Woodbury High alumnus reflects on transient high school years and desire to give back
Taking the nontraditional road is a path of which Justice Sikakane is well aware.
As a high school student, he was unfocused and wasn't always interested in putting in the time for his studies. He landed himself in detention some days and was suspended once.
"I wasn't your ideal kid," Sikakane said. "I did dumb things, but I think the biggest point for me was knowing anybody can turn their life around and do things that are inspiring to others."
Despite the rocky path, Sikakane, a 2007 Woodbury High School graduate, received the distinguished alumnus award and honor in 2016. The award honors alumni who've made impressive achievements.
Twenty-eight years old, Sikakane works as a Salesforce administrator for the Minnesota-based agribusiness giant Cargill. At his job, he's a resident expert at using the cloud-based Salesforce platform, which companies use for managing their relationships with customers.
His knowledge of the software has also presented him with opportunities to speak at one of the largest North American software conferences in San Francisco.
An avid volunteer, he takes time from his busy career to give back to students, especially students of color who have an interest in technology.
Despite being lauded with one of Woodbury High School's top honors, Sikakane's road to success was somewhat unconventional and marked by a few challenges.
Born to South African parents who lived during Apartheid, his family moved to Canada and eventually settled in the Twin Cities.
They lived on the East Side of St. Paul before moving to Woodbury. Sikakane was a sophomore when he started at Woodbury High School. He was among very few black students and said there was a sense of culture shock when he transferred.
His teachers at Woodbury High School recall a skinny, sharp-dressed kid with an even sharper wit.
They saw potential. But putting in the time and work in classes didn't always happen, and he'd frequently come to class unprepared.
School didn't come easily to him, said his 12th-grade English teacher Tom Racine, who added that Sikakane started taking his studies more seriously his senior year.
Noticing his average efforts for school work, his mother also challenged him about his performance in school and worried he may be wasting his potential.
"She was always there to challenge me so I could see, acknowledge and tap into my full potential," Sikakane said.
That year, Racine said Sikakane would spend a few hours in his classroom after school to catch up on his missing work.
The difference between when he started and when he left was a stark difference, his teachers said.
"He came in with an attitude and left with confidence," said Harryet "Hank" Freeman, Sikakane's history teacher. "He took that confidence with him, and now he wants to give back the community."
After graduating, Sikakane studied cognitive science at Minnesota State University, Mankato and went on to pursue his career in information technology, an area in which he maintained interest after working at Best Buy.
He landed consultant contracts with life insurance company Allianz Life and eventually with the 3M Co. In 2013, Cargill recruited and offered him a position after working years as a contractor and consultant at various local corporations.
Looking back, though, Sikakane said many of the skills he gained were from taking the chances and diving into sometimes unfamiliar territory.
"Some of my experiences could be chalked up as baptism by fire," he said, adding that much of the skills he learned on his own and through not turning away opportunities to grow and learn professionally.
Through his career, he's sometimes found himself being among only a handful of minorities working in tech. That reality has led to criticism of technology companies for failing to attract women and minority workers.
"I think the perception of diversity and inclusion lack thereof in corporations is a conversation worthy of having," Sikakane said.
While he's noticed a recent increase in minorities working in tech, he often falls back on his confidence and experiences to navigate being one of the few people of color.
Sikakane admits, however, that without the guidance of his teachers, colleagues and those who gave him a shot in the dark, he wouldn't be where he is today.
That train of thought has pushed him to give back to underserved communities.
For about 15 hours a month, he typically volunteers in schools in North Minneapolis through Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest. He also serves as chairman for the partnership between the nonprofit Junior Achievement and Cargill.
Along with the curriculum he teaches through Junior Achievement and other organizations, students get the chance to learn specific skills like interviewing and resume building, and also lean on him for guidance.
"I think it's important because they see a black face, an ear pierced — everything where they're like: He looks like me, and he's working for a company I've never heard of," he said. "It's important for me to say to them you don't have to be Barack Obama or Lebron James, but somewhere in the middle."
For him, he said the biggest point of advice he'd offer young people wanting to go into technology or other professional careers is to take chances and not squander opportunities people give them, especially those from people who have a vested interest in their lives.