The tech world is elusive and mysterious to me. I think of wild amounts of money, gentrification, and inaccessibility. But Filipino-Americans really are everywhere living their lives and effecting positive change, so in collaboration with FASTER, we are highlighting stories of Filipino-Americans in the tech industry. I sat down with Jerome Atendido, Program Manager of Diversity & Inclusion at Pandora. He just so happened to be at the office—we met via videoconference—and it was such a blessing to actually see someone from our community occupying a space that feels a world away from me.
Jerome’s presence was lowkey and it was clear that he is adept at working behind the scenes to uplift Filipino-Americans and other minoritized populations. He had an air of humility, but with a hard-hitting message. Being the n00b that I am, I had a bevy of questions that all boiled down to figuring out what exactly he does and what those experiences are like for him. We talked about childhood, representation, and keeping culture alive. Hearing about his work building community with other Fil-Ams and diversifying the industry blew me away. Keep reading for Jerome’s reality as a Fil-Am in tech.
What is your origin story? Is there anything about your childhood that stands as uniquely Filipino-American?
My dad is from Rizal. And my mom is from Antipolo. Actually, one of my tattoos is St. Jerome Church, which is a landmark in Morong—my dad’s town. That’s what I was named after.
I’m the youngest of three kids. My brother and my sister are 9 and 10 years older than me. My parents are from the Philippines and they moved here in the early 70’s. I was born in Vallejo, grew up in Hercules, went to high school in Richmond. And then went to SF State. Growing up in Hercules with my family, lolo, and lola, I was around Filipinos all the time.
My lolo died when I was pretty young. A lot of my time in elementary school and early part of high school was taking care of my lola because she had Alzheimer’s, she was older, and my parents had to work. I was supposed to stay home after school and take care of my lola. That’s what it was like to be the youngest. Growing up, I didn’t really get to play. I had neighbors come over and ask to ride bikes or go to the park. But I always had to stay home to take care of my lola. That was my experience.
How did you get into the tech industry?
When I was young, I would listen to the radio all the time. There was a local radio station called KMEL—it’s still around—an R&B station. When I heard Filipinos on my favorite radio station, I was like “Wow, I want to be like them one day.” A big part of why I wanted to get into radio was because people weren’t going to judge me based on my looks; they were going to judge me based on what I had to say. I went to SF State to study broadcasting. When I was 25, I had a couple of health issues. At the time, I was in between different on-air gigs. I realized pretty soon I would be off my parents’ benefits and I had to get serious about finding a place that was full-time and paid well with benefits. I got into marketing and sales for radio. I missed radio a lot, but I knew traditional media was outdated and my dream was to one day work at Pandora.
When you ask me about how I got into tech, it was an accident. I looked at Pandora as radio, as a music company. I didn’t look at is as a tech company. I wanted to go to digital radio. I just happen to be in tech. I worked in inside sales for about four years, then moved to training for two years, and now I’m in Diversity & Inclusion.
Give me your elevator spiel for what that means.
With diversity and inclusion, tech is really well-known—and this is not a good thing—for being very homogenous and run by white men, especially in leadership positions. What I do is make sure we have a good recruiting strategy so that we are bringing more diverse talent into the company and the industry. In addition to that, it’s not just about diversity.
You can bring as many diverse or underrepresented folks into the company, but if it’s not an inclusive culture, they’re going to leave. The attrition rate is high with people of color at a lot of tech companies. So what are we doing at Pandora to make sure that growth and retention are strong and people want to be here 5-10 years down the road? Are we giving them opportunities to advance, become leaders, managers, and above? Those are all part of the strategies that my department works on.
What does your day-to-day look like?
After I get my breakfast and make my cold brew, it’s just a ton of meetings. I work with a lot of external partners in the community.
Another thing that’s an issue with tech is this stigma in cities like Oakland where tech is the bad guy. It looks like tech is always taking, but never giving back. There’s this wall that we need to break down to show folks that we’re accessible; that education piece of letting people know that even though we’re a tech company, there are other jobs besides coding or engineering.
