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Shavone Charles On Disrupting The Tech Industry & The Black Internet Effect

Photo: courtesy of Cristine Jane.
Shavone Charles has done it all. Known mononymously as SHAVONE., she’s a multi hyphenate creative who’s made her mark in music, fashion and tech. Her tenacity and knack for innovation have led to her success as a classically-trained musician, a FORD model, and most notably a disruptor within the tech industry (she was included in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Marketing & Advertising roundup in 2019). She was the first Black woman to create her own roles that she held at both Twitter and Instagram, and as founder of her own creative collectives Future Of Creatives and Magic In Her Melanin, she’s also worked with top brands — everyone from Nike to Google.
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Now, in Black Internet Effect, her first book ever, the TikTok tech lead is sharing with the world how she got it all done. Plot twist! It wasn’t easy. According to a 2021 report from AnitaB.org, women account for 26.7% of the tech workforce. Meanwhile, Black women make up just 1.7%, and Black professionals as a whole make up just 7.4%
But where there’s a will, there’s a way, says SHAVONE. The key is leaning on your community, and not being afraid to knock on the doors that can help you create opportunities. Very little — if anything —  is handed to us as Black folx, so it’s up to us to go get it ourselves.
“You'll be knocking at doors and be surprised how many of them open,” SHAVONE. shares. “I talked about this in my book; my dad's go-to motto was, ‘The worst they can say is no.’ For every door slammed in your face, there's another one that might just open up for you. You miss all the shots you don't take.”
Here, SHAVONE. tells us about Black Internet Effect, Black influence across internet culture, and the importance of increasing Black representation in the tech industry and beyond.
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Unbothered: I'm so excited about this book because I feel like you and I were talking about the beginnings of it just yesterday. How are you feeling about Black Internet Effect finally making its way into the world?
SHAVONE.: I feel it's all sort of surreal.When you're in the writing process, you pour so much of yourself into it. You don't know how people are going to respond to it or if they're going to get what you’re saying.
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Yeah, I experience that often as a writer. 
S: I've always wanted to write a book. I was an English literature major in college, and reading has always been my favorite thing to do outside of music. Writing something is transformational for your confidence, trust in self, believing in your voice, and breaking through cycles of being self-critical. You know this because you're a writer — you can kind of get in your own head while you're writing. And when you work in PR, comms, and marketing, you edit yourself even more. So right now I'm happy. I'm grateful. I'm glad I proved to myself that I can get this done in spite of so much adversity I was going through at the time. [I wrote this book during] the pandemic while being indoors and adjusting to life without being able to be with my community. A lot of things that really supercharged my spirit I didn't have access to at the time, so I felt like I really had to dig deep to pull from joy and inspiration. 
It was an emotional process writing this book. I did a lot of recounting and reaching back into bright times of my life, but also dark times and memories that weren't so weren't so happy but that were breakthroughs for me and my journey. Looking back now, I realize the journey is still happening. It's still in motion. But I'm really glad that I got to revisit a lot of lessons, and I hope that some of those lessons can help light the way for others. 
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I think [Black folx are] in such a critical time when it comes to us seizing our IP, seizing our ideas, seizing our value, and really leaning into it. In this day and age, it's important for us to stand in front of our ideas, so I'm happy that I was able to stand in front of this chapter of my life. I feel like a lot of it has been lived behind the desk, focused on grinding and working, and not talking enough about the lessons and the highs and the lows of it all.
That's a word. What did that process look like? How did you move through writing about those challenging moments, while also navigating the challenges of existing as a Black woman in the spaces you've worked in?
S: I really took time to drop everything else I was doing. I found that it was easier for me to take a [designated] day to write each week versus taking out time throughout the week. There is so much going on throughout my weeks — from my day job, to my content job, to modeling, to music — so I felt that I really wanted to give the book and my writing process the headspace I felt it deserved. I was in San Diego while I wrote the book, so a lot of my earlier memories of being in high school, being in college — that nostalgia of being in San Diego, being comfortable, feeling at home — really helped me dig back in. 
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There are some parts of the book where I talked about Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter, the onset of everything happening in Ferguson, and being at Twitter [while it was happening]. I had to take breaks. I was in tears writing those parts of the book and revisiting how it felt to be a Black body working working at a place like Twitter, but also existing on the Internet where you have so much of these images and so much of this news flooding your timelines while having to go out into the world and face it all. Revisiting those moments was tough but so necessary, especially in the wake of being a millennial Black woman and growing up in a world where we've seen Twitter come into the world and we've seen how it's transformed the world. We grew up in a world where social media didn't always exist, and I think having that dual lens [helps us] archive and document. It's our duty to tell our stories in ways that we're proud of and ways that we can endorse versus other outlets or platforms doing it for us.
