Van Richardson may be the poster child of success when it comes to learning by doing. With a background in business and over 20 years of experience in IT, Richardson is now the director of technical operations at GrubHub.
Richardson’s love of computers began when he was a child. Like a lot of kids in the 80s and 90s, he got his early introduction to technology courtesy of graphing calculators. “I started off on a Texas Instruments calculator,” Richardson said of how he fell in love with computers. “As a kid, I took a computer with me everywhere I went. It’s just been exciting because I’ve been able to expand.”
The two-time Capella university graduate tinkered with developing technology during his early years in college and realized he had a knack for fixing computers, courtesy of his non-tech savvy friends who called on him for troubleshooting assistance.
“It came naturally,” he said. “I was in the right position to be able to play with computers and [I] just stuck with it.”
Those positions ended up being relatively high profile. In 1997, Richardson served as Citi’s senior PC LAN Administrator. Despite picking up a lot of on-the-job experience in IT, when he returned to the classroom, he opted for an MBA. According to Richardson, the lack of formal education in IT was all part of a grand plan.
“I was able to pick up a lot by hand, but the MBA education has put me on a trajectory to be a global leader.”
Richardson considers his lack of formal IT training an asset. His climb to the top was never hindered by his choice to forgo a formal IT degree. He credits his ability to sell himself for being able to kick down doors that would normally be closed to those without the prerequisite educational requirements for jobs.
“The interesting thing is being able to explain [my experience],” he stated. “I’ve always been open about it. I also partnered with people in tech and that helped open doors for me to gain more exposure. Now, having over twenty years experience — it just sort of comes out when I talk.”
Mentoring and opening doors for others are a passion point for Richardson these days. As a senior executive, he realizes bridging gaps and building bridges are the keys to diversity and inclusion. In a position as a decision maker, Richardson recalls a recent episode of extending an opportunity and potentially changing a life.
“There’s a gentleman who interviewed for a position I had last week,” he began. “Young African-American guy. He’s in a STEM program and his mom told me it wasn’t going to work. But I was impressed with how the young man presented himself and I extended an offer. I saw the opportunity and I wanted to make sure others get the opportunity to get not only where I am but further.”
While the next generation of black IT professionals will have more than a few familiar faces to look to as a source of inspiration, Richardson climbed the ladder and sat at tables where he was either the only one in the room or the only one in the room that looked like him with his status. Overcoming those hurdles and recognizing the value he brought to the organizations that employed him proved key to his success.
“I was always afraid of someone knowing more and then being embarrassed if it was found out, he said, describing imposter syndrome. “In my previous roles and this one, I’ve been the highest African-American. I’ve gotten more comfortable but it’s always me taking a step back and assessing the situation to make sure I know what impact I have on the organization.”
A key first step was simply admitting that he didn’t know it all, and he didn’t try to pretend otherwise.
“I wasn’t afraid to say I didn’t know. I asked for help. I did some internal learning to make sure I was at least ready to have a seat at that table.”
Richardson’s words are measured and thoughtful. When we talk about how young Black professionals can make it in the tech industry, or any industry for that matter, he offers concrete steps over motivational statements.
“The important thing is being willing to learn,” he begins. “Always ask questions and help others. As much IT training as there is on the Internet, you can get an entry level job and then partner with others in the business. You can’t be afraid to enter into an area where you don’t know everything. Pick up a book or go to a seminar.”
Microaggressions, sexism and racism can sometimes dominate discussions among black professionals on social media and other community spaces, but Richardson has professional life hacks for navigating those hurdles as well.
“Not seeing anyone in the room is not necessarily a bad thing. You have to do an assessment of your organization and also look at community groups that will help you get a seat at the table faster. Use social media like LinkedIn; that’s how you start to break those barriers.”
Through social media and the web, Richardson is walking the walk. He is accessible online but also plans to extend his influence into the community to serve as an example for those coming behind him.
“I feel that I need to do more. Speaking engagements, visiting schools or mentoring. You have to show students that you can be successful in tech. You don’t have to do a less important job, you have to show kids that they can climb the ladder if they’re willing to go to school, learn and work with people.”