Marie Roker-Jones is a social impact startup founder with over ten years of experience in leading inclusion and belonging strategies. She’s had an eclectic work history thanks to her husband’s multiple military deployments. The common thread throughout Marie’s career is working toward social good. She’s helped tech companies and startups with their diversity hiring goals through Veteran and military spouse initiatives, and has experience creating re-entry programs for underrepresented communities.
Currently, Marie is the Co-Founder and co-CEO of Essteem, a company that’s building a space of belonging in tech. She is also a senior editor for The Good Men Project, where she nurtures underrepresented writers and contributors to amplify their voices in the areas of racial and social injustice. She’s also the co-founder of OweYaa, a social impact startup that supports transitioning Veterans and military spouses into tech internships.
BRYAN WISH: What is your One Away moment that you want to share with us today?
MARIE ROKER JONES: My One Away moment was when I met my previous co-founder. She and I built Owe-Yaa which is a social impact startup that really helps veterans and military spouses get internships within the tech industry. The reason I chose this One Away moment is because for a while, as a military spouse, a lot of times you feel like you’re playing second fiddle to your spouse who is a veteran or active duty. You kind of forget who you are and forget yourself.
By meeting my previous co-founder, I really connected with the ability to give back to the military community while also helping myself to develop as a leader, to develop as someone who is confident in her ability to really create impact. I am forever grateful for that opportunity and that moment because I feel like it really helped me to develop and become the person I am today.
BRYAN WISH: Thank you for sharing. It was a big learning opportunity for you and one that shaped you in how you see the world. You said the military spouse get lost in maybe who they are as people. Can you tell me more about that?
MARIE ROKER JONES: I’ll give you my example. My husband was deployed five times. Not only are you focused on this person who is basically sacrificing their life in somewhere that’s dangerous but you have to ensure that your kids, your loved ones, your family, that everyone else is okay. You forget to think about, “Am I okay?” You want to make sure that you are holding it together for those around you. It’s very easy to forget what your needs are. It’s very easy to forget who you are, what your goals are, and even your ambitious dreams because you’re constantly in flux. Luckily, we never had to move. I know for a lot of the other families PSC which means that they’re constantly moving from one country to another, it takes a lot out of you. You forget who you are. Sometimes you need something and that One Moment away was what helped me to remember who I am.
BRYAN WISH: Five times is a lot. I’m sure you remember his departure vividly and maybe the way you felt. You had to conform, maybe make yourself small, and do things that you wouldn’t have done typically to support your husband serving the highest honor of our country. When you felt not yourself or shaping to what was required to support somebody else, what did that feel like inside? What were you wishing you could have done? How did that make you feel? How did you end up handling and confronting this to say enough is enough?
MARIE ROKER JONES: That’s a great question. No one has ever asked me that.
BRYAN WISH: Let’s dive in.
MARIE ROKER JONES: No one has ever asked me. People have asked, “Are you okay? Were you okay?” But never how I felt. That’s so important because I never could give myself enough time to think about how I felt. I definitely felt overwhelmed. I felt something different for each deployment. The first one, I was confused. That was literally a year after 9/11. I was younger and confused. What’s happening? For some of the others, some were resentment. You know that it’s a selfish kind of feeling but at the same time, you can’t help but feel you just resent the situation. Not the person. Not the military.
You feel like, “For once, can I just be the one that can whine or complain?” You don’t get that chance. You don’t even have the opportunity to stop and whine and complain. I know that people have different misconceptions about military spouses. You’ll meet different spouses that are in a different place in their life. Some people might not even relate to what I’m saying. I was overwhelmed. I’m so pleasantly surprised about the question, to be honest. It’s nice to be asked, “How did you feel?” because I don’t think people ask that enough to veterans. And not, “How did you feel?” in a way of being inquisitive but just really wanting to know because you want to understand.
BRYAN WISH: When you can remove the situation sometimes or look internally and kind of understand the triggers behind things, I think it’s very interesting. What were you resenting? The loss of your husband leaving? Being alone again? Was it you had to worry for someone’s safety and it was hard to focus on your dreams?
