Black Stories/10: Sylas Souza

UX Leader, Sylas Souza, joins Black Stories to talk about the cultural differences between life in Brazil and America. Let's hear his story...

Sylas is a design leader passionate about making design diverse, inclusive and democratic to everyone. He strongly feels product, engineering and design teams are at their best when they work together and actively looks for ways to foster collaborative environments where this can happen. Since joining Amazon, he has made strides to mature UX processes for teams at Seller Central responsible for several tools targeted to International Sellers.



Before Amazon, Sylas managed and led teams at Walmart, Sam’s Club and Target, as well as was responsible for building these retailers’ internal design systems, and end-to-end experiences for devices used in stores, such as mobile apps, kiosks, point of sale tools, and productivity solutions used by employees.


  • Full Episode Transcript
  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Amazon's Black Stories podcast, where we highlight the stories of Black designers, researchers, and creative minds from all around the world. I'm your host, Justin James Lopez. And today I'm joined by Sylas Souza, where we discuss the cultural disparities and similarities between life in Brazil and America, and the role that colorism plays in privilege and professional success. Now, let hear the story.

  • So, Sylas, thanks for joining me today. For the listeners here, let's talk a little bit about where you are at this point in time. So, you're at Amazon. Talk to us about what you do and where you are. What office are you in, and all of that?

  • Sylas Souza:
  • Sure thing. So, I'm actually based out of Minneapolis, not in Seattle, as many of our design team, but I'm currently a UX manager and principal responsible for international seller services. So if you are a international seller at Amazon, or if you're trying to sell something through Amazon, even in the US, many of the solutions that support their journey is built by my team. So I both lead and manage a team of designers responsible for that.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Nice. So Minneapolis, how does one end up in Minneapolis? Or were you born there?

  • Sylas Souza:
  • So I'm originally from Brazil, from a small city called Sao Paulo, the largest one is in Latin America. And interestingly enough, when I was in Sao Paulo, I always saw the city in the US called Saint Paul, and interesting enough, years later I'm based off Minneapolis, Saint Paul. But my journey actually started with myself in Brazil becoming a designer. So I went to college there to study design, drawing, and illustrations was always something that I liked. This creative side was something that gave me a lot of energy. And we'll about that in a moment.

  • But during that time, my wife and I decided to explore a new experience. So as a Brazilian, that's not something that's usual, especially from someone from a poor background, which was my case, but we decided to put all over chips to come to the US and pursue education.

  • So I came here to study illustration. I moved to Idaho, don't ask me why, I was in the choice, either going to a school that I applied in Idaho and Hawaii. And we got accepted in both. And we were like, oh, why should we go? I think the choice was obvious, but we chose Idaho.

  • And throughout that time I was in college. That was back when the recession came back in '08. And as an immigrant, I realized, shoot, it's going to be really hard for me to find a job with my degree. So I changed my major to information technology, and that was the best choice that I made, and the rest of it history.

  • So I lived for a bit in several states with my family, we ended up moving to Texas for a bit, then Arkansas and lastly to Minneapolis. So it's been a journey throughout all the states, the different companies that I had a chance to work as well. And now I'm here at Amazon.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • How was that transition? There's a couple transitions that you talked about there, but how was that transition moving from Brazil to America for you?

  • Sylas Souza:
  • I would even include for my family.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • For your family. Yeah.

  • Sylas Souza:
  • It was not a decision that was easy to take. I was one of the first people in my family to go to college and there was already a big gap there. So as I shared before, we're putting all of our chips into, this is the only chance that we have to truly change our family roots. And I came without knowing what I was expecting. So I was unaware of the culture. I knew a little bit about having interacted with some north Americans or people from the United States in the past. And coming here and seeing the disparities between one region to the other was something that was really interesting, like living, that's my first experience in rural Minnesota with a pregnant wife and a small kid was something that I never to experience before.

  • And every place that I went, I could see the contrast, not only in the cultural side, but also in how people interact with each other. And I believe we've been here for more than 12 years now. And our average has been three years in each state. I promised my kids that we're not going to move anymore. So hopefully they'll have some sanity. But it's been interesting how this experiences mold you as a person.

