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Lyft’s driver hub in Long Island City is unexpectedly busy for a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend.
The space, located on the fourth floor of a sprawling office building, is where New York-based drivers can go for in-person support. The entrance, floors, and filing cabinets are lined in hot pink, the company’s signature color.
Even in this brightly colored tech office, Divinity Matovu, one of Lyft's community program managers, stands out, wearing a long floral dress and chunky blue gemstone earrings. Today, she doesn’t have her 4/20 nails — the “green claws” she had done to celebrate Lyft’s April discounts for riders in states where marijuana is legal. But Matovu, 32, doesn't need neon nails to make a statement — her booming laugh can fill an entire room, making it feel instantly warmer, as she flashes a wide smile that shows off a gap between her two front teeth.
Her laptop is covered in stickers — one for Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In foundation, the Air Jordan logo, and icons representing Lyft’s core values — "make it happen," "be yourself," and "uplift others" — which Matovu, an outgoing self-starter, says are “near and dear” to her. They’ve defined much of her own career, which has been characterized by a series of twists and turns that required her to remain flexible and stray from the path in order to follow her passions.
Matovu never expected to end up at Lyft, or even in tech, which she says she had little exposure to growing up in Racine, WI, a little over an hour-and-a-half drive north of Chicago. She was the eldest in a family of five; her mom worked as a nurse for part of her childhood. She was not close with her father, a short-haul truck driver, during her childhood.
Although her childhood wasn't easy, Matovu got a glimpse of what life could look like beyond the small-town suburbs after a chance encounter during high school. She attended a program for gifted students and met the Johnson family of SC Johnson, the Wisconsin-based corporation that owns almost every household cleaning brand you can think of, from Glade and Pledge, to Shout, Windex, and Scrubbing Bubbles.
The meeting set Matovu’s education on a different track: The family took her in and gave her a scholarship to attend the prestigious Prairie School, a private school co-founded by the Johnson matriarch, Imogene Powers Johnson. Matovu says this was the opportunity she needed to break out of a future she saw for most people who grew up in her town: "I ended up being able to get out of Racine, which was kind of unheard of. You live there, you grow up there, you marry the kid from down the street, and you're just in Wisconsin for life. I was like, Hell to the no. I do not want to be in this city. I need to get the fuck out of here."
After graduating high school, the first-generation college student started freshman year at University of Southern California with the assumption she would end up becoming a lawyer, doctor, or teacher. But her path took a sharp turn again when she spent her first semester of senior year studying abroad in Kenya and Tanzania. Within two weeks, she knew she would not bother applying to law school.
"My passion is community — connecting people and empowering people who are less fortunate," Matovu says.
After graduation, she booked a one-way ticket back to East Africa, where she had a volunteer job waiting for her in Uganda. When she stepped off the plane, she met her now ex-husband, a member of the volunteer organization who was waiting to meet her, sign in hand. Shortly after her arrival, the pair founded their own youth organization in Kampala, Uganda's capital.
Matovu, who served as the nonprofit's CEO, learned how to raise money, write grants, and set curriculums on the fly. At just 23, she was meeting with senior government officials. She credits the unexpected respect she was given with being an American, and reflecting on the experience, Matovu says it taught her something new about being Black in different cultures.
"I don't think I would have gotten access the way I did if I was a 23-year-old Ugandan woman doing the same thing," she says. "That was very interesting to me, because as a Black woman in America I know nothing about privilege — there are no privileges afforded to me here."
Matovu was pregnant when she returned to the U.S. in 2011, fueled by a desire to get the formal education, training, and network that could help her raise more money to build other community-focused startups. When she got into Wharton Business School, one of her top picks, she moved to Philadelphia with her daughter. (Her ex-husband now lives in Florida and the two co-parent.) During the summer between her first and second year, she got her first taste of corporate Wall Street life when she interned at Goldman Sachs. The experience taught her what she wanted in a company — a place where she wouldn't have to worry about what she wore or if her tattoos were showing: "I remember walking up to 200 West Street every day, and being like, Okay, time to put on the voice. Time to put on this fake-ness and go in here for nine to 15 hours and pretend to be somebody that I'm not."
