Sachi DeCou-Businesswoman, Tech Genius, Fashionista
February 3, 2017
When I walk into my Intro to Computer Programming class every other day, I have to take a minute to appreciate the awesomeness of Sachi DeCou’s outfit. On Monday she wears a fitted burgundy leather moto jacket. On Wednesday she rocks an oversized black biker jacket and flare jeans. Today, she wears a killer pair of large, circular wooden earrings, a vibrant red-orange ascot, and an asymmetrical cropped sweater with a graphic T underneath. Oh, and she consistently sports vintage-inspired heels despite being 6 feet tall. How cool is that?
A recent graduate of a design and business program at the California School of the Arts in San Francisco, DeCou learned about the position at Marin Academy through a friend of MA’s own Juliet Dana, another teacher who was looking for a job at the time. Since DeCou had just come home from overseas and was looking to settle down in the Bay Area, the position seemed perfect.
DeCou describes her MA position as “an interesting culmination of education work I’ve done in the past as well as design and creative fabrication work.” After prompting DeCou to elaborate on her work prior to coming to MA, her worldly aura is explained.
“Before this, I had started a company in Tanzania, in East Africa,” says DeCou. “We were designing solar charging kiosks, so we had worked with an organization there that had spent a lot of time working in rural energy access.”
DeCou explains the disparity between the upswing in the use of mobile phones in East Africa and the low penetration of electricity needed to use these phones.
“The goal of the project was to not only provide a small business for an entrepreneur who could provide charging services but to also introduce communities to solar power and through that access point, they would get more familiarity with the technology and ultimately be more trusting of the technology. In that part of the world, solar is one of the best and easiest ways to get access to electricity,” says DeCou.
DeCou, being one of two Americans working with a dominantly Tanzanian team, describes her day-to-day work as Director of Connectivity, a somewhat made-up title to fulfill the ample number of tasks DeCou dealt with. She did design work, product design, design research with community members, as well as daily operations. For example, she worked with the vocational school in the main city whose senior class project was to help build the units.
Along with being a specialist in all things technology, DeCou also speaks four languages: Spanish, Italian, Swahili, and English.
“For me, language has been such a communication tool. I studied some Spanish in school, Italian, I had a friend who knew Italian in the states, so I did some studies with her, but really I learned it because since I already spoke Spanish. There was enough similarity that I didn’t have as much trouble understanding things from the beginning, and then I was there for long enough that I learned Italian. Same with Swahili, where I studied it some, and then used it so, therefore, got better and better over time.”
For some, a foreign language is something that they dedicate at least four years of methodical studying to, and then strengthen their skills while abroad. For DeCou, learning not one foreign language, but several seems like second nature. Despite her vast skill set and major life accomplishments executed at a very young age, DeCou is refreshing in her humility.
“It was interesting because my Swahili ended up being very functional, for example, I would know the word for ‘hinges’, but not necessarily other words that you would use on a regular basis because I needed to know that word. It was very much a working language for me, so I had the communication skills to do the work that I needed to do. But I can definitely get around and negotiate,” said DeCou.
DeCou, having travelled and spent time in Italy, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and Tanzania, reflects on her travels with modesty and virtue, “It’s nice because [travelling] lets me bring in all the different pieces from different learning experiences in my life, and I like sharing that with people.”
Working internationally has always been a part of DeCou’s life. She would spend a few years working overseas only to come back to the realization that she wanted to focus her energies back in the US, which is a main reason she is currently back in the Bay.
“Yeah, it’s been an interesting transition. Yeah, I do [miss it]. It’s hard in the sense that I have lots of friends and colleagues there, being a foreigner, you meet a lot of other foreigners so I have friends that live all over the world,” says DeCou. “When I was in Tanzania, various friends of mine would have rooms that I would stay in; that was fun and interesting for a while but eventually I was like, this is exhausting.”
At this point, I am completely engrossed in the story of DeCou’s travels and international experiences. However, one question nags at the back of my brain, and it involves the topic of being a woman in a male-dominated field.
“It comes up in different ways,” says DeCou. “It’s interesting because there are a few different aspects of technology where gender expectations play out differently; for example, in welding and working with metal, there’s different types of expectations. I think the biggest challenge for me working in those spaces was just being comfortable, but also you end up hearing comments you don’t really want to hear, and either you say something or you don’t, and a lot of times you just don’t because it’s easier not to.”
It’s not hard for me to empathize with DeCou, as someone who has been in several situations in which I have been the gender minority. While it can be a difficult topic, she goes on to explain her experience defying the rigid gender expectations in Tanzania with a lighthearted smirk.
“In Tanzania, the gender dynamic is different than here, also being a white woman and working in Tanzania has its own cultural implications. It’s funny because a guy that I was working with in Tanzania, he would tease me sometimes. He would be like ‘I don’t even know what to think of you. What category do I put you in?’ It’s just not a category that exists for them,” laughs DeCou.
Wanting to give a more definitive answer, DeCou describes an eye-opening experience at a big technology conference in Austin, Texas. Because DeCou wasn’t working much in digital technology at that time, she explains a moment of insight after attending a talk about women working in computer programming.
“I hadn’t realized at the time just how much sexism and misogyny existed in that world until talking with these women as they were telling me stories about getting hate mail as women working in IT,” DeCou says. “You kind of wish gender didn’t matter, but it does. It does play out a bit differently in the IT world because in IT there’s a level of distance between people because you’re writing through a computer, but I was surprised to hear how much anti-women working in tech industry there was. I think it’s gotten better over time, but it’s still not as fair as I’d like it to be.”
On a more lighthearted note, DeCou brings the issue back to her own experiences.
“I mean, there is the fact that I am 6 feet tall. My physical presence is just larger than some people’s, so it does change to some extent, how I interact with other people,” says DeCou. “In Tanzania, it was funny because I’m quite a bit taller than most people there so the typical gender and power dynamic changed because my physical size was bigger.”
We both laugh as she remembers what it was like being a superhuman in a foreign country, and as I picture the reactions of some of DeCou’s Tanzanian coworkers as they witness a 6-foot-tall white woman welding metal while rocking a leather jacket and heels.