Jazmia Henry in front of a wall of Jazmias!
Cover Image © Jazmia Henry

Black Perspectives #08: Jazmia Henry (Machine Learning & Data Science Practitioner)

The Jazmia in the Machine

SSD: What do you hope to accomplish as you continue to pursue your data-based adventures?

JH: In many ways, I know that my simple existence in this space is already subversive- Black women are severely underrepresented in Machine Learning and Data Science. I was the only Black person in my Master’s program at Columbia [University], like just many other Black people pursuing a career in Tech or Economics or Quantitative Methods at a PWI (Predominately White Institution).

Because of that, simply being in these spaces and making my presence known has meant more to me than awards or money or listicle appearances could ever be.

Other than my father, who was an AV engineer, no one in my family knows what Machine Learning really is – but because I work this job, when you ask my seven-year-old nephew what an algorithm is, he can tell you. When you ask him who makes them, he thinks of a Black woman with tattoos and dreads down her back. He thinks of me. That’s all I can ask for.

Showing off the tat!

SSD: You have done A LOT. So, pivoting from the larger question of what you’d like to accomplish — let’s bring it in a bit: What’s next for you?

JH: I haven’t the slightest idea. Ha! I stole my life’s mantra from the now-retired Dean of my college at my alma mater, Tulane. He said, “It doesn’t matter what you want to do five years from now or even five minutes from now. Just think about what you want to do right now and do it.”

Right now, I really like designing and strategizing ML applications from start to finish and that feeling I get when a new application is deployed and the end-user is able to interact with it. Every opportunity I get to do that is a home run for me so maybe next is doing this for even more people.

SSD: Earlier, you touched on having made yourself small so that you could fit in at one point. I know many people have dealt with that and still do.

What would you recommend to people dealing with that issue? How do they get past that hurdle?

JH: Getting out of this habit is gradual. It was in those moments, where I was unable to achieve what I thought I would achieve by making myself smaller, that I realized that those things I thought I wanted were incompatible with who I was. This kicked off a journey where I had to learn to be radically open and give myself over to vulnerability – even when it was hard.

It started with simply saying, “I disagree,” when I disagreed with something, and then eventually, “I disagree” turned into giving reasons why I disagreed, and then me stating what it was that I believed. These steps happened over a few years and one day I looked up and realized I was no longer “That girl that sits in the front of class with her hand always raised.” I was Jazmia, and I liked her a whole lot more than who I had been pretending to be.

I still have moments where I struggle with making myself smaller, though – do not get me wrong. Old habits die hard and as I find myself in new situations, the temptation to turn off my light and blend in is really strong. But I remember that every step forward, no matter how small, is still progress – and it’s okay to stumble on my journey, to me, but it’s never okay to give up on myself.

SSD: Any specific fond memories of you overcoming something that you thought you couldn’t? Or have you always been like, “Na – I got this”?

JH: I was never confident in myself growing up. My family was one of the few Afro-Latino families [in my surroundings], and we did not have as much money as my friends. And my parents were public-facing people in my community, so I lived life under a microscope.

I skipped a couple grades, so I was 2 years younger than my classmates and had a serious bike accident at 7 that ripped the skin from my face and left a hole in my upper lip. For years, I was literally hard to look at and became used to looks of horror and pity from adults that had a hard time digesting what happened to my face.

It was hard.

I had to fight for everything.

It wasn’t until I asked my grandma how much her mortgage was with the knowledge that I could pay it off a couple years ago that I started to think, “Maybe I got this.” That feeling ebbs and flows. When I gave the eulogy for my grandfather on behalf of my family, I felt like, “I got this.”

But I still have times where little Jazmia comes out and feels afraid that maybe the jig will be up and people will see the little girl with the hole in her lip and the crooked jaw and glasses that filled people’s hearts with pity.

In these moments, I remember how far I’ve come and love-on that little girl inside of me, and remind her that everything is okay. That’s where parenting yourself is oh so important. Part of self-love is being the parent to the young you that you needed [back] then “now” so that you can heal and begin to see yourself the way the world sees you.

SSD: Aww, Jazmia. I think that’s wise counsel for many. Parenting yourself, I mean.

I’m going to switch up gears — Can you comment on the value of networking?

