“I have a hard time coming up with really interesting, clever stories,” Abby Kearns warns me. The caveat is unnecessary—without her “coming up” with anything, Abby’s story is interesting.
Abby grew up in Forrest City, Arkansas, about fifty miles from Memphis, Tennessee. Forrest City—today, a town of about 15,000—is perhaps best known (if known at all) as the birthplace of the soul singer Al Green. “I always wanted to get out,” says Abby. “Always.” Immediately upon graduating from high school, Abby left Arkansas. She worked odd jobs—she sold cars; she did “a lot of weird things.”
Abby was twenty-three years old when she started college. “It’s interesting to talk to other people who had a lot of support and mentorship,” she says. “I had none of that. I had to find my way.” Her “way” led to computer science, a field of study Abby determined to pursue, as a natural extension of her math skills. She graduated from Chapman University, in California—several states away from Arkansas—with a Bachelor’s degree in computer information systems. Abby was the first person in her family to earn a college degree.
Abby is not romantic about her self-reliance: “No one gets to where they are on their own, no matter how hard they work,” she observes. Nowadays, after nearly twenty years in the tech industry—at Sabre, EDS, Totality, and Verizon—Abby is Executive Director of the Cloud Foundry Foundation. And she has ascended to these lofty heights not just because she is passionate (Of tech: “I love what it is, what it does, how it influences a business”) and hardworking—though she is—but because someone took a chance on her: “Sometimes all you need is [for someone to say], ‘I’m going to put you in the spotlight, and I have faith that you’re going to be able to do this.’”
These opportunities are not afforded equally to everyone. Women and people of color are rarely given the latitude to challenge themselves and—perhaps, but not necessarily—fail. “You’re expected to have accomplished everything, and then you get a chance,” Abby explains. Men, on the other hand, particularly white men, are mentored and given opportunities to prove themselves earlier in their careers; their imperfections and limitations are often brushed aside. “It may seem small, but that latitude really changes the way you perceive your abilities,” Abby points out.
The biases encoded into the tech industry are not exclusive to it—after all, the tech industry is hardly the only sector of the US economy to offer only limited maternal and paternal benefits. “It’s not a workplace culture thing,” Abby reiterates. “It’s a societal culture thing.” But Abby senses a sea change on the horizon: “One of the things that I’m most thankful about are millennials. They come with a lot of expectations about having a work-life balance. A lot of us who came before were used to working really long hours and that being okay. I think it’s been really great for people to be saying, all of a sudden, ‘Hey, why would I do this? This is ridiculous. I’d like to have a life—and not just take care of my kids and my family, but I want to have a life!’”
Abby remains optimistic about technology. “Thinking about where our industry is and the cusp of change that it’s on,” she says. “I really care about one thing—I love tech. I love technology. And I think it has so much potential.”
--Thea De Armond