Black, Female & Unapologetic in Silicon Valley: An Interview with Asana’s Kalina Bryant

Editor’s Note: This interview was first published in Tricia Gellman’s Path to CMO 3.0 newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

Fearless is a misleading word.

When we use it – to describe our heroes or leaders – we’re not idolizing their lack of fear or insecurity. We’re celebrating their bravery. We’re celebrating their ability to do the right thing and the hard work, despite the fear of reprisal.

Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis called this work “good trouble.” The conversations and actions that ruffle feathers to create a more equitable society for all.

But conversations on racial justice and inequality can’t just happen on the floors of Congress or at the front of picket-lines. They need to happen at home, at school, at work – everywhere people are (even when we can’t be in the same room).

It’s no secret that the technology industry has faced backlash over sexism and racism.

Over the last few months, I’ve shared my own struggles as a female executive and new mother in the hard-and-fast tech world. 

Now, I hand the mic to my friend and peer, Kalina Bryant.

Kalina is the host and creator of the UnapologeTECH podcast and the Head of Customer Advocacy at Asana. She is also a seasoned marketing and customer executive, writer, activist, and feminist.

This month, she graciously shared her experiences as a Black female leader in Silicon Valley and her work to create a safe space for women of color. I hope you find her expertise, passion, and leadership just as moving as I do.

In a hurry? Here’s the tl;dr version:

  • Be open to opportunities in unexpected places: How did Kalina get into the technology industry? A babysitting gig. Seriously. And she turned that chance encounter into a wildly successful career in customer advocacy.
  • Be an ally: To be a true ally, you must commit to action. That means not just supporting women and underrepresented peoples, but rejecting and changing the systems that hold them back.
  • Lean into your passion: Kalina developed a passion for helping others find their voice in her work as a customer leader – and as a victim of bias and harassment in the workplace. Leaning into her passion allowed her to work through the struggles she experienced. Now she’s helping others embrace their most authentic selves.

An Interview with Kalina Bryant

1. What originally attracted you to the tech industry and customer advocacy? How did your first role plant the seeds for your career today? 

Ironically, I got into tech because I took a babysitting gig off my college roommate’s hands one night. I was saving to go on my Lasallian mission trip to the Dominican Republic and was open to every opportunity.

The father of the child I was babysitting for was going on a date and knew I had a good head on my shoulders. He told me his girlfriend was a badass in the sales tech world. He asked if I planned to work after college or go straight to grad school. I told him I wanted to get some work experience under my belt. He smiled and said I’ll chat with her during dinner. When they returned she gave me her business card and asked for me to give her a call.

I graduated, made the call, and interviewed.

Before I left the Marketo parking lot in San Mateo, CA the recruiter called and extended me an offer. Did I know much about tech? Did I know at that time Marketo was one of the hottest up-and-coming technology companies? No. But I was curious, hungry, and open to new opportunities.

I started as a sales development rep (SDR) and worked my way up the organization. I learned my skillset was networking and building relationships. I got to know everyone and I learned to craft my skill and put my focus on shaping the customer journey.

Then, three great opportunities presented themselves:

  1. Option 1 – A manager role at Marketo: This was the safe choice, and many people couldn’t understand how I could consider leaving Marketo.
  2. Option 2 – Acceptance into a great master’s program: Getting your masters is smart. But, is it smart to take two years off when you’re already in the heart of Silicon Valley learning and growing?
  3. Option 3 – Build and lead a global customer marketing segment at an up-and-coming startup (which later successfully IPO’d): Seeing the success of my peers at Marketo taught me what it means to take risks – and the importance of picking the right company at the right time.

I took option three, the “Brave/Fierce” choice. Though, at that time, it didn’t appear that way. Still, I was young enough and smart enough to take a risk. I joined a company called Anaplan, and that decision jump-started my customer-focused career. This is when I learned to follow my gut and silence outside opinions on my life choices. 

2. How has your experience as a Black, female entrepreneur in the tech industry changed over the years? What have you learned, and what did you wish you knew before you started your career?

To be honest, my first few years in tech were draining. I put a smile on my face every day, but secretly hated I was always the only Black person in the room. It was lonely. I debated quitting many times, but then who would I be?

I didn’t trust many people and I learned that tech was a cutthroat environment. I learned quickly to show results, and laugh and giggle later. Never vent or confide in anyone, and never show fear.

In my early stages, I had multiple people try to manipulate me. Ironically, the majority of them were white women (who were my bosses at the time). In one such instance, a woman verbally insulted me in front of the entire marketing department because she was having a bad day and I was an easy target. I cried that day in the bathroom, went to my parent’s house, and said I was going to quit and that tech wasn’t for me.

