A photo of a black woman with short curly hair and blonde highlights. She is smiling and wearing a green and pink striped blouse. In the background, we see a white wall.
Ashoka Fellow since 2024   |   Brazil

Silvana Bahia

Silvana Bahia created PretaLab to ensure the presence and recognition of black women in the field of technology. PretaLab expands the interpersonal and technical skills of professionals committed to…
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This description of Silvana Bahia's work was prepared when Silvana Bahia was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2024.


Silvana Bahia created PretaLab to ensure the presence and recognition of black women in the field of technology. PretaLab expands the interpersonal and technical skills of professionals committed to designing and offering inclusive technologies that are compatible with Brazil's diversity.

The New Idea

Technology can build bridges and promote human potential in a positive way. However, the various levels of digital exclusion further exacerbate social inequalities. Black women are the most affected by the digital divide. Silvana Bahia argues that the presence of black women in the innovation sector and in highly complex activities leads to the production of prejudice-aware technologies, generating decent, well-paid jobs for Brazil's largest population group. Her initiative, PretaLab, is a network of black technology professionals, conceived as a gateway for black women in Brazil to gain access to professional activities in the technology sector. It has become a reference for the advancement of black women's careers, not only in the technology sector, but also in other sectors, including the public service. The networks that have emerged from PretaLab promote a broad social impact that ranges from reforming the workspace in the technology sector to consultancy to improve the retention of female employees in a competitive market and the training of black representatives in political spaces, public positions and spaces of power.
During the PretaLab network meetings, participants talk about their professional experiences and market trends. They also have counseling sessions with black psychologists to analyze problems that affect them, such as racism in the workplace, imposter syndrome, difficulties integrating with colleagues and burnout. The network's teachers and mentors are women who already work in the technology market and are recognized in their field: they are senior employees of companies like Thoughtworks and Google, or leaders of other initiatives that include black women in technology, such as Minas Programam. These organizations also have a wide reach through their own programs and social media, which strengthens the consolidation of the "network of networks" that Silvana advocates, increasing the reach and impact of PretaLab's vision.

None of these initiatives, however, has an open network like PretaLab, where any black woman involved in technology, even if she hasn't attended its training sessions, can contribute. The network is currently made up of more than 1,300 professionals. The parties involved in its strengthening and growth play a strategic role in the sector and are therefore important allies in Silvana's cause. To expand the network's impact, Silvana also works at Olabi, the social organization where she is co-executive director and responsible for Pretalab, on actions with leaders from influential companies such as Google, JP Morgan and OLX, with a focus on changing corporate culture so that black people can find an environment conducive to diversity, stay and succeed in the field. As well as mutual support and networking, at PretaLab women have access to courses and workshops aimed at developing technical and interpersonal skills. The programming classes have already been taught to hundreds of women and disseminated in partnership with organizations such as Redes da Maré and Criola - For the Rights of Black Women. Silvana has also stood out for her significant public engagement in defense of the role of black women in social progress. This work includes establishing strategic partnerships with various civil society organizations, as well as collaborating with renowned companies, such as Disney, to carry out specialized training. It has also forged closer ties with academia, contributing to the production of relevant data and influencing public policies relevant to the technological world. Its participation in national and international forums on technology further strengthens its role as an agent of transformation and an influential voice in digital inclusion.

The Problem

A GLOBO survey using data from the 2020 Enade (an exam taken by graduates of courses selected by MEC) found that the increase in black graduates in Brazil's most competitive courses (such as law, administration and engineering) has not translated into a corresponding increase in black business leaders. At Google, one of the few companies that has compiled data and dedicated itself to the issue, black women represent only 1.8% of its employees in the United States, and this is the group with the second highest percentage rate of dismissal, behind only indigenous women, according to the company's own 2021 report.

The "attrition" rate of the professional force, which measures the departure of professionals from the company, in the case of black women is higher than that of black colleagues and white colleagues. The study "Black Voices in Brazilian Technology", carried out by the Identities Institute of Brazil (ID_BR) in partnership with ThoughtWorks, reveals that only 2% of black women hold leadership positions in technology companies - and 70% of them claim to have suffered some type of racial discrimination in their careers. Consequently, the lack of black female representation in technology research and development in Brazil has a significant impact on the way products and services are developed and the needs they aim to meet.
The black population (blacks and browns according to IBGE, 2022) in Brazil is the largest, making up 55.5% of the population. However, a 2020 survey by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, which mapped citizens' access to public services in the city of São Paulo, shows that residents of low-income areas, the majority of whom are black, rarely use digital channels and the channels they use are also the ones that take the longest to resolve their demands.
In addition to this digital exclusion, several studies point out that the systems' codes and programs carry discriminatory biases in relation to race and gender. An example of this is the arrests made based on facial recognition systems in Brazil, in which more than 90% are black people. Another study from 2019 revealed that risk prediction algorithms in medical environments meant that black patients received poorer quality care than white people in the United States. Technology is not just a manifestation of technical skills. It reflects the views, values and prejudices of the individuals involved in its development. Engineers, scientists and other professionals who create technologies bring with them their own experiences, perspectives and prejudices, which directly influence the final product. By including black women in the design and development of technologies, PretaLab generates significant social impact, creating opportunities for structural changes in technology that better meet the needs of society as a whole.