  • So my experiences in Idaho, then to Texas, then to Arkansas showed me that in the US we are not all a unique set of people, everyone has their own journeys, their own set core beliefs. And I try to shy away from stereotypes. But unfortunately you also come to live and experience many of the things that people say is true from each one of those places. If I can at least share my experience in Minnesota, this has been one of the best places that I've been so far, people here are very kind, and this is not the same that I experience in other places. So it's just interesting how things change from place to place.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • So I have to ask, because of that responsive, being in Minneapolis and people being so kind, how was the response to the major incident with George Floyd? And being a man of color, being a Black man from Brazil that came into the US, landed in this space. How did that impact you? How did that impact the city, because I've never been to Minneapolis, but we just see what's portrayed on the media and all of that, but being there firsthand, what was that for you?

  • Sylas Souza:
  • In order for me to answer that we have to go back two states. So during my time in Idaho, I was still trying to learn about how the whole culture norms and interactions across different people's happened in the US. I lived in rural Idaho during that time, a small city called Rexburg, very hard working people and all that, but I couldn't truly experience the culture of differences, because most of the population there were homogeneous, mostly white. And then when I moved to Texas, that was the first time that I experienced this divide, not divide, but the different categories of ethnicities in the US, where you either you're Caucasian, Black, Latino, or Hispanic, primarily, or Asian. And that was something new for me.

  • I come from a mixed background, so my mom is Caucasian or white and my dad is Black. So I'm biracial as we call in Brazil, Pardo, and I can speak Spanish as well, since I was able to learn here with some folks from Mexico. And when I moved to Texas, it was interesting anytime I would go to a Walmart, like a grocery store. It would take a little bit for people to talk to me to realize, okay, should I speak with him in Spanish? Is this guy a Black? What is he? And if there were Hispanic, I already expected what to just like, [foreign language]. They would be open and react to me normally. Some people thought also I was Cuban or Puerto Rican.

  • And then when I moved from Texas to Arkansas, that was the first time that I truly felt this gap in regard to inequality and also treatment if you are from a different race group. I recall very, very clearly during that time that there was a lot of uproar, prior even to George Floyd, where there was some issues with the police and some Black folks as well. And the tension was so big that I recall one time, I was working at Walmart at that time, where they called the employees to talk about what was happening. And for me that was a wake up call that I was not in Brazil anymore. And the issues here were different. They were real. And people were being affected by that.

  • I had my own share of experiences in Arkansas where I also experienced racism, my kids as well. And that brings a toll to you. If it's just on you, it's okay. I would say not okay, but you know how to handle it. But when it happens to your kids, it becomes harder.

  • So I vividly remember my kid one day in middle school when there was the election of our previous president, and the first thing some of the students were screaming behind her was build a wall. Build a wall. Build a wall. And she came home crying a lot saying, "How is this fair? I'm not even Mexican." And for a kid to realize that it's hard. And my youngest one, he was six at a time, only six, the day after the election came and said, "Dad, are we going to have to go back to Mexico?" And I said, "No buddy, we're actually from Brazil." But even for him was confusing about, where do I fit? And the experience that I was having at Walmart at the time was amazing, but the place where it was, it wasn't wholesome.

  • And lastly, I'll move on here. But I also remember a friend and I went to watch a UFC fight at a bar one time, and a fighter showed up. And I remember this person standing up raising his arms and saying the words white power three times. And that was for me the final day of the coffin to say, we have to get out of here. This is not a wholesome place for my family.

  • And during that time Target reached out and they were looking for a designer. The role seemed what I wanted to do. But moving again with my family would be a challenge, but I told my wife let me just go there, see what's going on. And I ended up loving Minnesota from day one. And when we came here, I was skeptic at first to say like, well, just another place where we're going to find the same issues. But so far the community seems to be very supportive. Of course we're going to find inequalities and issues. But I would say it's more consistent here than other places at least on the equality side or kind side than in other places.

  • Now, going back to your questions about George Floyd. Being the only person at a group of a minority group is hard. So for most of my career, as a design leader, I have only been the only minority person holding a leadership position. Not because people have ill intent, but that is primarily how things are structured. During that time I was a director at Target, of design. And I worked with one of the most kindest people in the world, and they were truly trying to do the right thing. However, most of the group that I was working with either had only white designers for the sake of, this is the people that we can find. No one wants to move to Minnesota. It's really cold. And if someone moved to Minnesota, they'll probably get out after the first winter.

