Angelica Ross is determined. You can see her resolve in the groundbreaking FX series Pose, in which Ross plays Candy, an outspoken transgender woman commanding respect in the 1980s-inspired New York ballroom scene. The grittiness and streetsmarts required to make it in this cutthroat fictional world aligns with Ross’s real-life survival as a Black transgender woman.
The Wisconsin native brings the same strength to the cisgender, white male-dominated tech industry as the founder and CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises, an incubator that offers tech training to underserved LGBTQ communities “with a focus on economically empowering” transgender men and women.
“Technology seems to be this interesting generic, general sort of fertilizer for growth in the sense that no matter who you are, what type of plant or flower you are, technology can help you grow into whatever it is you’re meant to be,” she told Motherboard in an interview.
That growth can be stagnant when it comes to fostering inclusive environments in tech. In the 2018 Atlassian State of Diversity and Inclusion in U.S. Tech report, a survey of 1,500 tech workers across the country and 400 in Silicon Valley, 80 percent of respondents agreed that diversity and inclusion is important. But less than 30 percent of underrepresented groups had representation, retention, and a sense of belonging at their tech companies.
Perhaps even more startling was that more than 40 percent of companies believe their inclusion of people from underrepresented groups needed no improvement.
Ross’s journey into tech is a testament to her belief that “our greatest resource is ourselves.” When she was 17, she enlisted in the Navy hoping to “toughen up” and cope with her gender identity and feeling like a disappointment to her mother. Serving under the former Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, Ross’s naval career didn’t last long. Following an "uncharacterized" discharge from the Navy, Ross began her transition.
“Technology was the key to my freedom”
Many of her jobs were short-lived after employers found out that she was born a male, she told us. Eventually, she used her body as a means for survival, and became a model for an adult website. The owner took notice of her tech skills, and she found herself working on the backend, editing photos and refreshing the website.
“Technology was the key to my freedom,” Ross said. “Technology took me from being exploited on someone’s website to building my own websites and to building websites for other people and getting paid to do so.”
Ross credits her early tech skills to the video education website Lynda.com, where she binge-watched videos in every category from negotiating a salary to learning CSS and HTML.
She dedicated years to growing her skills as a self-taught coder and businesswoman.
“I saw it [tech] as a way for the most marginalized in our community to, without judgement, give themselves an opportunity to transition into something better, whether that is getting off of the streets and into a hotel room or getting out of physical sex work and into digital sex work.”
Ross’s resourcefulness and determination led to a positive shift in her life, but she knew there were other sex workers who wouldn’t have the same fate. She set out to develop a safe space where trans people are trained to compete in the digital economy. In 2014, her advocacy led her to create TransTech. Within a year, she was invited to speak about her mission at the White House LGBTQ Tech and Innovation Summit.
“Sometimes it helps to have a mentor or a coach and other support resources that know the unique challenges for you in that space. That is something that is organically coming out of the community at TransTech,” Ross said.
It’s free to join TransTech. Members gain access to educational and career workshops, the company’s co-working space in Chicago, and the non-profit’s Slack channel, which has about 200 members who connect over job leads, trainings, and shared experiences.
“What we learn as trans people is how to use what we have and make it work”
TransTech also partners with other companies and organizations, such as Groupon and PayPal, to host the annual TransTech Summit, this year taking place on October 20. Ross said it’s a challenge to know which companies are really committed to creating diverse work spaces and those which use it as a buzzword. She looks for allies who go beyond just hiring trans and non-binary folks—making sure the environment is one in which they can grow, have access to leadership positions, and have a supportive community.
Ross said TransTech Social’s slow growth in the last four years was due in part to a lack of funding, and pushback from potential donors. According to “The Real Unicorns of Tech: Black Founders Women” report by digitalundivided, Black women-led startups accounted for .0006 percent of the $424.7 billion in total tech venture funding raised since 2009.
“I’m a trans executive,” Ross said. “Who else is a trans executive? Or an LGBTQ executive working in mostly white spaces? It was very hard for non-Black people within our LGBT community and other non-Black leaders to have a Black trans woman as a boss and to take my lead.”
Ross is also a lifelong performer; in 2016, she landed a leading role in the digital series Her Story, which follows the lives of transgender women in Los Angeles. She later appeared on Transparent. Ross admits that being able to “pass” as a cisgender woman and experience privilege sometimes gave her an upper hand in the job market, but it’s also held her back.
“Passing has its privileges. But it’s also in some ways a prison in the sense that you have to stay within certain bounds, which means you can’t necessarily bring all the things of yourself to the table,” Ross said.
With Pose there are no bounds. Ross is one of five transgender actors on the show. She said portraying Candy makes room for her authentic self.
“What we learn as trans people is how to use what we have and make it work…and that’s basically what I did,” she said. “So many times people removed their support thinking that my whole operation would crumble. But I would do this interesting Matrix move where I would bend and stand right back up.That was a skill that I learned—being able to bend without breaking.”
Ross said her journey in tech and Hollywood shouldn’t be viewed as a blueprint, but more of a spiritual roadmap for others to realize their dream, whatever it may be. Her advice? To be determined, of course. “You may not be the tallest, the prettiest, the smartest, the most whatever, but you can find something to be excellent at.”
This piece is part of a series of stories produced in partnership with The Plug.