Black Stories/01: Gloria Osardu Ph.D

Gloria Osardu Ph.D, Manager of UX Research and Design at Amazon, joins Sr. Media Producer Justin James Lopez for a chat about her path into the world of design and research. Let's hear her story!

Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D. is a Computer Scientist turned UX Research Scientist. Her love for computers at an early age led to her career in tech. Her current focus is making technology usable for all. She does this by building, scaling, and empowering equitable research teams that provide contextual customer/user insights to inform product, service, and programs. As a UX Research Manager at AWS, she currently leads a team of UX researchers who work to better the customer/user experience across several cloud solutions offerings. Prior to current role, she led multi-disciplinary UX teams for the Enterprise AI/ML platforms portfolio and the Consumer Digital Identity Services team across Capital One. 


Gloria is passionate about mentoring and giving back to her community. Over the last several years, she has volunteered in so many ways: Teaching girls how to code, mentoring UX researchers, and serving local and regional robotics competition boards. Gloria believes that in order to ‘build for all’, there needs to be equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging across research and design teams. She hopes to inspire women in tech with her experience and encourage black women to ‘have it all’ through balance and patience. Outside work at AWS, she spends time with her family and teaches middle and high-schoolers how to design and code.


  • Full Episode Transcript
  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Hey you all. Welcome to Amazon's black stories podcast, where we highlight the stories of black designers, researchers, and creatives from all around the world. I'm your host, Justin James Lopez, and today I'm joined by Gloria Osardu where we talk about the importance of trusting yourself and believing in your journey. Whether that takes you into medicine, STEM, or design. Let's hear her story.

  • Let's talk about what you do here at Amazon, tell us a little bit about what you work on and what you represent here at Amazon.

  • Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D.:
  • So here at Amazon, I am a UX Research Leader, managing teams inside the Amazon Web Services org. And so when you look at Amazon Web Services, we really pride ourselves with over 200 services. Anything from IoT to story, to analytics, robotics, I have about 8 to 10 services where we support the design org, the PM org, engineering org with research projects and research that really digs deeper into the core of what do our consumers want, what do our users want? How can we delight them in the experiences that we are providing in AWS? So that's what I do. I manage a team of researchers and managers in the Amazon web services org, but on the side, I'm also passionate of being an Amazonian.

  • So it's just the people that you meet, the network that you build, the activities that you are part of, and the causes that you really volunteer or subscribe to. For example, I sit on the inaugural apprenticeship program, which really looks back to people who have non-traditional backgrounds in design and research to really recruit and take them to training, to make them designers and researchers. And I also really volunteer as part of the Amazon design community, where we are looking to give back, but also foster a really great community inside Amazon.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. It's a lot that you have going on there. The last time we were talking about this idea of, how do we identify? From the places that we come from. And you had started a very interesting discussion around, what does this mean to you? I wanted to pick that up as a part of this discussion, because when you think of black stories, the concept of just being black is so ambiguous across America and even further when you think of globally. So what are your thoughts on that? How do you identify and what does that mean to you?

  • Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D.:
  • For me, being black means a lot of things. The last year has forced me to really think about what history means. Because being black comes with acknowledging that certain things pose true for you. So for people who might not know, I am an African American black person, which means that to me, I come from Africa, but I'm also black. And that distinction is so dear to my heart because it forces me to understand that I don't know everything about black people. It's just the thing that drives me, but being black and telling my story really means understanding the odds that took me to where I am and also understanding that there's so many people that would hope to see themselves in certain situations and certain places in order to envision what their life will look like, but that's not the truth. And so telling my story is to remind myself, first of all, but remind people that you can start from anywhere.

