This is Ahna Rao when a corgi passes:
“Corgi! Hi! What’s your name? Hi, Chester! You’re so cute! Look at him! Oh, you’re so cute!”
The openness, the enthusiasm, the lack of inhibition—this is a good introduction to Ahna. As a user experience researcher, Ahna’s sociability stands her in good stead. At the same time, “the hardest thing for me is listening to a recording [of an interview] and thinking, ‘Why am I talking so much when the other person is trying to talk?’” Ahna laughs.
Ahna grew up in Palo Alto, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Her father is a mechanical engineer; he moved to California to work on microchips. Her mother owns a data storage and security company. Nowadays, Palo Alto—one of the most highly educated and expensive cities in the United States—is widely represented as a bit of a pressure cooker. But for Ahna, “growing up [in Palo Alto] was amazing.”
“It was amazing because of the diversity of the people,” Ahna explains. She adds, “I think there was pressure, but my outlet for it was extracurriculars.” Close friends and family also kept her anchored. Nevertheless, Ahna notes, “I never questioned that I wanted to work in tech. I only realized later—maybe the reason I immediately gravitated to tech was because my parents were in it, and I grew up around it.”
At the same time, Ahna’s tech aspirations did not exactly align with the media narratives that define Silicon Valley. Her family had always been politically active—“I think people in the Bay Area just are,” Ahna observes—so Ahna, accordingly, determined to do “something at the intersection of tech and policy.” She left California in 2009 to secure an undergraduate degree at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, relocating from the United States’ center of technology to Washington, D.C., its center of policy.
After she graduated from Georgetown, Ahna held a series of jobs at that “intersection of tech and policy” (with the World Bank) and, more basically, outside the realm of “typical” Silicon Valley tech (at the industrial design firm Fuseproject and the online art auction house Paddle8). “And then the Hillary campaign came around to Brooklyn,” Ahna says. From June 2015 until the end of the presidential campaign, Ahna worked with Hillary for America, doing “a little bit of everything.”
“We were working seven-day weeks for a really long time, so you really couldn’t go anywhere to escape,” recalls Ahna. “I remember getting up one morning—at one in the morning—to take a train to Montauk; [I] went surfing…that’s how desperate I was.”
For Ahna, the Hillary campaign was the ideal conjuncture of technology and politics. And it was uniquely diverse—its tech team was almost 40% women, “and, for a tech team, that’s crazy,” says Ahna. In the months since the presidential election, Ahna has struggled to find a similarly diverse employer. She places the blame squarely with the tech industry. “The people who work on a campaign are pretty self-selecting,” Ahna notes. “We’re not compensating these people really well; we’re not paying them relocation expenses; we’re not spoiling people…the fact that our team leadership managed to hire such a diverse group of people in literally under a year—how hard can it be?”
Right now, Ahna is contracting with IDEO.org to produce a “digital financial tool for low-income Americans” (“I can’t really share much about it,” she says). After all, Ahna points out, technology “can have so much more of an impact in an area where people are underserved.”
--Thea De Armond