Design Matters with AMINATOU SOW

Published on 2018-06-02

Some people like to make proclamations, rules and assumptions about the way the world works, the way the world is, and the way they think the world will always be—or more accurately, should always be. Thank god there are people like Aminatou Sow to solidly prove them wrong. 

For Sow, questioning the world at large began at a young age. Hailing from Guinea and raised in Nigeria, as a teenager she had the realization that her engineer mother was a genius, and was in fact smarter than her father—yet it was her mother who stayed home, which vexed Sow. Though her parents maintained a conservative Muslim household, in many ways they bucked tradition and assumption, foregoing genital mutilation for Sow and her sister, and instilling in their daughters that they could do and succeed at anything the boys around them could. That, no doubt, helped plant the seeds for what would come.

From afar, Sow looked out at the United States and saw possibility. Her father was the only black man around her with an office job, but she’d turn on the television and see upper middle class black families on U.S. sitcoms. She set her sights on the the country and managed to convince her parents to send her to a small American boarding school. She sharpened her accent by studying shows like Daria and the universe that MTV and VH1 brought to her. And after graduating, she left for the U.S., and arguably went all-in at the most American of states: She enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin. There, she studied government, akin to her diplomat parents.

Alongside the rest of those in her generation, when she graduated in 2007, she emerged into a world that was breaking down. The global financial crisis had begun. She detoured to her family living in Belgium as she sought an American Visa—before deciding to move to Washington, D.C., to fully immerse herself in the job hunt as the clock counted down on her days in her adoptive country. Conventional wisdom holds that one must obtain a stately professional job after school, especially in a town as status-driven as D.C.—but Sow took a gig at a toy store. She had bills to pay. 

Tradition further held that Sow would now be partaking in an arranged marriage, which her grandmothers were trying to set up for her. Faced with having to move back to Guinea, a country where she had never lived, she applied for asylum in the United States. She got it—along with a job at a think tank, followed by gigs at a PR agency and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. 

And then the masters of proclamation issued a decree in the form of an article that Sow and Erie Meyer both read around 2011. The gist of the piece: There weren’t any women working in tech. But Meyer worked in tech, and Sow did, too. Not only was the premise of the piece broken, but it was fractured rather insidiously, and it made both women feel invisible. So they decided to do something about it. They founded Tech LadyMafia, a listserv that sought to foster connection, networking, mentorship and successes. It worked. It grew. It blossomed careers. And it landed Sow on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Tech list, which not only brought her personal recognition, but highlighted the truth of the matter that, yes, women do indeed work in tech. 

The masters of proclamation circled back. This time, a man declared to Sow that women don’t make podcasts. In reaction, Sow, alongside her best friend, the journalist Ann Friedman, launched the podcast Call Your Girlfriend in June 2014—dubbed “a podcast for long-distance besties,” produced by Gina Delvac, formerly of NPR. It’s hilarious. It’s emotional. It’s freewheeling and powerful. As a listener, you really do feel like you’re eavesdropping on—and sometimes partaking in—a conversation between Sow and Friedman; their honesty and authenticity rings true, and is inescapable. And with guests including the likes of Hillary Clinton and Cameron Esposito, and hundreds of thousands of listeners per episode, they proved that, yes, women do indeed podcast. 

Sow has gone on to embody that truth in spades, hosting season 1 of Wieden + Kennedy’s On She Goes travel podcast for women of color, and State Farm’s Color Full Lives podcast. Moreover, in disproving the sexist proscribed rules, edicts and assumptions rampant in culture today, she becomes something crucially needed: An example, and a thriving one at that. A path, especially for those mired in said set of rules, looking for truth on the horizon. 

Friedman and Sow are known for dubbing the phenomenon of Shine Theory. The basic tenet: Rather than feeling intimidation, insecurity or intense competition with other woman who may seem, say, dauntingly accomplished, you should befriend them. As Friedman has written, “Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.” As Sow has said, “Women are stronger when they hunt in packs.” 

Which may be why we so often see a “co-” in Sow’s inspiring list of accomplishments—co-founder of Tech LadyMafia, co-founder of Call Your Girlfriend, among them. While society often proscribes the glory of singular personal achievement, especially over others, as the highest order of success, Sow champions the brilliance of the bonded pack. She is a powerful example of the future, and what we might all strive toward: A world in which we work together, rather than hauntingly alone. 

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief

The Interview:

DM: Aminatou Sow doesn't like when people tell her she can't do something. After being told that women and technology don't mix, she created an online meeting hub for women in technology. She also went to work at Google. She was born in Guinea, and lived all over the world before settling in New York City. She was named one of Forbes Magazine's 30 Under 30 in Tech, and KQED's Women to Watch. Today I'm going to talk to her about her popular podcast she co-hosts, Call Your Girlfriend and her life as a digital pioneer. Aminatou Sow, welcome to Design Matters.

Amina: Thank you! Hello.

DM: Aminetou is the Guinea version of Aminah, Prophet Muhammad's mother. But from what I understand, every country has a spin on the name. So for example in Senegal, it's Aminata. You've said that when you meet other people from West Africa, they want to call you Aminata and that drives you nuts. You've also stated that what people call you categorizes them in different places in your life. So, in what way?

Amina: Aminatou is the Guinean version of my ... It's the Fulani version of my name, really. It's Aminatou. And for me, I don't feel precious about nicknames or the ways that people call you. I think that in different phases in your life, people will call you different things. And so, in my family, I'm firmly Ami. That is a thing that just my father, my brother, sister, grandmas call me.

DM: That's a sweet diminutive.

