The Elevator is a limited Zikoko series that details the growth of young successful Nigerian women. We tell their stories every Monday by 12 p.m.
Pearlé Nwaezeigwe always knew she wanted to be a lawyer, but she did not know that law would lead her to tech. Now at 26-years-old, Pearle works at TikTok, where she creates policies that protect TikTok’s African users.
What did you want to be when you were younger?
A teacher. I was obsessed with teaching, so I would steal chalk from my class and take it home to teach imaginary students. Down the road, I still plan to be a professor.
I also wanted to be a lawyer and was inspired by my dad, who’s a lawyer. He would stay up all night reading big books, and I wanted to do that, to advocate for people and be a voice to the voiceless. I wanted to be the attorney general for the Federation of Nigeria. I wanted to do something very ambitious, and I thought studying law was the way forward.
So, you studied law in university?
Yeah, I did and it was intense but at the same time, I knew I was meant to do it. I am grateful I went to University of Lagos because that’s where I joined the Mooting Society. I would go for competitions, mock court cases, and I got to travel to the US for conferences. This exposed me to things a lot of my classmates were not exposed to, and I realised that my life was beyond Nigeria. Unilag’s hustle spirit helped make me who I am today.
What was your first job?
I was an intern at Chocolate City. I was interested in intellectual property law, so my aunt spoke to the general manager of Chocolate City at the time, and I got an internship. It was an interesting experience. Sometimes you would come to work and MI will be beside you writing songs. I was there for a couple of months.
Nice. What did you do there?
Well, it was a lot of reading contracts and trying to be sure that artists didn’t get screwed by companies. Also, creating contracts that kept artists comfortable and engaged. I worked with a lawyer who walked me through the process.
My experience at Chocolate City helped me see the deficiencies in the music industry and how much of a long way we need to go to protect artists rights. It was really exciting going back and forth and feeling like I was a part of something. Initially I was not supposed to get paid, but they were really impressed with my work ethic, and they paid me. I also got VIP tickets and backstage passes.
What happened next?
Law school. Law school is a place you can’t survive without resilience. The program, the grading, the back to back exams, was a lot. I stayed up long nights studying for the bar exam and made really good friends, but I won’t wish law school on my worst enemy. You have to be sure you want to study law because Nigerian law school is not for the weak.
After law school, I worked at a law firm and I didn’t really like it. Usually, a lawyer is useful at any firm they find themselves in, but the law firm I worked in was very litigation centric. I was at the court all the time filing documents that did not make sense. After I left the law firm, I went to get my masters in International Law and International Human Rights in UC Berkeley. I was 24.
What was UC Berkeley like?
Well, I wouldn’t say it was an Ivy League university, but our major competition was Stanford. It was nice being in that space and having classmates that have worked in major companies. The school was in Silicon Valley so we were surrounded by Facebook, Google and so many tech companies. My plan when I got there was to work in the UN, but I found myself doing research on the impact of human rights on technology.
Do you think Silicon Valley had anything to do with that change?
Definitely. UC Berkeley is known for human rights, civil liberties and technology. For my project, we collaborated with Microsoft and Google. They wanted to know the impact their products were having on human rights, specifically on children’s rights. I was able to understand that there was an intersection of human rights and technology. After my degree, I got my current job and moved all the way to Ireland.
What job, and why Ireland?
Well, I work for TikTok where I create policies on behalf of the company to ensure that the rights of users are protected. My focus is to create policies that protect African users on the African continent.
On why Ireland, Dublin in Ireland is like the Silicon Valley of Europe. TikTok has its own office here and most of the African activities in these tech companies usually happens in Dublin.
How Do You Protect African Users at TikTok?
We create policies on behalf of the company to ensure that while people can say whatever they want online, they cannot abuse that power and spread homophobic, sexist or racist content and fake news. So, we create policies that protect people’s freedom of expression and safety. Those are the kind of hard things we have to do on the policy team— we ask, how do we create policies that protect Africa?
Were there any major stumbling blocks you faced along the way?
One of my challenges was getting this job. A whole year after I finished from UC Berkeley, I was searching for a job. I went for more than thirty interviews with all the big companies like Facebook and Twitter. The rejections really affected my self-esteem. People who knew me kept asking why I did not go into legal counsel or work at a law firm and do what everyone else was doing, but I just knew that tech policy was what I wanted to do. I realised that people these tech companies hire are those that have a lot of experience and then there was me who was fresh out of graduate school. So, I went to a lot of conferences and studied my ass off because I had to prove myself. One thing that helped was that I was also very good at cold emailing. There was nobody I would reach out to that would not respond — I even got to speak to the vice president of Twitter.
Wow. How did that even happen?
Well, I ran into her on an elevator during a conference, so I decided to tweet at her. I also mentioned in my tweet that they had a job opening, and I really wanted to join the team. She sends me a job link and I told her I had already applied for the job and I even tagged the job recruiter saying I was waiting for his reply. The next day, I got a call from the recruiter. He said, “the vice president of Twitter sent me a dm and told me to have an interview with you.” Unfortunately, it was difficult to get a work permit in the US because my role wasn’t that popular and the country didn’t rate me. I cried.
How were you able to move from that?
I had come too far to quit on myself. There were very few black women in these roles and I did not want them to remove one less black woman, so I kept going. I wanted to succeed in that one thing people thought I was not going to be able to do.
I also had other challenges, like my health. They found lumps in my breasts and I was dealing with severe migraines. Coupled with the fact that I was so far from family, it was very hard.
What are some lessons you learned in this journey?
Well, I learnt that every dream is valid. Society wants you to be one thing, but you can be so many. You are allowed to shift and be whatever you want to be. Another thing is that you have to believe in yourself. It is easier said than done, and it is hard to not compare yourself with others, but I had to snap out of it. Also, I learnt to be extra. I do not want to be in a crowd and blend in. I always want to stand out. Lastly, you need to learn balance. You need to balance friends and school and work and life in general.
Are there any women you look up to?
Beyoncé. Her work ethic is amazing and she keeps beating her own standard. She reinvents herself every time and she is black excellence personified. Before my interviews, I would play a Beyoncé song and take in some of that energy. She goes 100 and inspires me to be extra. Another person is my mum. My mum taught me humility and that had helped me get some opportunities I know I would not have gotten. She is like my best friend. My headmistress was also important to my development. She taught me almost everything I know when it comes to creativity and allowed us to be expressive. She made me feel like I could do anything if I put my mind to it. She passed away when I was 10 from cancer, and it was very hard for me.
What is something you are really proud of yourself for doing?
When I was in Unilag, I founded the first Model UN conference in Lagos. Trying to raise funds and asking people to register was very rocky. I also had to train my friends on how to be directors and secretary generals etc., but it all paid off. The dean was super impressed and gave us three days off from classes; he also gave us free WiFi. Now the conference is six years running. The second thing is that I wrote a book about my life last year. I am really proud of myself for doing that. I plan to be more intentional about promoting the book this year.
How do you rest with all of these things going on?
I rest by sleeping. I actually do not joke with my sleep and I keep my weekends open for me. Sometimes I play loud music and just dance in my living room.
Nice! What’s next for you?
I have always had structure in my life, but for the first time, I can say I do not really know what is next. What I do know is that I am destined for greatness.
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