Since her childhood in Chicago, Antoinette Smith has been an innovator equipped to face challenge. She is the only girl of five children. Her mother read comic strips to her from the newspaper so that, by the age of three, she was an advanced reader before starting kindergarten.
Smith’s father grew up in a working-class Chicago family, and went to college to become a civil engineer. Smith’s mother was born in Alabama and grew up in Detroit, working in administrative work after high school.
In the southside of Chicago, Smith was immersed in her Black American culture, enjoying BBQs and family reunions, and attending predominately Black schools and Black Baptist churches. In high school, she attended a magnet school with students from all ethnic backgrounds, and was surrounded by peers who look like her.
Making a Career Switch
Smith’s interest in technology sparked from using AOL as a child. “I started going on AOL so much that we had to get a second phone line,” she recalls. Smith felt excited obtaining information from the internet and connecting with people from different parts of the world.
Influenced by her parents, she initially pursued civil engineering and administrative work. “I decided I was never going to be a civil engineer, so I started doing administrative assistant work. It was very boring, and also, I don’t like being told what to do.” She decided to move to the Twin Cities to start her first job in the tech industry. As a runner, Smith was drawn to Minnesota, home of the Twin Cities Marathon.
She moved to St. Paul in 2010 for her first position with a digital business consulting company. Smith enjoyed the tech working environment, but she saw its weak spots. “You can wear whatever you want [to work], but as I got deeper into the tech industry, and worked in other jobs, I started feeling acutely aware of my Blackness, my womanliness, and how it was impacting the experiences I was having.”
Her frustration with discrimination grew. “I felt like I didn’t have any support, or was seen as incompetent,” Smith says. “I had to do self-censoring because there was no one I could talk to in the workplace.”
Although she considered changing industries, Smith decided to persevere. She has been able to land jobs with successive and significant pay increases, but the mistreatment she faced motivated her to help others in the tech field.
The Beginning of Techquity
It was rare for Smith to meet Black people in tech in the Twin Cities. She wanted a space to come together in order to engage with a community of support.
In 2015, Smith met Sharon Kennedy-Vickers, the current Chief Information Officer for the city of St. Paul. The two instantly connected and started a local meetup called Blacks in Technology Twin Cities, hosting events every month. The meetups were successful.
The two reached out to corporations in the Twin Cities, and the group of people of color in the tech industry grew from there.
In 2019, the group rebranded to the name Techquity, with the goal of improving visibility of Black people in Minnesota’s tech world. “Our partnerships with local Twin Cities companies included a number of [people focused on] equity. Now members are now working all over the place because of their abilities and connections with employers.”
Smith is seeing more acceptance and support for Black women and Black non-binary individuals in the tech industry. “I think a lot of the local tech groups have been trying to get more women, more women of color, and more people of color to participate,” she says. “Often they’ll reach out to us.”
Smith continues to be a groundbreaker in Minnesota’s growing tech scene.
Antoinette Smith encourages people from the Black community, especially women and youth, to get involved in the tech industry, because she believes it is essential to have representation and resources to succeed. “Never let anyone make you feel incompetent.”