Amina: It's like, that's where that's from. I will never grow out of that name. And Amina was who I was when I moved to America. People said my name wrong a lot of times. And sometimes it annoys me. Most times it doesn't. I talk to a lot of other immigrant kids about this, and I suspect that it's true of even not immigrant kids, is that there's a way that you can reinvent yourself subtly. You know, and for some people, that is just like, please use my full name. Or they'll use their middle name, or whatever. Looking back on it now, I think that it was just trying on different personalities. And so for me, professionally, I always write my name as Amina. That's the name my parents gave me. I'm proud of it. I love it. But most of my American friends call me Amina. And it's always a reminder of what phase of my life somebody met me in, what they call me.

DM: And I understand your Starbucks name is Amanda.

Amina: Oh yes. My Starbucks name is firmly Amanda. And the funniest thing about that is that I have a friend who is also an immigrant with a harder to pronounce name. And in college we met at a Starbucks and when they called out Amanda we were like, wait, that's my coffee. So it made me very happy.

DM: Your family is from Guinea in Africa.

Amina: Yes.

DM: And you've said that they were political refugees by the time you were born. So you grew up in Nigeria and Belgium. Your parents were diplomats?

Amina: I have been going back and trying to uncover a lot of my own family history, because for as long as I have been kind of a sentient, cogent person, we've always not lived where we are from. And as much as my passport is from Guinea, I have never lived there; I don't have a strong sense of that being home for me. And politically, it was never a place that was safe for us. I guess by the time my mom and my dad left for Nigeria, the political regime in place was not encouraging of people from our tribe. And so a lot of them had to find different opportunities in different places. And my dad lucked out and got this job in Lagos, Nigeria, for this organization called the Economic Community of West African States. It's essentially the EU for African countries. So they do trading agreements, and it provides economic opportunities and gives people a place to live, and a zone that they can all share. And that's how my dad came to be an international civil servant. So it's funny, because there are many ways to be a diplomat, and it's just a status. But for a lot of people, they represent their country. And my dad got to work at this cool international organization his whole life. I always joke that he's the only person I know that has worked at one place his entire career. And it makes no sense to me.

DM: That's quite an accomplishment.

Amina: Yes, he just retired. And I was like, this is ... You worked here when you were 22, and you retired at 60-something. That's wild.

DM: Your mother was an engineer by trade. In fact, she was one of the first women to study at university in Guinea.

Amina: Yes.

DM: But she was a stay-at-home mom. And in high school, I read that, you realized she was a genius and was actually smarter than your father. And you didn't understand why she was the one staying home.

Amina: Yes. It made no sense to me. The way that my parents explained it to us was that, in my dad's job category, due to conflicts of interest, a lot of times the wives do not work. And I would say that that was mostly true for a lot of the kids my age at my dad's job. But I think that a lot of it is also just very old school African sexism. You know she could have worked in anything. And the fact that I didn't know until I as in middle school that my mother was a math genius was something that blew my mind. I was having so many problems with equations. Quadratic equations. Couldn't figure them out. My dad is an economist by trade. He's also very good at math. But terrible at explaining. And so everything always ended in tears. It was like, the math teacher can't explain this to me. My dad is very impatient. And here's my mom, the person who makes all of our meals, and pick out our clothes, and never gets any glory in our household, is the person who's like, well here's how this works. And the same things happened in physics later on. And the same ... It's like, every time I had a problem, in STEM, my mom was who would fix it. And I think about it to this day. She passed away over a decade ago now. But I still think about how there wasn't a path for her. And she never complained about it, but it still, I think about that all the time. I was like, you are ... you're a math genius. And you just took care of these idiot children, your whole life. So, Yes.

DM: And your father was, you've written about how your father was the only black man you knew who had a day job.

Amina: Yes. The European environments that we were in—because the path for a lot of French-speaking West African kids—is that you go to France. You go to one of the he bigger schools in France. And then that's how you distinguish yourself. And I looked at a lot of my family, my uncles other people that we knew. And I was like, my dad is one of the few people I know with an office job, you know, and he doesn't get that much respect. And I don't know how I metabolized this as a really young kid, but I just, I remember being eight years old and thinking, you know France is probably not the best place for me. I was an ambitious kid. And I can't quite explain it. I was very curious. I wanted things. But I looked at this thing that my parents held up as the path that I was supposed to take. And it was like, well y'all are doing everything right and it does not seem to me like you have all the things that you want. We actually didn't have a lot of money, growing up. And certainly not enough status. And it was interesting to be in predominantly white environments and still, there was nothing aggressively bad about it, but just see oh there's not a place for me here.

DM: You've said that you've always been a feminist, but can't pin the origins of that identity down to a single cathartic moment. And you've said that you think a lot of it was being a girl in a conservative Muslim family.

Amina: Yes. And to my parents' credit, my parents did a lot of really brave things, that made me who I am today.

DM: Like what?

Amina: They were the first in their families that married for love. They did not have an arranged marriage. We can talk about whether that was good or bad. I have my feelings about it. But in their generation, that was kind of a nutty thing to do. Just say hey we don't care what our parents think. We're going to choose each other. And it had really big consequences for them. Also, when they got married ... I was the oldest in my family, and my dad never treated me less than. A lot of my other cousins my mom is one of 21 and my dad is one of eight or nine. Nine. And a lot of eldest boys, they get all the glory and they get all the prizes. My dad never treated me differently. And that's a thing that I felt at a really young age. We still had to go to Arabic school to learn Qur'an because my family was Muslim. We still had to do the whole respect your elders, whatever. But he never told me you will not get to make decisions in this family. He let me play sports. My parents also did not circumcise me or my sister, which was a huge ... I did not understand how monumental that was, until later in life. And they just, you know, in their own quiet ways ...My parents were not wave makers. I wouldn't call my dad a liberal by any stretch of the imagination. But I do think that there is something, even for very conservative men, when they look at their daughters and can think if you are my legacy, I want you to have better than I have. And I think my dad was able to do that for me in ways that were really concrete.

DM: You've said that you communicated with your father through knowledge seeking. Can you tell me more about what that means?