My parents said: “Never run. Show up tomorrow and keep pushing.”

I focused. I became great at what I do. And, over time, other people saw my brilliance. From there, new opportunities presented themselves.

Being Black and a woman in the tech world is not easy. But I loved my job. I loved designing programs and experiences for my customers and getting to build relationships with them. It was fulfilling and still is to this day.

From designing communities, customer advisory boards (CABs), executive briefing centers, and user groups to running user conferences and customer meet-ups – you name it, I love it. And these experiences and joys kept me from quitting.

Before I started my career, I wish I knew:

  • That it was okay to be authentic
  • To ask for more
  • To vocalize my opinion
  • To know my worth    

3. Tell me a bit about how you came up with the idea for UnapologeTECH, from the name to the podcast itself.

There was a point in my life when things shifted. My father passed away unexpectedly two months before my 25th birthday. My coping mechanism became work. Within two years of his death, I launched a global community at Anaplan and traveled across the globe to design experiences for customers in Russia, Singapore, London, Paris, etc. Then, I moved on.

I started a new job. I built extraordinary programs in a short time including a spectacular customer advisory board.

Yet, I experienced a Vice President taking my work and making it her own, being lied to, receiving small pay increases even though I knew I was worth more. So in 2018, I quit that job.

I left with no plan B, but I knew my worth. I took all of my work with me as well. And, for the first time in my life, I feared nothing and no one.

I booked a one-way ticket to Europe and said to myself: “If I come back to tech, I wouldn’t deal with certain things ever again.” I came back and received a cool opportunity. I was no longer belittled. I was in control and free to shine. I was acknowledged and awarded the 50 Fearless Marketer award by Adobe in 2019. I was on top of the world.

Then, George Floyd happened. After these events, I realized to have peace within myself, I needed to be authentic. I needed to speak when I felt like it. I needed to be heard. It finally hit me that being Black and a woman in tech flat-out sucks.

I decided if I dedicated my brain to another tech company, their values had to align with my cultural values.

I launched UnapologeTECH in August of 2020 and joined a company I respected and that shared the same ethical values as me. It was a breath of fresh air. Ultimately, UnapologeTECH was born out of frustration, pain, and hurt. I realized if I felt this way, then other people must feel the same.

Underrepresented women are eager to have a voice. I’ve provided the outlet, tool, space, and most importantly, reassurance that they matter and their voices matter. 

4. What are some of the lessons you’ve taken away from UnapologeTECH’s podcast guests? What stories truly inspired you?

I’ve learned my purpose. Out of all of my struggles within tech, I experienced growth. The best part is I get to help other people, particularly underrepresented groups. I learned:  

  • Women want to be heard and they just need a safe space to do so
  • Being authentic is the best gift you can ever give yourself
  • When you have a space to exhale, you can thrive

The first episode of UnapologeTECH – featuring Cynthia Hester – really inspired me. She is a brilliant woman who still experiences imposter syndrome – despite how phenomenal she is. Cynthia’s episode gave me meaning and made me understand that my vision had purpose. She believed in me and she took a chance and told her story on my platform. Not only was she a guest speaker, but she became a friend. She taught me the true meaning of community and why it’s so important.

Today, I’m working on a new segment called 5 Stages of BLIT – Black Leaders In Tech discussing Trust, Authenticity, Growth, Amplification, and Acceptance. Be sure to check out the latest episode on UnapologeTECH.

5. You’ve spoken about your own experiences with imposter syndrome. What advice would you give to other women and women of color struggling with similar insecurities?

Take time out for yourself and learn to relax. Be careful what you feed your mind. You become what you think. For coaching and advice, you can chat with me here.

6. What resources, mentors, and leaders do you turn to for inspiration, escapism, and professional development? What’s in your Netflix queue?

7. Allyship is key to creating a more equitable society. What do you believe defines a great ally? What do you wish more people knew about being a good ally to people of color and women in the workplace?

An ally is someone who genuinely wants to help and use their privilege to help the underrepresented.

You should know why you want to be an ally and be committed to taking action. People of color and women in the workplace most likely have experienced trauma in some form at work. Make sure you are dedicated to making a safer space for them.

As an ally, you must speak up to see change. If you see something, do something. Take action.

Want more insights from Kalina? You can follow her on LinkedIn, find inspiration on her Instagram, or reach out on her website. Want to book a coaching session with Kalina? You can do that here.

This interview originally appeared in Drift’s Path to CMO 3.0 newsletter – a monthly email by Drift CMO, Tricia Gellman – that looks at the customer-centric, data-driven, and barrier-breaking marketing trends that drive today’s CMOs and business leaders. Subscribe now.