Jayla Williams’ passion is problem-solving, which is fortunate as the year 2020 delivered a surplus of practical problems that need solutions. The Fisk University sophomore is competing for the first time in Black Enterprise’s annual BE Smart Hackathon, hosted by American Airlines.
As part of a five-member team of Fisk tech wizards, Williams is contributing to a data-crunching project that will help airlines accommodate travelers with respiratory issues. As she explains it: “We can provide safe departure times and make sure passengers with health issues aren’t surrounded by people when they arrive at the airport.”
The effort is a creative technical adaptation to life under a pandemic designed to protect both lives and jobs – a perfect distillation of the BE Smart ethos, and a telling example of Williams’ creative spirit.
Speaking from her home in Hillsboro, Oregon, near Portland., where she distance learning her way to a degree in computer science, Jayla talked about her journey and where it might take her.
“I was born in Los Angeles, but we moved to Oregon when I was one. I have always been creative. I enjoyed art, painting, singing, playing instruments. I studied flute for seven years. I especially enjoyed writing songs. I guess I’ve always been attracted to the idea of creating something from nothing – making something just from the tools I have around me.”
At first glance, one might not see how a love for the creative arts connects a budding career in technology, but for Williams, it was a natural transition. She excelled at math and science, earning a 4.0 average in high school. College was a given, but where?
“I applied to 31 colleges and most accepted me, including Fisk. To be honest, I really wasn’t looking hard at Fisk; it was not my number one choice. Really, they chose me, offering me a full-ride scholarship.” There was another important deciding factor, aside from the financial. Williams’ older brother attended Dillard University in New Orleans and sold her on the prospect of attending an HBCU.
“I attended mostly white public schools. I never saw that as a particular problem; it was just the norm. But I became intrigued by Fisk and its history. And my brother was telling me, ‘You don’t know what you’re missing out on – learning black history outside of black history month, not feeling like the minority all the time.’ So I took a leap of faith, and I’m happy I did. I’ve made great friends at Fisk. And I’ve developed a lot. And being around, so many smart and ambitious black people has motivated me to succeed.”
Williams entered Fisk as a physics major, but a single computer course convinced her that she had found her calling. Computer science speaks to her creative spirit and analytical skills. And she knows that she’s landed on a path that leads to opportunities “to innovate and provide useful solutions.”
In the meantime, Williams has enjoyed the BE smart hack (“I’ve learned a lot, especially in the workshops”). And she’s fully engaged at Fisk, even if only remotely at the moment. “It’s challenging. I miss my friends and walking around campus.”
Living virtual has not dimmed her enthusiasm, and there is no shortage of role models. The hackathon theme of Tech Superheroes United takes its inspiration from Hollywood and comic book heroes, but Jayla gets more direct inspiration from her peers – social media influencers and YouTubers who build huge followings from small platforms. “Creative people show the way,” she said.
As she aptly put it earlier: “Making something from nothing.”