Amina: It's funny—we're learning how to become pals now. So my dad's telling me more about his life, and we're becoming friends. But that was not true when I was growing up. I was kind of terrified of my dad. But one of the things that he always did was that he made us into very curious kids. We watched the eight o'clock news all the time. At dinner time we talked about current events.

DM: You were voracious media consumers, from what I understand.

Amina: Yes. He never cared about what your interpersonal relationships in school were like. Like, nobody talked about boyfriends at the dinner table at my house. But it was very much like, what do you think about the crisis in Burkina Faso? Like, what is this flag? And he would always grill you. And I think I internalized that a lot. But it was also the only vocabulary that we had for getting along. And in the ways that things can be really tough with your family sometimes, it's like okay, Yes. My dad and I do not have warm feelings for each other. But we are all caught up on the French crisis. So let's talk about that. 

DM: Where does he live now?

Amina: He just moved back to Guinea. He just moved back from Brussels to Conakry in Guinea. And it's the first time he has lived there since the '70s. It's just fascinating to watch him have this new phase of his life. And we're pals now. I'm like, okay. I'm like, how's it going? How's your wife doing? You know, like just all these questions that we could never ask each other. And I do think that, yes, I'm older. The tables have definitely turned. But at the same time, he's open to having that kind of relationship with me. And I really appreciate it. Because I don't come from a part of the world where a lot of kids get to have that kind of relationships with their parents.

DM: You've said that you weren't sure if marrying for love was a good or a bad thing.

Amina: I think that I grew up really thinking that arranged marriage was very, very, bad. I was like, no. You have to be able to choose. I think that just depends on your cultural context. I'm like, you know, probably would not work for me. But I do think that there are parts of the world where, if your families don't get along, it has bigger consequences than just you, and the person that you want to be with. And so, it's not for me, I do not think women should be forced into marrying people that they don't want to marry. But if your family wants to set you up with someone and gives you a choice about ... It's like, hey if you like this person, that's something that you should pursue. You know, dating is hard. If your parents want to get involved, my God take it. So it's fascinating. I saw in my own parents' marriage how a choice that was selfish in their culture really had lasting generational consequences. And I wonder if they would have done it differently, if they had known ... Because they went through a very tumultuous phase. But I think that by the end of my mom's life, they had gotten to a point where they were like, oh we like each other. And I think that it literally took them 30 years. So that's fascinating.

DM: What made them brave enough to insist that you and your sister weren't going to be circumcised, or what is also called genitally mutilated?

Amina: They never told us. Knowing a little bit what I know now about my family, as I know that my mom, it happened to my mom. And it definitely marked her a lot. And knowing the kind of person that she is, I can see, and she's very stubborn, being like, this is something that will never, never happen to my daughters. She was able to convey that to my dad. They were very modern people, even for their time. And I think that also the isolation of not being in the home environment. That was really easy to conceal. I remember a conversation with my mom where we were going on vacation with lot of other women from Guinea. And she said, if anybody asks you if this terrible thing has happened to you...if they start telling awful stories about a thing that hurt or whatever, don't tell them that it's never happened to you. You know. And at the time, I didn't understand. And now I'm like, oh. You were shaking the table. 

DM: And when your grandmothers, I read, were trying to set you up in an arranged marriage, the fact that you weren't circumcised prevented that from being able to happen. Is that right?

Amina: The thing that stands out so much for me, in that time period, is that I'm one of the youngest people in my family now, at this point. And I'm definitely the oldest unmarried. And so, I get the pressure all the time. Sometimes it's funny and then other times it's not. There's a side of the family that it's actually not awesome from at all. But when it came to light that I was not circumcised, that was a point of concern. And it was well let's fix this. If we fix this, maybe you'll find a man. And I was I don't think that's what's preventing me from being in a relationship, thank you. But it was a way, too, where a choice that my parents made a long time ago, like marrying for love, living overseas, now collides with the tradition of my family. That is very conservative. And my family tree we have, it goes back to seventh century West Africa. It's very Muslim. It's very conservative. If my parents hadn't been these weirdo rad people, that's pressure I would have fallen to.

DM: You went to boarding school in Jos, where you said, it's the only place in West Africa where you can grow strawberries and roses.

Amina: It's true.

DM: And I understand you had to convince your parents to send you there. What made you want to go there so badly?

Amina: One, I really wanted to go to boarding school. I was like, I'm in pursuit of better educational opportunities. And there's a boarding school in France I really wanted to go to. But I also know how my parents are. So I had to make it seem like it's their idea. My frame to them was, listen: Here is the life that I want for myself. I was definitely in the eighth grade. And I was like, here's what I want to do in life. 

DM: And what was that?

Amina: And a lot of that, for me, was, I just want a good job and I want to go to a good school. There were no brand names attached. I wanted a different life. And here are a couple of ways that I can do that. And I was like, I think I want to live in America, because it looks like there are black people that do cool things. I'm pretty sure I'd seen three episodes of The Cosby's, which is hilarious now, knowing everything you know about Bill Cosby. But it was one of those, "oh America seems like a place where black people get to do magical things." Maybe this is what I want to do. Or I was like, or maybe I can live in France. ButI knew that I didn't want to be home. And also home life was a little tough. And I always had an independent streak. So I was 14 and I didn't want to live at home anymore. But I want to not live at home to go to school, not to run away. I really wanted to go to the school in France. And my mom was kind of on board. And I think that at the eleventh hour she was like, wait. This girl is pulling a scam on me. That is too far away. I can't supervise her. And she was like, listen. I'm all on board for you going to a school that you want to go to. But the South of France is a little too far for me. So there was this American school in Jos that was four hours away. It was a very good school. It was run by missionaries. My parents were on board. At first I was like, hmm. I'm like, it's kind of a religious school. And my mom was like, Christian people run good schools. It's fine. I had to take a test. I had to do an English immersion program that summer, because I didn't ... I went to French school my whole life. My entire life was in French. Even though we lived in Nigeria. It was kind of shameful, I didn't speak very good English.

