Aminatou Sow discusses her extraordinary journey that took her from Africa to Texas, from a job in a toy store to Google to co-host of one of today’s most brilliant podcasts, Call Your Girlfriend.
Some people like to make proclamations, rules and assumptions about the way the world works, the way the world is, and the way they think the world will always be—or more accurately, should always be. Thank god there are people like Aminatou Sow to solidly prove them wrong.
For Sow, questioning the world at large began at a young age. Hailing from Guinea and raised in Nigeria, as a teenager she had the realization that her engineer mother was a genius, and was in fact smarter than her father—yet it was her mother who stayed home, which vexed Sow. Though her parents maintained a conservative Muslim household, in many ways they bucked tradition and assumption, foregoing genital mutilation for Sow and her sister, and instilling in their daughters that they could do and succeed at anything the boys around them could. That, no doubt, helped plant the seeds for what would come.
From afar, Sow looked out at the United States and saw possibility. Her father was the only black man around her with an office job, but she’d turn on the television and see upper middle class black families on U.S. sitcoms. She set her sights on the the country, and managed to convince her parents to send her to a small American boarding school. She sharpened her accent by studying shows like Daria and the universe that MTV and VH1 brought to her. And after graduating, she left for the U.S., and arguably went all-in at the most American of states: She enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin. There, she studied government, akin to her diplomat parents.
Alongside the rest of those in her generation, when she graduated in 2007, she emerged into a world that was breaking down. The global financial crisis had begun. She detoured to her family living in Belgium as she sought an American Visa—before deciding to move to Washington, D.C., to fully immerse herself in the job hunt as the clock counted down on her days in her adoptive country. Conventional wisdom holds that one must obtain a stately professional job after school, especially in a town as status-driven as D.C.—but Sow took a gig at a toy store. She had bills to pay.
Tradition further held that Sow would now be partaking in an arranged marriage, which her grandmothers were trying to set up for her. Faced with having to move back to Guinea, a country where she had never lived, she applied for asylum in the United States. She got it—along with a job at a think tank, followed by gigs at a PR agency and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
And then the masters of proclamation issued a decree in the form of an article that Sow and Erie Meyer both read around 2011. The gist of the piece: There weren’t any women working in tech. But Meyer worked in tech, and Sow did, too. Not only was the premise of the piece broken, but it was fractured rather insidiously, and it made both women feel invisible. So they decided to do something about it. They founded Tech LadyMafia, a listserv that sought to foster connection, networking, mentorship and successes. It worked. It grew. It blossomed careers. And it landed Sow on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Tech list, which not only brought her personal recognition, but highlighted the truth of the matter that, yes, women do indeed work in tech.
The masters of proclamation circled back. This time, a man declared to Sow that women don’t make podcasts. In reaction, Sow, alongside her best friend, the journalist Ann Friedman, launched the podcast Call Your Girlfriend in June 2014—dubbed “a podcast for long-distance besties,” produced by Gina Delvac, formerly of NPR. It’s hilarious. It’s emotional. It’s freewheeling and powerful. As a listener, you really do feel like you’re eavesdropping on—and sometimes partaking in—a conversation between Sow and Friedman; their honesty and authenticity rings true, and is inescapable. And with guests including the likes of Hillary Clinton and Cameron Esposito, and hundreds of thousands of listeners per episode, they proved that, yes, women do indeed podcast.
Sow has gone on to embody that truth in spades, hosting season 1 of Wieden + Kennedy’s On She Goes travel podcast for women of color, and State Farm’s Color Full Lives podcast. Moreover, in disproving the sexist proscribed rules, edicts and assumptions rampant in culture today, she becomes something crucially needed: An example, and a thriving one at that. A path, especially for those mired in said set of rules, looking for truth on the horizon.
Friedman and Sow are known for dubbing the phenomenon of Shine Theory. The basic tenet: Rather than feeling intimidation, insecurity or intense competition with other woman who may seem, say, dauntingly accomplished, you should befriend them. As Friedman has written, “Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.” As Sow has said, “Women are stronger when they hunt in packs.”
Which may be why we so often see a “co-” in Sow’s inspiring list of accomplishments—co-founder of Tech LadyMafia, co-founder of Call Your Girlfriend, among them. While society often proscribes the glory of singular personal achievement, especially over others, as the highest order of success, Sow champions the brilliance of the bonded pack.
She is a powerful example of the future, and what we might all strive toward: A world in which we work together, rather than hauntingly alone.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief