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Tech maven LaShonna Dorsey pushes past stereotypes

January 8, 2018 1 comment

Tech maven pushes past stereotypes

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

LaShonna Dorsey, 38, busts stereotypes. Start with this sunny disruptor launching and selling a successful technology organization in her hometown.

As an African-American entrepreneur, she bridged the digital divide with Interface Web School. Though now part of the AIM Institute, she still heads the coding school that’s won her and its work much recognition. Her AIM title is Vice President, Tech Education.

She’s bypassed the Omaha ceiling for young black professionals that finds many leaving for better advancement opportunities elsewhere.

She’s defied expectations by going public, rather than remain silent, about an assault she endured.

For this superstar doer who serves on multiple boards, AIM’s acquisition of Interface was strategic.

“Interface had really reached a point of capacity,” said Dorsey. “We were growing, which was great, but I just knew I couldn’t take on more classes without having more infrastructure and all that. AIM has the infrastructure, they’ve got the space, they’ve got human resources, accounting, marketing departments.”

AIM Interface solidifies and expands partnerships.

“We had really good relationships with the Nebraska Department of Labor and Heartland Workforce Solutions and still maintain those, but it’s a lot easier for us to partner with companies and other organizations because we’re AIM now.

“It fit right with where AIM and Interface wanted to go. They have the youth education side and professional development, but they didn’t have adult tech training. The cool thing is that Interface LLC was a for-profit and now we’re a program within a nonprofit and so we get to take advantage of having that 501 designation.”

Building Interface fulfilled a dream.

“I really thought I was a starter, and so it was good to see something through from idea to completion in a major way.”

She frequently shares her start-up story, warts and all.

“I felt like especially in the early days of Interface I often had to act like I had it altogether all the time because I was selling it, too. It’s kind of a challenging position to be in because you can’t be truly authentic.

“I was really grateful to have good friends and a really strong support system. That made a huge difference.”

She especially enjoys sharing her story with women.

“Women that have done a ton in their career appreciate how difficult it is to do something like this. Women just getting started are like, ‘How did you even do that?’ We have real conversations about what it’s like and the pitfalls – but also the rewards. Being in the middle myself, I am kind of still navigating that.

“I do feel I have a lot of value to add and information to share if people are ready to hear it. I tell people it wasn’t easy all the time, but the thing that kept me moving forward was that it was so rewarding. I have so many graduate stories of people whose lives were changed because of what they learned. It helped them get better jobs and buy homes. They’re still reaping the benefits. It’s still rippling. The culture of Interface is like that.”

She readily accepts being a role model and mentor to young black women.

Growing up in a single-parent family, Dorsey learned self-reliance skills. As a bright Goodrich scholar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, she became a self-motivated high achiever. Early in her career, she proved a project management whiz.

“I like to just figure my way forward. I like problem solving. When things get a little too simple, then that is hard for me. Then I’m like, ‘Okay, what else can we do here?’ I’m not afraid of conflict, so I do lean into it, and I encourage people who work for me to do the same. If you really want to get the thing you want, you have to work through the hard stuff, too.”

Omaha’s limited horizons saw Dorsey leave in her 20s.

“But I came back. The thing that’s really tough here is that as you move up in your career, the leadership gets more white. Working in tech, you’re with a lot of white professionals and when I lived in west Omaha I’d go home, where it was all white, and I felt I had no community. It’s unfortunate and it felt uncomfortable.

“Living in a diverse community is important for me.”

Workplace inclusion requires more than new hires.

“You can hire a bunch of black and whatever programmers but that is not going to change the culture of organizations who might not be ready for it. You have to give people a space where they’re comfortable being themselves and not feeling like they have to fully assimilate in order to fit in.

“I cannot wait until we don’t have to have this conversation anymore and where it’s not special that I’m a black woman in tech. But it matters a lot to people and I have to talk about it.”

She feels she’s reached a personal breakthrough by reclaiming her given name, LaShonna, in place of Shonna and letting her hair go natural.

“Now, I feel like I can be more of myself.”

Dorsey embraces the new diversity in revitalized northeast Omaha, where African-American culture is being discovered by white millennials.

“Whenever you can create opportunities for people to have those experiences with people they don’t interact with on a daily basis, you start to change the narrative. That’s the only way were going to see change.”