DM: I understand you watched Daria and Friends religiously.

Amina: Religiously.

DM: And repeated every word so you could get the accent just right.

Amina: I know. When I moved to America and everybody didn't speak like Chandler Bing, it was a huge disappointment to me. I was a sold a fake good of bills.

DM: You came to the US to go to the University of Texas at Austin.

Amina: Hook 'em Horns.

DM: What made you decide to pick UT Austin?

Amina: Man. I applied to 24 schools. I was such a nerd. I applied to ... I'm pretty sure it was 24 schools. Definitely over 20 schools. Got into every single one of them except for one. And I applied to all these schools because I love having choices. But then I'm paralyzed by the choices. So I made my dad write a check for every single school. And I was like, I'm going to pick at the last minute. But I need you to write all these checks now. And he was like, you better not cash all of this in at the same time. And I remember it being April 1 or whatever the deadline was the you were supposed to send things, and just not ... And I was like, I don't know where I want to go. This is terrible. And so I convinced my parents to let me take a year off. And I was like, oh, this seems like a chill, European thing that you could do. And they were not weirded out by it. And my family had just recently moved to Belgium, and because I'd been at boarding school, I saw that my siblings were getting a lot closer than me. I was definitely odd man out. And so I was like, okay, this can work. Two months into being at home, I was like, oh there's a reason I left here when I was 14. I cannot handle this. So I then went back to the drawing board, and I was like, oh what's a school that will let me come in the spring? And UT was top of that list. But I also wanted that "movie college experience."

DM: You said you wanted a "fantasy movie college experience." 

Amina: I did. I wanted to go to the big school. My graduating class was 29 people. I had always been in these tiny environments. Classes with 13 people or 10 people. I wanted the biggest place I can go to and be a number. Everything that people don't want from a big school, that's what I wanted. 

DM: What was I the like when you got to Texas? It's Texas. What was it like?

Amina: It's Texas, but it's Austin. I am really happy that Texas was my first America home. Because I think that it's weird and expansive like me. Texas is ... Texas is weird. It's not the south. It's not ... It's just ... I love it. But Austin, specifically, was great. I was like, oh, I get to go to a good school. UT was fine. But Austin itself was amazing. That kept me happy. I made a lot of friends who didn't go to UT, or didn't go to college, or had nontraditional backgrounds. And that made me happy too. My dad was very disappointed that I went to UT and not to Yale, which was his first choice. And for a long time he was just not happy about it at all. He was like, you're not listening to me. You're not going to make anything of your life. Because, you know status and brand. Especially to immigrant parents, that stuff matters a lot. Because those are also the only paths that they understand. And so he was like, well here you go throwing your whole life away, going to the school by the Mexican border. And I was like, sir. He sounded like the black Donald Trump, at the time, to me. I was like, this is not cool. But it all worked out.

DM: You studied government. Specifically political science, Middle Eastern studies.

Amina: Yes. Two different majors.

DM: And economics.

Amina: Yes. Economics. Government, Middle Eastern studies, and economics. Because I thought my hero growing up was Christiane Amanpour.

DM: Of course.

Amina: I was like, well, you know. She reports a lot from the Middle East. How do I get to be Christiane Amanpour? Yes, so I did all those things, and look at me now. I don't use any one of them. 

DM: What did you want to be at that point? Did you want to be a newscaster? Or journalist?

Amina: You know, I don't think I wanted to be a journalist, but I definitely, I cared a lot about the Middle East. I thought I wanted to work with refugees. I was like, I want to work in a refugee camp. I want to help solve the Middle East peace ... whatever. And also, I think it's because my dad was a diplomat, I was like, government is a thing that we can have in common. And economics is a thing that we can have in common. And it was fine, but, I think it wasn't until my junior year in college where I was like, oh. I'm not, like ... Liberal Arts is great. But I'm not learning a skill here. You know, I'm like, I know how to read books and I know how to write papers. But I made all these friends that were in design school, and art school, and business school, and were engineers. And I was like, you can leave college with skills? This is weird. And the recession was looming. So it just, I was like, something bad is going to happen.

DM: Well, you graduated in 2007, when the global recession began.

Amina: Yes.

DM: You went and lived with family in Belgium until you got an American visa. And seeking s government job, you moved to Washington, D.C., where you didn't know anyone, and had no job prospects. You applied for dozens and dozens of jobs.

Amina: Oh my God, so many jobs.

DM: And finally got a job at a toy store to pay your rent. What was that like for you?

Amina: It was fine for me. It's so fascinating to live in a town like D.C. and not have a job that people think is important or valid. I'm really happy that I went through that phase of my life because the one job that I did get offered while I was applying to all these things was an internship in John Kerry's office. This woman called me and she was like, are you available to start tomorrow? And like, through our conversation it became very clear that she needed kind of a diversity person, and she was like, you weren't ... Like, she couldn't say, are you black, or are you from somewhere else, but all of her questions were leading to that. But I was like, I have no shame about this. And I was like, Yes sure. And it was to be a press intern. So it was literally just making press clips. And I remember being like, okay, how much does this job pay? And she said, it's an internship on Capitol Hill. It pays nothing!  And I was like, okay then, I can't take it. Because I support myself. And I remember her just being very shocked, talking to me and thinking what is wrong with this 22-year-old! Everybody wants this job. And that's when it dawned on me. The reason all these jobs don't pay a lot, and have a lot of prestige is because people with rich families can afford to do that for them. This is how government works! This is how magazines work! Everything that I had my eye on. I could never figure out the economics of it. And so, going to work at the toy store, for me, was a no-brainer. My rent was $1,000 a month. I had zero money. And I needed to pay my bills. I supported myself. I come from not a wealthy family at all. And it was great. I loved it.

DM: You then applied for asylum in the United States, and got it. Can you talk about how that happened, and why you had to do that?

Amina: Yes. So, after the toy store, I went to work at this think tank. And it was great. I was learning a lot of things. This is what I'm meant to do. Policy work. So when you go to school in the US, you get what's called Optional Practical Training for a year. It is a status that you can apply for.

DM: That's OPT.

Amina: OPT. And for a year, you are eligible to work. And at the end of that year, either you figure out a different status, and for a lot of people that is an H-1B visa. They're very competitive. A lot of companies compete for them, for their employees. So it used to be that literally Microsoft would scoop up all of the OPT and then the rest of the people would just be left hanging. But also when you're a 22-year-old with an entry-level job and you have to convince your job hey at the end of the year, can you sponsor me for a visa? And the process is very murky and opaque. They just don't make it easy. And for tech companies, the payoff is like, we're getting skilled engineering labor. Like, we'll import that. But you know, for everybody else, they're like, do I really need a comms assistant, for this thing? And it costs a lot of money, and a lot of people don't understand it. But here's the other truth, is that if you went to school in America, like I did, you're pretty much only qualified for American jobs. When I thought about moving home to Belgium, they were all like, hmm you probably need one more year of college. The equivalencies are different. And then, to go back to family history, I never had a home. I have a passport, but I've never had a home. And I was like, America's my home. This is where I'm making my life. I chose to go to school here. I live here. I have nowhere else to go. And one of my only options at the time was to apply for asylum. And for FGM asylum, because it was-

DM: What does FGM stand for?

Amina: Female Genital Mutilation. There was other family stuff happening at the same time. And I was really, really, really lucky that somebody who was an alumni from UT took on my case pro bono. I had legal help. I spoke English. I was not the typical asylum applicant, basically. The fact that I could fill out the forms on my own was something. The fact that I had all of this pro bono tens of thousands of dollars worth of help, for free. I was so aware of my own privilege. And even through that, whenever Republicans are like, just come here the right way. I was like, I did everything right. And it still took over two years. And the process sucks. Early on, somebody in the asylum office literally transposed my first and last name. That took a year to fix. Somebody, the woman who interviewed me for intake, was not clear on the law with students, so she referred me to a judge. And then realized her mistake. But the process is not retroactive, so she's like, I'm so sorry, I don't know what to do. That takes another year. Show up at court. They've forgotten to send my file. Don't get back on the docket for another year. Get there and it's just Kafkaesque proportions. And when you're transferred to a judge, you're technically pleading guilty to a couple of charges. So one of them is, you're pleading guilty that you're not a US citizen. Fair. You're saying that you're a citizen of another country. Fair. I can plead to those two. And the third one is that you've been in the country illegally for x number of days. And because this woman referred me without knowing what the law was with students, I was like, I've never been here illegally. I was under status for OPT. It's like a very gray area of the law. And so the judge didn't know what to do with me. The government lawyer wanted me to plead to the charges. And I was like, sir, I watch a lot of Law & Order. I'm not pleading to something I didn't do. And here I am with all of these lawyers who want to help me. I'm doing everything right. And other people's messing up is what is getting me here. And at the end, when we finally resolved everything ... And you're supposed to stand trial. Show up at trial. It's like, a very emotional day. And the government lawyer is like, actually, you're the kind of American we want here. And then the judge, who's this very Republican judge, gives this elocution. It's all very nice. And I was irritated and sad more than anything. I was like, this is actually really unnecessary. You wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money. You wasted my time. It caused me a lot of pain. It's just a very inefficient process. And there's no compassion for people who are immigrants. I was like, I did everything right. I did everything right. I cannot tell you how just humbling it is to be somebody who knows how to navigate America and go into one of these refugee offices to get fingerprinted or whatever, a look at the other people who are there. And a lot of them don't speak English. They don't have lawyers. They, you know, the typical refugee, FGM refugee woman like me, has children. I don't know what the right way is. And I don't know that not having compassion for people is something that we should be proud about in our immigration system. Because it's broken even for the people who do it right.

DM: What an incredible, incredible journey you've had. What do you think is the foundation of your resilience?

Amina: I think about this all the time. I come from resilient women, specifically. My mom was resilient, my grandmothers are resilient. I think that there is something about African women, whether it is the environment or it is just kind of the life circumstances that you have, that if you make it to a certain age, you just get a different philosophy on life. I come from a part of the world where, if you make it to five, you're probably going to have a longer life than most people. My mom died when she was 49. Even though we lived in Belgium. And for our country she's still a statistic. Women in Guinea have a life expectancy average of about 50. I have seen some hard things. Hard things have happened to me. But I also think life is worth living. We're very aware of that. So you know I don't want to feed into some bullshit, like African people are strong people narratives. Because I think a lot of times, that's how it gets misconstrued. And even in America people think that black women specifically are just stronger. And that's not true. We all have the same emotional reserves that everybody else has. But our lives can be more challenging. And if you're choosing to live, then you're going to tap into that.

DM: Let's talk about some of your career successes. In 2011, you cofounded Tech LadyMafia with Erie Meyer, formerly of the US Digital Service at the White House and now with Code for America. The impetus was an article that you both read about the dearth of women in technology. Which you both knew was false. Since you each worked in tech. How did that lead you to launching Tech LadyMafia?

