THE SPIRIT OF REINVENTION.
Reinventing yourself is a hard thing. Detroit has been doing it since the beginning when the first French fur traders pulled their canoes ashore at a convenient narrow spot in the Detroit River. And again, when the city birthed the wonders of mass production. And stepped up as the Arsenal of Democracy. And inspired the signature Motown sound that moved a nation.
Sometimes it’s fortunate. Like Motown, a turn for the better. But more often than not, as many Detroiters know, it can be a rough road. And when it happens to be something as massive as a city, sometimes it’s easy to divorce yourself from the realities. To step back into your own world and let change chart its own course.
But personal reinvention, that’s when the stakes and the toil and the possibilities really hit home. In the case of Marlin G. Williams, founder of Sisters Code, a moment of personal reinvention spurred a revolution that, even now, reverberates throughout Detroit.
Today, Detroiters know her as many things: Former Global Diversity and Inclusion Officer for two Fortune 500 companies. Former Deputy Chief Information Officer for the city of Detroit, where she led technology integration for Super Bowl XL. Human Resource Executive. Technology Entrepreneur. STEM advocate. And, most recently, the powerhouse behind Sisters Code, an organization dedicated to empowering women 25-85 by providing them the tools they need to re-career into technology fields.
But her path didn’t start that way. For Marlin, just like her hometown, reinvention would become a recurring theme. After graduating from Cass Tech, she followed her heart to USC in California, striving towards a singing career alongside the likes of James Ingram and Montell Jordan. But after two years of trying, she realized something.
“I would just kind of go around and do talent shows, and after a while, I knew that I would be in school forever if I didn't go back home.”
Returning to Detroit and changing course with a degree from Wayne State, 25-year-old Marlin pursued a new career as a mortician until fate intervened.
“I was an aspiring mortician, working at two funeral homes in Detroit. Then a classmate told me about a program through the Compuware Corporation where, if you had a college degree, they would teach you to program in seven languages in 13 weeks.”
Open to change, she took a leap of faith.
“I didn't know what programming was. But it offered more money than I was making at the funeral home. So I just jumped in and committed to learning how to do it. It was one of the best — and hardest — experiences of my life. I considered quitting almost every day because my programs just wouldn’t work, but I kept going back.”
Coding opened doors to the corporate and governmental world, and she was soon on a path to success that seemed right at the time. But her rapid growth was suddenly stunted by both an unexpected job loss and a divorce, turning the long-awaited smooth road rough once again.
“I was at the height of my career. I had the most beautiful home. My daughter was in a private school… It was like a fairytale. Then life knocked me not on my knees, but on my back. I remember waking up every day not knowing what to do. But then I remembered something my father told me; he said, ‘everything you ever need... You have it inside of you. You’ve just forgotten that.’”
Discovering renewed strength from within, bolstered by positive affirmations from without, Marlin set her sights on a new path.
“I was like, ‘I’m better than this. I don't have to live this way.’ But I was also suffering from my network being tied to my self-worth. I was struggling and thought people were talking about me. So I had to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be, regardless of what other people might say. Had I not persevered through that, I would never be where I am now... And I don’t think Sisters Code would have been born, either.”
Digging deep, she drew on her past reinventions and the strength she learned as a latchkey kid growing up in Detroit.
“It’s important to persevere because when you think it’s over, it’s not — you might be just one step away from walking into greatness. One phone call could change your life. But you have to keep your mind open.”
That mindset would ultimately pay dividends. Utilizing her experience learning code, teaching programming and championing the cause of women and minorities in the corporate word, Marlin discovered a new path in a place she least expected.
“I was on a panel called ‘Education 2.0 for Americans 2.0.’ At the end of the session, they said, “what are you going to do to bridge the gender gap in tech?” I knew I wanted to be a part of that but didn’t know how. I thought of the name Sisters Code, which is cool, but that was as far as I got. But then I got on stage, and I said, ‘I'm going to start Sisters Code, and we're going to empower women ages 25 and older to learn to code.’ That was it. I got off stage, and so many people wanted to talk to me about my vision and what I wanted to do and how to get help. And that kind of made me accountable — at that moment I knew I had to do it.”
With that, Sisters Code was born, and today it’s changing lives far beyond the ones and zeroes.
Marlin recalls fondly, “One girl told me, ‘You don't understand. The first day of class, I was going through a horrible divorce in order to leave a very abusive relationship. And to walk into that room with all these women who are empowering one another… It wasn't even about coding for me at the time — it was just special to be in a place where you're like, whoa, this really matters.’”
With over 300 women empowered by Sisters Code so far, Marlin sees another kind of reinvention for Detroit ahead.
“I think the narrative is going to change around who people think we are. I think that as far as technology is concerned... And it's already happening... Detroit is going to be a force to be reckoned with.”