On a Monday afternoon in March, Angelica Ross had that nagging feeling that she was supposed to be doing something.
Three years ago, she founded transgender community hub TransTech in Chicago. In the decades prior, she served in the Navy, transitioned from a man to a woman, became a sex worker, and finally taught herself how to code. Now, after all that, she's finding some balance in her life.
With balance comes the uneasy feeling that there must be a fire to put out somewhere, but also the space to process how she's gotten this far. "I get a clearer picture of how and why things came together the way that they did."
A spiritual grounding, Ross told me, is what drives her every day. "As a black trans person, I grew up in the church. And yet there was no context for exactly who I was," she said. "As I began to sort of blossom and become who I am and am meant to be, I was always being rejected in that environment. Not only rejected, but on a very deep level, my spirit being under attack. [People] saying, 'You are not worthy, you are an abomination.'"
It's a story familiar to many who've gone through a gender-nonconforming childhood, and the attacks don't always end in adulthood. Ninety percent of transgender people in the workforce have experienced harassment, mistreatment or discrimination at work, according to a 2011 survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality. They're also unemployed at twice the rate of the general population, and many — including Ross — have been fired or denied promotions because of their gender identity.
"If I could get access to the internet and a laptop, there's a lot I can do."
For Ross, STEM was a way out of the cycle of damaging internalized messages, workplace discrimination, and taking jobs that abuse or undervalue the individual. "What I discovered, and sort of stumbled on, is an alternative path: Oh, look, there's this other way around over here… That was technology," she said. "If I could get access to the internet and a laptop, there's a lot I can do."
She taught herself CSS and HTML using online classes, started taking design and coding jobs, and found a way to disrupt the cycle. Since founding TransTech, she's sought to bring those same skills to others. Her goal is to put technology into the hands of people going through a "transition" of various kinds — whether that's a full-time mother who needs to enter the workforce, someone re-entering society after being incarcerated, "or anyone leaving one part of life, to start over."
Previously, the startup offered members an office space with computers, internet, career development courses through Lynda.com, and access to the greater TransTech community. Now, they've opened a new Miami hub and focusing on building out a peer coaching program.
In 2016, Ross introduced Hillary Clinton at a campaign event, met Barack Obama, and appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. She spoke at several college campuses and spread awareness what it means to be a black trans woman and tech founder. "My heart is on display there," she said, of these appearances. "When I bring myself to those situations, my heart is welcomed to that space." Being understood, and helping other people understand each other and themselves, continues to be her proudest accomplishment.
"Everything I've done to create TransTech has been a part of a profound journey of discovering my value in an environment that tells me, from the get-go, that I have none."