For over a decade, Shavone Charles has always put her people first as a Black woman and Black leader in tech. After penetrating some of the world’s most influential spaces, Charles is now the Head of D&I Communications, the first role of its kind, at the wildly popular video-based social media app, TikTok. But no matter which space she occupies, her success has been the direct result of her curiosity and commitment to her community.
Charles’ resume is a vision board of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies. In 2014, she was named Head of Global Music and Culture Communications at Twitter, where she also helped found the Black employee resource group, Blackbird. The following year, she became Instagram’s first music and youth culture hire, creating the company’s first Black History Month program and launching major initiatives including #CelebrateBlackCreatives and the #BlackGirlMagic partnership with Spotify. During her two-year stint at VSCO, she spearheaded the #BlackJoyMatters campaign as the director of communications before taking her talents to TikTok. She also formed her own creative collective and in-house agency, Future of Creatives and Magic in Her Melanin, to continue opening doors for creatives of color.
During her formative years, the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree says there was no blueprint for a career in tech she could follow or any kind of foreshadowing for her successful future. She remembers that social media was limited to smartphones (remember Sidekicks?), America Online, AOL Instant Messenger and MySpace. Facebook was also fairly new by the time she left college. “When I was in high school, the jobs that I’ve held now didn’t even exist,” she says. “The platforms weren’t even around.”
Once in college, the self-proclaimed “multi-hyphenate creative,” had a vague idea of her career path. She was an English literature major at the University of California, Merced and pursued many passions including writing, music, arts and media. As a child, Charles loved learning and recalls locking herself in a bathroom to read books from literary icons like Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Maya Angelou and Emily Dickinson.
“I’m always a student and I’ve always been a sponge for knowledge. I’ve found my voice in leaders, women, writers and authors, who’ve helped shape the way I think about the world, the way I talk, everything that I am,” she says. “We are all a byproduct of what we consume.”
With a deep love for hip-hop, Charles is also a classically-trained flutist and a respected MC herself. In 2021, Charles, whose artist name is SHAVONE., racked up 178,000-plus streams on Spotify with her lyrical offerings “Sheryl Swoopes” and “4C,” per her Spotify Wrapped. She cites Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, Tupac Shakur and JAY-Z among her sources of inspiration. “I’m a huge fan of multi-hyphenate creatives,” she says. “People who just refuse to be caged into whatever you expect them to be doing.”
It wasn’t until an internship for Google in 2011 that tech became a part of her brand. Charles secured communications-based internships at various places like BET Networks and Capitol Hill before working at Google’s campus (also known as the Googleplex) in Mountain View, California, as part of the BOLD (Build Opportunities for Leadership & Development) program for undergraduates. She contributed to a variety of projects including Google Plus and other products, giving her a bird’s eye view of the industry. “I saw early on that tech would be the nucleus – and it is – of all these industries — politics, government entertainment, music, fashion. What motivated me to go into tech was just the expansiveness of it, the speed at which it moves, and the flexibility in being able to work on different topics and work across all verticals that I really care a lot about.”
For Charles, working hard is hereditary. Her parents were self-made entrepreneurs. Her mother owned a hair salon for 30 years, while her father ran his own Chicken Shack food truck and restaurant in San Diego. The latter also did community work, including gang prevention. Offering a deeper dive into the family history, Charles also acknowledges her grandmother, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and her grandfather, who escaped poverty from Trinidad and Tobago to arrive in the US and join the Navy, an example of “just defying odds and not being a victim of circumstance.”
Her family’s values were instilled in her at an early age. While in high school, Charles spent her free time, helping out with the family businesses and immersing herself in the San Diego community, a goal that remains constant to this day. “By nature, you’re already thinking community-first in everything that you do,” she says thoughtfully. “[My family’s] influence has definitely shaped my approach in trying to lift those around me, even as I’m rising, and [has shown me] the importance of taking care of your people and making sure that access and equity exists for us in whatever space we’re in, whether it be a rec center, an office, the runway or media. It’s important to have that accountability every step of the way.”