  • You can start from anywhere. And there's always a seat for black people. Whether that's in tech, whether it's in any organization that you want to be in, there is a place for anyone. And so this is in of itself, a learning moment for me. But anytime I tell my story, it also kind of helped me to pause and take a step back to think about the journeys, I would say the journeys because it's just not one street path, the journeys that have led to where I am right now today.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. I think that that's really beautiful to hear that, because when you think of it, a lot of people are almost forced to decide. They're forced to decide one thing or another and it's really difficult kind of having that pressure, especially when you don't fully understand all of the connotations and denotations that come with these labels that were kind of socially conditioned to accept as a part of our identity. What was it that made you want to jump into this field? Working on UX research, working on this kind of development, or maybe you didn't, maybe this wasn't your goal, but what was it? Because you went all the way through, you have a PhD and advanced degrees. So what was it that triggered you to say "this is what I want to do."?

  • Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D.:
  • Right. So I really joke about this and I say, the wind blew me. Hindsight is 20/20. It feels like all my life I wanted to be a researcher, but that's not the case. I started off in computer science and that was even after the fact that I wanted to be a physician. If you have been with communities of color and minority groups, you realize that, as communities start to evolve, some of the professions that we want our kids and we want our grandkids to go in, our professions that we are sure, in terms of, this is going to be a good career, this is going to bring you income. This is going to help you take care of yourself and your family. So there's no room for error.

  • You can't go to your parents and say "hey, I want to be an artist. I want to be a musician." unless they have really seen someone do well in that. So my journey really started off trying to be a physician. I saw people become that, they seemed happy. But then as I went into college, I wanted to try something new. That's one thing that is constant through my journey. I always wanted to try something new. If I really wanted it, I continued, if I'm not, I wasn't really hesitant switching. So I took my first courses in computer science and mind you I'm an African, so this was way back in Ghana in Africa. Took my first classes, really enjoyed it. And also we were programming on the blackboard, on the chalkboard. So it wasn't anything fancy. But I really enjoyed that it opened my eyes to see that really, whatever you build could really come out as in things that could help with the world.

  • So I like the ability to kind of lead and take charge and design my own algorithms that turn into codes and turn into something amazing. And I never looked back into trying to still become a physician. I took classes in software engineering, programming, gaming. I always knew I was going to be a software engineer until I met a professor who talked about health IT. Health informatics, looking to see how healthcare can utilize technology, just like the banking or entertainment or the gaming industry. And that switched a button to me. I always wanted to build, or design, or to create for social good. And so thinking about the healthcare industry really intrigued me. So my journey just pivoted into health IT, applied health informatics. Came back to the states, went to Hopkins, still did IT, computer science, but applied it into the healthcare spaces for the school of medicine.

  • And then I went to work for the federal government. To build the policies and all of the things that could really incentivize clinicians to use technology. That was a point in my in life where I took a good step at where I am. And I realized that I still wanted that part of me that created, that built. I wanted to kind of build the software and not just write policies about implementation. So I got introduced to usability. At a time where the conversation was about usability, user friendly, everybody was like "clinicians don't want to use it because it's just interrupting their flow". And so I went back to graduate school to really understand the core of user experience. What is the psychology behind technology that we use? Who is using it? How do they use it? What is their reality?

  • What is their world, and how can we fit technology into their world? So taking classes in, graphic design, content, how do people really see things that are built for traditional groups? And then looking at vulnerable populations: kids, adults, younger adults, and then older adults. We don't want to leave them behind. So in graduate school, I did the research theory aspect, but also did a lot of industry product internships. And that introduced me to mentors. This black girl to trying to do something new that, even in graduate school, had to pull professors from different industries to come together, to sit on my defense. It was really new, but I pushed ahead because I knew that ultimately that's what I wanted to do, build equitable technology and experiences for people. And so I did that, taught a little bit, and then got pulled into industry where I started to do research on the future of passwords, identity, single sign on, moved on to machine learning, analytics, looking at how we build models that really predict like who is getting credit cards and who is getting their line increased.