Mindset to her is critical to create the transformation she and others hope to see there.

“I think we’re still many years out from seeing the fruits of it. There’s a lot of work to do because we can’t deny the fact poverty is the highest in those zip codes. That’s something to address and fix but people have to want it and see it even as an issue.”

She’s doing her part to equip adults with job-ready tech skills by bringing her code school to the Highlander Village purpose-built community on North 30th Street.

“Those economic improvement opportunities can make a big difference for people,” she said. “It will be awesome to see all of that come to life.”

Her career exploded two years ago, but few knew she was reeling from having barely survived an assault.

“Everything was still new at Interface and I still didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing all the time when I had this really difficult, tragic thing happen. There were many work days when I had to meet attorneys or go to court Turning those emotions on and off was really hard.”

It stemmed from someone she’d dated suddenly revealing a side he’d concealed before.

“It turned into a night where he took me from where I was without my permission. He strangled me three times, including once where I lost consciousness. He assaulted me in all sorts of ways in what was a five-hour ordeal.”

Fifteen months elapsed from when she pressed charges to her attacker’s sentencing.

“It was a really hard process. I totally understand why people don’t pursue that path because it is very difficult and as the victim you have to prove something happened. Typically, this kind of stuff happens one-on- one.”

Dorsey nearly didn’t report the incident for fear of how she’d be perceived.

“I remember thinking this is going to be so embarrassing and people are going to think I can’t do anything right. It’s irrational thinking, I know, but that was in my head. I decided to report it anyway.

“I try to do everything on my own all the time. But I did get some counseling and I did work through some of this with friends. Leaning into work helped a lot.”

Nature walks and karaoke nights helped, too.

Then she began dealing with it in public forums, including a poignant Facebook post.

“It was hard to carry around all the time. People were really supportive. They called me brave and things like that. I just felt it was relieving a burden for me.”

She posted soon after the last presidential election and urged people to walk through their fear and anger over the results as she had with her assault.

“Every time I talk about it publicly, more than one person will come up to me and say, ‘Me, too,’ or “My friend, my sister, my daughter.’ It’s so common. There’s a bunch of people who feel like they can’t talk about it, so I decided to share what happened to me.”

If nothing else, she said, her story reveals all is not what it seems on the path to success.

“People tend to look at the surface and just assume that because you’ve done a lot, it was without hardship.”

Visit Interfaceschool.com. Follow Dorsey on Facebook.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Interface Web School: Coding, Collaboration, Community

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Shonna Dorsey is the face of one of Omaha’s new technology success stories, Interface Web School, and she does a great job of selling the endeavor through her personality and passion and her savvy use of social and traditional media. She’s the rare co-founder of a tech company with a real facility and flair for communication. This is a short piece I did for B2B Omaha Magazine on Shonna and Interface Web School. I will soon be posting a longer feature I did about her and the company for another publication. She is a real force on the Omaha startup scene and she does a great job, as the headline of my piece here says, of combining coding, collaboration and community. She’s passionate about putting the tools and skills of technology in the hands of more people. We will all be hearing much more from her in the years to come as she’s sure to consolidate her place as a dynamic leader and entrepreneur.

 

Shonna Dorsey

 

 

Interface Web School: Coding, Collaboration, Community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the Winter 2016 issue of B2B Omaha Magazine

(http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/b2b-magazine/)

Shonna Dorsey has merged an aptitude for technology with a desire to help others via Interface Web School, Omaha’s latest cyber ed alliteration. It’s not the first time she’s combined her entrepreneurial, networking and community interests. She’s done that as a Leadership Omaha participant and as co-founder of the monthly Coffee and Code meet-up she hosts with Autumn Pruitt of Aromas Coffee.

Long tabbed a real comer, Dorsey’s been recognized with the 40 Under 40 Award from the Midlands Business Journal.

In 2013 she cofounded Interface with Dundee Venture Capital’s Mark Hasebroock and others. She serves as managing director of the school that until recently housed in north downtown’s tech-haven Wareham Building but now offices in the AIM Building, which is also known as The Exchange at 19th and Harney Streets.

The North High graduate studied technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“A turning point for me as a master’s student came working on a project for an organization that serves child abuse survivors – Project Harmony. Our small student team developed an application to store and monitor videos. That was such a meaningful project. It really sparked something to see that people can really benefit from what techies like us know and do.

