Lehua Sparrow is a Baskin Engineering computer science alumna. She is the Director of Product Management at a Bay Area startup called Jyve, where she collaborates with engineering and design teams and various stakeholders and customers to build products. As a woman in tech, she wanted to find ways to support and give other women and marginalized communities a stronger voice in the tech industry. One way she has carried out that mission is by volunteering with the organization Code 2040, the largest racial equity community in tech.
What made you interested in the computer science undergraduate program at Baskin Engineering?
I was always good at math and science growing up. I found comfort knowing that there is a solution in numbers, formulas, or algorithms. I also liked the analysis. I didn’t know what I immediately wanted to do after high school, so I spent some time in Tahoe snowboarding. I then decided to transfer to UC Santa Cruz because I already had a network of friends and family there and felt like it would be a good fit.
Tell me about your undergraduate experience.
I loved the campus. I really enjoyed getting around to different parts of campus by bus. I spent a lot of time in the labs at Baskin Engineering. My most memorable professor was Professor Wesley Mackey. I was fortunate to have an internship during my time at UCSC with the company LightSurf. I got my first taste of what it would be like to work at a tech company. The product we were developing was one of the first mobile phone cameras. The images taken on this small camera would then be uploaded into an image processing center. It was a really cool company to be a part of and I learned a lot, but the biggest reward was gaining the confidence in what I was doing. In my undergraduate program, most of our programming assignments were done in Java, and then in my lower coding classes, we were taught how to interact with hardware using MIPS Assembly. I also really enjoyed CS theory classes. When I wasn’t studying or in class, I would go sailing.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, what advice would you give to women who want to pursue a computer science degree?
We’ve been waiting for you! Keep pushing forward and speak up because tech needs your voice and perspective on what products are built and how they get to market. It will be uncomfortable most of the time, but you’ll get through it and be stronger because of it. Build a network early on so you can get trusted feedback—nurture it, and have fun with it. You will need it. Most of all, celebrate yourself because you’re worth the hype.
Tell me about the work you do as Director of Product Management at Jyve.
Jyve is a two-sided marketplace that helps retailers, CPG brands, and food distributors keep their shelves stocked. My role is to lead our consumer platform and drive market density. I get to work closely with engineering, design, stakeholders, and customers to build products. I love it! I ended up veering away from engineering in my career path and became more intrigued with how tech could impact businesses and affect end users. As a Product Leader, it's critical for me to articulate and debate the trade-offs that make up our roadmap, so I’m grateful that I can lean on my engineering background in my role.
Tell me about the Code 2040 organization that you volunteer with and what compelled you to get involved.
I first learned out about Code 2040 when I was on a flight heading to South by Southwest and met someone from the organization. I then saw Laura Weidman Powers speak at a session titled “Elephant in the Valley.” I was really moved by what she said about system-level changes that are needed to increase representation of underrepresented groups in the technology industry. The organization does this in two ways: 1) by providing programs that help Black and Latinx computer science and engineering students go from academics to engineers and 2) helping tech companies build up a more diverse pipeline of candidates
One of the points during the talk that really stuck with me the most is: Contrary to common beliefs, by hiring women and people of color, companies are actually raising their bar. The majority of women and people of color overcame more obstacles, forged a greater ability to learn and adapt, and often go outside of their comfort zones—and those skills translate into a greater ability to bring success to your company.
Shortly after the conference, I applied to volunteer with the organization. I was given the opportunity to be on the fellowship programs interviewing team where I interviewed college students for various programs offered by Code 2040. Last year, I was fortunate enough to be a mentor to one of Code 2040’s fellows. It was an awesome experience, even through Zoom. My mentee was an engineer in New York. A lot of the mentorship conversations revolved around helping her navigate difficult work situations, develop time management skills, guide her through building work relationships with her team members, especially while remote, and most importantly find ways to help build her confidence.
What is your favorite thing about being a part of Code 2040?
Meeting students and hearing their stories of overcoming obstacles is awe-inspiring and incredibly motivating to me. The amount of compassion these individuals have as college students gives me so much hope for the future of tech. Anyone can learn to code and be great at it, but compassion for people comes from life experiences.
What’s something you do outside of tech?
I dance hula. It’s how I can stay connected to my heritage and stay active during the pandemic.