  • So we're already looking for ways to change that, especially myself, trying to push for some of these changes. During that month, this sad episode happened with George Floyd. And that affected the community so, so much. If you all remember the incident happened in Minneapolis, we had some stores that got looted as well. Target was one of the stores also that got looted. People did not feel comfortable either going to work or even know what to do. So people were numb. And that's what you saw in their reaction that you saw in people being on the streets and protesting.

  • But one thing that I also saw saw with that, not only people who were angry about the situation and escalating to everything else that has been happening for centuries, but we also saw the community coming together to help and make things better. Interesting enough Target, Amazon, Walmart, and many other companies across the world, are now trying to make a change, primarily that was sparked by that. And that I would say were the biggest impacts that came from this.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • See, these are the parts that we don't generally hear about. As mentioned, sometimes the media can be one sided, but I appreciate you recounting that. A few minutes back you mentioned this idea of what your children were experiencing, what you were experiencing when you came here. Can you talk about the odd looks of like, how do I interact with this person? Almost like people trying to... You can see them doing mental gymnastics in their head trying to figure out who is this person, where are they from? Because that's almost going to determine how do I then interact with this person? What level of respect, whatever. And it comes from all of the people.

  • You said, even when people were predominantly Spanish speaking in Texas, they were like, I don't know, is this guy Spanish? Does he speak Spanish? Because I've experienced that as well. I also come from a mixed background, and having the phenotypes, and I call it a certain bit of luxury, is depending on how I cut my hair, depending on if I have a beard or not, I can be racially ambiguous in different spaces. And that is a luxury because some people don't have that. Some people in my family, some people in our communities don't have that. But when it comes to that aspect of it, how much of that has impacted you differently being from Brazil and living in Brazil, and then being here in America, because you mentioned the differences or the impact was different. So how has that impacted you?

  • Sylas Souza:
  • It's really interesting. Thank you for touch on this subject. I think this whole aspect of colorism, which is this interaction of you being part of a community based on your color. And it's quite interesting and also damaging to an individual. Before I touch on this, I have to provide some background about Brazil itself, and I'll go really fast on this. So Brazil is known to be as a multi-diverse country, where there's many different types of people, all interacting. If you don't know this, Brazil is the second largest population of Japanese people live there.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • I did not know that.

  • Sylas Souza:
  • Yeah. So it's quite interesting. And also during the time when the Portuguese colonized Brazil, they tried to enslave indigenous people, and obviously they also incited wars between them, and because they couldn't have their support anymore to carry their work. They started to enslave Africans and bringing them to Brazil. And that's to how the diaspora happened.

  • Brazil was the largest enslaved people trafficker in the whole world, right before that comes the US. And during that period, after several years, Brazil started to notice that that population was growing and starting to getting mixed with the rest of the Portuguese and the indigenous people. And by the end of the 19th century, Brazil adopted what happened to many countries in south America, what we call blanqueamiento, or branqueamento, or whitening, where they would propose or make easier for people from countries like Europe, where they could have more Caucasian phenotype Black people to move to these places.

  • So Brazil adopted that, made it very easy for people to come. And so during that period, I believe in Sao Paulo, which was my state, by 1915, there were over a million people who came from Russia, Austria, Germany. And that was the intent of the country to be able to bring more balance in regards to ethnicities and races so we could get away from the darker side. And this is well known and published by the way.
  • Anyways, with that, if you look at Brazil now you notice that there are many different types of phenotypes or ethnicities all the way from white, Black. And then the difference now is pardos, which is like brownish to coffee, latin. So we have many different sort of colors there. And with that the idea is the the lighter you are, more social advantages you're going to have.

  • So if you have blue eyes, it's usually easier for you to be able to ascend, primarily because that's associated with either you are more educated or I wouldn't say the word cleaner, but I would say have more opportunities than other people. If you have a European last name that also provides it with an opportunity.

  • So the divides there are very different than what I experienced here. When I moved to the US, everything was really Black and white. Either you are white, Latino, Black, or Asian. So as soon as I came here, I'm Black. But when I was in Brazil, I was considered to be a pardo. So having to fit into one group of stereotype tends to be really hard.

