SPOTLIGHT: Making a Difference in her Community

Photo: Courtesy. Gefen Skolnick, front

We’re all very familiar with the Hustle of Los Angeles. Trying to achieve all your goals while improving the community around you is a full plate, and balancing a personal life at the same time is no easy task. So how does one UCLA undergrad make it all seem so simple? Meet Gefen Skolnick and see how she makes a meaningful impact in the intersectional communities she is a part of. 

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Can you introduce yourself? 

I’m Gefen Skolnick, my pronouns are she/her and I identify as a masculine of center lesbian. I was originally born in Israel and have been living in Los Angeles since I was 5 years old. These days you can usually find me at a women in tech meetup, working on diversity in tech initiatives, at your local poetry open mic night, or working at a cool tech company. 

What are you studying at UCLA? When do you graduate? 

I’m studying both linguistics and computer science with an emphasis on natural language processing and AI. I’m a rising senior so I’ll be graduating next Spring!

Can you tell me a little bit about what you have done with your education so far?

Prior to UCLA, I was in community college. While I was there, most of my time was occupied with attending hackathons, planning hackathons, being a leader on campus for STEM initiatives, and staying involved in the academic club scene. To kick off my transition from community college to UCLA, I started off my fellowship with Excel Ventures, where I was chosen from a pool of thousands of applicants to participate in a summer tech pre-accelerator program with all expenses paid as I worked on my own idea for a startup… Shortly after I started my first product management internship, and was co-director of technology for one of the largest women’s hackathons in the U.S. My background is now a healthy mix of software engineering, product management, entrepreneurship, and venture capital!

How do you interact with the LGBTQ+ community? 

I hold the LGBTQ+ community near and dear to my heart because those are my people. I go to LGBTQ+ in tech events, collaborate with VC firms that emphasize diversity with a focus on LGBTQ+ founders, attended an LGBTQ+ version of Techstars Startup Weekend, and continue to do what I can with my resources and presence in tech to be of assistance to any up and coming LGBTQ+ folks looking to break into tech. Outside of tech, I engage with the queer community in arts and poetry shows and have a strong sense of community with those I get to interact with!

How do you interact with other communities?

My identity is at the intersection with many other communities, and I find myself in different  settings at these intersections to try and connect with those like me in order to create a big support system. 

What projects/groups are you working with currently? 

Currently, I work with an organization within Verizon called BuiltByGirls, that provides mentorship for up and coming high school and college women and non-binary individuals finding their place in the tech industry. I am helping them host events at different tech companies in LA and will be collaborating further on more diversity initiatives. I also work with the UCLA Center for Diverse Leadership in Science in order to work on similar initiatives, and am doing independent research under the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability in order to create tech that is low budget and can be used for environmental monitoring at sites experiencing problems with air or water pollution.  I’m the incoming president for Product Space UCLA, which is an organization that cultivates the product management, product marketing, and product design leaders of the future through fellowship programs and exploratory programming on campus! Finally, I’m working on starting a nonprofit organization that aims to  provide entrepreneurial educational resources and industry network connections for people from underrepresented backgrounds in the tech industry. My first initiative is a weekend bootcamp for women and non-binary students from varying backgrounds to come together for an all-expenses paid weekend learning how to start a company for an engaging and fun experential learning experience. 

It sounds like you have a lot on your plate. Why stay so busy? 

On top of all of that, I’m a full-time student at UCLA. I only make time in my schedule for things I truly care about, so it’s easy to see this as staying busy but I’m just working on achieving my goals and making an impact slowly but surely! 

Has being LGBTQ+ ever been an issue while pursuing your dreams?

There have been times where different parts of my identity- Jewish, Israeli, woman, and masculine of center lesbian- have come into play in different professional circumstances where people actively made me feel left out, or worse. When I was in community college, I went to conferences for professional developers. When I was participating in Excel, I was the only community college student they ever interviewed. Different circumstances led to different situations but in every place I continued to stay visible and true to who I am, and these “issues” became advantages in the pursuit of my dreams. I’ve never fit a mold, and this has only propelled me forward because I stand out and I vow to always uplift those who stand out with me. At the same time, I recognize my privilege as a white cisgender lesbian and prefer to stay visible and strong in my own obstacles but continue to be wary of others who have more hurdles than I do, and support them as best I can.

Were there other obstacles? How did/do you get over them? 

Obstacles will perpetually continue on my path to my dreams because the way the world is set up, you don’t see people who look like me representing giant tech organizations or being president of the United States. Gatekeeping is a prevalent concept across most industries as we know it, but I know that those not included today are fighting for their inclusion tomorrow. We fight, we stay visible, and we succeed in our domains in order to overcome these obstacles. That’s how I get over them, with community and a sense of purpose.

What are some local resources (for students, women, LGBTQ+, Israeli, etc.) that you’ve found helpful? 

The local resources for students that I’ve used are mainly any nonprofits/corporations/etc hosting events specifically targeted for students that are free, but as a community college student, the trick for me was to go to events where I’m not specifically targeted to attend, so I can meet professionals in tech I wouldn’t meet otherwise. Any student should make sure they are fully aware of corporate partnerships with their school, external fellowship programs, and dive into other local resources. I’m a part of a women’s engineering fellowship program called Rewriting the Code that has provided me with a national community of women and the affinity groups created within have helped me find people who intersect with my different interests and identities. For LGBTQ+, definitely queer-friendly spaces have been helpful to me. I mainly go to a poetry open-mic night that is active every Tuesday called Da Poetry Lounge that is always a welcoming and warm atmosphere! 

What advice would you give to young or confused LGBTQ+ individuals? 

I’d say, don’t feel pressured to fit into a mold from societal expectations of what any of the letters of the LGBTQ+ are “supposed” to be like. You can be multifaceted, interested in what you want to be interested in, and date who you want to date. If you can’t live visibly today, or as visibly queer as you’d like, just know you have an online community of people who understand you and people are available to talk to you if you need help deciphering some new queer puzzle you’ve been handed on the journey to self-awareness. Find your people, and hunt down resources targeted toward LGBTQ+ youth to use for yourself and don’t be ashamed to ask for help! If you feel helpless, there are hotlines and you can anonymously discuss how you feel and get some help for free. Check out the Trevor Project where you can actually text someone that will reply and give you help with anything you’re struggling with! 

What does “Pride” mean to you?

Pride to me means remembering those who fought for our rights across all of history, remembering Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, remembering Stonewall, remembering those we lost in the AIDS crisis, and remembering that we are still fighting today. It’s not just a party to me, but it’s my favorite month because I’m loud and proud all year but this month is a reflection of LGBTQ+ history and a celebration of our resistance to the norms of society today. It’s love, light, and radical resistance all in one.