My incredible journey to myself

Senior Program Manager Estera Kot overcame discrimination and cultural barriers to achieve her dreams of love, acceptance, and creating health-care solutions.

My approach to life from an early age was, “I will manage and I will figure out how to do it.” Growing up as a child of farmers in Popielawy, Poland, I had to work on the farm with my father from an early age, doing what I considered at the time, men’s work. We were also Catholic, and I remember receiving money from family and friends after my First Communion. My parents used the money to buy farming equipment, but eventually they agreed to buy me a personal computer. So, I started using a computer at age 9, and by age 12, I had already programmed my first website. 

When I turned 16, I left home to start my own life in the city. I relied on my computer skills, doing video editing and freelance programming, to earn money. It was a time when not many companies had websites, so I followed the trends and jumped on them.  

At the time, I was living in an apartment with an old lady who allowed me to rent a room for pennies because I was helping out around the house. Reading books on her shelves piqued my interest in pursuing higher education. I ended up moving to Warsaw to study electrical engineering and computer science. During my studies, I was fortunate to receive a scholarship for women in technology and I moved to Oregon – right outside of Portland – for a three-month internship.  It was my first time experiencing people of different cultures, skin colors, and gender orientations. I had known that I was a lesbian, but hadn’t spoken about it. After three months in Oregon, I was an out lesbian.  

After returning to Poland, I knew I wanted something more for my life. I wanted to push my brain and my capabilities, and also push my heart towards more compassion and empathy. I tried to get my manager to be more supportive of my goals, but after he suggested I focus on finding a husband and taking a mortgage in Poland, I quit and started working for SONY and then for Procter & Gamble, which led to Microsoft eventually finding me. It took seven years of working step by step to obtain my visa, but I am now living in Redmond, Washington.  

Opinions like my former managers are very dangerous. In 2015 when the LGBT movement in Poland was getting started, our very right-wing government declared that LGBT people are not people. Add to that we don’t have many radio or TV stations, and the ones we do have are controlled by the government. There are even cities that are LGBT-free zones, meaning people like me are not welcome there. So, for instance, I’ve never held my wife’s hand or kissed her in public in Poland. And because same-sex marriage and civil unions do not exist in Poland, my now-wife and I had to travel to Austria to marry legally. The ceremony was super spontaneous and completely in German, which neither of us spoke, but we did it!  

After a recent health scare, I decided to open up more to my colleagues at Microsoft. It was a turning point where I started to build even more trust in my team and in turn, they felt more respect for me. With that camaraderie, my teammates and I decided to submit an idea to a global hackathon under the healthcare category. With a team of 23 people, we had the idea to develop MR EYE, a data processing platform designed to identify brain tumors. It’s something I’m really passionate about and wanted for patients, so I put a lot of research into developing the platform. Then, Microsoft got on board and connected with healthcare directors to push our idea further and build a strong trusted team to bring the idea to life. This wouldn’t have happened without team members supporting each other. It wouldn’t have happened without inclusion.

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