Democratizing technology, according to Nate
A journey shaped by mentors and a view into the company’s culture led Nate Yohannes to Microsoft to help democratize technology
To understand Nate Yohannes’s journey, you must start in Eritrea.
In the Horn of Africa, the country’s evolving political climate fueled a struggle for democracy in the 30-year Eritrean War for Independence. Taking up arms to break down social injustice, a young peasant herder named Tes Yohannes, Yohannes’s father, became a freedom fighter in 1978. As he walked alongside compatriots with similar fates, Tes Yohannes stepped on one of the region’s innumerable landmines and was blinded in one eye as a result. Despite this life-changing injury, Tes Yohannes held strong to his belief in democracy, equality, and self-autonomy. He passed these values to his son, who would grow up to put them to work lessening disparities between the haves and the have-nots.
Born and raised in the United States during the 1980s, Yohannes wanted to be Ronald Reagan or a lawyer when he grew up. In that order. “I would hold a broom and give these speeches as if I was Reagan, and my parents knew that their son was (a) a dork and (b) a little too ambitious for his age,” he said.
Yohannes’s lawyerly ambitions were more grounded in reality, as his family’s entry to the United States was sponsored by a lawyer named Peter Oddleifson. Upon arriving, the Yohanneses lived with Oddleifson for weeks and remained close for years to come.
“He became a second dad to me. He’s our family superhero. He’s the one that led the legal agreements and helped us establish life here in the United States,” Yohannes said.
Early in youth, the guidance of mentors began to shape Yohannes’s conscience. What he didn’t know is where that guidance would one day lead him.
An alternative route appears
Yohannes’s childhood held the imprints of a fellow human’s generosity, a gift that followed him to the University at Buffalo School of Law in New York, where he studied human rights and immigration. During his studies, he received the Barbara and Thomas Wolfe Human Rights Fellowship to clerk at the Monroe County, New York, Public Defender’s office. Later, he went on to clerk for the chief justice of the New York Supreme Court, Eighth District. His public service was underway.
Near the end of his post-graduate work, he received some interesting advice from a Buffalo law alumnus—a former advisor to former US President Jimmy Carter. The advisor told Yohannes that although his aspirations to support the disenfranchised were well founded, Yohannes might make more of an impact by taking a different route to advocacy. The advisor saw in Yohannes the potential for big success equaled by a propensity for deep compassion—a combination that could position him well for a career in the private sector. Through that career, he could lift up individuals into opportunity.
It’s a rare person who can champion others with the same fervor as they do themselves, but Yohannes knows no other way.
“Help others—professionally and personally. The ability to learn and perform will eventually cap you, [so] you have to be able to work with other people. That will enable you to rise professionally,” he said. “We are in a people business. Life is personal.”
After he graduated law school, Yohannes set off for Washington, DC, where he became the assistant general counsel of the Money Management Institute, a trade group that represents the financial industry. There, Yohannes reestablished a nonprofit called Gateway to Leadership, designed to recruit the best and brightest undergraduate women and minorities to take internships at big investment banks.
“Although we were working in the securities space representing the Goldman Sachs of the world, that compassion of continuing to help was through a different route, by economic empowerment—by bringing those who are not at the table to lucrative industries and uplift folks,” he said.
In the coming years, Yohannes took opportunities that led him to some of the bedrock names in finance, industry, and entrepreneurial ventures. Always searching for ways to outsmart systematic barriers to social equality, in 2016 Yohannes found himself in a chance Uber ride that proved providential.
Doors open, literally
At the time, Yohannes was working for former US President Barack Obama’s administration as senior advisor to the head of the Office of Investments and Innovation. A work trip took him to San Francisco, where he was tasked with promoting women venture capital opportunities at the NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center. He used a rideshare app to carpool to an engagement and met Ana White, general manager of Human Resources at Microsoft.
What followed was an unexpected conversation between the Uber driver, White, and Yohannes—an organic connection that turned out to be Yohannes’s gateway to a job at Microsoft. White wasn’t the first leader to recognize Yohannes’s singular depth of character and his ability to adapt and grow. Yohannes, too, was intrigued by conversations with Sarah Richmond, senior director of Business Development, and Priya Priyadarshini, director of Human Resources, and was drawn to the cultural shift that was occurring at Microsoft.
After those interactions, Yohannes went through a series of Microsoft interviews where he met like-minded people who, Yohannes says, “advocate for economic equality through the use of technology.”
It wasn’t an immediate life change, though. Even as Yohannes decided to pursue other work, he kept thinking about the energizing meetings he had and couldn’t get Microsoft out of his mind. Meanwhile, the people he had met at Microsoft stayed connected with him and were interested in what he was up to. It was clear to him that Microsoft believed in Yohannes and his value, shaped by all the experiences he had and the drive to effect change that kept him moving forward.
Finally, inspired by the thought leadership and impressed by how Microsoft had engaged and followed up with him, Yohannes joined the company nine months later as director of business development on the Office and Artificial Intelligence team. In part because of Microsoft’s unique culture and the ways that he says employees evangelized for the company and the opportunities he could pursue there, Yohannes found his calling in the world’s next platform for freedom: technology.
Nothing remains status quo in a revolution
Democratizing technology, according to Yohannes, originated in Microsoft when it brought computing to the individual level, not just the enterprise level. Today, it has evolved into a pivotal tool for the marginalized. In this new era of digital redlining, there are blockers to connectivity around the globe. In some parts of the United States, students who rely on technology to complete homework assignments sit outside of fast food restaurants that offer internet connection. In response, Microsoft just launched its Rural Broadband Initiative, offering rural connectivity at affordable prices. Freedom comes in the form of access to knowledge and access to technology, something Yohannes never loses sight of.
Yohannes champions transparency for every citizen—through shared media, language translation, medical technology, educational resources, and communication. Democratizing technology, says Yohannes, means “empowering human beings from the human rights level to the e-commerce level. It’s allowing tech to hit every corner of Earth to uplift society.”
He knows personally the roadblocks that language barriers can bring; he says his parents’ potential wasn’t unleashed until they could speak English in their new country. Currently, he’s delivering services to an AI product called MS Language Translator, which allows people to speak in their native language and have it immediately translated in real time. This is the type of work in tech that amplifies human ingenuity and improves livelihoods.
Connectivity, education, and diverse representation in the digital world are now the focus of the industry’s humanitarian goals. However, in a relatively short time, there will be a different kind of disparity in society—a gap between those who are trained in tech and the demand for those workers. Yohannes sees this deficit as another opportunity to level the playing field. Through a connection from his White House days, Yohannes’s office just hosted a nonprofit called Code2040, which empowers women and minorities to code with the goal of narrowing the gap by 2040.
What started as a concrete battle in Eritrea has paved the way for an abstract, yet equally relevant, defense of the have-nots. In Yohannes’s vocational coming-of-age, he discovered his responsibility in the new world order. With a profession built upon the foundation of his parents’ ethos, he says “I am most proud of having them as my parents.” For a family that radiates this ethos of equity for all, it’s hard to believe that they are banned from returning to their homeland because of his father’s vocal stance against the dictator in power—a former comrade. Yohannes hadn’t met his extended family, trapped in Eritrea, until adulthood, when technology reunited them through Facebook and Skype. Ultimately, there is justice in knowing that individuals will connect and opportunity will increasingly arise from the cloud.
Yohannes nurtures this hope, his family’s hope, for “moral integrity, humility, that passion to make everything human.”