Natalie Bennett excited to return home, inspire young girls
A stellar product of Jamaica, Natalie Bennett was very excited to be back home on Jamaican soil. She was even more excited about the occasion – inspiring over 200 young girls in her home country.
Having made her mark internationally in the United States, Bennett believes that it is also important to give back to Jamaica through mentorship. The senior product manager at Google was raised in the inner-city community of Fletcher’s Land by a single mother and shared that she struggled to find her way and fight the stigma of poverty.
“We didn’t always have everything we needed but my mom did her best and sacrificed to make sure I felt as little of the impact as possible. I had to do my homework via the Home Sweet Home lamp. We first got electricity from a neighbour who had power from JPS by plugging in an extension cord stretched across the fence and through the window,” said Bennett.
Calling her mother “her greatest inspiration”, Bennett shared that she taught her the value of education. “Though my humble beginnings limited and delayed me in many ways, it was also my motivation to do something because I didn’t want that to be my forever story,” she said.
Her knack for “fixing broken things” and solving problems led her to pursue computing at the Convent of Mercy Academy (Alpha), where she was first introduced to information technology (IT). The IT lab was her favourite place and IT was her favourite subject; it was there her passion for information and communication technology (ICT) blossomed.
She later went on to pursue tertiary education at the University of Technology, a Bachelor of Science in Computing and Management Studies. She then set her sights internationally when she found that there were limited options to pursue her master’s locally. That is when she received a letter from Carnegie Mellon University, one of the top-three ICT schools at the time, where she pursued a master’s in information technology, software management.
As fate would have it, Bennett was inspired by a trailblazer at Google, the vice-president of engineering, Marion Croak, who made it possible for users to make calls over the voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). She had the opportunity to meet Croak when she started at Google and has benefited from her remarkable expertise.
As an accomplished woman in ICT, when asked how she plans to pass the baton in her field and empower other women, Bennett says it is her intention to mentor, share her experiences and teach other women. She made good on her promise when she addressed over 200 young girls, aged 13-16 as the keynote speaker, at the recent staging of Flow’s Girls in ICT Day Expo held in Kingston under the theme: ‘Digital Skills for Life’. Here she shared motivational tips with the ladies about overcoming self-doubt and personal challenges, capitalising on resources, the importance of having a network and innovating their own careers.
Living in the biggest explosion of the digital age, with a wealth of opportunities in e-commerce, content platforms, content creators and influencers, Bennett believes the time is now for young women who are looking to enter the field and create solutions by utilising accessible tools such as Google.
“I believe that you can build the next product that brings joy or solves complex business problems, financial problems or even change the world as we know it … . So many opportunities exist for you to also achieve your goals. There is so much out there for you to discover and digital skills, like I use on Google, are the key to help you to connect and learn,” she stated.
Living in Jamaica and having the “wrong address”, Bennett had first-hand experience with discrimination and classism which intensified when she migrated to the US, and made things even more difficult. She shared a short anecdote about a male classmate of hers in grad school who when she asked for help told her that “if it is too hard, you should quit ‘’. She encouraged students to be their own motivators.
“Be your first cheerleader and don’t be surprised if at times you are your only cheerleader and advocate as you step into these places. Stay focused on your why and do not lose yourself,” she affirmed.
The Google expert emphasised the importance of networking and called on teens to start from early utilising platforms such as LinkedIn and other tools to stay connected and get ahead.
“One of the things that helped me progress was the network that I formed with the other female students because though we were from different cultures, backgrounds and countries, we were all women in tech. We created study groups, interview prep, and support systems, ensuring that no woman was left behind. Take a minute and look at the faces in this room, this is a great opportunity to start building your network, connect with each other, build support systems and share information. This is easier today than ever before with social media. Networking will get you in the door, mentoring ensures you are prepared to get informed and sponsorship is your advocate when decisions are being made for you when you are not in the room,” she explained.
With numerous opportunities in ICT which are increasing each day, Bennett challenges girls to go out and create their own paths to their careers.
“With the variety of roles in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and ICT, as an engineer you have so many things that you can look towards becoming. You want to be an accountant, then figure out how to write the software so that you can sell that and so you don’t need to work a nine-to-five and everyone comes to you for your accounting software”
Bennett encouraged the students to be ready to take on the world.
“Be confident in who you are, the value you bring to the table and what you are called to be and do. The world needs what you have and your voice matters. Be bold, be brave, be open to becoming a CEO, a co-founder, or an inventor. Create the next thing that will change your life and build stronger communities and economies. Dream big and then do the work.”
Asked what was next on the horizon, she shared that it was a question that had been on her mind for the last couple of months. “One of my life goals is to help people become the best version of [themselves],” Bennett said. “As I continue to grow in my career, I also will look to scale my initiatives to equip and support people and build community that allows them to flourish.”