Ep 70: Kanika Tolver: Find Your Authentic Self

Diva Tech Talk had the honor to interview Kanika Tolver, Washington, D.C. native, Founder and Product Manager at BrandDMV Inc., (http://branddmv.com/).  Her company is a digital transformation agency that specializes in creating Digital Mobile Visuals. With a diverse and fascinating career in our nation’s capital, Kanika has consistently focused on improving U.S. government effectiveness.  Along the way, she has developed a wide range of impressive technology proficiencies, while consistently connecting those skills to improving the “human experience.”  She is also a career coach, author and mentor.

From high school, Kanika was fascinated by the interconnectedness of the world, and the way that even “dial-up” connections (like AOL Instant Messenger) could be used to make transactions more efficient. “Initially my mom wanted me to be a pharmacist,” Kanika said. “But I said ‘no’ I want to go into computers! It was fun, to me, to be on the Internet.”   

Kanika went to Bowie State University (https://www.bowiestate.edu/ ), an historically African-American college, where she majored in computer science, with a focus on Internet technology, programming in CSS, HTML, and JavaScript.  “That’s when I started to say, ‘wow, I really love creating Webpages and Websites’ “ and also discovered a passion for mobile applications, e-commerce, content management systems.  She worked part-time at the U.S. Department of Urban and Housing Development  (https://www.hud.gov/) , while attending university.  There she found some of her first mentors, and later in this podcast gave a “shout-out” to those who inspired her and offered her early life lessons about work ethic and attitude.

After college, Kanika’s first opportunity was with Verizon (www.verizon.com/ ) where she was a leader at their network control center in Virginia. “I had to learn the telecommunications industry.”  Then she returned to government service, first working for 2.5 years as a SaaS developer for the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics (https://www.bls.gov/ ),  where she “learned a lot about collection of data.”  She then moved to the U.S. Department of Transportation (https://www.transportation.gov/ ). “That was where I really got into digital strategy,” Kanika said. “During the first and second Obama administrations, I got a passion for understanding the use of Internet vs. Intranet: how to build sites, how to do website migration, how to redesign, how to do mobile apps.”  

With a considerable tenure in the public sector, Kanika left in 2014 because “I felt it was not such a great fit for me, because I had such an entrepreneurial spirit; I had an innovative way of thinking.” She was excited to take a role at Deloitte (www.deloitte.com/ ) (“I didn’t even know who the company was; all I knew was government!”). There, Kanika “learned the global aspect of business. “  In the private sector, for the first time, she faced the challenge of working in predominantly white male environments. “I learned I had to ‘boss up’ “, Kanika said.  “I had to come to the table with subject matter expertise. If I was going to make sure I was respected, had a seat at the table, I had to merge my personal brand as a woman of color with my technical experience, so people would not see color, or that I was female.”

Along the way, Kanika formed strong opinions about digital transformation of companies and groups. She believes it is less about the technology tools and “more about the people, processes, and structures.” She sees digital transformation as pervasive.  “It encompasses social, cloud, security, data, and the aspect of governance. As a tech community, we haven’t caught up with digital transformation. It’s hard to get it right, because it’s so many pieces. And we work in silos, a lot.” As a consultant in the private sector with an expertise in government, she grapples with many issues. “The government has had a lot of data breaches. And the government has a huge problem with creating these individual strategies: its own security strategy, its own data strategy, its own digital strategy.” Kanika’s perspective is that they, all, must be coalesced under the umbrella of digital transformation.

Evaluating her own success, Kanika’s credits her penchant for collaboration (“I really love people; it has helped me get the visibility I wanted and learn from people way smarter than me”), laser focus on her goals, fortitude (“I have been knocked down, but not knocked out”), and fearlessness.  She also has changed her perspective, along the way. “Now I look at failures as accomplishments, rather than defeats,” she said. “If I learned something, and was able to move forward, it makes me a conqueror.” Kanika defines true “servant leaders,” as those “who care about culture, people, and about people growing.” In the course of her career, to date, “those are some of the best leaders I have seen.”

In addition to founding her company, Kanika is also the author of LIFE REHAB: DON’T OVERDOSE ON PAIN, PEOPLE, AND POWER written when she was a Federal Government employee in 2013.  “We, all, come to a point where we try to live an authentic life.”  To assist others, Kanika authored this journey of self-discovery, which catalogued “letting go” of relationships which didn’t work, pain that was unnecessary, and superficial things which didn’t matter.

Kanika is a strong proponent of in-person networking, supplementing online connections.  “For people who want to maximize their opportunities, it’s so important to go out and meet people at conferences, workshops, seminars.” Additionally, she meets people regularly online, using tools like LinkedIn (“the best place for me to connect with the right people, professionally”) including LinkedIn Groups , where she often finds expertise and help. She also gives back often through mentorship, and “it makes me so happy,” she said. “Mentoring shouldn’t be looked at as a job; it should come from a place of passion and purpose.”  Her advice for potential mentees is to concentrate on creating a meaningful relationship with potential mentors, before asking for assistance; formulate a “brand pitch” about yourself; and persist in cultivating a chosen mentor.  In her own life, Kanika’s “dream team” of mentors are diverse, spanning fields, ages, races, and talents.

Kanika is a self-defined “hustler” in the most positive definition of that word, a champion of diversity in the workplace, particularly in the tech field.  She often writes articles for the well-known GLASS DOOR career enhancement community.   In 2014, she was interviewed by CNN, and expressed her candid opinion of tech hiring in a MONEY ECONOMY column entitled “Google Should Hire Me”.  She forthrightly said that Silicon Valley companies, in order to diversify, must “come out to where the people are,” including colleges and universities that have large minority populations. “Diversity in technology is a ‘heart condition.’  Either companies want to do it, or they don’t.” Kanika is planning to develop a diversity roadmap and publish it in a blog. It would include other diversification recommendations like companies should join alliances dedicated to diversity (similar to Black Girls Code); create a database of HBCU’s and aim recruiting campaigns there;  and work on “starting out younger” by making investments in early childhood STEM education programs focused on girls and minorities.

Kanika recommends tools for keeping up-to-date in the fast paced, changing technology world.  She reads a minimum of one tech book per month. Her other tools include:

  1. Podcasts which focus on tech trends (including any that discuss IoT, AI, the “cloud”, machine learning, and big data/data science and analytics);  

  2. Udemy, the technology learning site (https://www.udemy.com/ );

  3. Tech information sites like Tech Republic (https://www.techrepublic.com/) as well as  government tech blogs;

  4. Meetups, and other meetings, which connect a variety of diverse tech experts, in a networking environment.

Kanika’s advice for other women is:

  • “DEMAND respect in a respectful way. You want to be firm in who you are. You have to take the high road.”

  • Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses; capitalize on your strengths. “Bring something that adds a lot of value.”

  • To keep up, read a minimum of one or two focused articles per day from blogs and other informational sites.

  • “Look for ‘virtual’ mentors,” if you can’t find the right kind of mentor, in-person.

Her overriding message to women is “just strive toward equality --- with pay, and opportunity. Keep moving forward; keep evaluating what culture fit is good for you.”  Her philosophy is that when people are in tune with their essential selves, they can evaluate which companies or organizations are truly the correct ones in which to grow and evolve. “We need to evaluate what kinds of organizations work for us, so we can thrive.”

Kanika can be reached via her Website: https://kanikatolver.com/; on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kanikatolver; and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kanikatolver/.

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