You mentioned this millennial dual lens and how we've been around long enough to see the onset and evolution of social media platforms. How has that lens played a role in the way that you were able to build your own platform? How has your perspective allowed you to manifest your success? 
S: Thank you. Being able to find community, that's the secret sauce. I feel like that's everybody's secret sauce. Even my relationship to people that I respect so much — people like you, other people I've met along the journey and on the Internet. Being able to have platforms where you can embody yourself and reach people who share similar values [is important]. I think the multimedia format of these platforms has really helped me and so many other creators to express ourselves without limitation. Other people see [your content] and they connect with it, and now you have the foundation of community and the foundation of your tribe, your village.
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It's a two-way street in ways I can show up for others in my community. I really think that's what has helped me along my journey — always keeping community top of mind and realizing that it's bigger than me. I think that idea is really what gets other people excited to mobilize and work towards something bigger than ourselves.
I love that you named community because part of the conversation we had during the latest episode of Go Off, Sis was about how we as Black folx have lost the recipe to community. It seems like social media has a lot to do with that. Everyone is always disagreeing with one another and canceling one another. We're not growing with each other anymore, and it's really disconnecting us in ways that don't serve us, especially in this moment. So I love to hear you say community is at the forefront. 
S: I wholeheartedly agree with that take, and I think the reality is we can't just have online community. We have to have that IRL connective tissue. We can't just exchange messages online. I think inevitably that becomes transactional and everything becomes reactionary. “I like this. I love this. I don't like this. I hate this.” Everything becomes black and white and polarized via these exchanges, right? I think that’s just the very nature of how the Internet's engineered as a communication platform, and a lot gets lost in translation on communications platforms. 
It's like when they say “the movement must not be televised" versus "the movement will be televised.” I think you really need a bit of both happening. I think we've become very one-sided amidst only being online, forgetting the importance of just being human and the empathy that comes with being in a room together. 
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Photo: Penguin Random House.
I think this might be a good segue. I'm interested in hearing you explain what Black Internet effect is, and why you chose Black Internet Effect as the title of your book.
S: When I think about Black Internet effect, it truly is the impact that we have via the Internet, via the way we move culture, and via the way we shift industries. Everything good about the Internet — whether it's comedy or entertainment or hip hop or music or celebrities or just the Mecca of consumer interest — Black people are at the heart of driving that. The way our communities have mobilized made the Internet popular. I think that story is truly still untold. Our impact is immeasurable, to be frank. And I think for me, a lot of my time at Twitter — with Twitter being my first real job and me being so into data, me being in the trenches of identifying trends and where they came from and working with data engineers to literally identify specific people or clusters of groups that ignited certain trends or sparks on the platform — I feel like that part of my career was truly able to help quantify what we already qualitatively know. I think that was the onset of me wrapping my head around Black Internet effect and the idea of Black people and BIPOC people having so much influence on the masses.
You named it. We're setting trends every day. We're innovating every day. But oftentimes, as we've seen on social media platforms like TikTok, white folks end up taking the credit. How do we hold social media platforms accountable, and how can we as Black creators ensure that we get paid the respect we're due in tech and on the Internet? 
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S: Part of the reason that I really wanted to write Black Internet Effect is to drive more discourse around this. It's important for us to be on the Internet and for us to have a place in the ecosystem, but we need to have a seat at the table at these platforms. I think a lot of my viewpoint has been as both a user and as an employee, and there are ways to bridge those gaps that require work. I think that a lot of what needs to continue happening is more representation for us in the technology industry, in social media, in the creator economy, and at these platforms that are essentially the liaison and the conduit of what we're putting out into the world. 
If you think about a Kickstarter or a Patreon, for example, it's super important for that platform to have representation of the constituents they serve so they can better serve their needs and meet BIPOC creatives where they are. You can't meet someone where they are if you have no understanding of who they are, what they're going through, where they've been, and where they want to go. That's number one.
Number two for me is looking around at ways I can own my ideas. I have four or five trademarks. My name is trademarked. I trademarked my name when I was at Twitter. For us, a lot of it is literacy. Some of it is financial literacy and education, and it's unfortunate, but a lot of this legwork we have to do on our own or is just not going to get done. I think there are a lot of changes that have to be made now that we're in this digital first era when it comes to how we document our ideas and who owns those ideas, who owns a viral meme that gets posted and gets circulated all around the world and brings joy to millions. That creator is at home and in like a one bedroom apartment still, meanwhile, their face is everywhere. I think we're just sort of in this new ecosystem that requires fundamental shifts from a legal perspective and also from a monetization perspective. 