“It made me think, How can I do this and make it my career?”

While working corporate jobs she mentored for Hasebroock’s startup accelerator Straight Shot. Before long, they formed Interface.

“I’ve always had a knack for saying, ‘OK, this is risky but I can see the reward on the other side.’ That was how I felt about Interface,” Dorsey recalls. “Even though it was definitely a huge leap of faith at the time it made sense when I looked at the market and what the needs were.”

Many tech jobs go unfilled in-state due to a shortage of qualified prospects. Interface strives to bridge that gap.

“We’ve all been affected by this need for more talent in technology, whether it be web developers or project managers or user interface designers,” she articulated in a Nebraska Entrepreneurship video. “We wanted to put together a pretty intensive program people could go through, which started at 200 hours over 10 weeks and has been adjusted to 200 over 15 weeks, meeting three times per week to accommodate students who need to hold down full-time positions during training..”

kidscoding

Dorsey concedes there are online services that teach coding, but she says many Interface students “have tried those tools and realized a more structured approach is necessary.” Among the benefits of a physical versus virtual class is having on-site mentors who personally “help you overcome hurdles and explain why your code isn’t working.”

Interface serves largely nontraditional students.

She says, “Currently 80 percent are full-time employees. Ten percent are minorities. Most are mid-career, late 20s-early 30s, just looking for a way to transition into a new career in web development or tech or to add more skills in order to add more value to their organization. Or to potentially start their own business.

“We usually have a stay-at-home mom or two in every class.”

Interface requires prospects complete an on-line application, in-person interview and assessment.

“It’s been a really effective tool to gauge aptitude and motivation,” she says. “Those things help determine how successful applicants might be.”

Flexible, interactive class offerings are proving popular.

“Students complete weekly evaluations of their performance and how they feel about the class. It allows us to make tweaks and changes as they’re going through it. Students constantly apply what they learn, build on what they know. It’s all pretty hands-on. We’re able to get you to a level of proficiency where you’re marketable at the end.”

In 15-week courses, students design actual applications, portals, websites for nonprofits.

“That’s an important part of what we do. Students really get excited about creating something that is their own by applying what we’re teaching to something very specific. It’s pretty impactful knowing you’re helping organizations who otherwise couldn’t afford development work. It’s a great way for students to get experience working with a client and building a real-world product. It’s good for clients to understand what it’s like to work with developers.”

 

I'm developing a new tech training scholarship fund with AIM and Omaha Community Foundation

 

It all follows Interface’s emphasis on immersive serving learning.

“The nonprofit projects give our students a chance to extend the learning beyond the classroom and maybe learn something new.”

Developer-client Interactions are just as critical as programming.

“There’s so much to web development that cannot be taught in a class. Even if you’re a great technologist if you can’t work well with people then it makes it difficult to stay employed or get promoted. Skills like collaboration, project management and communication are important no matter what our students decide to do outside Interface.”

Dorsey says employers are hiring and promoting Interface grads, many of whom report salary gains. Some employers partner with Interface.

“We’re happily surprised with how much traction we’ve gained in terms of employer support. We have several companies, including Hudl and Agape Red, that offer tuition reimbursement for our students. That’s really helped us on the student enrollment side.”

Dorsey and her partners have cultivated” close relationships” with the AIM Institute and the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, Heartland Workforce Solutions provides financial assistance and  Affirm provides tuition financing.

From the school’s inception Dorsey’s been its most public face through the networking and training she does.

“I started offering free workshops through the Omaha Public Library. It proved a great way to get Interface’s name out there and help people get exposed to web development and all the opportunities available. Since then I’ve transitioned to teaching at small startups almost every weekend. We’re starting to offer workshops outside Omaha.”

She says when Interface announced its bootcamp approach, some skeptics questioned its effectiveness.

“Our average reported starting salary is $51,000 after training with us. We’ve had students make $20,000 a year more in a new position. That’s a pretty incredible return on investment. So, the outcomes are real and what students are able to do is real and their jobs are real.”

For Dorsey, having a hand in making people tech savvy and empowered is a heady thing.

“I really do enjoy it so much and I love what we’re able to do in terms of the life changes we help facilitate and get to witness. I could not ask for a better job.”

Visit https://interfaceschool.com/.

 

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