On a mission to serve her community

Eteroa smiling at the camera

April 28, 2022 | Graduate Profile, Industry | Kirsten Marsh

“When I first came into tech, I didn’t have any role models who look like me, or work like me. If I can be that person for [my community], then they can stand on my shoulders, so they can go even further than I can.” — Eteroa

Eteroa Lafaele had a somewhat rocky start in the tech industry. After getting a degree in Computer Science, she went straight into an internship thinking that she would have all the tools needed to succeed. But as a Pasifika woman, the unconscious racism she faced in her first workplace almost put her off tech altogether. Read on and you’ll see why that would have been a huge loss not only for the industry, but for people all across the country.

After this early experience, she decided to upskill. Even though she had learnt how to build code on top of existing work, she had never coded anything from scratch. She also felt like she needed to improve on her relationship skills. A colleague suggested that Eteroa apply to Dev Academy and during the application process she met with our GM Dougal Stott. She says that meeting him made her realise that this was the place for her.

“One meeting with him, I was sold. I came from a place where I was hurt. But when I met with him I felt the awhi, I felt the aroha, and I felt safe. Safe to be a Pasifika woman. I came from a very chaotic place, so it was weird to be in a place that was peaceful. It felt like yous built a fale for me.”

Alongside learning Javascript, Eteroa learnt how to navigate relationships. She laughs while recounting having to learn how to work well with people and their different styles. Meeting people in the middle is vital in a learning environment, and in a professional environment.

“We may not agree on everything, but we have to get to a place were we feel comfortable and they feel comfortable so we can work as a team.”

Eteroa also notes how important it was for her to learn perseverance when it came to coding — that coding itself is something you must always work at and continue to learn and push yourself in. The fluid nature of tech and the practice of coding was, and continues to be, a big lesson.

As a young Pasifika woman, Ete found asserting herself and her expert opinion challenging at first.

“For me, the dynamic is different in my community — in that situation I’m equal. So the difference was trying to navigate both of those. But I was given more room to speak. It’s weird to come into another realm and be able to flex that muscle.”

Once she built confidence in her ability, she realised the extent of her insight and leadership skills. One of the biggest moments she felt her confidence grow was when she finished her first Friday project, where she made something from scratch for the first time.

“I call it programming anxiety. I was battling not feeling good enough in the industry, but when I did that first Friday project and built something from scratch myself, that really built my confidence. It made me remind myself that I can do this, maybe it does need more time and more hard work but that’s what made me feel proud cause I was like: yeah I know and I can go forward with it.”

After graduating, Eteroa ended up at ‘Voluntarily’, an open source platform, as a software engineer and community leader. At the same time, the government was rolling out the new digital tech curriculum and Ete noticed a huge knowledge gap existed for the teachers who were meant to be teaching this new material. It also highlighted to her just how bad the digital divide is. “I had a realisation: there are heaps of people in my community who don’t have access to a device.”

Eteroa and Timoti Wharewaka, the pair behind DigiTautua. Source: SunPix
Eteroa and Timoti Wharewaka, the pair behind DigiTautua. Source: SunPix

When Covid-19 came to Aotearoa, like many of us, school students were plunged into lockdown and at home learning. Many school students found themselves at home without the resources to study. “I got a call from a community leader, who was stressed out because there are so many kids in our community who don’t have a laptop. Or there’s six kids in the family and one laptop between them. So that’s when I went for a massive hunt for devices.”

Eteroa talks about how, as a community minded person, when she sees a problem and she has the skills to help, she does. “The Samoan word for service is tautua. For us to be known as leaders or to be acknowledged by our community, we need to be of service. I saw the need and I thought, I need to serve. It’s my field and I saw a solution.” So in August 2021 Eteroa and her partner Timoti started DigiTautua, an organisation bridging the digital divide, one laptop at a time. “I went to Linkedin and made a video. We set up a Give-A-Little, where every $500 gets a laptop for a kid. Or if you work at a company that has extra devices I will refurbish them and donate them.” 

Although the Ministry of Education also worked to get devices out to whanau during lockdown, Eteroa worked with some whanau whose schools were asking for $100 bonds for the MOE devices, or others where the students had to return them at the end of the year. Eteroa laughed, “What for man? You already got a laptop, just give it to them, far out.”

Students can fill in a form on the DigitTautua website requesting a Digital Connection Pack. Source: DigiTautua
Students can fill in a form on the DigitTautua website requesting a Digital Connection Pack. Source: DigiTautua

Starting in Otara, DigiTautua has now supplied 500-600 devices for students from South Auckland all the way to Invercargill, in an attempt to help with the digital divide in Aotearoa. Eteroa says that for her, fixing that divide will take three things: “Resources, connectivity and education. We’re just trying to contribute to those so that our whanau have opportunity.” Doing some deliveries herself, Ete talks about how confronting it is to see the struggle of some members of her community. But doing this service allows her to sleep at night:

“I can rest my head, knowing that this child can use this resource to take them anywhere they want, and to know that we were able to provide that opportunity. When I first came into tech, I didn’t have any role models who look like me, or work like me. If I can be that person for them, then they can stand on my shoulders, so they can go even further than I can.”

If you or your company would like to donate old devices to DigiTautua and help provide digital equity in Aotearoa you can contact them via their website.