Many of our guests have had their fair share of obstacles they’ve had to overcome, but Nancy Douyon is on a whole other level. A user experience researcher at Google, Nancy found her way to happiness and stability only after bridging a new and bewildering culture, bouncing around foster homes and living on the streets, and coming to terms with her broken childhood.
You won’t believe the magical, serendipitous encounter with the MIT Media Lab that changed (and potentially saved) her life, revealing an aptitude for computers and design at a young age. Another big theme from her interview is the struggle she faced with her mom and how she was able to heal that relationship — a true hallmark of the heroine’s journey. Nancy is real, resourceful, and she has an incredible story to share.
Fight to be authentic.
— Nancy Douyon
Nancy: There were certain things that people expected a child living in America to know, and I didn’t know them. So one day I was reading a magazine called Teen Voices, I was about eleven years old, and on the back of the magazine it said, Do you have questions? And I just thought, Yes, I have so many questions! It said something along the lines of, Reach out to us with any questions you have. So I packed my little bag and decided I was going to run away from home to have my questions answered. I felt like everyone was trying to lie to me about information, and these people would be my saving grace.
So I snuck on the train and went to downtown Boston where the headquarters of this magazine was located and I walked through the door. The first woman I met there, her name was Brenda, she looked at me and asked, “How old are you? You can’t be here unless you’re fourteen.” So I lied and said, “I am fourteen.” Then she asked, “Well then when’s your birthday?” And I very comfortably answered, “I don’t know.” And it went on. What’s your phone number? I don’t know. What’s your address? I don’t know. She had no clue what to do with me. So she sat me in front of a computer and helped me learn how to play solitaire. It was the first interaction with a computer I’d ever had.
I asked her why the background was green. And she was like, “No one cares about that. Why would you care why the background is green?” I remember responding to her something along the lines of, “So you just let people manipulate you? You’re gonna sit here in this world and just accept things as they are and not ask questions?” She didn’t really respond to that, but it was a pivotal point for me, the need to really understand. I was gonna figure out why that background was green! Which I later did, the casino tables are green, so it’s to represent that… but it was interesting to me to think about how much of what you see is manipulating you and how much of what you see is actually helping to get what you need, and whether it can be streamlined in some way.
So as I’m playing this amazing solitaire game, so excited about it, all of the sudden the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I turn around and my mother’s there. To this day I still don’t know how she found me. But she drags me out of there. And when we got home, she said nothing to me. And that is the scariest thing for a Haitian child.
A few days later she finally reacts. She puts me in the best outfit I owned, which was this poofy pink dress. She takes me back to the magazine and she drops me off and she told me, “From now on these people are going to help you with any questions that you have. You learn as much as you can from here, and we’ll tell your dad that you’re coming to work with me.”
And of course the people there are like, “Ma’am this isn’t a babysitting service, you can’t just drop your kid off here.” And she’s like, “Five o’clock, five o’clock!” (laughs) Right? Because she doesn’t know English. And she goes off to work. And from there they just had to deal with me…
You’ll love the rest of the story about how she spent that day! Listen to the full episode here.
- An inquisitive daughter of immigrants: Nancy’s early years in Boston surrounded by her Haitian culture. [4:33]
- Feeling confused, behind, and like an outsider as she tried to bridge American culture, plus the remarkable outcome of running away. [10:35]
- How she got connected to Computer Clubhouse, an MIT program where she learned to produce music, code, use photoshop, build robots, and lead her peers. [16:28]
- The lowest point: Bouncing around between being homeless and different foster homes. [19:02]
- The role of art and design as her only respite during a phase of anger and loneliness. [24:32]
- How she chose to get revenge on the foster care system, and her struggle to afford college. [28:24]
- Finding her passion, acknowledging her skills (despite stereotypes), and taking first steps to healing the relationship with her mother. [34:44]
- Moving forward and making amends, plus her decision to “show love through technology”. [42:49]
- How the earthquake in Haiti affected Nancy and her family, and the growth she experienced as a result. [45:33]
- “Fight to be authentic” and other advice from Nancy for women on their own journeys. [48:23]
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Hurricane Matthew Relief Outreach: The majority of Nancy’s family lived directly on the path of Hurricane Matthew. Thankfully, most are officially accounted for. Unfortunately, so many have lost their homes, schools, and businesses. In addition to helping her own family find shelter, Nancy has been working on multiple support efforts in Haiti. Her relief outreach pagerecommends trusted organizations doing great work that you too can support.