Samoan Product Designer, Pou Dimitrijevich | Advocating for Pacific Islander representation in tech and design
First generation college graduate and Product Designer, Pou Dimitrijevich, talks about handling perceptions of identity, culture shock in college and her experience as a Samoan woman in Silicon Valley. She hopes to eventually bring design and tech spaces to her hometown of Salelologa, Savai’i.
Tell us about your background and where you grew up.
I was born in Samoa, but immigrated to the US with my family when I was just a year old. Even though I grew up in the States, I didn’t really have an American experience. I was raised in a small Samoan community, where the value of faaaloalo (respect) was apart of my everyday life.
Growing up in Southern California, there is a big Pacific Islander community of mostly Samoans and Tongans. However, because we were first-generation I often felt my experience was different than a lot of my peers whose families were here for two or three generations.
Did you feel prepared for college?
I owe a lot of my success to after school programs, and my older sister. Although she didn’t end up going to college, she was a huge advocate for higher education. She was the first person to introduce me to the University of California’s A-G requirements. I realized early on that education could play a big role in my career advancement. My family tree-trimmed, so most Sundays in high school were spent picking up leaves, or going door-to-door handing out business cards. It was hard work. Going to college meant I didn’t have to ta laau, so it often felt like a natural step for me after high school.
You were the first person in your family to pursue higher education. How was your transition to college?
Going to college was a culture shock. Coming from a small tight knit Samoan community, to then joining a campus community of people who don’t look like me–let alone share the same values–I felt isolated, and misunderstood. More often than not, I was the only P.I. in the room.
Choosing a major can be difficult. How did you transition from creative writing to Product Design?
I initially wanted to pursue a creative writing major. At the end of my Freshman year, my best friend Oscar said that he noticed I spent most of my time doodling than doing my assigned reading/writing assignments. He encouraged me to take an art class. I wasn’t convinced; sure I liked to draw, but I also loved to write. More importantly, I didn’t think there was a real career in Art for me. After much nudging, I caved and took the most basic drawing class my school offered. Within the first week of class, I knew creating visually engaging experiences–whether it was in the form of drawing, painting, or in a digital medium–was what I wanted to do.
After changing my major, I spent a lot of time looking into different creative design careers, and talking to people who were interested in similar disciplines. Those conversations really helped shaped the area’s I studies: photography, typography, and even performance art.
My jump to tech came a few years after I graduated from UCSC. I was working as a print designer and a friend referred me to her company for a web design role. When I met with the hiring manager he was really excited by my portfolio. And despite not having experience designing digital products, he offered me a job. His reasoning he said, was simple: I possess strong visual design skills; all I needed now was to learn the tools (and design principles) to build for different platforms. His faith in me, was the beginning of a whole new career opportunity.
I absolutely love my job. When I was an artist, my art was a monologue. As a designer, it’s become a dialogue–a conversation between me and my audience. As a Product Designer, I am charged with working closely with the Product Manager to determine the problem we are solving, and how to best measure it’s success. I investigate, and research to validate our hypothesis. I create user journey maps, and wireframes to better understand and map out an experience. And finally I bring it to life through color, typography, interactions, and illustrations.
Tell us about your experience as a Samoan woman in tech.
As a Samoan woman in tech, it can feel lonely, and at times, I feel misunderstood in tech and design spaces. When I try to stay true to my culture and how I was raised by living the values of faaaloalo (respect) at work, I get feedback to speak up more. When I push myself to share my opinion and raise my voice, I’m told that I’m intimidating or abrasive. I’m constantly trying to find a balance between faaloalo and confidence in the tech space.
Tech can also be a frustrating space to be in as an afatasi (half-samoan) women. People either have no idea where Samoa is, or they bring their own assumptions of who we are, what we do, and how we are ‘supposed’ to look like. I was born in Samoa, I come from a long line of Samoan, I am a matai (chief), yet for many non-P.I.’s the way my eyes are shaped, or how thin my lips are, somehow make me less authentic.
How do you find ways to be empowered in tech spaces?
While diversity and inclusion are on the rise throughout tech, we need to be mindful that those spaces still have a lot of work to do.
It’s important to find spaces where we feel empowered, safe and included. For me, it’s volunteering with students from underserved communities, and finding building community in spaces outside of tech. Poly by Design, EPIC, and Samoan Solutions are great examples of spaces designed for us.
I also remind myself that my presence in tech is empowerment on it’s own. If you are a Pacific Islander in the tech industry, remember that visibility and representation sometimes is the best thing we can do for our community.
What is your mission in life and plans for the future?
When I first went to college, my mission was to create a better life for myself, my siblings and my family, and that still holds true. But in addition to that, I’d also like to extend my reach to those in my village of Salelologa, Western Samoa. I’d like to bring tech and design opportunities to the young Samoan women on my island. I want to expose them to more creative career opportunities. Our youth needs to see other Pacific Islanders and women of color who are impactful across professional industries. I am inspired by the work Maurice Woods is doing with Interact Project.
What advice do you have for Pacific Islander students preparing for college?
Take care of yourself, first. It’s important to have a healthy work/life balance. But this also is true as it applies to your relationship/responsibility you have to your family and to yourself. Aiga (family) is the heart of any Samoan, however in order to take care of those we love, you first need to take care of yourself.
Study something you’re passionate about, because it’s easier to stay engaged, and follow through, when you love what yo do.