I imagine that you didn’t just happen to rise into the opportunities that you’ve filled your resume with. How best should someone approach other professionals they want to get to know, learn from, or be mentored by?

JH: I was 18 years old when I heard that James Carville, who was teaching at Tulane at the time, was accepting applications to be a student in his Spring class, but that he only accepted top Juniors and Seniors. So I went to a conference he was speaking at, went backstage to wait for him to finish speaking, walked right up to him past press and CNN commentators, and introduced myself and my mother. I told him he was lucky to meet ME because I was going to be someone one day. He laughed and said, “I like her” and the rest was history.

Going to talk to him, I was horrified. Nobody in the community I came from had gone to Tulane University, let alone had the gall to be smart with the “Ragin’ Cajun” himself, but I moved forward because I had nothing to lose.

A younger bright-eyed bushy-tailed Jazmia standing on some steps outside a building.

Since then, I have replicated that over and over. [The] First job as an analyst I got was a cold call. At my interview for Morgan Stanley, I told my future manager that I would be a millionaire by 30. I’ve also been told no and denied more times than I can count! Walked right up to people who have looked right through me like I did not exist, and each time it hurts like hell.

Scientists find it takes 2 yeses to balance out the rejection of 1 rejection – so, many times, that fear of rejection may stop you from pushing for that yes. Keep pushing anyway. When they say, “No,” feel the hurt – then move on. And remember that you have nothing to lose. A “no” will not kill you- I promise. Even if that “no” makes you feel like you want to die of embarrassment, walk up and introduce yourself anyway. You never know what people [will] end up in your corner.

Long story short, being James Carville’s student once led me to being his student twice and, eventually, led to my first full-time job out of college where I worked for the Clinton campaign. All because at 18, I was willing to fall on my face.

SSD: Oh, I’m very curious what you’re going to say to this next question, now…

What are your thoughts on buzz terms like “self-branding” – especially as it relates to Black and Brown People? Do you see truth and value in it, or do you think that people are missing something important there (and why)?

JH: In some ways, self-branding can be important as we live in an age where if you do not establish your own narrative, people will create a narrative for you – and there is nothing more powerful and self-affirming than teaching people “who you are” and “how you are to be addressed”.

That said, self-narratives are messy because people are messy and brands are far too uniform to express the beauty that is within you. Ntozake Shange wrote, “bein alive and bein a woman and being colored is a metaphysical dilemma i haven’t conquered yet [sic],” and this sentiment is one that I abide by. Being a Black or Brown woman means existing beyond the physical realities we are confined to — our souls are too ancient to be restricted to one reality.

Because of that, self-branding can sometimes be to our detriment. We aren’t always happy and smiling and professional and amazing and a champion and “melanin poppin'” and “speaking truth to power” all the time. Somedays, we are hurting and scared and unsure. And our self-narration must reflect, as much as possible, the complexities of us keeping in mind that not everyone has the right to see every bit of us. There are some parts of us that we can hold dear and reveal only to those people who will provide a safe place for us to be affirmed and valued.

To finish Ntozake’s quote, “my love is too magic to have thrown back on my face…my love is too music to have thrown back on my face… [sic]” Our passion and love and beauty is to be shared, but in ways that protect the core of who we are from those more than willing to throw it back in our faces.

Jazmia Henry smiling.

SSD: Smart and wise beyond your years. Well played. Along those lines…

What mental traits do you think someone has to have who works in your field?

JH: The only important mental trait in this field, I would say, is curiosity. Anything else is what you bring as your own flavor to Tech. If you don’t like trying new things – I’m sorry – “failing at new things” (that’s better) then you’ll burn out fast. No one is great at something the first time, and being in Tech means you are constantly trying to improve on past reasoning and logic to find solutions to problems. Keeping that curiosity will make the job a lot easier.

SSD: And lastly, a Silly question – but I really am curious where you’ll go with this…

Can Machine Learning save the world? Why or why not.

JH: Absolutely not. Machine Learning is a tool- like a hammer or wheel or any other human advancement throughout our history. Humans can use Machine Learning as an asset to help solve the world’s problems, but we will need to work together as a collective using everything at our disposal to improve life for us all.

I’d like to believe that we humans are the silver bullet and the closer we get to tapping into the great diversity of ability and free exchange of ideas and resources throughout this vast planet, the closer we get to unlocking the great mysteries of the universe.

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