Felicia Williams is a senior experience designer for HoloLens, Microsoft’s “mixed-reality” headset that gained a lot of attention when it debuted in January. She is also the founder of Black Hound, a gorgeous website where Williams documents her travels and sells the amazing wares she collects along the way. Browsing Black Hound, you immediately want Williams’ gorgeous life. Talking with her, you immediately want to be her friend. And while she’s crafted an admirable career in tech, she’s the antithesis of the geek stereotype. Williams oozes glamour and creativity, and has still managed to thrive in a corporate, male-dominated industry. The path that took her from small-town Oklahoma to her current position at Microsoft certainly wasn’t a straight one, but you could say it all began with a dream and a bus ticket: I’ve always been a storyteller. When I was a kid, I loved to write and my parents really encouraged that. I also loved to draw. I had a very active imagination and I wanted to commit these magical worlds in my head to paper — whether it was through writing or drawing. I got a lot of encouragement from my teachers. When it came to go to college, I really wanted to go to a trade school, but my parents couldn’t afford it. So, I ended up going to a small private school, Tulsa University in Oklahoma, which was just a short, one-hour drive from my hometown. I majored in the fine arts and my concentration was illustration. I was restless almost as soon as I got there. As much as I loved my teachers and friends, it was not the place that I wanted to be. I had a yearning to leave Oklahoma, to explore a bigger city. I wanted an education that was going to springboard me onto bigger paths. I just didn’t feel like I had that at Tulsa, so in my second year, I decided to transfer.
I was restless almost as soon as I got there.
I'm a person who sets lofty goals for myself. Once I make a decision, I’m all in. I started looking at Ivy League schools and pretty quickly settled on Cornell. I knew I wanted to major in art, but I also wanted a rich, well-rounded education. I didn’t apply anywhere else. In my mind, it was all or nothing. I thought to myself, I'm applying to Cornell and if I don’t get in, I'm not transferring. My parent’s were not into it at all. They were worried about paying for it. At the time, it felt like they weren’t supporting me and they didn’t understand how important it was for me to go to Cornell. Now as an adult, I understand that there is a worry there, but at the time, it was really upsetting. For me, it was like, How am I investing in myself? How can I put myself in a position to make the right connections, have the right information, and to learn the right things so that I can have the tools that I need to get to the places I want to go?
So I took a chance and applied. When I got a call from the admissions office, asking me to do an interview — either in person or by phone — I knew immediately that the only way I was getting in was if they met me. I had to go to Ithaca. But I didn’t have any money to get there and I wasn’t going to ask my parents. I worked as a resident advisor. The program’s director, Amy Carr, had been really supportive of me. She pulled me into her office one afternoon and gave me $300 to help pay for the trip to Cornell, a pay-it-forward debt she had been given when she went to college. I received it under the condition that one day, I would pay forward the favor and help someone. In another serendipitous turn of events, that same week, I won second place in a local art competition that came with a $200 cash prize. Suddenly, I was rich. But not rich enough to buy a plane ticket. In order to get to Ithaca, I had to take the bus from Tulsa — a 36-hour ride both ways. At 19 years old, I traveled across the country all by myself because I was absolutely committed to going to that interview.
I traveled across the country all by myself, because I was absolutely committed to going to that interview.
I didn’t tell my parents. I’m sure they would have — as any rational parents — said no way a child of mine is taking this trip alone. My friends were horrified, excited, and proud of me. I remember one of my friends lending me her cell phone because I didn’t have one. She was like, "This is for emergencies only." Off I went. People were surprisingly kind to me, taking care of me along the way. There were all kinds of stops and layovers. I ate at greasy truck stops and made nice with the bus drivers. It was a long, tiring journey. And I could only afford one night in a hotel in Ithaca. I told the academic counselor at Cornell about my adventure on the bus. I wanted him to know how much I wanted to go there and how far I was willing to go. He was stunned and impressed. When I got back to Tulsa, I called up the admissions office to find out how long it would take for them to make a decision. I didn’t even wait for the letter show up. The morning the decisions were due, I called again and got the happy news. I got in — and I got a full ride. It's so funny, but that was the beginning of a pattern in my life. When I set a goal, I get super focused on it — it’s almost like tunnel vision. It’s helped me many times in my career, including launching my own site, Black Hound, last year. I had wanted to start my own business, and my 2014 New Year’s resolution was to get something off the ground.