Have you ever made a well-thought-out recommendation in a business meeting, only to have it fall on deaf ears? But when a male makes the same suggestion, it’s a brilliant idea. Or perhaps you’ve walked into a boardroom and all the males turn around and look at you as if to say, “What’s she doing here, we didn’t order coffee?”
If you’re Nashlie H. Sephus, a young, Black, Ph.D in electrical and computer engineering (ECE)—a heavily male-dominated field—you use such experiences to help you navigate the corporate landscape and motivate you to excel.
Sephus explains, “One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is that anytime you’re trying to bring change, you’re going to encounter obstacles, but the more you can be persistent, keep moving forward and assemble a supportive community around you, the more likely you are to succeed.”
That advice would come in handy. In 2013, Sephus, 27 was completing her doctorate in ECE at Georgia Tech when the CEO of startup Partpic approached her about developing Partpic’s visual recognition algorithms and prototypes. One of the disciplines Sephus was studying at Georgia Tech was machine learning, which was precisely the expertise needed by Partpic’s African-Americans co-founders, Jason Crain and Jewel Burks. Sephus accepted Burks’ offer on a part-time basis and the relationship blossomed during the early stages of the startup, so much so that Burks later offered Sephus the opportunity to lead the Atlanta-based startup’s technology team full time.
However, Sephus, now working as a software engineer for the Exponent technology company in New York, was unsure if she should leave the security of her well-established company. It would mean leaving a high-paying job, the stress of relocating again and uncertainty about the future. It could be a costly career misstep if the startup failed.
In 2015, Partpic closed a $1.5 million seed round. Sephus carefully weighed the pros and cons and ultimately decided to take the calculated risk of becoming the full-time CTO for Partpic, having already consulted for the company on a part-time basis. But building out Partpic’s software development team proved to be a daunting task. Sephus learned that finding professionals with the precise expertise, synergy and group chemistry is very difficult.
“Formulating the right team to deliver the vision of replacing a part as easily as taking a picture had never been done before. And while creating the algorithms and prototypes for identifying and measuring replacement parts in a picture may sound easy, it required breakthrough technology, intense focus and advanced technical acumen. You need people who share the same values, work ethic and temperament, but who have diverse technical thoughts.”
To form her supportive community, she turned to friends and fellow African-Americans from Georgia Tech, such as Ivan Walker, Troy Nunnally and Gbolabo (Tayo) Ogunmakin, all of whom have graduate degrees in ECE, and like Sephus, are GEM Fellows.
Always an academic scholar, Sephus had won a prestigious GEM Fellowship after graduating from Mississippi State University. The fellowship provided her with a full-tuition graduate scholarship, paid internships and job placement at Delphi after graduating with her Ph.D from Georgia Tech. She knew Walker, Nunnally and Ogunmakin shared her passion for creating the most advanced technology, and because of their GEM Fellowship, she knew they were also smart, talented and had solid work experience.
Sephus explained, “If you look at the income gap and the digital divide, you have a sense of how critical the GEM Fellowship was to me, especially as a Black woman.”
The early advice she received proved very valuable. As she continued building out her supportive community and the technology for the app, Partpic began racking up industry and pitch competition awards. Amazon took notice.
In 2016, Sephus and the co-founders sold Partpic to Amazon for an undisclosed sum. Sephus now leads a similar team at Amazon, which is further developing the app. Amazon retained Partpic’s Atlanta location and team members. The retail giant will release the part-finder technology later this year.
Sephus concluded, “The Partpic team and I tell our story to encourage and inspire those from similar backgrounds. We’ve seen that perseverance, hard work, determination and faith goes a long way. Even if you weren’t afforded the resources in the beginning, don’t be afraid to do what you must to overcome obstacles. And lastly, don’t be afraid to take risks.”