MARIE ROKER JONES: I think it was a little bit of all of that. Some of it too was resenting that I didn’t have the opportunity to say, “I’m not okay right now.” It’s this stereotype and message that – on top of it, I’m a black woman. That whole idea of being strong. I felt I resented that as well because I felt that there’s times I don’t want to be strong for everybody else. I don’t want to have to pretend everything is fine when it’s not. Also, resenting that I have to give a part of myself. I’ve never been someone who played small or someone who kind of really didn’t want to do big things. I have to say, for a while, I was really lost in my career and everything. Even though I was doing stuff, such as raising great men and other stuff, it just felt like there’s so much more I can do but I can’t right now. Kind of like my hands were tied.
BRYAN WISH: I can totally hear kind of that lack of purpose that you felt you were able to build on. You saw a greater life for yourself. You actualized that vision or maybe take on those most daring kind of curiosities. Also you saying that you had never wanted to play small. You were kind of suffering and making yourself small to support your husband. That probably had to eat at you every night. I appreciate the vulnerability. As a kid, did you ever have any events in your life where people left you and it created a trigger around loss? When your husband was deployed, it kind of actuated past events?
MARIE ROKER JONES: Interesting. I’d say the one thing I’d say is my brother going away to college and then moving away from home. We’re five years apart. That I remember vividly. I was probably in 7th grade. It changed me. My brother and I are very close. This is the person that I look up to and I just want to be around. Having him go away to college was difficult. I don’t know if it was the same. You know what, it was. I felt I had be strong for my mom because her son is gone away. I guess that was the part that was similar. This idea that you have to hold it together for those around you. If not, then they can’t be their best and they can’t deal with this emotionally and mentally. When I think about my kids and his parents, just kind of, “Okay, you’ve got to be the one that makes it all feel like you’re handling it and you’re making sure everyone is okay.”
BRYAN WISH: Your relationship with your brother was very close. Was there a reason behind that?
MARIE ROKER JONES: It’s just his personality. It’s so dynamic. Still today, he’s the only person in the world who gets me and accepts me. I think that’s what it stems from. And he will call me out on my stuff which I appreciate.
BRYAN WISH: How did you go about handling this? You clearly had resentment. Five deployments is a lot. You felt like you could do more with your life. You had more potential to actualize and yet you weren’t. What were your next steps?
MARIE ROKER JONES: I don’t think I resolved it until he retired. During that time, it was so hard to. It wasn’t just the deployments. It’s hard when you want to find your way in the world. People make it seem like it’s easy to figure out. Not for everyone. Everyone has it different. Social impact has always been something I care about and I always wanted to see how can I do this better and make it bigger and help more? I always felt like I can’t right now. I can’t add anymore to my plate because I would just drown. I have to do the work that doesn’t require as much of me emotionally. It wasn’t until he retired that I felt like, “Okay, I think it’s my turn now.”
BRYAN WISH: You waited almost 10 years?
MARIE ROKER JONES: Longer than that. 15?
BRYAN WISH: That must have been so hard on you to keep all that in for so long. When you had the chance to speak up after all this time and talk to your husband, what did you say? How did he receive it?
MARIE ROKER JONES: I never really did because I felt that would be selfish to do. He’s had to give up more than I did. I think that goes along with the same thing as I said before. You have to really play second and know that. Even now, even though he’s retired and doesn’t have to deploy and I can do more, I can’t say that anything I went through is less than what he did. He missed out on birthdays and pivotal life moments. I couldn’t do that. That would have been really unfair to say but I said it to myself that it’s my turn. To have that heart to heart would have been hard for him and unfair.
BRYAN WISH: It’s a no-win situation in a sense. He was putting his life on the line for the country. You were raising kids at this time?
MARIE ROKER JONES: Yeah.
BRYAN WISH: Doesn’t sound like an easy position for anyone. I’m sure it created tremendous learning through a lot of ambiguity. You have a very interesting career. You’re actualizing some of this potential that you thought you could never act on prior. After your husband came back and retired, when you said, “It’s my turn now,” what were your next steps?
