Stepping Up for STEM: Victoria Ocholla

Expect Excellence. Rise above your Detractors.

Oracle attorney Victoria Ocholla has been Stepping Up for STEM since 2014. She’s known for her honest, straight up STEM talks with Lumity students. In a recent conversation, Victoria gave us a glimpse into how she forged her own career path despite detractors. She offered up a few career strategies she shares with students—not to mention some interesting insights into how professionals can learn from Lumity teens in return.

You work on important, high level business at Oracle. Yet you still take time out of your busy schedule to talk with teenagers. Why?
There is a huge disparity across schools from one side of our city to the other—whether it’s the facilities or the resources students have access to in their classrooms. It’s glaring. I go in to speak with them as way of motivating them and helping to bridge this gap.

I want to help students see what is possible for their futures and to understand how to achieve it no matter their current circumstances. It’s fascinating to see how surprised students are when they realize that their interests and passions can lead to STEM careers. For example, I say to them, “If you love shopping, do you wonder why the red sweater you like is located in a specific part of the store? That’s because technology has been developed to figure out minute details such as where customers gravitate to when they walk into a store and where they look first.” Or “If you love art and video games, you could use your drawing and design skills to work for some of the top gaming companies in the world.”

I especially like helping students who haven’t gained the mindset of how to be a great student. That’s so important. Learning how to study, how to make time to study, is a critical part of how one can excel in education. Being a great student is something I learned in elementary school and it’s influenced my education and my life. I continue to be a learner to this day in everything I do. For instance, volunteering with Lumity reminds me to just be better every day—both at my job and as a human being in general.

We obviously love that idea—that our students learn from volunteers and our volunteers also learn from working with our students. So, tell us more about that. In what way do you think volunteering with Lumity has made you “better”?
Every time I talk with the students, I refine my own communication skills and that helps me communicate better at work. I support several sales teams who are singularly focused on getting a deal done. Part of my job is to educate them on what the risks are in various agreements and how and why the words in those agreements matter.

Talking with Lumity students reminds me to know my audience, calibrate my speech accordingly, ensure my communications are clear and concise, and really listen to what people are really saying or asking. It reminds me of the importance of fully listening before suggesting solutions.

I also see the impact of my words on these children—and that makes me want to be better and do more as a human being. I want more for them; whether it’s those who are already excelling or those who haven’t yet learned how to be great students so they can position themselves to be successful and ready for opportunities that arise.

You grew up in Kenya, came here for college, attended law school, and now are an attorney at Oracle. You know a lot about navigating different systems. What are a few of the strategies you share with our teens to help them be successful?
Don’t listen to the detractors. I knew I wanted to be an attorney as early as age 14 and I wrote about that in an English exam essay. It received the highest grade in class and my teacher commented that it was beautifully written and commended me for my level of ambition. However, the teacher also wrote, “You won’t accomplish this goal if you don’t change your character.” And the principal agreed. I was devastated by these comments.

My family expected me to be excellent…. all the time! This was the first time an adult told me I couldn’t do something I thought and knew I could do. It was intended to cut me down and make me shrink. I never forgot about those words, but that feeling and that experience actually motivated me in the end. And, thankfully, I had a strong mother and family who believed in me.

My advice to students is: don’t let those negative voices deter you. Even people who are supposed to lift you up and affirm you may tell you that you aren’t an ideal student, that you are not good enough to make it. But keep focused on your goals, put in the work and educate yourself on what it takes to achieve them. If writing well is a challenge for you, read great nonfiction and fiction because that’s how you improve your diction and expand your vocabulary. For tests, study regularly, take multiple practice tests consistently. Once you have your grades, speak with your teachers if you are unhappy with your scores so that you can understand how to do better. Most importantly, don’t be deterred by the opinions of others. They are just that …. their opinions, and that should not dictate how or whether you pursue your dreams.

Those are some of the strategies that helped me succeed.

What are some of the questions students ask you?
I get a lot of questions from students about whether or not I get respect because I’m black. I talk with students about the ways I have fought the presumption that I am only in a certain role because there was a racial quota that had to be filled or that someone did me a favor. I tell them that the best way I rebut such presumptions is by excelling at what I do.

I am always prepared for meetings. When I conduct training sessions, I make sure that I understand the material; my statements are backed by numerous facts and examples so there is no question about the depth of my knowledge and preparation. I have to work that much harder to prove that I am good at what I do. The best response to such hostility is not to lash out or back off and shrink but to show up well prepared and do well.

Any thoughts for your colleagues who might be interested in volunteering with Lumity?
There is a need in our community, and we can influence the next generation. Yes, we might be attorneys or business people working on high-powered deals, but there is nothing like the excitement I see in the students’ faces when they find out that what they love now could become their STEM careers in the future.

I would also tell colleagues that even if they may not look like the students, they can still find shared experiences to relate to them and inspire them. For example, even if you grew up in a small town and not a city, you might have been the first one in your family to go to college. This could be something the students would relate to. The point is to make sure students know they aren’t alone—that if they put in the work, they too can be successful.