By Jessica Dyer
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great Q&A with Nyika Allen, an amazing woman in tech who serves as the executive director of the New Mexico Technology Council. She is also co-founder/organizer for Girl Develop It ABQ. The women-only Girl Develop It coding and web development workshops Allen helped bring to New Mexico earlier this year have launched several women into more intensive coding programs at Central New Mexico Community College and, ultimately, new careers.
Even if you have never met Nyika Allen in person, you probably have seen her … somewhere.
She was born on the East Coast, but has lived 21 of her 26 years in Albuquerque, where she attended La Cueva High School and the University of New Mexico.
Today, as executive director of the New Mexico Technology Council, she is the force behind programs like the recent weeklong ExperienceIT series of events all around Albuquerque. She is also active with local organizations, such as Albuquerque Economic Development and the MiABQ association of young professionals.
Or maybe you recognize her from TV. She does a “Talking Tech” segment every Tuesday on the local Fox morning show.
Even Allen’s personal life has put her in the spotlight. In 2015, she became the public face in the successful fight for a New Mexico “revenge porn” law after an ex posted compromising photos of her on social media. Her story garnered local and national media attention — VICE Media’s “Broadly” channel featured her in an online documentary, an appearance that she says has elicited supportive messages from across the country.
Nobody wants to be a first-hand expert on such a subject, but Allen found a way to empower herself in the aftermath.
“I think you are so degraded, demoralized when someone does something like that to you,” Allen says. “You kind of have to find a way to take yourself back, and I think that’s what I was doing. I was like ‘Hey, instead of me just being sad on the side and letting this happen to me, I’m going to vocalize it, fight (it) and turn it around into something that will benefit other people, because I’m not going to sit here and let someone run over me.'”
Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.
A: As a teenager I was pretty shy and studious for quite a while. People that knew me from middle school used to joke with me that I’d wear my hair in this slicked-back bun every day. I had a rolly backpack and I wore this big yellow sweater. That’s pretty much how people probably recognized me from middle school. Towards the end of high school, I kind of finally found my footing in that I felt cooler, but it took a long time. (Laughs)
Q: What were your interests growing up?
A: I actually loved math and science. I was always one of those students happy to sit at the front of the classroom. … Also, I was really big into equestrian at the time. I had my own horse and spent a lot of time at the barn training horses, as well as riding my own.
Q: What was your first job?
A: It was always in fashion. I was working in local clothing stores. I actually do attribute some of my sales success and catering to people to those jobs. You really learn some important skills when you’re helping someone find what looks best on them, what they want to wear, what they want to purchase and that’s such a personal experience. I think I’ve really taken all of those skills and applied them actually pretty directly to what I do now.
Q: How did you get interested in technology?
A: I mostly attribute it to when I took an internship abroad. In college, I took an internship in Israel. … I asked them for something that had to do with fashion. That’s what I thought I wanted to do at the time. I was getting my international business degree and I was going to do international fashion. They got me an internship at a company that was an app for fashion.
When I started working with them, I was doing all the fashion pieces, because that’s what I told them I wanted to do, helping them kind of blog. Then I just fell into doing more business development work and (was) loving learning how the actual technology worked. They were a startup, too, so I loved learning about how they were fundraising for their company and how they were such entrepreneurs. I fell in love with tech entrepreneurship at that point in time. When I came back to the United States, I still had one year of school left and I decided I would work on my own tech startup.
I competed in the UNM business plan competition with a team. We did not win but, at that time, one of my judges for that competition suggested I look at an upcoming startup weekend, and maybe apply and participate in that to keep working on the idea. And that startup weekend was run by the New Mexico Technology Council. That’s kind of how I figured out who they were and what they were doing.
Q: What was your project?
A: The original idea was being able to schedule blocks of time with anyone. And then the idea changed a little bit to scheduling with service companies virtually. We would have a platform, a discount platform, where people could put last-minute appointments. With a lot of places, if they have a cancellation and can’t fill it, they lose money.
With service, you only have so many hours in the day. I felt that was really valuable. Each hour was valuable and, if they wanted someone to quickly fill the spot, they might be willing to give it away for a small discount, as well, so we would populate a site with last-minute (options). Me, as the consumer, some days, I would be like “I have two hours right now to spare. I could easily fill this time with getting my nails done or getting a massage” or “Shoot, I have this party to go to and I really don’t want to do my hair, but it’s today.” That used to frequently happen to me. (Laughs)
Q: Did that ever come to anything?
A: Not really. I was kind of just learning the ropes, trying to figure out what it would take to own and run your own company, and how you would build the software and how would I raise money. I just started getting some of those ideas. And I was working on the idea — the first part of the idea for about nine months and the second part of the idea for another eight months — and then I got hired away. My mom said, “You really do need to find a job. We’re not going to keep paying for you forever.”
Q: There’s a lot of players and support organizations around Albuquerque’s startup and entrepreneur scene. What do you see as the New Mexico Technology Council’s role?