  • You can tell that the team, looking at things that built equity across different groups and different populations. And then Amazon knocked at my door. So I talked to my manager, back then she was hiring for this amazing role here. And her vision for the research team inside AWS really, really sold me. I also looked at what Amazon was doing. Building, working, creating things that will scale, is not an everyday experience. You just have to be in spaces to experience that. So that brought me to Amazon and joining Amazon, meeting amazing people, being part of the design org. And also getting some time off my hands to volunteer, whether it's reading kids stories, giving feedback or class chats. That tell us about your story to where you are and inspiring others to also get into careers in tech that they love things, are thingss that really excites me. so that's where I am today and that's my path. Really, really convoluted, but it all looks like it worked out well.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. I mean I would agree with that assessment. When you think about all of the... And I find that that's a theme with most people, that are successful. They don't have a linear path, right?

  • Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D.:
  • Yes.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Well, at least I haven't met one yet. I haven't met a person that's like "Yeah, this is what I said I was going to do ever since I was two years old and I just went and did it" but it's so interesting. One thing that I heard was, very early on, you are being kind of pushed, and a lot of us have this theme of being pushed into security. This idea of, this is a secure path for you.

  • Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D.:
  • Yes.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • And then along the way, finding what you really had passion for and how you can kind of bridge the gap between having security, but also making a difference, and the hardest thing there for that security piece and why it's pushed on us, is that idea that we see our parents, our predecessors, they see success in this space. What was that for you, when you started to shift? Who did you look up to? What success did you see? Or was that not a driver for you as you started to kind of take this convoluted path? Who were the people that you looked up to at that time?

  • Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D.:
  • No, Justin you're right. It was really, really hard. Because your parents are the first pillars of trust that you have and for your parents to really sit down and really help you navigate this world that is so new and so complicated, you kind of feel that you have to go with what you're saying. For me, I was lucky. And this is the part that we often don't hear, that you need this assurance, and I got that from my parents. So my dad is a pastor, a missionary. He did not even grow up in tech. He didn't know a lot about tech. My mom is an HR executive, so she doesn't even know anything about tech, but myself and my two other sisters are all in tech. The thing that they gave us, unbeknownst to us, was the fact that they had looked around.

  • They had a little ounce of trust in tech. So I remember conversations about, what do you want to do? And why do you think that going into computer science or going in tech was going to be the path? It wasn't easy, but the conversation really boiled down to the fact that I had convinced myself that if I ventured, and it didn't work out well, I was going to back out and try what my parents or my family wanted me to do. I think that's the key. Venturing out knowing that your family, your community, or whoever is there, is willing to take you back and just have you pivot to something else. I think it's helpful for the new generation of people who want to venture. Because everybody wants that safety and security.

  • The second thing that I did was to do a lot of research and lot of work. And I'm not suggesting that people do that, but I'm saying that what we do by giving back bridges the gap for others. So back then, there's no mentors. And if you'd find that person that was kind of into tech or in my case now into UX research or design, that person did not look like you, that person didn't have your background. That person probably started off right after school in tech. So the struggle of figuring out if this was going to work and thinking deeply about, is it working for others, because they're not like you, or they don't have your background is really taxing. So the second thing that I did was to research, what was it that we're starting to do? What was it that the tech world was going into? What are the different things that can merge some of my passion?

  • Right. I talked about the fact that I was into programming, but I think at the core of what I love to do to build, to create. So I didn't want things to be given to me. And I didn't want creative rules that you just have to kind of see happen. I wanted to be part of it. And so I think that's an option that we fail to recognize in terms of people breaking into the field or people not having anyone to look is you have them see that you can create your own mixture of what tech life means to you. You can create your own mixture of what the creative side of you looks like. And then the last thing that really helped my journey was seeking out mentorship.

  • So I would cold call or in our days now, you'd stalk LinkedIn and see what people are doing. And then send them a short message and say "hey, I really like what you're doing. You have some time to talk about how you got into those roles?" Or even if you are currently in a place where you can see people doing the things that you want to be, get to talk to them. Back then, when I talked to a lot of computer scientists, they were doing amazing things. They were really excelling, but they also told me things that were really true to them, to what they've done. I can talk about my journey, but also I should be able to help. I should be able to mentor someone into their full self in that career, that's what we don't get now, people of color, or communities of color. In our mentorship, we don't have that balance between, okay. There is this person who has made it doing amazing in tech, but then I don't want to be exactly like that person.

