Future for Us conference stokes ambition and fellowship for women of color professionals

Jessie Woolley-Wilson, president and CEO of DreamBox Learning, addressed a sold-out crowd at the Future for Us Assembly in Seattle’s Pioneer Square on April 27, 2019. (Anthony Smith / Soul Breathing Photography)

The packed house at the Future for Us Assembly on Saturday was rapidly scribbling down notes. On stage, Jessie Woolley-Wilson, president and CEO of DreamBox Learning, was sharing tips on how to grow one’s career. And when a woman who last year raised $130 million for her ed-tech company speaks, the ladies are going to listen.

Woolley-Wilson kicked off a day of speakers, panels and workshops pitched to professional women of color eager to set career goals, strategize a path for meeting them and build community to help along the way. Future for Us organized the sold-out event dubbed The Assembly that was held in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. Sage Ke’alohilani Quiamno and Aparna Rae launched Future for Us just three months ago, but it has already generated an engaged and eager following.

Madhu Ganesh, who works for Amazon’s Prime Video, was one of Saturday’s roughly 300 attendees, speakers and volunteers. She has been to other Future for Us events — they aim for three a month — and was impressed by the size and energy of the conference.

“I have never in Seattle been in a room of women of color like this,” Ganesh said.

Aparna Rae (left) and Sage Ke’alohilani Quiamno launched Future for Us in January 2019 to support professional women of color. (Anthony Smith / Soul Breathing Photography)

While some participants were from software and tech companies, many others were from jobs in banking, retail, education, government, aerospace and nonprofits. Some attendees came from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Austin.

A key motivator for launching Future for Us was that “we didn’t see a cross-sector platform for minority women,” Rae said. “We need this wider network of peers.”

Woolley-Wilson herself has a background spanning multiple sectors, and she recounted her life’s story for the enrapt crowd. Her father immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti in 1956. She attended Catholic school, had high ambitions, but was discouraged from pursuing her college of choice, the University of Virginia. With her family’s support she applied and was accepted, and later earned an MBA from Harvard. She built a successful career in banking, but the work didn’t feed her soul.

Woolley-Wilson instead found fulfillment volunteering with kids in Harlem. The students were creative and joyful despite their scarcity of resources. It devastated Woolley-Wilson that the educational system didn’t give them what they needed.

“They have this spark and they have this potential and it’s not being seen or cultivated,” she said.

The crowd at The Assembly, a conference organized by Future for Us. (Anthony Smith / Soul Breathing Photography)

Despite fearing failure and disappointing her family, Woolley-Wilson left finance to work in education. Her worries were unfounded. She held leadership roles in multiple educational enterprises, and in 2010, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recruited her to run a venture that he was backing called DreamBox Learning. The Seattle-area company aims to democratize education by providing personalized, online lessons for students.

Her advice to the crowd, which included many early- and mid-career professionals, was to view their career journey in three phases. First, she told the audience, amass wide-ranging skills and experience. Then demonstrate a mastery of those skills. And finally, share those skills with others.

“That’s why I’m here on a Saturday,” said Woolley-Wilson, a candidate for Big Tech CEO of the Year at the GeekWire Awards. “You can amplify your impact. Think about it as scaling goodness.”

Other sessions at The Assembly included a presentation by Nathalie Molina Niño, founder of Brava Investments, a venture capital company that funds enterprises that benefit women, and a panel moderated by Megan McNally, founder of the Fbomb Breakfast Club, a Seattle group connecting female entrepreneurs. Leaders from Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Textio and others were also part of the lineup.

Nathalie Molina Niño (left), founder of Brava Investments, a venture capital company that funds enterprises that benefit women, is interviewed by Kavita Malling, a Future for Us advisor, on April 27, 2019. (Anthony Smith / Soul Breathing Photography)

Northwest groups like Fbomb, Female Founders Alliance, HERE Seattle and others also support women or minorities or underrepresented people in technology. But fans of Future for Us are excited for the new organization that more narrowly targets women of color but reaches broadly across professions.

“They’re this badass group of women who have created something amazing,” said Neiha Arora, a recruiter for Starbucks. She was inspired by the event and felt it was a safe space to be herself. “This brings everyone together.”