What is your personal story and how did you get to this level of leadership, within business, STEM and technology?
Innovating outside the box. Yes, I see the box, I understand the boundaries of the box in which you want me to work, and I refuse because that's where you see what others are doing, make the cross-connections, and the magic truly happens!
I am not first-gen although the first PhD in my family. Both of my African-American parents have their masters degrees in an era where they were not exactly encouraged to do so. Education is celebrated and encouraged. My father is a retired Major with the Marine Corp and my mother the Head Media Specialist (a.k.a. Librarian) at the local high school. They gave me safety, structure (e.g., early is on-time), and a strong moral compass where we take personal responsibility for our actions even if it is uncomfortable. We lived in a middle-class neighborhood, and I have grown up with all kinds of different people and cultures thanks to the makeup of the Washington, DC Metro Area. I was infused with a home base from which I could build my self-confidence, be protected, and shine my brightest.
I am privileged to have been loved fully by both parents and a younger sister (9 years my junior), an extended family with grandparents who are alive and still together in their 90s, and deep friendships that promote full transparency. My parents both had taken a foreign language (French) hence the origins of my first name and often spoke around the house. They were also deeply musical and my home especially at holidays was filled with singing around the piano while my mother played -- very von Trapp-like (Sound of Music). My mother had previously taught music and mandated that her children learn an instrument even after we balked at taking piano from her. I took up the cello because I thought it sounded like a Black woman's voice.
Getting started in STEM, I had teachers who pushed my interests and cultivated my technology and math skills from middle school on thanks to a strong base from having been in the gifted program in elementary school. In middle school shop class, I was leading assembly-line teams who were fabricating my winning design. Another teacher made me reluctantly enter the middle school science fair at which I ended up placing first to secure his letter of recommendation into the elite science and tech magnet high school.
I decided to apply to that high school (consistently top 5 in the nation, no exaggeration) thanks to the recommendation of my girlfriend down the street as she was a year ahead of me and already a student there. This underscores the importance of good peer pressure because at the time rankings did not matter to me but good prospects at seeing cute boys did. In spite of what I thought would be lower social prospects, I decided to accept and attend thanks to the incredible art work on the walls and feeling like anyplace that curated such amazing artists was where I needed to be. In high school, I (thankfully) never got the easy teachers and hence learned the most! I was also around other talented Black students, so I did not feel "other."
I have always followed a natural path as a leader starting in middle school where I was at first discounted by majority classmates and won the popular vote to be student council president because the school was a mixture of students from the surrounding lower-income neighborhood who rallied behind me while I also had the support of friends from my more affluent, predominately-white neighborhood. That theme continued into high school where I was president of my class for all four years. That really helped me know and trust myself and to just be me: I cared about people, remembered people's names, and heard their stories regardless of race, ethnicity, or natural interests. Turns out that's not a strong suit of the kids who THINK they are most popular. Within that STEM space, I learned where I shined the most: listening to and compassionately leading people. I had the necessary technical acumen, but it was the people skills that really sealed it! I credit my very charismatic father who "never met a stranger;" he would wave at people on the street and I would ask, "Do you know them?" and he would simply say, "No," and keep going like it was the most natural thing in the world...
In college, it was a female professor in engineering (one of the few there at the University of Virginia) who planted the seed for me to continue on for my PhD one day. Another professor who would go on to "Last Lecture" fame pointed me to how I could integrate my love of people and art into technology through human-computer interaction and he invited me to be an undergraduate research assistant. For my career, I did not simply go into the traditional process and technology roles with then Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) with whom I had interned the previous three summers, but I went through the entire interview process to join instead the change management group where I could be a bridge to the developers with my technical understanding and relatability.
In addition to these experiences, along my path, I have been tied into affirming organizations like county summer art programs, INROADS, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Southern Regional Education Board, and most notably The PhD Project. Each of those programs had leadership training, opportunities to develop my communication skills, and connections with people of influence in my future trajectory.
Overall, I have always sat in the front of the room and raised my hand with questions. I inherently knew: someone else also had that question so let me be bold and represent the voiceless, or I was going to gain something in the asking -- not lose. The notion of leaning in was odd to me when it was en vogue as a concept because I have always leaned in... and so has every other Black woman that I know...
Women make up 25% of full professors at U.S. institutions but only represent 10% of information system professors. Industry reflects these low numbers in academia. How will the grant you/Kennesaw State were just awarded from the NSF double that low number and go north from there with PhD Project and other key organizations?
