A community of black women in design: An interview with Lenora Porter

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A community can foster a sense of belonging and empower marginalized groups. Lenora Porter’s Black Women in Product Design celebrates its me

9 min read

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Whenever Lenora Porter – currently a software engineer at Heroku (Salesforce) – went to a conference, she felt like she didn’t belong. Not that she attended that many. As there were very few UX and product design events in her hometown of Miami, which Lenora says was a ‘tech desert’ when she first started out, she would have to travel. She was a broke junior designer, however, and just couldn’t afford it. On the few occasions she got a scholarship to attend a conference, she felt like a fish out of water. “No one looked like me at all, not even in the audience,” Lenora points out. “I was the only person of color and yearned to hear voices from marginalized women in design, especially black women. I also didn’t care about a lot of the topics that people were talking about. It just missed the mark for me, and I felt out of the loop.”

Attending a large scale event by herself was also an intimidating experience. Lenora didn’t know how to interact with the other attendees. Everyone seemed to have their friends with them already. So she stopped going to design events and started exploring online communities instead.

Lenora googled “where are the black designers?” but what really made a difference was carrying out research on social media. She looked up hashtags on Instagram and Twitter, some of which she still follows today: #blacksindesign, #blacksintech, #womenintech, #wocintech, and #stembabes. These helped her find other people in the industry that were more like her and learn about the kind of conferences they went to, such as AfroTech and Tech Intersections.

An illustration of four puzzle pieces with diverse women on each of them
The Black Women in Product Design community icon.

"I thought we’d be 20 or 30 people, but all these black women in tech who also do design suddenly joined. I quickly realized how important the group was and that others needed it as much as I did. It’s like a mutual bond.”

The power of professional communities

“I was just looking for a path,” Lenora recalls. “I started finding people like Catt Small, who is both a designer and coder, which really resonated with me. A very small community of people do both, and I was mostly interested in the marginalized section, which is even smaller. You have to really search for these people and when you find them, hold on to them.”

Lenora then joined various online communities, like Black Tech Women, Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech and Designers Guild, which helped her level up and grow her confidence. She firmly believes in the power of communities and points out that they help you gain a sense of belonging, create lasting friendships, find mentorships and support from people working toward a common goal.

“At AfroTech in San Francisco, I sat in a group of more than 30 black women who were all in tech for the first time ever,” Lenora explains. “I’d never experienced that before. I felt really empowered, and it made me feel sad because I thought I wouldn’t get this again back home in Miami.”

To continue to engage with like-minded designers, Lenora in 2017 set up a private Facebook group called Black Women in Product Design, which has since grown and expanded to more than 600 members. It became her mission to inspire other women and minorities to break into the tech industry.

“I thought we’d be 20 or 30 people,” Lenora laughs. “But all these black women in tech who also do design suddenly joined. It was crazy, I didn’t know it would be that many. So I quickly realized how important the group was and that others needed it as much as I did. It’s like a mutual bond.”

Black Women in Product Design is making a massive difference to its members by providing much needed support, encouragement and connections. UX/UI designer Shana Shields, for example, regularly checks into the group to see what’s going on, find inspiration and interact with other members. “It’s really refreshing to be amongst so many amazing black women designers,” she writes in a Facebook comment. “There aren’t many in my area to talk to in person, and I love the camaraderie of the group. As someone trying to break into the industry, I feel safe asking questions, which helps me big time with my bootcamp projects.”

Lenora graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor's Degree in Family, Youth and Community Sciences, and says the degree helped her learn about the beauty in human behavior, psychology, and community building. As a former math teacher with no technical background, communities played a big part in shaping her career.

To transition into the tech industry, Lenora attended a Ruby on Rails coding bootcamp before teaching herself UI/UX and front-end skills with the support of additional online courses. In parallel to amassing new technical skills, Lenora also understood the benefits of networking and building up a social media presence. She then applied a lot of what she learnt about communities at university to groups in technology as well.

Lenora Porter speaking at the ConveyUX conference
Lenora shared lessons from building her own communities at user experience conference ConveyUX earlier this year.

“I always get a lot of feedback on how to be more inclusive and how to bridge the gaps in our own black community. I don’t know everything but I’m open and want to support my members, so I have these conversations almost every week.”

Key steps to building your own niche community