Amina: In 2010-11, we would get a lot of these articles, and the headline was always the same. "Only five women know how to use a calculator." "Seven women know how to computer." The media was feeling vproud about the fact that they were pointing out disparities. And you know, the statistics are absolutely true. They are true. There are not enough women in STEM. It's not representative of the population we have. It's not even representative of the number of women who are studying STEM. That's the other thing. Everybody talks about this leaky pipeline. I'm like, where are these women? But the things is that for Erie and I—this is not true in our lives. First of all, we know every woman in this town with computers. Also, it is not helpful to point out disparities and also be complicit in creating them. This is a thing that the media does a lot. And then you look at the science section of most magazines or newspapers, and they're only quoting men. And so, the impetus really was saying okay. We don't have any mentors. We don't trust the system. But we trust each other. And we all feel a little lonely in our silos. I am a big believer in this concept of horizontal mentorship and horizontal loyalty. That I did not come up with. Please do a Google and read more about it. But a thing that is true is that if you look around horizontally, you look at your peers, you can put your resources together. And that's what we did with Tech LadyMafia. There was nothing revolutionary about it. It was literally an email listserv. And we were like, we are going to share resources. We are going to share salary information. We are going to share information about jobs. We have a men's auxiliary. They plan our picnic every year, and they give us salary advice. I'm like, what do I need a dude for in tech? Tell me how much money you make! I'm trying to figure out how much these other ladies are being just as underpaid as me. And I think that for all of its success, it's actually very simple. If you don't accept the mentality of scarcity, and you don't accept when you are a marginalized person or a minority that anybody who looks like you in the workplace is your competition, and this is Highlander, and there can only be one of you, you're actually going to get very far. Because these are messages that capitalism and patriarchy tell you over and over again. There's only room for one of you. You're supposed to compete with each other. And while you're competing for the scraps, other people are building wealth. They're building the future. They're doing amazing things. And if you look around and actually hunt in a pack, we are stronger, which I think is so true for women, you will get to where you're trying to get to so much faster.

DM: Can you share some of your early guerrilla promotion tactics and how you grew Tech LadyMafia early on?

Amina: My favorite one that we did is we had these cards that said, join the mafia, and we would leave them in the women's bathrooms at tech conferences, tech offices and venture capital offices. And nothing made me happier than when somebody gave me one. They were like, you have to join this group. And I was like, yes. Thank you. So a lot of our recruiting was like that, informally. Also, everybody in the group is referred by somebody. So everybody knows someone. Because we're very much like, if there are other women in your office, or there are other women in your lives, or you go to a conference and there's only two of you. Like, find that person and bring them into the fold.

DM: Talk about the brag section of Tech LadyMafia.

Amina: We ask people to tell us what they're working on and what they're proud of. I think a lot of women are really conditioned to be meek about their work. Even the word bragging has a negative connotation. And the truth is that if you actually look at a lot of studies about this, when men get together, they talk about work constantly. This is why they always know where all the jobs are. And when women get together, we're just like, how can I help you. How how can I tend to you. And I think that we're deeply conditioned to feel shame about success around work.

DM: Why do you think that is?

Amina: I think that it's a lot of things. It's that bragging is bad, and also you're not supposed to take credit for your work. I think that that's a thing that a lot of women struggle with. I truly don't understand it. Because I'm like, well, if you're doing the work and you're doing it well, you should probably tell other people. Also, you can't be what you can't see. So, part of starting the brag threads for me was wanting to celebrate other people's successes. I can't celebrate what I don't know about. There is something about just reclaiming the narrative of your own career. If you're good at your job, we should know about it. And there's nothing gross about talking about it.

DM: Has that brag section influenced how you think about or talk about your own achievements?

Amina: It has, because it has challenged me a lot. I think that I'm somebody who has not had the traditional career path. It's hard to feel part of a team sometimes. And I think that when you're sharing your accomplishments with your team, there's a clear framework for how you can do it. You can frame it on the work, and it's part of teamwork. I work alone. And I work in a silo. And sometimes I do feel that creeping in. A friend challenged me about this recently. She was like, you never tell me when you win awards or when you do things, or whatever. 

DM: You even sort of blushed when I talked about the Forbes 30 Under 30, when I introduced you.

Amina: That's so embarrassing.

DM: Why?

Amina: Well, listen. Here's my feeling about the Forbes 30 Under 30. Thank you, Forbes Magazine, for that award. But I think that especially in tech, we fetishize young people so much. Being the best at this thing at 30 is fine. But we're literally all idiots. You know what I mean? What is a 30-year-old going to teach you about the future of anything? Absolutely nothing at all. And in doing this thing where we fetishize young people, we alienate a lot of older people. I think especially with women, where there's an age that you become really invisible at, and I suspect that that's around 40. And there is something about having more wisdom, and having more work under your belt, that will make you not feel like a fraud. Because young people constantly talk about it imposter syndrome. It's so in vogue for people in tech, especially women in tech, to talk about it. And I actually think that imposter syndrome, in small doses, is good. I'm like, Yes. You don't know anything.

DM: It certainly keeps people from being intolerable.

Amina: Yes. If you have imposter syndrome, it's probably because you care about what you're doing. And it's also because you're trying not to be a fraud. Young people are frauds. We are all fraudulent. You put everything on social media. You're just bragging about these accomplishments that are actually not concrete. You know, talk to me when you've had a failure. Talk to me when you've run a business into the ground. Talk to me when you even have a resume that is five years ... You know that is a thing. So, all of this to say, you know no shade to Forbes. I think they do a really important thing highlighting people. But I would be so much better served with who are the women executives over 50? Who are people who have built a lifetime of making something. And I think that we don't talk about longevity in career. You know, and I think that that's something that you talk about constantly. And I loved your 99U talk last year.

DM: Thank you.

Amina: Because it was the first time that I had heard so much about your own path. Imagine starting a new thing in your 30s. Like, that's just-

DM: Or 40s. Or 50s.

Amina: I know. But the way that we talk about, like young people's ... You know, I'm like, I don't want to peak when I'm 28. 

DM: I hear you.

Amina: That's not the accomplishment I want to be known for.

DM: I hope I don't peak until I'm in my late 70s.

Amina: I've always said that, deep down inside, I feel 63. Like, even as an eight-year-old I was like, 63 is the perfect number to me. This is the age I want to be. And I hope that I make it. And I hope that it's a glorious time. 

DM: Oh, it will be, Amina. There's no question. Just sitting here and listening to you, and looking at you while you're talking, there's no question in my mind.