The Strategy

Silvana triggers a cascade effect that promotes and strengthens the well-being of the black community in the technology production environment. Her work is multidimensional: on the one hand, she strengthens the technical and social skills of black women while creating a network of mutual support; on the other, she prepares large technology companies to hire and include them, demonstrating the importance of their presence. Silvana's strategy therefore combines five strands: training for black women; networking; consulting and training for companies; research and content development; and advocacy. To narrow the gap between the talent of black women and the need to meet the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in companies, Silvana adopts an approach that acts on both the supply and demand sides. She has developed a training program aimed at black women interested in entering the technology field. This program aims to provide knowledge and essential tools for them to enter and remain in the technology sector. PretaLab's training cycles for black and indigenous women starting out in the world of technology use a methodology that values students' autonomy and independence, combined with technical knowledge that is up-to-date with the day-to-day needs of those working in the sector. The program's facilitators are black professionals who are recognized by the technology market and who become inspiration for the participants to visualize their own career journeys and life plans. Silvana uses her solid social capital and former students to spread the word about the program and bring in more participants from low-income communities each year.

Starting in 2018, PretaLab launched training cycles to meet the demand for training quickly and accelerate transformation. Each training cycle lasts around two to three months, with seven hours of classes per week. The aim is to develop technical knowledge relevant to the world of technology, such as programming language, as well as skills that are not always practiced in traditional courses, which help to gain autonomy to learn new content and solve unexpected problems. In general, classes have a limited number of participants to ensure the practice of social skills and relevant connections with the program's network of contacts. Each teaching cycle has around 70 students divided into two classes. Around 900 women have studied with PretaLab since it was founded and are now also part of the PretaLab network. Although this is not particularly new, it is an especially relevant strategy in Brazil, considering the transition of jobs in the country and who is managing to access these opportunities.
Even though training in basic technical skills is essential to building a fruitful career, Silvana knows that this is not enough to achieve a significant systemic impact. In order for black women to be at the forefront of transforming the technology workforce, PretaLab offers them valuable opportunities for professional connections, allowing them to share their experiences in solving challenges and insights into the technology market. This enables them to enter this universe with confidence and an expanded repertoire.
Silvana created the first online platform that not only gives black women the opportunity to speak up and be heard, but also to connect and learn from other people who share similar professional goals. In addition, the platform serves as a channel for these women to recognize and support each other in the industry. The platform and training cycles are publicized through partnerships with various community institutions throughout Brazil, as well as through social networks.
At the heart of this movement is the argument that "we can't be what we can't see". The scarcity of visible models of success in the tech sector for black women results in a lack of shared experiences and, consequently, perpetuates work environments that are not inclusive. The absence of female mentors and co-workers negatively impacts the opportunities and sense of belonging of black women in the professional community. This structural exclusion leads to problems such as racism, imposter syndrome and difficulties engaging with others, causing burnout. To this end, Silvana's work offers counseling with black psychologists who analyze problems that affect the network's participants in the workplace.
Although it is a challenge to fully capture the impact of PretaLab's "network of networks" architecture, Silvana tracks cases of positive transformations in the participants' work environment. The women who are part of PretaLab are recognized leaders in the field, working in companies such as ThoughtWorks, Google, among others in the sector. They also drive other networks that work for the inclusion and permanence of black women in the technology sector, such as the aforementioned successful Minas Programam and Reprograma projects, which together reach more than 50,000 people, integrating more women into technology. In this way, women are occupying spaces and gaining a voice at events, courses and lectures on technology, where they strengthen their bonds. Silvana uses a network effect to enhance PretaLab's reach, nesting leaders and spreading collaborations beyond her own network, leading to a change in mentality about the skills and leadership of black women in the field of technology.
For an even broader change, Silvana also realized that it was necessary to integrate companies and turn them into important allies in the fight against racism and sexist culture in the technology sector, since they are the ones who hire the workforce that designs new technological tools that directly affect the work and lifestyle of the global population. That's why, as a result of this work, Silvana has created training programs for companies with Gabriela Agustini - with whom she shares the executive direction of Olabi. Partnerships are thus formed with technology companies for projects ranging from the creation of affirmative selection processes to retention and leadership development strategies that are essential to guaranteeing diversity, equity and inclusion.