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I do think that some of that onus is absolutely on us, but it's also definitely on the platforms and it's also definitely on the industry and industry players who have a seat at the table. Our needs aren't seen or recognized enough. It's too often a reactive thing. It's too often a corrective measure versus our needs being prioritized or part of the thought process from the beginning. So I think it's sort of each group having to meet each other halfway. Speaking as a Black woman and a Black creator first, we do have to do extra work, and it sucks because we always have to do extra work. I think the conversation has just gotten so complex, and it's important for us to simplify it and talk more, share the knowledge more, and do the legwork for ourselves. Nobody's going to do it for us. 
This might be a reach, but do you think that we'll ever get to a place where we as Black folx don't have to do so much extra work to create the opportunities we want? 
S: That is a really profound question. Because I have seen the brilliance of us, I will say yes, I do. We are already the blueprint. Let's face it. I do think that there will be a time where you see more equitable ownership. I honestly think it does come down to representation, but equitable representation, for us. I am absolutely seeing a lot of up and coming and established Black founders also, folks like myself who are multi hyphenate, get a leadership seat at the table at places and who are legitimately using that leadership to inspire change and bridge gaps and put programs and mechanisms in place. They're not just walking through the door, but also busting down the doors and leaving them open for others to come through and also lead and have leadership positions.
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On so many levels, the issues are so deeply systemic in and we know it's all by design. So I think to dismantle that, yes, it's going to continue to be a masterful effort. It's going to continue to take time. But time is really all we have. I'm young in my career chapter and I have seen some substantial change. I will not say it's enough, because it is not enough, but I have seen bounds and leaps across the board. I've seen other people of color rising in their influence and seizing their power and demanding what they deserve. I think more of that energy is what allows us to leap bounds ahead versus these baby steps. I think it's going to continue to take tenacity. It's going to continue to take unity. It's going to continue to take demanding nothing less than what we're owed. 
In your book, you talked about both the excitement and anxiety you felt at the beginning of your journey, specifically pursuing a career in the tech space, because there really was no blueprint for people who look like us. What advice do you have for anyone in the same position that you were in years back?
S: It’s worth noting that I find myself at that turning point every couple of years. That feeling never truly goes away. It's not so much about trying to figure it out; it's understanding how you navigate through it and build more of a muscle, knowing that it’s probably going to come up again. My advice to anybody is to truly be proactive and seek out the answers. Ask for help. As a Black woman and given how I was raised, it's not always easy to realize when you need help and to know how to ask for help. Asking for help doesn't make you weak. It doesn't make you incompetent. It actually does the exact opposite for you and helps you build that muscle that you truly do need to be successful. Understanding how to ask for help is so important. 
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That part. What else do you want readers to walk away with after they read this book? 
S: I want people to walk away with a strong sense of self. I want people to walk away feeling like whatever the obstacle is, whatever the adversity is, they're built to overcome it. They have everything they need to navigate through. I think a lot of what we were taught as millennials earlier in our careers was, "You've got to find a mentor. You have to have somebody to tell you what to do. If not, you know, you're left out in the cold." 
"It's not what you know; it's who you know."
S: Right! "Network! Network! Network!" And "You've got to have the senior person to help guide you. You've got to hold somebody's hand or you're not going to make it." That's a lie.
I think the reality is: if you focus on being that person that you need, you will gravitate toward more people who are aligned with purpose and who want to help and are operating from a place of abundance. I focused on trying to be the person that I needed. I focused on trying to educate myself, but also lift others. I think it's a fallacy to think that you have to get successful to lift people up. You can lift people as you climb. You don't have to be rich or successful or so well-off to enlighten other people and share knowledge and give back. The art of giving back helps impact your ability to listen and be a sponge and soak in knowledge and ideas and all of the things that empower you to navigate this crazy thing called life.
I wrote Black Internet Effect for Black girls, Black women, BIPOC youth, underrepresented youth, and young people in general. I want them to walk away feeling like they got it, whatever it looks like, whether you want to work in tech or not, whether you want to work for anybody or not, you can figure it out and trust your path, trust your steps, and understand that what's for you is for you. You are equipped with what you need to to build what you need. You don't have to be a victim of circumstance. You don't have to be a victim of unfortunate situations that you might have been predisposed to. You're bigger than your problems. You're bigger than your nightmares.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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