  • And now coming to my kids, if you look at my kids, they're even lighter than I am, but they don't know where they fit. So if you ask my kid, what are you They don't know what to respond. And they say like, How do you think I should identify? And I would say, first, you are a human being, but also you have to understand how usually these relationships happen in the US. And with that, they come with their own background.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • That touches me, man, because I've experienced a lot of that as well, coming from different, and we've discussed this, my family comes from a lot of the Caribbean parts of south American, including Brazil as well. And I see that a lot. I saw that a lot growing up. But my side of it was growing up in America and having people force you, almost force you to decide what you... You couldn't be mixed in America. You have to pick a lane, you're either this, or either that, and being mixed, you're never really this or that. So neither category fully accepts you.

  • And it's such a mind twist because, and I imagine this is a bit of what your children are going through right now, is trying to figure out, as you mentioned, where do I fit? And how does that impact my ability to be "my authentic self?" What does that do, when you think of leaning in, because we do have, if being lighter, having lighter phenotypes, regardless of whether it was in Brazil or, you have caste systems around the world, being lighter gives you certain privileges, as you mentioned, like you can ascend really quickly. Has that helped you in your career? If you think about it, even here in America?

  • Sylas Souza:
  • I would say it helped me to work harder.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Interesting. Okay.

  • Sylas Souza:
  • What I say about this, and I shared this in all teams that I'm part of. This whole concept, I don't know if it's applicable to the US or, I believe it is, of the blood drop rule, that if you have one drop of blood from a group, you are part of that group. So for me, as soon as I came here, and I learned about this, divides between different groups I had to put myself or at least try to categorize myself in one group.

  • And being like the Black, if you look at me, you'll notice that I'm Black. But being that that already came with the weight for me to realize that, okay, now I have to work harder. And the reason being is because there already some stereotypes applied to a specific group such as biases in regards to your name, when you apply for a job, for example, and this is no different than in Brazil. If you have an European last name, it's much easier for you to call my attention than, and the same here, if you see someone with a name Jamal, you're probably already associate that with a person.

  • But anyways, one thing that I tried to do as soon as I got here is I'm going to be the best professional that I can be. I'm going to pursue as much education as I can, so that if there comes the time for me to apply for a job, people will look at that based on my skillsets, and what I can offer, rather than how I look or my name. And this has been my philosophy from day one. And what I try to instill now that I had a chance and the privilege and the blessing to be able to be in a leadership position where I can now influence the spaces that I am and help other people. I also try to do that now applicable to people who are starting their journeys.

  • I try to be the person that I wanted to meet when I first started this. And it's been great. And not for the sake of like, oh, this is for me. No, I'm doing this so that other people can do the same thing. And hopefully that carries a movement, so that we would have more equality and better opportunities for all groups. Mind you, only 3% of designers in the United States are Black. Only 25% of all designers in the US come from a minority background, including Latinos and Asians. And only 0.5% are indigenous. So if we don't pay attention and try to change this things will stay as they are.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • When you, and I have to ask, because I've been really wrestling with this for the better part of my career as I continue to shift into more of these leadership positions. We know our journey, we know the things, the trials that we've had to overcome, the adversity, we know the things that impact those decisions in the rooms that we're in. Has that impacted you when you, because you kind of got into it just now of like, as a leader now you're trying to look back and provide different opportunities, but how have you actively addressed, or maybe you just have been able to just move past it, but how have you actively addressed the biases that you may have, from how you've been treated through your life?

  • Sylas Souza:
  • That's a good question. I think when I first started in my journey, as a hiring manager, in other companies, I was responsible for many of their recruit efforts. So all the way from analyzing portfolios to talking to an individual, even just selecting people. And initially I also had that bias, coming in, to say like, well, it looks like there's individual here. It doesn't look like their portfolio is that great. But I think one thing that I started to move from, just the code analysis of data, is try to understand context. And I think that's really important to understand, all the way from just asking the question, like, okay, why are you the only person that looked like you in a room of 50 people? And then bringing me the realization that there's something off.

  • And then opening and learning. I think when I went through grad school and I came to learn more about leadership and how to change organizations, that's when I realized that there is something here, a gap that I'm not addressing, which is there is bias, and how selection processes are done. Data is here to prove that there is a gap also in regards to minorities in this profession. And now is there anything I can do now to bring change? And so that's when I started to be very clear about, I would say, my position and stance in how I want to change teams and affect change over time.

