Data Literacy is for Everyone: My story of overcoming poverty and gaining data skills

Last week I posted on LinkedIn about my data literacy story. My data literacy story is one of poverty and a long road toward where I am today. As a former grocery store clerk, I struggled to make ends meet like many do today. Data literacy is needed for people not only to compete in a job market but also to put food on the table. Data literacy isn’t just a corporate initiative; it can change lives.

My story resonated with many people; these posts are the most popular when discussing my struggles. I didn’t share my story about poverty for a long time because I felt ashamed. Of course, this is foolish thinking. When I did start talking, I would dissemble by talking about some of the “sillier” things I’ve done, like being a telephone psychic for Miss Cleo. With age, I have learned to embrace my background and let it empower me and hopefully inspire someone struggling today. I rarely saw my story represented in tech and data, and I want others to see themselves. There’s always hope, even when it’s dark.

Poverty wasn’t new to me as an adult. I was a child of a single mother, and the word “dad” felt foreign to me. Not having grown up with a father and seeing my mother struggle with food stamps and welfare impressed on me the struggles of women and what they still accomplish in the face of adversity. My mother had children relatively young, and while we lived on food stamps, she was always invested in learning and doing more. She never stopped trying to be more. Of course, she has guilt from those years, feeling she hadn’t spent enough time with her kids, but she set an example that left an indelible mark.

Not having grown up with a father and only seeing my mother struggle with food stamps and welfare impressed on me what women struggle with and still accomplish in the face of adversity.

Eventually, she no longer needed food stamps, remarried, and we moved to the ‘burbs. But that woman, the strong one who never let poverty stop her, lived in my memory. I’d love to avoid the topic, but the move to the ‘burbs came with a healthy dose of religion too. It was the life I was brought up in, even before my mom remarried, and I never knew otherwise. My high school years were marked by religion classes, church every weekend, chapel every day, and teaching me that gay people were going to hell, and so were my catholic grandparents. Fast forward to my early 20s, I didn’t believe gay people or Catholics were going to hell. My church released me, and so did my family.

The poverty I knew as a child returned as an adult. I couldn’t get funding for college because my parents refused to sign the financial aid forms, and the church whose college I had been attending excommunicated me. The only choice was to make a go of it on my own or be homeless. I found an apartment I could barely afford at $450 a month and a car falling apart around me. At the time, I lacked tangible job skills, so I started as a grocery store clerk. There were days I would go without meals and had to wait until my next paycheck. Some days I would scrounge for loose change to see what I could afford. Oddly, I didn’t qualify for food stamps, and the government said I made too much. Eventually, I worked my way up to management, working in the cash office for the grocery store.

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Working in a cash office taught me skills I have with me to this day. Who knew I’d still use 10-key calculator skills; I’m excellent at my own taxes. This job was the foundation to where I would go next, even if I didn’t see it then. Working in a cash office led me to office jobs, and I became a “collector.” Collecting is where my data story really starts. Spreadsheets abound when you are trying to manage an AR portfolio, and you’re tasked with collecting money for your paycheck. Building relationships is key to collecting money from businesses or setting up payment plans.

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Excel is a gateway skill for many in the data world, and it was the gateway for me. It’s a gateway for folks in service industries, not dissimilar to me. People leaving restaurants are figuring out that they need data skills to work in other roles, even if they aren’t “data jobs.” A friend of mine has worked in restaurants her whole adult life. Now she’s thinking of transitioning to work in the corporate leasing industry. What does she need to learn? Excel.

While talking about R, Stats, Python, and many other advanced data skills, we should never lose sight of the gateway skills that help people start their data journey. Does it mean attending a BootCamp or getting a certification? Not all the time. Sometimes it means a class focusing on Excel and how rows and columns work. What do aggregations mean, and how you can pivot data? Data journies frequently for career changers who are trying to navigate a changing job market, and lack many options. People like me. Yet, by providing these skills, you are increasing their chances of thriving every day.

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This is why it’s essential to think about where people start, and consider not everyone needs to be an analyst. Unless you ask people where they are today, you can’t help them where they need to go. Sometimes they just need a job to keep a roof over their head. I started off with a calculator and handwritten spreadsheets. Eventually, that led me to Excel, which led me to Tableau. I’ve taken a Six Sigma Greenbelt. Now, 25 years later, I’ve worked for multiple analytics platforms and taught people how to use them worldwide. I started my career somewhere people would have never imagined, but here I am. Over the years, while I have invested in education, I’ve never returned to college. Learning doesn’t always happen in the hallowed halls of academia.

I am the product of poverty.

Someone out there needs to be given that chance too. What will you do to help them?

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