  • Right. I want to bring a little bit of myself based on my environment, my community, my family, what I'm passionate about. I want to bring that to tell my story as well, and that's why this podcast, highlighting black stories is important because you get to see how people got into their roles, but you also learn from, oh, this is the formula, I can mix and match, I can craft something new for myself and nothing about my background really disqualifies me or discredits me. So those are the things that I would say. Having some backbone in terms of what a friend or family really supports you in helping you understand that you can always go back if things don't work out and then seeking out mentorship. Seeking out people who are doing things that seems like you want to be doing, or people who have made it through career paths that you admire and talking to them.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. I hear a lot of self-actualization when you speak. Of this, just knowing that you are capable.

  • Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D.:
  • Yes.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • When it comes to... But not everyone feels that, right? Not everyone always has that. So being a black woman moving into tech and moving into all of these different types of fields, what was your experience, what kind of adversity did you overcome? What kind of obstacles were kind of in your way? What was that experience like being... I know sometimes I can feel a little overwhelmed being the only in the room. Yeah. Right. What was your experience developing to where you are now in that aspect? Because I think that's a space that a lot of people experience and not a lot of people know how to overcome.

  • Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D.:
  • Yeah. This is a really solid and a great question, because now the things that we take for granted back when I was starting to break into tech, I think that there's so many things that we really kind of knocked me down, but I was just like, okay, let me find another way. For example, I am an African American lived in Africa for a long time, have an accent, I'm a woman, I'm introverted. I didn't know the American education system. There's this thing that I tell my younger cousins and family members who are now like, starting to figure out what to do. I didn't get all the things that she got. I was a misfit. I did not even fit into this culture, this American life, or the American education system or the corporate life.

  • And it took me a long time, which is to say that it's a real thing, regardless of who you are now, or what you're about to be, there is this part of your life, as a person of color or person who comes from a minority community, where it seems like the industry or the education system, or the opportunities that are emerging are built for a certain group of people. So for example, graduate school. Trying to break into user experience, figuring out what is it. I had to apply to several programs and tell them why I wanted to get into tech or to figure out whether or not there's a path. But it took me several trials to get into a program that was decent. When I got into the program, I didn't have faculty come to me and say "Hey, I want you to be in my lab.".

  • It took me a lot to just figure out how do I get people to trust me for the things they haven't seen yet. To trust me for the potential that I have, to trust me to see that this could be viable for this young, black girl. And an example is, when I figured out that, to complement my academic background or to complement the academic research experience that I had, I needed industry. I had to apply several times, just rejection letters, you always get rejected, but it just makes you better at planning, what is it that you want? How many times are you willing to try to get into it? And so people look on your LinkedIn, or they'll look at your track record and, oh, wow. She's here right now, but they don't know that it takes so many steps.

  • And I'm not saying this to mean that it should take as equal, or if not more, for others to know that it's so difficult to get in. But I'm saying all of this to remind myself most of the time, but tell people that there are so many gaps in getting the next generation of communities of color or underrepresented communities into tech, that if we can acknowledge where we come from and we can acknowledge the steps that we missed and the things that we did not get, it gives us a good starting point to see, what are the gaps that we can start to kind of seal right now in order to make it better for people? And then you come all the way to corporate life. Once you get into tech, right, you are happy. You feel like you should get to the point where there's no complaints, but commitment by corporations and commitment to make sure that we are representing the people we build for, and the people that use our product starts from somewhere. It's a journey.

  • I always say that it's a journey, but I think the first step is commitment to increase diversity on your teams and across different levels and layers in the organization, and then helping the few black and brown people who are in the community to go beyond surviving. I think the biggest thing that really strains people of color is just knowing that you should feel grateful for being here. And so not being truly happy or not being fulfilled in terms of all the things that you want to accomplish or all the things that you think opportunities for growth for a corporation makes you feel ungrateful. I think it's a journey, but also we should build a better experience for even people who've made it through all odds to get into tech.