That mentality could also be applied to the tech sector. While companies have been ramping up diversity and inclusion efforts, the number of Black tech employees has been slow to grow. Despite making up 13% of the workforce, Black professionals represent 4.4% of board roles, 3.7% of those in technical roles, and just 4.0% of those in executive leadership, according to a 2022 report from The Kapor Center and the NAACP.
As for people of color currently employed at tech companies, coming as you are can be a major struggle. “There’s always the push and pull of bringing your whole self to work and feeling like you have to choose or compromise yourself to thrive in a certain area, a certain lane or a certain industry,” Charles says. “It’s not easy and it’s a constant tug of war.” Her north star: Fearlessly fighting for her purpose and community.
She also asserts that creating change isn’t just her job, but a shared responsibility. “I think it’s collective accountability. Yes, I’m the head of Diversity and Inclusion Communications at TikTok, but I’ve been doing this work in this space since the very early days [of tech]. When I went to Twitter, it was a small startup company. Whether it’s in my job title or not, I’ve been doing it for a long time. It starts with the space that you take up, holding yourself and people around you accountable. The second part is collectively looking around and making sure your room is diverse. I think the closer we can get to having our boardrooms, offices, work spaces, communities and the decision makers around us be representative of the users we’re serving, that is how you bridge the gaps.”
This November, Charles will spread her message even further when she releases her debut book, The Black Internet Effect, via Penguin Random House Books and the Pocket Change Collective. A strong advocate of knowledge-sharing, Charles gets candid about her experiences rising through the ranks in tech. She describes the book as a “manifesto” to help underrepresented creatives and creators consider the possibility of a career in the tech industry.
The title is also a raised fist to the influence and power of Black people on the internet and culture. “Everything you love about the internet, your social apps, culture and online is the Black internet effect,” she explains. Charles says she has also seen the data to prove it. “I realized the power of Black Twitter in my early days at Twitter. Before the world acknowledged it, it was evident. I looked at the data, worked alongside engineers to look at source trends and looked at the way trends took off all around the world on the platform and looked at the offline effects of the online things that have happened and continue to transcend culture. ‘Black internet effect’ is just self-explanatory in thinking about Black culture and Black people, and the profound impact that we have on the internet, but also the effect of that in everyday life and everyday culture.”
Beyond publishing the book she had written over the pandemic, Charles is also growing her creative collectives, Future of Creatives and Magic in Her Melanin. As platforms for underrepresented creatives and women to tell their stories and build community, she describes the organizations as “an evolution of so many of my passions, interests and network.”
With the goal of creating more resources and access for people of color across disciplines, Charles looks to grow FoC into a membership-focused organization with a newsletter, community programming and events for creative minds to connect and share opportunities. While the collective is still in its building phase, Charles will continue to scale it virtually and “connect the dots in real life.”
As for her role at TikTok, Charles keeps a tight lip on specific projects but is generous with her gems. She champions authenticity for people to find their tribe online and stresses the importance of making sure the internet is an inclusive and safe space for all.
Her two biggest pieces of advice to creators: Lean into what you’re passionate about and define your own criteria for what success looks like for you. “Being in a very social media, internet-first age, people can get lost in the idea of perception,” she says. “People wanna see everyday content. People wanna see the blurry video of you and your nephew singing Mariah Carey in the back seat. People wanna see real things in real life. Right now, authenticity is resonating more than any other kind of vertical or aspect of content.”
As someone who is always on — and online, Charles also believes in the power of self-care and mental health. “I feel like I’m a better teammate, a better collaborator at work, if I’m serving my creative needs and doing my community work,” says Charles, who admits finding balance requires constant juggling. “I’m a better musician and artist if I’m in tune with my family, locked into the culture, on TikTok, working, understanding new things and new ideas … You don’t have to make time because your time is being spent serving your passions and what you care about.”
But even Charles knows that you can’t be what you can’t see. She hopes her story and mission will empower people of color and equip them with the tools they need to succeed. “It’s important for us to be seen and for young people to know that you can chart your own path. You don’t have to confine yourself to what people expect you to do or want you to be,” Charles says. “You can show up as yourself and win.”
Photography: Dante Marshall
Styling: Ayanna James
Make Up: Nimai Marsden
Hair: Fesa Nu