project Management Program certification because I wanted to know what my staff knew.

Build your network. If you don’t use LinkedIn, now is the time to create an account. Share posts. Find people whom you look up to and send them a thoughtful message. Whether you have a job or not, think as an entrepreneur and ask yourself what you can give to the world. In the end, you’ll see that the more you give, the more you get back. The more articles I write and share, the more connections and speaking engagements I get. You don’t always have to depend on other people. Concentrate on giving and the rest will come.

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