  • I remember being in one of my employers recently, and I asked everyone to close their eyes, and I was a director at the time. And I said, I want you to go on a journey with me. This was before George Floyd, this whole episode with him. But I asked them to think, imagine that you're entering now into our building. You're looking at all people that interact with. Imagine now that you get into the room where all designers are, how many of them are Black? And everyone in the room was white. And they said, none. And I said, okay, that's how I want to address change now. What can we do to make things different so that next year we have more people here who are minorities, not for the sake of only having minorities, but that's obviously it's going to bring a competitive advantage.

  • If you want to serve, especially in retail, having worked for Walmart and Target and Amazon now, if we promise that we want to sell things to, or provide services to everyone, why we don't have everyone else being represented internally. And that's not a sake of charity is actually solidarity. So if you have, I have a privilege, I have a privilege to be able to influence spaces. So privileges meant to be spent. And that's my philosophy.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. Don't hoard it, use it.

  • Sylas Souza:
  • Exactly.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • I actually had a white friend of mine who actually recently, it wasn't recently, it was about a year ago around the George Floyd situation. And he asked me how he could be a better ally. Which is an interesting question to ask, like how do I be a better ally? And my response was very similar to what you mentioned, is stop pretending like you don't have privilege, just use it. You have the privilege to help, use the privilege. I'm not ashamed that you have it. I'm not angry at you for having this unearned privilege, but the frustration comes when you don't use it to help. We all have it.

  • Even when you mentioned before of the colorism, when you think of that colorism, being lighter it's not the same as being white, but it comes with its own set of privileges that people that are darker than us, like my family members that are darker than me, or have different phenotypes completely. I have more privileges when I interact with the world, when I interact with corporate America. And it's important to be able to be cognizant of how do we use that to create spaces for people like us to continue to walk through these doors that have previously been locked for them and for us in different ways.

  • So I think that that's beautiful, and that's a really great way to look at that. But when we think about the future now. In the interest of opening these doors, what advice do you have for younger designers that are coming into this space that are meeting adversity, or just in general, younger professionals that are considering, hey, is design for me? Is this a viable option? And how do I break into that?

  • Sylas Souza:
  • If I could hold a hand of every new designer and say, you'll be okay, just keep pushing. Design is such an amazing space to be, where you can truly bring change to people's lives. Any new designer that I onboard in any company, I usually say the things that you will do, either affect people in a good way, and how you're going to save them time or make their lives better, or you're going to screw their lives because your experience will either get on the way from them to fulfilling something important.

  • So there is room for everyone, for people of all types. I think it's amazing that we have now, not only design programs through colleges, but also through boot camps. And I think there is a stereotype where even a bad light put on boot camps, but they provide a really good opportunity for people who cannot afford to go through a college experience, to start early and gather boots on the ground.

  • And I still feel there are a lot of issues associated with companies and the way they usually put together their hiring process, like in requiring folks to have a four year degree. That affects a lot the pipeline of, not only of new designers, but also diverse candidates, because there is a reason why design, you don't have a lot of representation in design as well. This is my assumption, but it's an expensive career to getting into.

  • If you live, for example, in north Minneapolis, in Chicago or other places, and if you're really like, I want to become a designer. Okay. So you have to buy a computer. You have to have probably like an Adobe subscription, that's monthly. Or you can download software, now, Figma is here, but in the past, those were not options. So how do you expect someone to have a great portfolio if they don't even have the means to get to a great portfolio?

  • And it's been so inspiring to see, for example, Google putting together a virtual certification program that's free, basically free, where people can go and acquire the skills to be competitive. Now it's on companies to deciding how they will meet that demand. And if I'm not mistaken, there is, I believe, expectation of 8% growth for designers in the near future. But there are not enough designers out there. So there must be a balance between the two. So for any of the designers out there get in to the boat, you'll be fine.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • And you heard it, there's a huge gap area here, everyone. So all you people listening that are wondering if this is it, this is it. This is what you want to [crosstalk]. Try at amazon.com, and maybe you can even land on the Sylas' team. So thank you for joining us today. This is an amazing conversation. Thank you for the vulnerability, the honesty, and really just hearing your story, it's been amazing. And I look forward to hearing more.

  • Sylas Souza:
  • Likewise, thank so much for your time. Appreciate it.
  •