Amina: Oh my God, you're giving me chills. But Yes, so you know, I got diagnosed with cancer at the end of last year. And just in December I didn't think that I would be here in now. And there's something very clarifying about illness, too. Where I'm like, okay. Actually all these values and things that I held onto have now been tested for me, and I know my own bullshit. I know what is bullshit and I know what is true. And I hope that I can live up to my own values every day.

DM: You've said this about your diagnosis. A lot of the language is about being a warrior or fighting and that actually I think is pretty bad because so many of the world's messages to us are about strength all the time and we're always supposedly stronger than everyone and we're fighters and all these things, and sometimes that's true but we're also human beings and we need all the help that we can get, and having cancer made that very, very real for me.

Amina: I tell my therapist all the time that the most humiliating thing that's ever happened to me is getting cancer. Because I finally had to ask for help. I am very bad at asking for help. And the thing about it too that's fascinating is that I'm always the first one to offer help. Wherever I'm at. And I had to realize kind of how arrogant that is.

DM: Why?

Amina: That you think that you can help people, but you cannot receive help. There is something that puts all of your relationships at great imbalance when you do that. But getting cancer showed me I truly I cannot do this by myself.

DM: And are you okay now, Amina? I'm so sorry that you had to go through that.

Amina: Oh Yes. I am in full remission. Thank you. I'm in full remission. Which means a lot but also means so little. It just means that you have no evidence of disease. It could come back, it might come back. It will probably come back. Who knows. But also, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Cancer is scary but life is generally scary. But asking for help from your friends really humbled me this year. And also seeing who in my life showed up. And who I prioritize versus who has actually always been there in my life. And also just realizing this is what it means to be in community. You put the time in. You put the love in. And then, now it's your turn to cash out the check. And I have amazing, amazing friends. Whether it was from having to ask for help with a shower, or having to ask for meals to be made, or for my house to be cleaned. Or all sorts of things that I thought would be the end of me if I asked for help. I was like, oh actually, this is pretty amazing.

DM: You've said that romantic relationships get a lot of ink but nobody really talks about how much romance there is in being a friend.

Amina: Yes.

DM: Was that a motivation in starting your extraordinary podcast Call Your Girlfriend with your friend Ann Friedman?

Amina: Yes. Oh my God, I am so in love with Ann Friedman. She is a wonderful human being. And you know, doing a podcast is just another way to hang out with her and our awesome producer, Gina Delvac. Who is actually ... who thought up the show. And so, one on level, I'm like, yes. We get to make this very successful, fun show every week. But I still just pinch myself that I get to work with these women every day. I have worked with friends, and I have lived with friends. All the things that people tell you not to do. They're like, hmm, like friends and work, that's bad. A friend and living together, that's bad. Friends and money, that's bad. I'm like, maybe that's true for some people, but for me it has been the opposite. Because I'm like, actually I don't like people, so if I like you it keeps me honest. And I have to show up. And I do my best work. And it is not about the business, but it's about the relationship and what you get to learn from them.

DM: Why don't you like people?

Amina: I mean, people are just a lot. Also I think truly, for me, this also goes back to my family. I was a very shy kid. Like, painfully shy. Like, eat lunch in the library shy. But my parents were schmoozers. They had a job where they had to be schmoozers. And we had to have people over all the time. So I kind of had to get over it. And so I feel that my whole childhood was learning to be around people, which is so against my nature. And now that I make my own money and it's my own time, I get to go back to my introvert ways.

DM: You said that you perform not being shy really well.

Amina: Yes.

DM: I love that.

Amina: 100%. It's like the things that you think that you can't do, I was like, take an improv class for them. And just learn. All of life is a performance. You don't have to like it. But you can do it, and then you can go home and lay on the floor for the rest of the day.

DM: You've said our use of social media is a lot like performance art.

Amina: Oh, 100%. I'm always shocked when people are unpleasant on social media. I'm like, are you kidding me? This is the one place where you can be your best person. And you can make everybody fall in love with you. And you don't have to be a jerk. Nobody here knows you! Be an asshole to your friends and family; those people know you. Be your best person here!

DM: Is it true you met Ann Friedman at a Gossip Girl viewing party in D.C.?

Amina: You know, it always happens at prom. Yes. Our dear friend Dayo Olopade, who was a new friend to me at the time, and a friend of Ann's, emailed a small group of people to come and watch Gossip Girl. And I showed up in a homemade Chuck hearts Blair t-shirt that my college roommate Brittany had made for me. Thanks Brittany, I still have the shirt. And in the ways that when you watch TV with people, you're just like, okay this is our thing. I like everyone. But I truly loved Ann. Everything she said was funny. The episode was 45 minutes. We left. And D.C. is so small, I remember leaving, going out the door and just thinking like, oh I bet you we're walking in the same direction anyway. Because everybody lives in the same 10 block radius. And no. We went opposite ways. And I remember being really bummed out about it. I was like, ugh. How am I going to find this woman again? I guess I'll look her up on Facebook. And as soon as I got home, I already had a friend request from her.

DM: Oh wow.

Amina: And I was like, friends.

DM: The tagline for Call your Girlfriend is, a podcast for long-distance besties. And you've described it as a freewheeling conversation modeled around a catch-up phone call you might have with a best friend. So similar to Tech LadyMafia's origins, you launched it after being told by a man that women don't make podcasts.

Amina: Yes. I remember being at this party, and just this guy being like, Yes like, you know, women, they just don't have the attention to detail for it. And they're just not good at ...

DM: Oh my God.

Amina: And I just looked at him and I was like, you're such an idiot. If you can make a thing, of course I can do it. Also, every person in public radio is a woman. You know what I mean? If you look at the ranks of who is making all of our radio, they're all women who went to liberal arts colleges. So I'm like, what does this doofus know. And turns out he knew nothing. I was like, your podcast is not doing great, sir. And I figured this out. That's usually a big motivator for me, when people say, some people can't. I was like, short of flying a rocket, I think that most people can learn how to do everything pretty fast.