While most of her peers returned from their summer internships with job offers from big consulting firms, banks, and media companies, she did not. But Matovu wasn't too worried — she was used to blazing her own path. "I felt behind, but I was also like, I'm running my own race. I can't compare myself to all these other people," Matovu says.
During her second year, she founded a childcare start-up based on the sharing economy. But when she failed to raise venture funding, she knew she had to pivot once again. She had bills to pay and a young daughter to provide for. As graduation neared, she applied to just two companies — Airbnb and Lyft. She felt both tech companies fit with her values, would allow her to grow professionally, and, most importantly, would allow her to be her full self at work, tattoos and single motherhood included.
Matovu knew it was especially important to find a place that respected and welcomed her — especially after being a mother was used against her when she tried to raise funding.
“One investor told me, 'Honestly Divinity, when you walk in and you say that you're a Wharton MBA and that you're a single mom, my mind automatically shuts off, because when you're a founder you have to grind,” Matovu says. “There's all types of stereotypes that go along with being a single mother, especially as a Black woman. People assume that you were never married, or that you were unmarried. People assume that you just have less time, which arguably you do, but I think it's all about how you manage your time."
Just after graduating a year ago, she got an offer from Lyft to work with drivers as a community program manager. The role perfectly aligned with her desire to support and build community: Her job involves communicating with drivers and managing driver programs, such as planning company initiatives for Ramadan, which included providing drivers with a prayer room during the holy month and an invitation to break their fast together, at scale.
Her job isn’t easy, and it’s not always positive: Drivers don't mince words when they write in or take to Twitter with complaints, and Matovu sees them as the people who hold the company accountable. She helps to separate the signal from the noise, determining which complaints are real problems that need executive attention and which are ones there will always be grievances over. She sees herself as an advocate for the people outside of Lyft’s corporate walls.
"[The drivers] keep the company honest," Matovu says. "I love that I get to be one of the people that helps to amplify their voices within the company."
She also values that Lyft’s leadership takes driver anecdotes into account: “We make decisions not only based on pure data, but also what drivers have to say. I love that there is a space in our process for leveraging those voices.”
At Lyft, a place that hits on her values, Matovu is able to empower a new kind of community in a way that feels meaningful. Still, her own start-up ambitions didn’t die with her one attempt to raise funding at Wharton. When the time is right, Matovu says she’ll strike out on her own again.
"I want to be a GM in one of our top ten markets at Lyft," she says. "I want to crush it, and I want to beat Uber in that market. Then, after doing well in that role, I'd love to leave Lyft with introductions to investors so that I can finally start my childcare company."
When she does eventually depart to start on yet another path, she’ll take with her the lessons she’s learned along the way. On each of Matovu’s wrists is a tattoo of an Adinkra symbol from West Africa: There’s Gye Nyame, which means “except God,” or God is supreme; and Sankofa, a heart-like design that literally translates to “return and get it,” but which, proverbially, means, “no matter where you go, always remember where you come from.”
Divinity’s Advice For Finding A Company That Fits With Your Values
Ask specific questions about company support for employee resource groups
“Does the company even have these groups? Do they have a budget? Is the parents group only run by moms, or are career dads also playing a role? Are male allies involved in the women’s group? Are white allies active contributors to the Black, Latino, etc. groups? How does the company ask about gender and sexuality? Do they recognize gender fluidity and have a thriving LGBTQ group?”
Look beyond the numbers
“Generally, I advise women on the job hunt to look deeper than the numbers in diversity reports. When you visit for final interviews and conduct your due diligence online, do you see people who express themselves in different ways? Do they seem to be evoking authenticity? Do the images of diversity you see on the company’s website line up with what you see when you take a tour of the office where you’ll be working?”
See if there are women in senior positions for both technical and non-technical roles
“It is always a red flag to me when technical organizations like Product and Engineering have very few women in leadership but several women in functions like Marketing and HR.”