Microsoft’s Superhero

Shy Averett is using her platform to increase digital equity—and do much more

When she was 11 years old, Shy Averett told her mother that she wanted to do something to help people. Her mother was encouraging, telling her, “Superheroes are not always the people you see on TV. They can be folks who simply go out and help somebody.” A year later, Averett told her mom that she wanted to join the NAACP and Urban League branches in Michigan. When her mother asked her why, she said, “Because I want to be a superhero.”

Like a superhero, she shot right to the top. Averett served in a number of leadership positions at the NAACP, including president of the Detroit Youth Council while still in middle school. She was a state delegate at age 14, with responsibility for organizing the state conference along with older high school students and college students. At 16, she was elected to the national board of directors, becoming its youngest delegate ever.

Today, Averett is Microsoft’s global senior community program and events manager, overseeing a team of more than 80 people responsible for creating programs and opportunities for members of underrepresented communities across the United States—and in Canada, Australia, and Europe. Their work focuses on a range of issues, including digital equity and basic needs, like school shoes and backpacks.

Over her entire career, Averett has been laser-focused, intentionally choosing opportunities where she could do the most good. After graduating from the University of Toledo, the Detroit native became the regional community field director for the nonprofit Midwest Youth Advocacy Program. There, she led over 15,000 youth and college students from across the country, creating and executing community initiatives in education, social activism, and financial empowerment. A few career moves later, she accepted her role at Microsoft.

In 2017, Averett was the driving force behind the creation of Microsoft’s MANCODE program, which helps underrepresented minority boys grow a passion for STEM-related careers. By the end of 2020, almost 70,000 young men across the United States had gone through the program.

Averett has been recognized for her many accomplishments and her dedication to youth programming. In 2016, she was the recipient of the National Leadership Award from PepsiCo. Other prominent awards include the Microsoft Rich Walker International Employee of the Year Award, the State of Michigan Youth of the Year Award, and the Presidential Award for Community Excellence.

Averett regularly volunteers for Big Brothers Big Sisters, Special Olympics, Boys and Girls Clubs, Christ Child House, VIP Mentoring, Urban Link Village, Detroit Impact, Coalition on Temporary Shelter, and Covenant House.

Diversity Woman: Your early involvement with the NAACP is unusual. Why did you choose to join that organization when you were 12 years old?

Shy Averett: From a very early age, my mother would tell you I was the helper. I didn’t even know I was helping, but if she couldn’t find me, she would know I was doing something to help someone somewhere. When I was around 10 or 11, I told her I wanted to do more to help people.

I had a classmate who was involved in the NAACP, and it seemed like the best place to make the most impact at the time. We began by feeding people who were food insecure. Every month, my friends and I would get together, cooking in our kitchen, and then we would go downtown to deliver food—not only to homeless shelters but to people on the street. That was the start. The NAACP has been part of my life as a volunteer or staff for 20-some years.

DW: What attracted you to the job at Microsoft?

SA: I was at an NAACP conference and the speaker was so amazing that afterward there was a line of easily 200 young people. He was talking about some of his childhood trauma, how he healed, how he got over it. Kids were crying. I was like, “Oh, my gosh. This is so amazing.” Our workshop was about to start, and I will never forget this—one of the directors came and was like, “Shut this [conversation] down. The kids need to be in the workshop.” And I’m like, “No, I get we want them to learn about criminal justice, but they’re hurting. They are in a line crying and trying to get help.” And that was the defining moment for me.

So, I began looking for something else where I could have more impact. And at the very same time, an email landed in my inbox. It was like something out of a movie. It was Microsoft reaching out. It had a community space where the company was giving free workshops and working closely with the community. The job at first was focusing on Detroit, a city I love. I am also a tech geek, and I already loved Microsoft and its products.

DW: Was the job what you wanted and expected?

SA: About three months in, I said to myself, much of this is good, such as coding classes for kids—but this is not what Detroit really needs. So I went to my supervisor and said, “I’d like to do more for these kids. They need help in a more fundamental way.” She told me go for it. I began devising programs from there on out. For example, I organized a drive for kids in foster homes and foster care facilities. We also did a backpack drive at a local mall. Eventually we had more than 1,100 kids come out!

DW: Over time, your job expanded from focusing on Detroit to including the rest of the country. How do you identify the underrepresented communities you work with?

SA: We are super intentional. We want to make sure we touch as many underrepresented communities and students as possible. So we begin with identifying the Title I schools [federally funded schools], which are the schools that have the fewest resources. Then, we go to those cities and communities. For example, in advance of Hispanic Heritage Month, we identified 150 schools across the country where Spanish is the first language and where over 70 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latinx.

DW: Tell us about the MANCODE program you launched at Microsoft.

SA: When I was in Detroit, we started the MANCODE program, which is probably the program I’m the most proud of. The focus in this kind of digital equity work tends to be more on girls. At the time, we were doing a girls’ coding class, and a young boy came up to me and said, “You’re the lady from Microsoft.” And I said, “I am.” And he asked, “What are you doing here?” And I told him we were running a girls’ coding class. He said, “Why is it that every time you come here, you only do things for the girls? You never do anything for young boys.” And he told me that he had never gotten a chance to use a computer. I thought initially I was just going to do something for him. But as I began doing research, I learned that the percentage of women in the tech industry was low, around 20 percent, and that the figure for Black and Brown boys was more like 2 percent.

DW: What advice would you give young leaders who have ideas about how to make change—to be a change engine—but are hesitant to act or fearful of how their actions will be received?

SA:  First of all, do it. Because here’s the thing: you’ve got two options. Do nothing and everything stays exactly the same. But if you act, worst-case scenario, you say something and then no one does anything. You haven’t lost anything. But what if you saying something is the thing that makes somebody say, “Huh,” and that revelation leads to positive change? You don’t have to have all the answers. Nobody does. DW

BY JACKIE KRENTZMAN

 



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