DM: Every one of your shows is themed. And some sample episode titles include Class Warfare, Get Swole, Businesswoman Special. How do you select the topics you want to explore?

Amina: So, we keep a running Google Doc called the vagenda.

DM: Oh, I want to talk to you about your word, vagenius, by the way.

Amina: Vagenius.

DM: That's one of my favorite things I found about you.

Amina: You know, we did not coin vagenius. Our friend Brandon in D.C. would say it all the time. And that's ... I think that's also where the vagenda is from.

DM: Vagenda.

Amina: You just absorb, you absorb all the words of your friends. Yes, so we keep this running Google Doc called the vagenda. Ann and I at this point in our friendship have lived longer apart than we have in the same city. And we would, in the classic way of millennials with jobs that they hate, we would Gchat all day. You know, and then be like, okay I'm going to call you later. But here are all the things I want to talk about. So we always had a list. The list has always been. That form was not new for us. And because there's a lot to cover, sometimes you want to talk about Kanye but also Paul Ryan is doing insane things in the House. We are ladies with vast interests.

DM: You have range.

Amina: Thank you.

DM: You have more range than anyone I think I've ever met.

Amina: But I think most people have range. They just refuse to put them in the same category.

DM: Well, the thing about your and Ann's range is that you're smart. And you're informed. And you're not just riffing on something that you've heard. You're riffing on something that you think. And I love that.

Amina: That's I think why the show was so important for us to do. Because I do think that there is this feeling that the things that young women care about are frivolous. You know, and so when you think about, conversations about skincare or conversations about reality TV, or the Kardashians, I was like, no, these are things that people experience but also, you can be a smart person and like all of these things. But also for women I don't know if you've heard, but the political is personal and the personal is political. So a lot of times they are vehicles for having talks about other things. So we are an independently-owned show, we're three ladies with a surprisingly profitable media company. So it's fun.

DM: Now, I read that you did make your financial forecasts for 2017. 

Amina: We did. It's the first time that the three of us sat down and we talked about our five-year goals together. We're like, here's what we want for the show but also here's what we want individually. Because a thing that a lot of people don't realize about our show is that it's none of our primary jobs. And it could be. But we're ladies who love side hustles. So I was like, the way that we stay in love with this baby is that it has to be a labor of love. But it was kind of the first time that we sat down and said, like okay, here are the things I want to do. And for me I was like, okay. I want to host more things. I think I want to be a talk show host one day. And I had never said that out loud. And it felt good to have two other people say okay. Let's help you get there. And think about the ways that we want to grow the show. I've never had a five-month plan. And now I have a five-year plan, and it is pretty exhilarating.

DM: In addition to Call Your Girlfriend, last year Wieden+Kennedy launched On She Goes, a travel platform for women of color. And you hosted season one of the podcast. What was that like for you?

Amina: It was pretty fun. I got to interview all of the women of color that I love about the ways that they travel. So everybody from Thao Nguyen from Thao & The Get Down Stay Down.

DM: She's amazing.

Amina: And Roxane Gay. And it was a very sweet show. I think that so many women actually have a sense of adventure. And also adventure doesn't mean climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Like, for some of us it literally is the ... it's the thrill of walking into the business lounge of an airport. And seeing ourselves more. Being able to do that. And selfishly, now I travel better. All these ladies gave me the tips of my life. So it's great.

DM: What other projects are you currently working on?

Amina: Well, Ann and I are working on a book project. So we'll be announcing that soon. What else am I working on? You know, I was really lucky that when I got sick, I was like, okay. I can't work anymore. My entire life of hoarding money and being afraid of being poor again is like, my rainy day has finally come. So I'm going to cash out the rainy day fund. So, I stopped working in January. And I decided that June is when I was going to figure out what I'm going to do, when I'm going to grow up. And so it's felt really good to say no but have a reason to say no to a lot of projects. It's quite exciting actually. Because nobody can guilt you about things. But I'm going to be hosting a couple of other podcasts this summer. Like, some branded shows I'm super, super excited about. And also just figuring it out. If you had told me, even six months ago, that I would not be working ... Because my identity is so tied up into being a productive person. And that I would be okay with it, I would have never believed you. And now I wake up and I'm like, oh. I have nothing to do except for figure myself out. And it's very fun.

DM: Has this change in the way you're living your life impacted your need to hoard money in order to feel secure?

Amina: I'm still definitely a money hoarder. Because, you know, money just buys you freedom. That's all it does. It doesn't make you cooler than anybody. But you know, I walked away from a job at Google and you know, they print money in the basement of that place. And it is terrifying to leave. But if you leave and you're like, oh. I know how to feed myself, and I can pay my rent, and I can afford the things that I want to do, everything is a little better. But I think that the thing that cancer did for me, honestly, is that I stopped hoarding other things. I use my nice dishes now, every day. There's no such thing as nice dishes in my household anymore. There are a couple of trips that I've always wanted to take, and every year I go ugh, I need to save up more for it, or I need more time or whatever. Or I want to be in this phase of my life when I go. And I booked all of them.

DM: Good.

Amina: I'm going. Because tomorrow's not a guarantee. I've definitely become more vulnerable. I'm doing a lot of things that I'm scared about, I've been scared of doing for a long time. So far it's paying out. I always ask myself what's the worst that can happen? And so far so good. The worst is maybe you'll be humiliated a little, maybe somebody will say no to you. Or maybe you'll die. But guess what? My mom always said, "You're never gonna get out this bitch alive." So it's all good.

DM: Aminatou Sow, thank you so much for being on Design Matters today. Thank you for being such an important voice in our culture. And thank you for being such an extraordinary inspiration.

Amina: Thank you for having me, Debbie. I listen to your show all the time, so this is a fever dream for me.

DM: It's a fever dream for me as well, because ditto.

Amina: Thank you.

DM: You can find out more about Aminatou Sow and her extraordinary work and her podcast at This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.