In 2018, in partnership with ThoughtWorks, they held Enegrecer Recrutamento Expresso in Salvador - the first time the company held a selection process exclusively for black people. Subsequently, the company created the first immersive learning program for new black employees with classes in Portuguese , Thoughtworks University Brasil. Five percent of the Brazilian population speaks English and, of that group, only 1% speaks it fluently, which made the process highly exclusionary. The company went from having 15% to 38% black professionals, with 25% in leadership positions. The success of this partnership sparked interest from other technology companies. Similarly, a partnership with Google led to a change in the language of the selection process for technology interns, from English to Portuguese. When hired, the developers received support to develop their skills in English. Working with Google in Brazil has helped the company to prioritize renewing and changing its culture in line with DEI principles, since promoting diverse and inclusive workplaces is not a temporary corporate trend. In the latest edition of Olabi's training with Google, its top engineers in Latin America took part in Inclusive Leadership training, as well as managers who work directly with new hires in the region.
Silvana observes that the leaders of technology companies are surprised and eager for change when they learn more about inclusion and diversity with PretaLab. They change the way they see the world, understand their responsibility to make the company more inclusive and learn to be empathetic and strategic for the company's success. Diversity, equity and inclusion policies have become increasingly important for people entering the job market and therefore affect the attraction and retention of talent in a competitive market. In addition, a more diverse team contributes more to innovation in the technology sector, where change is extremely fast-paced and innovation is a matter of survival. That's why, in addition to these actions, Silvana and Gabriela have created two ebooks on DEI policies for companies.
Silvana also partnered with OLX, a company for selling and buying products online, to support the design of its internship program exclusively for women (cis and trans) and to guide its interns on issues of diversity and inclusion in Brazil. The aim is to bring diversity to the heart of technological production, changing the company's culture.
In addition, Silvana works directly with the top management in the engineering areas of the partner companies. Her efforts are aimed at the decision-makers in the companies, but also at creating corporate environments that facilitate the retention of diverse talent, especially black professionals. Silvana plays a crucial role in supporting the building of a solid foundation for hiring and retaining diverse talent in technology companies, with the expectation that this talent will become future leaders of the sector and ensure that diversity, equity and inclusion practices are the norm. His work has driven a trend of inclusive hiring and generated discussions about the true meaning of diversity in the context of technology.
A tangible example of this impact can be seen on the PretaLab website, which has a section dedicated to companies interested in advertising job vacancies specifically aimed at black women. In this way, Silvana is not only promoting the need for a more diverse workforce but is also presenting qualified professionals from her own network to fill these vacancies. This virtuous cycle contributes to strengthening representation and equity in the tech workplace.
Since its foundation, PretaLab has always aimed to influence public policies by producing data on the experience of black women in technology. The first of its initiatives was to produce previously non-existent data on the inclusion and permanence of black women in technology in Brazil. Since 2017, PretaLab has been conducting studies that reveal gender and race inequalities and subsidize a series of discussions and responses on inclusion and diversity. The data has been used by civil society organizations, companies and the government to advocate for the creation of more technology programs and inclusion indicators for black women. As the largest demographic group in the country, the absence of black women in the technology sector could be detrimental to the country's economy and growth in the coming years. In the spirit of the motto "we can't be what we can't see", PretaLab also produces and disseminates podcasts, documentaries and images showing that technology can be a thriving space with and for black women.

PretaLab has also done important advocacy work. A hallmark of this work is the nesting of the "Black Women Decide" initiative, through which they collect data and support black women from all over the country to run for political office. Once elected, these women receive ongoing support from project members on legal and public relations issues, and defend the movement's flags: anti-racism, gender equality and social and economic development, creating and promoting public policies based on these ideals. The Black Women Decide Movement's mission is to support black women in politics and to analyze and propose strategies to transform the under-representation of black women in Brazilian politics. The main systemic change that Silvana wants to bring about is the participation of black women in key decision-making spaces. PretaLab is promoting an increase in the presence of black women in politics by influencing the public debate on the issue. Silvana contributes to the discussion on improving the formulation of social policies from an intersectional perspective, bringing the voice of a group that faces a double exclusion, for being women and black, both in politics and in the technology sector. In addition to a national campaign to increase votes for black women candidates, the project financed the campaign of 27 black women candidates for deputies, one in each state of Brazil.

