What Is The Power Of Onlyness?

Illustrated by Austin Watts.
As she dropped off her twelve-year-old daughter at coding camp, Kim Bryant became aware that, despite the bucolic setting of the Stanford University campus, things might not go smoothly for Kai. Although there were 200 kids in the program, Kim was able to total the number of girls enrolled “with my fingers and toes.” And, she noticed, “the class was pretty white, too. Lily white.”
Her response to this observation started Kim on her six-year journey: to change the world of tech to include more people like her daughter. “I’d seen a light in her eyes that I didn’t want to see put out prematurely,” Kim recalls, thinking back to what inspired her to turn a wild idea into a reality.
Kim’s quest reveals why you must own all of you, even and especially the parts others disparage. In doing so, she shows the first step in what I call “the power of onlyness,” which is to claim the power of one’s own narrative.
I first met Kim at a conference in Boston, and she was talking about Southern cooking. She described herself as a “down-home girl,” and when I asked what exactly that meant to her, she responded with a question of her own. “Do you know Memphis?” she asked. “Growing up there had an indelible impact on my life because of its history, a history that is not so pretty. MLK’s assassination in Memphis made me realize that there are some things worth dying for. And, to be clear, I’m from North Memphis. Not many role models there. Not too many kids got out.”
Our origins are part of what informs our perspective. This is not to say that we’re defined by our pasts but, rather, that the context of our particular background shapes what we notice and respond to, which in turn makes us who we are today. It’s Steve Jobs childhood where he spent long hours with his father, dismantling and rebuilding electronic devices in the family garage. It was these experiences that gave the little boy his mechanical prowess. Kim’s “only” has been deeply influenced by growing up in Memphis and what she believes is worth fighting for.
Kim beat the odds by being accepted at Vanderbilt University as an engineering major. “The thing is,” Kim explains, “I was almost always the only brown or black person when I went to school. Almost always the only woman in class.” She loved math and science, yet felt deeply alone in those courses, which may have accounted for the fact that her freshman grades were dismal—culminating in a 1.3 GPA.
But she found friends in the black student union, “one of the few places on campus where I felt I really belonged.” Kim got involved in student activism while Vanderbilt was still invested in South Africa, and she and her friends wanted to end apartheid. They organized protests, wrote a manifesto, and implored the university’s president to make policy changes. At one point, the Wall Street Journal showed up on campus, and Kim’s activism was displayed on the front page. Kim’s mom saw the story, and became worried about her scholarship being revoked.
“I heard her, I swear I did. But I also knew it was important to do something.” Her efforts paid off, and Vanderbilt became one of the first schools in the world to shift its investments in response to apartheid. Kim’s success gave her resolve on the academic front. By the time she completed her BS, she had boosted her GPA from nearly failing to a solid B.
Soon after graduation, Kim landed a job DuPont. She was the exceptional person who “got out” of Northern Memphis; she thought it meant real change.
Her DuPont manager, however, undermined her when he introduced her to the team by saying: “With Kimberly coming on, we got a twofer,” point to Kim being both a woman and a person of color. Her deepest hope that her ideas, and not her color, would matter was already being squashed. What had been highlighted was her being different, her “otherness.”

"New takes and fresh ideas are what fuels progress and, without them, we all miss out on the solutions that humanity most needs."

The effect of being the “only one” is well known. In 1977, change expert Rosabeth Moss Kanter did a study that showed when individuals are members of a group that represents less than 15%, they experience three things that constrain their ideas: First, they feel highly watched and thus have a burden of performance pressure. Second, they feel isolated and excluded from social settings (where relationships and trust are built). Third, they feel tremendous pressure to assimilate to the group’s norms. While demographics like age, gender, race, and sexual orientation don’t negatively affect the quality of ideas, being a token does, because what is noticed first is the “otherness” of being different rather than the distinct set of ideas that the person has to offer, their “onlyness”.
When then happens – and it happens too much – we all lose. Because new takes and fresh ideas are what fuels progress and, without them, we all miss out on the solutions that humanity most needs.
It’s no surprise then that Kim was so sensitive to Kai being the “only black girl” in coding camp. Nearly twenty years after the “twofer” comment her DuPont manager made, little has changed regarding women in technology. If anything, the situation has only gotten worse. Forthe most part, the percentage of computing occupations held by women has been declining since 1991, when it reached a high of 36 percent; it’s in the mid twenties now.
Although Kim’s introduction at DuPont underscored her separateness, she was still proud to have been hired there. Her employer provided good benefits, including mentoring. Kim’s mentor was another female engineer ten years her senior. Eventually Kim identified a role she wanted to move into: “It was only a rung or two above my relatively entry-level one, but I could see myself growing in that direction.” At her next mentor meeting, she brought it up. “I want to be an area manager in a few years. What do you think I should be doing now to prepare?” It was a standard, well-reasoned question to ask of a mentor. She hoped to get advice on what to study, soft skills to develop, or how she might volunteer.
Instead, her mentor told her, “You can never achieve that. No, not you. You will not be that.”
This only made Kim more determined. But it wasn’t just her resolve that mattered. “It only made me want to prove her wrong,” Kim recalls. Her ability to choose a response — to decide for herself what to accept as true for her and what to deny — was key to unlocking her own capacity. She vowed to herself, “I will be bigger than you can imagine for me; I will be as big as I can prove to myself to be.” Within five years Kim had risen beyond the level her mentor had told her was unachievable.
Kim’s story — Down-Home Girl, Rebel on the Front Page, Twofer, and Saying No to the Mentor — shape how she came to her dent of creating Black Girls Code.
“At some level, I thought the situation Kai faced would be different,” Kim explained. “But there’s still a dearth of African American women in science, technology, engineering, and math professions . . . an absence that cannot be explained by, say, lack of interest in these fields.” Kim knew that it was not “enough to create change for just one person,” because that would only perpetuate the existing culture. Kim’s own experience taught her that she needed to create change on a larger scale.
So, she started gathering Kai and her friends around her kitchen table, borrowed some used computers, designed some curriculum, and got to work. Other moms joined in and the program quickly had chapters in many cities.
Choosing the name Kim picked for what became her organization was the final clarifying moment. “Using the word ‘black’ scared me a little at first. Too many people see that word and see it as a negative,” Kim says. She asked a fellow attendee at the BlogHer conference for advice. Analisa, a Filipina entrepreneur, appreciated the challenge immediately. Kim recalls the moment when Analisa “stopped shuffling what she had been looking at, looked straight at me, and said, ‘It’s what you’re trying to do for your community, so call it that.”
Black Girls Code has already trained over 10,000 girls who will be able to fill the 1.6 million new coding jobs expected by 2040. By then, Kim aims to have taught one million girls to code.
Kim could have denied the strength of being black, but she didn’t. By claiming that spot in the world only she stood, she not only solved something for her daughter, but her community. And, this is the power we now each have. Others can define something as marginal when it is actually meaningful. Until you define it — even as you need to redefine it — you claim for yourself and ultimately others with whom you join, that which only you can offer.
No matter what your age, or gender, or color, or so on, your ideas have a shot. To reshape industries. To advance agendas. To right wrongs. To invent things. To address age-old problems. To simply get things done. Stories, like Kim’s, not only give us hope but show us a pathway to the future.
The above excerpt was adapted from The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World by Nilofer Merchant.