MARIE ROKER JONES: That’s when I was like, “What can I do? What’s next for me?” I was so excited. That’s when I did meet my co-founder. Now I felt like, “This is so awesome because we’re building something for a community I understand to some degree. I won’t understand every situation but I understand especially from a military spouse’s perspective. Wanting to find something that is meaningful and work that’s fulfilling. Being able to create something that helps them to do an internship was so exciting because I felt I resonated with that need and wanted to see others be able to do things that maybe I wasn’t able to do.
I have to say half of it was me too. I had to admit that emotionally and mentally, I wasn’t in the place to do anything because I just felt overwhelmed. That’s what got me. Let’s do this. Let’s make this happen. This is exciting. Really immersing in the community and saying, “What can we do to make a difference and get people employed especially when they transition out of the military. That was my spark and that was my guiding light to make me feel like you can do things. This is your time and you can do it. You can find purpose in helping others.
BRYAN WISH: I bet meeting Barika was so liberating because you shared dreams and desires. You shared desires for the world. You could cultivate something that embodied who you were as individuals. Then worked to help a community that you were a part of and that you could go help others who maybe were once in your shoes to navigate some of the challenges that were thrown your way. Tell us what that has evolved into.
MARIE ROKER JONES: For me, it got me out of my comfort zone because I was so used to not being the person who is out in front doing things. That’s why we worked so well together. It fit. We had different ways of thinking but yet it worked. I would look at long-term and just be so creative. She was really good at drawing me back in and being realistic and saying, “Let’s stay focused.” I was so excited. We created something that, although it wasn’t as successful as we’d like it to be, it made impact. It changed us and helped us to really see what we’re capable of doing and how we’re capable of creating change for others. That helped me to have a startup now. It made me become a better risk taker.
BRYAN WISH: It seems you’re finding yourself a bit through taking on this journey. You’ve been able to sprinkle every layer and inch of who you are into this creation in a way you haven’t before.
MARIE ROKER JONES: Exactly. You’re great at this.
BRYAN WISH: I’m tracking with you in a lot of ways right now. It’s great to hear you speak so candidly.
MARIE ROKER JONES: If I could help somebody by just being vulnerable – it’s not something that is acceptable as much in society. You always have to be on and you have to know what you’re talking about and show your true leadership skills. It’s in being vulnerable that you’re able to even do that.
BRYAN WISH: When you’re vulnerable, it really does create that connection with people. It’s hard to do. It’s not easy work to confront the things that scare you. Even if we think we’re good at it, there’s areas where we’re not. Let’s talk more about the company you started. Tell us the impact you’re having and what you’re doing every day, how it’s aligning to making up for lost time in your past, and helping the community that you love so deeply.
MARIE ROKER JONES: What we’re doing now is taking everything that I learned, the good and the opportunities. They all were opportunities for me to learn. Really being able to bring it to what we’re doing now. It’s a journey. I’m still learning and I think the thing that makes me feel proud is that I’m able to keep myself out of it because it’s so easy to be so immersed in something and feel I’m making this great for others. It’s not about you. That’s what makes it exciting for me. I remember it’s not about me. It’s about the people that I meet that want to get into the tech industry and are often undervalued. It becomes their story because it’s not my story.
My story is just having the foundation of the startup but it’s their story that matters. It’s their stories that aren’t being heard unfortunately. Or they feel like they’re not being listened to or people don’t see them. Bringing visibility to people who want to be in tech but don’t have a professional network to help them get there or they feel that they’re overlooked because they went to a bootcamp and not an Ivy League school and got a computer science degree. I think that’s the best part of being part of Essteem. Even the name. Holding yourself in highest esteem. Recognizing that who you are is important.
BRYAN WISH: It probably even goes back to when you were quieting yourself in certain ways. It probably was hard to hold yourself in high esteem because you weren’t able to breathe out who you were fully. Giving military people, in this community, a platform to share their story and get to know them for who they are and what they’re navigating in their life and have that opportunity to place them to live out their full selves, there has to be a lot of shared comradery and connection points. Helping people who weren’t part of the Ivy League schools, who weren’t privileged growing up, and being able to help elevate them in a way that they never thought possible.