Silvana has the ability to inform large companies about their role in inclusion and training new professionals and to strengthen civil society by producing or influencing the production of data that can be used for policies that benefit everyone. Her work in partnership with the media, for example with Globosat, Canal Futura and universities such as the State University of Rio de Janeiro, the University of São Paulo and the Anti-Racist Media Alliance (ARMA Alliance) in Finland, exemplifies her ability to connect different stakeholders in all sectors.
For the next five to ten years, Silvana foresees PretaLab growing, offering more training cycles, opening doors for black women to work in the technology sector and expanding networking, as well as Olabi's other projects. Her work is relevant not only to the Brazilian context, but to the region. She is connected to other groups in Latin America, such as the organization Manos Visibles in Colombia, the collective Mizangas - Movimiento de Mujeres AFRO in Uruguay. She knows that PretaLab's working model is unique and sees these spaces as an invitation to scale up and replicate its methods. Silvana's connections with big tech companies in the region give her the chance to debate diversity, equity and inclusion on a larger scale, which she values and sees in them the opportunity to impact other countries in the future. Institutionally, Silvana foresees the PretaLab community and the monitoring and evaluation model developing to serve as a reference for the field. Silvana is already a recognized leader in Latin America and is paving the way for black women to be protagonists in the professions of the future.

The Person

Silvana was born and raised in the city of Rio de Janeiro, surrounded by a happy family. Her parents placed great value on education and, during her childhood, Silvana was able to devote herself completely to her studies without having to divide her time with work. She lived all her life in a one-bedroom apartment with her brother and parents. The apartment was in the center of Rio de Janeiro, which allowed Silvana to interact with people from various social groups and experience the existing social inequalities. This was exacerbated when her family's economic situation worsened after the premature death of her father when she was 13 years old, and she started working as a teenager to support her mother and younger brother.
Silvana has always played a leading role in her community but felt out of place and underappreciated outside her family environment. Silvana is the first in her family to enter university. She decided to study communications because of her interest in people. With no incentive for black people to enter and remain at university at the time, Silvana continued to work to support herself at a private university, where she was one of the few black students.
The difficulty of finding internships in the communications field was one of the challenges she faced, having heard from a member of the university that one of the reasons she couldn't get a job was her curly hair. Silvana worked as a typist for an international and domestic freight delivery company, where she became good friends with an older colleague who was also black. She was outraged that such an intelligent woman was stuck in repetitive tasks with her potential repressed. Inspired by her colleague's words, she decided to be even braver and continued looking for internships in her field of study.
When she applied for an internship at the Youth Networks Agency for Youth and got no response, she contacted HR, insisted on speaking to the coordinator and introduced herself. Her initiative and courage earned her a job in social journalism as a Digital Culture intern. While working there, Silvana joined the Observatório de Favelas, where she believes she became a more politically aware citizen.

The Favela Observatory was co-founded in 2006 by Jailson de Souza, an Ashoka Social Entrepreneur, with the idea that one approach to dealing with the problems in Rio de Janeiro's vast favelas is to have an accurate understanding of the context, informed by the experience and knowledge of its inhabitants. At that time, Silvana realized that her lack of confidence, depression and exhaustion came from dealing with social and racial inequalities. It was also at the Observatory, around 2012, that she realized how the use of technology changes the way we communicate and how narratives are constructed. Technology hasn't been off Silvana's radar since then and, as a result of this experience, she began to question the inequalities in the use and production of technology.
Even without specific training in the technology field, Silvana had the courage to explore this new space. After writing articles for the BBC and talking to various grassroots leaders, she was invited to work with Gabriela Agustini at Olabi, who is also an Ashoka Social Entrepreneur. Olabi worked as a laboratory for Silvana to research technology and human rights issues in a more structured way.
Faced with the lack of references of black women in technology and the lack of data on this reality, she created PretaLab to change the way technology is thought of and produced, putting black women at the center. It's a strategy she put into practice to overcome the challenges she personally faced on her journey to work as a black woman. Since then, Silvana has become a reference on the subject in Brazil and Latin America. She is invited by media outlets, universities and research centers to talk about her experience in the field and the opportunities for change that present themselves. Today, Silvana dreams of seeing a profusion of black women in technology so that they can build a collective legacy of a fairer society for all.