You can work in sales, finance, marketing. By working with a lot of local organizations, giving tours, and doing hackathons, it makes Pandora a little more accessible. One thing we work on is being reflective of the communities in which we do business. We have a ton of Black and Latinx folks who listen to Pandora. Our multicultural audience is something like 40%. If we’re putting out products and marketing to these communities, how do we know we’re doing that properly if our organization does not reflect that? And then there’s the leadership. If you have a ton of women or queer, trans, or non-binary folks or people of color in entry-level to mid-level positions, but not really in leadership… you have to be able to see yourself in leadership to want to grow with the company. To ultimately put out a great product, there are so many levels.
Do you have any specific projects you’re working on that you feel especially passionate about?
Employee Resource Groups—they’re focused on underrepresented people within the tech industry. At Pandora, we have Pandora Women, Pandora Pride, and Pandora Mixtape, which is our community for employees of color. Prior to coming to the D&I team, I was one of the steering committee leads for Pandora Mixtape. We really built that community from scratch. We had no budget. We just got together to talk about microaggressions and things that annoyed us about the office. It turned into putting on full events where 50 or 100 people would show up. These community groups have grown a lot over the last three or four years. I work closely with them and that’s one of the things I’m super excited about. It started off just in Oakland and branched out into New York and Chicago. Now LA, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Dallas all want to open up their chapters. But I’m also working with external partners. I get to work with a lot of conference organizers and local non-profits who focus on diversity and inclusion in tech.
Are there any instances in the workplaces where you feel really conscious of your identity as Filipino-American?
This is where I struggle a lot. I’m always happy when I meet Filipinos in tech because there’s this misperception that Asians are a dominant group in tech.
When you break down the Asian-American group, it’s predominantly East and South Asians. And we’re not talking about Southeast Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders—they’re super underrepresented still. There’s around 20 Filipinos at Pandora—across the country, including all offices.
Part of what I struggle with is understanding my privilege as an Asian-American in tech, but also that we need to disaggregate that data a little more to see that Filipinos are still underrepresented. For me to tell somebody who is not Filipino that we are underrepresented, it’s like it’s not a priority (to them).
How do you stay engaged with the Fil-Am community outside of work?
With FASTER, I try to attend as many events and speak when I can. Also, my brother and sister were part of Likha, which is a Filipino dance ensemble in Oakland. I want to get my daughter in it. In Oakland, there’s not as many Filipinos as in Hercules or Daly City. She doesn’t get a ton of exposure to Filipinos. There’s only one other Filipino in her pre-school. I’m trying to find ways for my daughter to be involved.
How do you keep culture alive for your daughter at home?
Her lolos and lolas come over and bring food. We actually have Tagalog flashcards I’ve been trying to teach her. I noticed that a lot of our culture is with our parents. It’s unfortunate that it takes my parents being around for me to be conscious of, “This is what it’s like to be Filipino.” They speak to us in Tagalog, they have accents, they cook Filipino food. Those are things we don’t really do and I don’t want to lose that. One thing I’ve always wanted to do is interview my parents and have that documentation. I know their stories in my head, but I’m scared that I’ll lose that.
What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?
Don’t rush your career. Learn as much as possible. I started working when I was 16 and I’ve never not worked. When I got into radio at 19, I wasn’t fully there at school. Be picky with your opportunities. Any time there was an opportunity to do something, I would always say yes. That took up a ton of my time and I didn’t have time for the things that would have helped me. So don’t rush your career! It’s going to be there. Just learn as much as you can.
Do you have a motto?
“Be the change you want to see.” I’m very thoughtful about that.
To my wife Melanie, my daughter Audre, and the entire Atendido/Ramos/Garcia/Pascual family – I love you. To all the ERG/community leaders across the tech industry and at Pandora – thank you for fighting the good fight. To all my D&I mentors and motivators – you are inspiring an entire generation of future leaders. To Youth Radio – you showed me that, as an underrepresented young person, I belonged in the media industry. And last, but not least, to all my fellow kababayan in tech and media – it’s up to us to change the world. Let’s use our privilege to empower the most marginalized among us. RIP Dawn Bohulano Mabalon.