A: Really, the Technology Council (which has 160 members and a $200,000 annual budget) is built for established businesses. We represent our constituents; we provide networking and educational opportunities for them; we can help them find talent. We can help push policies that are good for our technology businesses. … If someone is an early, budding entrepreneur that needs a lot of assistance getting their company off the ground, I would definitely recommend they go to one of our partner companies, like go talk to FatPipe ABQ or the BioScience Center, go talk to ABQid or TVC.
We’re not taking their market. They are some of our best partners, and we love to partner with them and support entrepreneurs, and we do a lot of entrepreneurial support through our events. … We do host a lot of things that are relevant (and) I might be able to connect them or help them with stuff, but we’re not an organization built for entrepreneurs. The majority of our businesses are small to medium-sized businesses between two and less than 100 employees.
Q: What do you think defines the tech community here?
A: I think, historically, we’ve been known for our national labs, and that is wonderful, but it’s also changing a little bit, too. I think we have a really vibrant technology community and it’s growing — and it’s growing in a multidisciplinary fashion where we actually have manufacturing happening here, we have people working on companies related to optics and photonics. We do have maybe a lot of lab spinouts and high-tech stuff, but we’re also seeing more SAS companies here — software as a service — which is an awesome model you might see more in like a Silicon Valley.
Q: As a young entrepreneurial-type person, have you considered moving elsewhere?
A: I certainly have considered it. I adore my job and this community. My reasoning for leaving would actually more be that I’ve never really left before. I’ve left for an internship abroad or lots of traveling, but I’ve never lived full-time (somewhere else) without a definite point of coming home to New Mexico. I feel like, for me, that is an important experience I need to have at some point in my life, trying something different, learning about maybe … how people work differently in business in different states. I think there’s a lot I can learn from those opportunities but, at the same time, I adore this community. I love living here. I think New Mexico will always be home for me. I don’t really plan to leave any time soon, I just think it would be a good and important experience for me to have, and I think the cool thing about New Mexico, too, is you can always come back.
Q: Who are your professional mentors?
A: A lot of my board members. I got really lucky to have such a close board, and a board that really supports me and my goals for the organization. Lisa Adkins, my chairwoman, she’s been a huge supporter of me since day one, and she’s mentored me. A lot of my incredible board members, Mark Fidel, Sam Dickey, they’re all really wonderful, supportive mentors.
In school actually (at University of New Mexico), Stacy Sacco was one of my teachers. … I met him and we just clicked from the first minute, and he really showed me how to network. He helped shape me and my community involvement, as well. … Of course, my mom has always been a huge, huge mentor to me. For a long time, she was a single mom. We thought she worked too much, and didn’t care about us and stuff like that, but now that I am where I am today, I think if my mom was not as hard-working or maybe stayed home with me, I might not be the same, driven person I am today. I think a lot of it came from just me watching her and watching her work so hard for herself, for her kids and for her job, and for what she believed in. She’s always been also hugely inspiring to me.
Q: What are your pet peeves?
A: When people say that they’re going to do something and don’t. I run a lot of events, so when people sign up for an event the day of, it really (irritates me), or even a couple days before. People don’t realize we have to send in our counts a week in advance. Commit.
Q: Do you have any strange quirks or superstitions?
A: My strangest quirk is that I literally can’t sit still. I am one of the most fidgety people I have ever met. Some of it has to do with the fact I legitimately have this central tremor and it makes me move a little bit, but I also think, having that, I now do a lot more fidgeting even than I need to do. … Sitting still is not something I do well.
Q: What is one food you can’t live without?
A: I love food in general, but I probably would say sushi.
Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
A: Ice cream. My boyfriend took a terrible picture of me the other day because I was leaving Walgreens with just six boxes of ice cream in my arms and nothing else. He was like, “This is getting to be a little bit too much. You’re a little obsessed.”
Q: Describe yourself in three words?
A: Positive, determined and passionate.
Born Nyika Alexandra Allen on July 30, 1990, in Baltimore, but has lived in Albuquerque since age 5; bachelor’s of business administration from University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management; not married and no kids; three dogs: Winston, a dachshund/corgi; Brando, a boxer/pit bull; and Lima, a Chinese shar-pei.
Executive director of the New Mexico Technology Council since 2015; co-founder/organizer for Girl Develop It ABQ; president of Nyika.TV; board member for Albuquerque Economic Development and MiABQ; vice chair of ACI’s entrepreneurship committee.
DID YOU KNOW?
–Allen’s first name has African origins. Her parents were doing public health research in Malawi, where there is a plateau named Nyika. “They just thought it was the most beautiful place in the world, so they named me after it,” she says.
–A voracious traveler, Allen has already visited 20 countries: Canada, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Peru, Portugal, Spain, England, France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, China, India, Australia and Jordan.
–The women-only Girl Develop It coding and web development workshops Allen helped bring to New Mexico earlier this year have launched several women into more intensive coding programs at Central New Mexico Community College and, ultimately, new careers. “We’ve had like five or six of them graduate from that program and are now working as full-time web developers,” she says. “If that’s not a success, I don’t know what is.”