Currently, only 20% of Information Systems (IS) faculty at the rank of Full Professor are women. This number is slightly down from the beginning of the pipeline where 26% of Assistant Professors in IS are women, and the highest percentage of women faculty in IS are at the adjunct or clinical rank (32%). In conjunction with the IS academic field’s professional society, the Association for Information Systems (AIS), and a team of investigators across five institutions, I am working to promote the advancement of women in the IS field, with an emphasis on increasing transitioning women to Full. As a lead consultant on this three-year, million-dollar grant awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Organizational Change for Gender Equity in STEM Academic Professions (ADVANCE) program titled, “ImPACT: Increasing the Participation and AdvanCement of Women in Information Technology” (Award # 2017130 on 8/13/2020), I will help ensure inclusion of women from traditionally-underrepresented groups like African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinx.
This NSF ADVANCE Partnership grant aims to address the lack of gender equity within the IS academic field; increase the number of women, especially at the rank of Full Professor; and catalyze action and foster accountability around supporting women’s efforts to advance to Full. The grant activities are a major strategic opportunity for the field’s professional society by focusing on the AIS’s role in creating positive change through diversity and inclusion in the IS discipline, a STEM field. There are three main objectives of this work: 1) systemic change in AIS policies and processes, 2) create and institutionalize best practices to support faculty in promotion to Full, and 3) identify and address areas of hidden and implicit bias.
Although the AIS has made several advancements around committees and data collection efforts, policies and structures necessary to support women and underrepresented groups are still missing. As evidence, only 10% of top AIS leadership positions have been held by women across its 25-year history, and only 10% of top awards by the society have gone to women. There is not enough granularity in the data to further understand the standings of women from underrepresented groups. Hence, an intersectional view of women in IS and their paths to Full Professor is not yet knowable. However, through partnership with supporting organizations such as The PhD Project, which has championed the increase in the diversity of business school faculty since 1994, we may obtain better understanding.
With such a significant charge, the entire AIS Council voted to support the submission of this NSF ADVANCE grant application and has subsequently signaled support of its efforts now that it has been awarded. The results will be broad in reach as creating systemic change in the association can have ripple effects in the field as a whole and in the greater society. Equal representation of women of all intersectional identities among the senior ranks of IS faculty will enhance the quality of students’ education, the impact of university research, engagement with communities, and the leadership of higher education institutions. Further, the AIS’s ADVANCE project likely will be of broad interest to other associations as many academic associations struggle with gender inequity, lack knowledge of best practices and resources for dealing with inequity, and women STEM faculty continue to struggle with the Associate-to-Full promotion process. As a result of this work, more people may become institutional change agents, including IS department heads and leaders at other institutions.
What allows you to work so well across disciplines, sectors and populations? Why is this skill so crucial for inclusive leadership right now?
I love doing leadership profiles and they all come confirming essentially the same thing: I am a facilitator. I am a mixture of having a curious mind with a broad, systems view, who can see how the parts are all interconnected; I listen to the stakeholders sensing what they are not saying, coaxing it out in a safe and trusted space. Then I zoom in to understand, what is the question in focus? I also tell people what I need from them to be their most effective advocate: the whole picture, why do they see themselves as great, seeing their whole selves of personal and professional intertwined because I want to help the person most and without judgement of how they have come to where they are presently. That sincerity cannot be faked, and it must be demonstrated.
How did this mixture come about? Being trusted by my parents to figure things out... Whether it was building things in our backyard with the leftover bricks from some home improvement project, to being a latchkey kid through elementary school, getting to determine my fate for attending that elite magnet high school for science and technology, cultivating my A (artist) within the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs, and never seeing just the box for my career in industry nor academia.
What do you most want to say to young people today who aspire to be as successful as you, especially our emerging African American talent as we celebrate Black history in this past year of multiple measure difficulty?
If you are in the room, you are supposed to be there -- regardless of if no one else looks like you. If you feel confident and comfortable, others will feel this, too. This must be infused in your spirit. Let your light shine so brightly it burns away the darkness and guides others. May that makeup of the room only be temporary because you will be actively bringing others behind you.
To help make this change, take note and be vigilant because one day you will look up and realize you are not just in the room, you are "in the room where it happens" (to borrow from Hamilton the Musical). No one else will know but you what you enact on behalf of others in that room. No matter how emotionally-burdensome, you must then act. We are all connected and that is grounded in spirituality and leadership mindset.
With that connection, remember "safety in numbers." Having a trusted buddy for the present journey is key and that person does not have to look like you -- but they do have to share some key characteristics as you (core values to have a common language). Someone recently shared the adage that "the first one through the wall gets the bloodiest." So, that's another reason to have a comrade because at some point one of you is going to go down and you need the other to sometimes drag you along until you can get back up on your own feet...