MARIE ROKER JONES: Exactly. It’s not just the military community. It’s a community of people who… When we use the word diversity, I feel like it’s just throwing a group of people together and not really seeing them individually. I like to say the intersectionality of it. You could be a veteran but also be a Latino who happens to be a mom. There’s all these different roles that you play in your life. Being mindful of that and keeping that in mind when people are looking for jobs is really important especially when they feel that no one cares about them and all the work that they’ve put in to even get into tech. We forget bootcamps aren’t cheap. Sometimes somebody had a really great career. Maybe they were an educator and they decided, “I want to become a software developer.” Taking that risk. It’s something I can relate to. Really taking this risk but then to be denied access or to be denied the opportunity to show what you can do, that’s crushing.
BRYAN WISH: It’s crushing when they don’t have the traditional means to enter in that workforce. You’re paving the pathway for them to have opportunities that would never come in front of them. That’s powerful. You can be that powerful voice on their behalf and create that. You’re truly creating better opportunities for people. If I’ve learned anything in my career, I would not be where I am or this far along in a short period if it wasn’t for perseverance and relationship building skills, trying to make my own way, and believing in myself. With your program, how much are you helping these people not just find jobs to be placed in but navigate and build relational skills and networking skills where skills are resilience to push back rejections. That’s all part of this process of finding a job that you can belong in. How much of your work is helping people understand how they show up and have that EQ and the conversational skills to really be impressionable? How is that part of your training, if at all?
MARIE ROKER JONES: We do monthly luncheon and leadership workshops. I think what’s interesting is it’s simple things that we do that people actually do the work. For example, organizing a hackathon. We’re putting it together and we’re helping people with the challenges and giving them some information around what the topic is but they show up. Their confidence starts to build because they’re seeing themselves take leadership as far as maybe leading a team or even coming to a hack night or doing something that is so out of the norm of what they would do. It’s really them that start to have this confidence.
No matter what tools or resources we provide, whether it’s a lunch and learn, whether it’s a game night, an outliers in tech community, a Slack group; we can have all of that but it’s really that perseverance, that motivation. They do the work. Yeah, we’re organizing these things but the people that show up for it, they’re the ones that are really putting in the work and you start to see them flourish because they start to believe in themselves.
BRYAN WISH: That’s so special. You’re creating this platform and this community. This enriched community not just for jobs but for people to show up to, be a part of, bring in events. The work is so honest to who you are at your own core. It’s so visible. It’s a representation of you. It’s very empowering to listen to you talk about your journey. What’s your vision for this? Where do you see Essteem going? Someone said to me the other day, “If you achieve your outcome, what’s the impact?” He said that Andrew Carnegie wanted to put a school in every city. The impact he had was exponential because of the way it was able to educate the United States. That really got me thinking. What’s the big meaning behind all this work anyway? So what if you hit all your numbers, achieve all your outcomes, and help X amount of people? What’s the deeper meaning behind everything? What’s your vision? If you achieve it, why is the world a better place?
MARIE ROKER JONES: I’d say it’s to reframe this idea of impostor syndrome in tech and help people to realize that they’re really outliers in tech. What that means is they’re the ones that are creative and they’re thinking and building solutions. They don’t necessarily fit into the norm of what the tech industry looks like. If I can get people to see themselves as outliers rather than as people who are struggling with impostor syndrome and we refrain that and stop using that term, then I’d feel I’ve made some impact. The impact would be to really get away from using terms and ideas that limit us.
BRYAN WISH: Is there anything else?
MARIE ROKER JONES: No, I think that’s it. I really think about that.
BRYAN WISH: So special. And you’re doing it. I have no doubt that you will continue on this journey that you’re meant to be doing. It’s so intrinsically aligned. It’s been such a special time interviewing you today, Marie. Where can people reach you?
MARIE ROKER JONES: I’m on LinkedIn as Marie Roker Jones. I’m on Twitter as marierokjones. Most social media, it’s going to be Marie Roker Jones. On Essteem, it’s essteem.com. I’m always happy to have conversations with people and network as long as it’s meaningful and it’s not just about what we can get from each other. How can we really create impact in different ways? It doesn’t necessarily have to be what I’m doing. Always happy to have conversations. Thank you, Bryan, for being such a wonderful host and asking these thoughtful questions. I appreciate it.
BRYAN WISH: Thank you. I appreciate you showing up as you. You made my job easy by being yourself.