  • So yes, Justin you're right. It's awkward in terms of thinking about breaking into something new, or even after you have gotten into tech or gotten into, let's say your dream job as people like to say, it just takes a huge toll, because you don't see a lot of people like yourself, you don't hear a lot of people speak about the experiences, similar to how you got into, and then you have this unspoken guilt of feeling like you need to be grateful for where you are, but you, you acknowledge there's so much to be done. So yes, it's a journey, but I'm happy to say that I am dedicated to one, bringing equity across the experiences that we build, but also volunteering to bring the next generation on in terms of how do we make sure the next generation of researchers and designers and tech folks have a better composition in terms of who is in the room? Who are we hiring to build experiences that we want for our users? It's exciting.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • It is exciting. I think that when the work that you do with user experience and in the research to really inform the products, the services, how the end user thinks, that to me, that's all equity, right?

  • Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D.:
  • Yes.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • That's all understanding how one, who are end users are, who are they? The full gambit of that. And I love that idea that you can be so influential in that kind of a space, because it really does become the voice of all of the people that are using the products as we continue to grow. So what's next for you, as you continue to grow? Where do you see yourself going, whether here at Amazon, or just in general with your work and kind of evangelizing this idea of equity across so many different spaces?

  • Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D.:
  • Right. So that's a loaded question. I usually categorize my what's next into different layers. So I think the first step of things that fall into the what's next, is just things that I continue to do. I start off by bringing equity across my teams, making sure that I'm hiring, reaching out far and wide to get to those non-traditional people who can help build a really great experience and bringing [finance 00:26:05] and insights that are not traditional. AWS really touches a lot of diverse population. The traditional ways that we've thought about who uses AWS, what they pay for, what combination of services they want, how they really calibrate their satisfaction with the experience is going to fade away and give room to a different way of thinking about our customers and our users. And I think that in a few years, if not starting now, we are going to see that the traditional ways of calibrating what a company is, is going to leave room for who has a company, what are they trying to do? What are some things that are close and dear to your heart?

  • You're catering your experience, not to the name or the brand, but to the people leading the team, the people that they're trying to build for. So starting with my team. And what sticks for me is to empower and build my team to also build teams, add the multiply effect, I really scale teams. And I think that I need to start including equitable design and equitable experiences into the way I scale my teams. If I scale my teams for just work, they scale, but they do just what you're doing now. But if you're scaling for the future, then you're scaling for them to multiply some of the effects that you've had on managing that little team.

  • Also, what's next for me is to really double down on giving back, volunteering, looking at efforts that are happening around, how do we tell our stories? How do we build the paths that we never had for people who are trying to break in tech, break in design, break in UX. And so doubling down on that, I know that for me, that sounds like, oh, you're just one person, but there's so many vehicles that are trying to do this thing on a large scale. Amazon is one of the companies that is trying to do some of these on a large scale. So being part of it, and then the last one is to, for me as a person goal of mine, is to look at the way that we talk about career satisfaction. So you can see the theme of, what is it that makes you happy? I think that what we are missing from our outreach to communities of color or people of color, as they get into the workspace, it's failing to have them think beyond their first 100K.

  • And this is just a term, just using that value, going back to the beginning of the conversation. Our parents and our families and our groups are thinking really deeply about how do you take care of yourself? How do you take care of your family? Thinking about the monetary aspect of that, and so for me, our hard to have conversation with communities of color, people of color, is to help them think of not just breaking into tech in terms of the numbers and the value and the prestige, but also how do you craft this balance for your life? How do you craft this career that helps you get into the way that you want to spend your time, and not the ways that you will, and to give your time to corporations or give your time to the work that you're doing.

  • So that's also a next step for me in terms of, what is it that I wish I knew when breaking into the industry and what is it that I want others to know, but I can say it's a journey. So I am giving myself permission to take it slow, and giving myself permission to kind of join forces with others who are also passionate about equitable design and equitable experiences to slowly make a dent in this huge goal that we have.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Amazing. Now, as we kind of close out here.
  • And I want to take us back to somewhere in the discussion earlier. We kind of talked through this idea of seeing success in certain spaces, well, you're now success in this space. So when people look at you, and they think of your story, they hear your story here, what advice would you give to people that are looking to shift into the user research space or not even shift, maybe even younger professionals that are just kind of trying to figure out where their place is in the world and how they can make an impact?

  • Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D.:
  • Yep. That is a good one. So my advice, and I'm going to preface it by saying, I'm going to give advice to people like myself, but also people who are trying to break. So people who have already made it and people who are trying to break into it. Starting with people are trying to break into spaces like where I am, in tech, design, UX. I think the first thing is to know it's going to be okay. I think that the first thing that comes to mind with a lot of people trying to break into places that they've not been or into tech is to panic, worry, have anxiety over so many things. And if there's one thing we're going to get from this podcast is to know that there is no straight path. There is no planning, there's no script, there is no formula for this.

  • And so if you're listening and you are thinking of, how do I get in tech? How do I get into spaces? Wherever you are, one, it's fine to start from there. But two, please, please do not have anxiety over things. Looking back, it was so many days and nights and I was like, how is my life going to be like, where am I going to be? I want to do this now, I want to do this often, I want to try to be in everything. Take it easy, take it slow. Know that you can always try things out. If it doesn't work, give yourself permission to go back to where you are. And then the second advice I would give to people trying to break into it is that start thinking about non-traditional routes.

  • A lot of people will look at me and look at, oh, she has all of this education and training. She must be really smart in user experience, which I am. But I also acknowledge the fact that now there are boot camps, the training provided, there are a lot of avenues of getting to break into tech that we did not have when we were getting into tech. So utilize all those avenues and stop looking at how people got into, or people who you think are doing really well, have broken into the field as your direction. And so if you have questions about whether I go to grad school, whether I go to bootcamp or whether I leverage my job, figure out what works best for you.

  • Because even as much as you see a lot of people going to grad school to do the things you want to do, or people who did not go to grad school to do it, it doesn't say anything. It just tells you where they started and how they maneuvered their way into the field. So try other things be open to non-traditional ways of breaking into the industry and into the fields that you want to go to. And then the last thing I would say to people trying to break into the field is to have fun. Whether it's the mentor that you're meeting, whether it's the new program that you've signed up to take classes, whether it's the new program, which is an apprenticeship program, that you have no idea how it's going to turn out, have fun. Have fun in all of this, because you would look back and you're like, oh, those times that I was struggling, trying to break into, those were the times that I had time to spend with family with community.

  • So as you're trying to do this, don't just build relationship for the next step, build relationship for life, have fun in what you're doing. And then my one really sincere advice to people who have already made it. And this is me talking to myself, is to spend our privilege. Gloria should be able to spend her privilege. And I'm not talking about just one type of privilege. For example, I am in a good role. I have influence over teams. I have been to the academic track. I have been to the industry track. I know a lot of things, I should be able to spend that privilege on others who are trying to get in the field.

  • So whether your privilege is gender based, whether your privilege is ability. Things you can do, things you cannot do, whether your privilege is economic status, whether your privilege is, you being in a role or being in a job, whatever that privilege is, please spend it. Spend it on someone who is not in the fold, someone who cannot be in the fold. Use your voice, use other avenues to give, because really it doesn't take anything from us, but it just builds the next generation to be better, and stronger, and to do amazing things for the users or for the community that tech really supports. So those are the things that I would like to leave to people listening to me right now.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Those are all really good gems. I hear this idea that, don't meet your heroes. All the time. Like we're all really just kind of winging it.

  • And that's okay. It's okay to not always have the answers, or to give yourself the grace of not trying to be perfect and not always having the exact plan, giving yourself that freedom to fail sometimes.

  • Then also, when you do succeed, you got to give back. [crosstalk 00:35:49] You got to look back, give back. Well, Gloria, thank you so much for the conversation for joining us today, and for opening up yourself to giving your story to the world. And I look forward to continuing to build a stronger friendship with you.

  • Gloria (Opoku-Boateng) Osardu Ph.D.:
  • Absolutely. Justin, thank you so much for having me.