by Sarah K. White

ITSMF: Growing Black IT careers through leadership programs

Feb 26, 2021
CareersDiversity and InclusionMentoring

For Black IT pros, it can be a hard, lonely road to the top. ITSMF is one organization connecting and advancing Black IT pros through programs that offer mentorship, training, and support.

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Members of the Information Technology Senior Management Forum like to say its acronym, ITSMF, stands for “It’s my family.” That’s the foundation ITSMF was built on: creating a community of Black IT executives, leaders, and professionals who can connect with other IT professionals who understand what it’s like to often be the only person of color in a leadership position within a company.

ITSMF launched in 1996 as a direct response to the dismal representation of Black IT professionals in the industry — at the time, only 3% of IT management roles were held by Black technologists. The organization has since flourished in helping Black IT professionals grow their careers in an industry that remains predominantly white, with African Americans holding just 7% of positions in the tech industry, and only 2% of tech executive roles, according to data from the Diversity in High Tech report published by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Robert Scott, vice president and dean of the ITSMF global institute for professional development, was already a vice president the first time he attended an ITSMF event. He remembers being “absolutely floored, to the point of silence,” as he looked around the room and saw “all of these people that looked like me, that were at my level, and that I never knew existed.”

Robert Scott, vice president and dean of professional development, ITSMF ITSMF

Robert Scott, vice president and dean of professional development, ITSMF

The experience was similar for Elaine Norman, vice president of membership and external affairs at ITSMF. She attended her first ITSMF meeting during her time as CIO for United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta. Previously, she had attended conferences for executive women in IT, but found she couldn’t fully be her authentic self at these meetings and events. She was often one of the few — and sometimes only — woman leaders of color in the room. When she found the ITSMF, it was the first time she didn’t feel as though she had to dress, act, or speak in a certain way to blend in. She could bring her true, professional self to the meetings and left feeling empowered by the experience.

“If you come to one of our meetings, you will never know who’s the CIO, and who’s the first-level director, because all of that stuff gets checked at the door. It feels like a professional family reunion. And that is what breaks down the walls, to allow mentorship to actually occur because I can say what’s really going on with me and not feel like I’m going to be judged,” Scott says.

ITSMF academies and mentorship

ITSMF offers mentorship programs through three different academies: Executive Academy, Management Academy, and Emerge Academy. The Executive and Management academies offer 10-month programs, while the Emerge Academy program, which is aimed at midlevel and executive-level women of color in leadership positions, offers a one-year program. The Management Academy is aimed at helping middle-level managers and directors develop their leadership skills, while the Executive Academy is designed for those who are “one to three moves away from the C-suite,” Scott says. “And our goal is to help them get across the finish line and actually become C-suite executives.”

Elaine Norman, vice president of membership and external affairs, ITSMF ITSMF

Elaine Norman, vice president of membership and external affairs, ITSMF

Elease Houston is one IT professional who has seen her career grow after attending ITSMF Management Academy. Houston had recently graduated from Georgetown University Masters of Technology program and was managing the operation center at Freddie Mac when leadership at the government-sponsored enterprise sponsored her participation in ITSMF’s Management Academy program to help build her leadership skills. “That program helped to move my thinking from managing to leading, from tactical to strategic thinking, and most importantly how to value what I brought to the table and to command confident respect,” she says.

Not long after completing the Management Academy program, Houston was promoted to director, and she feels her promotion was “largely due to what I learned and the support I got from the program. Specifically, to speak up, ask for what you want, and make it difficult to be looked over.” 

Here, ITSMF’s emphasis on mentorship is key, Houston says. “ITSMF’s mentorship program offers executives the support they need that they may not get from their white counterparts,” she says. “In addition, those questions that are exclusive to ‘us’ can be asked in a safe environment with your mentor who more than likely has been through the same experience his or herself and can offer sage advice. That is the advantage.”

Penelope Harris is another beneficiary of ITSMF’s mentorship model. Harris, who works at HP as a PMO deployment lead for the ERP transformation program, credits her ITSMF mentor with helping her “re-evaluate” her “career blind spots,” and figure out what it would take to advance to the next level of her career. She met with her mentor once a week for an hour, and received “straight-forward feedback” based on her mentor’s past and current experiences.

Penelope Harris, PMO deployment lead for ERP transformation, HP HP

Penelope Harris, PMO deployment lead for ERP transformation, HP

“The moniker for ITSMF is ‘It’s My Family.’ Families take care of each other. This is what makes the mentorship program stand out among any other programs not targeted for Black professionals in technology. I can attest to this because after having matriculated from the program, both my professional and personal life are completely transformed for the better. Having the power of family within a professional program is unlike any other and this is what makes ITSMF bridge the proverbial professional mentorship gap,” says Harris.

Mentors are paired with mentees based on questions answered during the application process, with career goals and personality type taken into account. Mentees receive one-on-one coaching with program directors, who are professionally trained in coaching and are passionate about the work they do in their field. Houston’s program director had a 42:1 ratio of mentees to mentor, but she says despite his workload, her mentor was “readily available to meet with [mentees] if [they] reached out to talk through professional issues or approaches to lean on through personal issues. In fact, I still have his number in my phone and feel comfortable calling him today,” she says.

The demands of the program could sometimes be intense, Houston says. Participants in ITSMF programs are required to meet deadlines for projects and assignments, sometimes burning the “midnight oil to get things done,” but Houston says that the “rewards of the camaraderie and belonging outweighed the sacrifice.”

Strong mentorship creates strong leaders

Representation is vitally important for BIPOC workers in tech. The lack of diversity in the industry can leave Black IT leaders feeling isolated in their careers the closer they get to the top. Once Black IT professionals reach the executive level, they’re often the only person of color in the room, which can be a lonely experience in a company that lacks equity and inclusion. ITSMF gives Black technologists the opportunity to connect and network with IT professionals, leaders, and executives and to be mentored by someone who understands their experience. 

A strong mentorship program that considers diversity can help sow inclusion in the organization. “Most companies focus on the diversity piece [when hiring] and they think that’s enough, not realizing that their [internal] culture is such that it creates a revolving door,” ITSMF’s Scott says. “If people feel like they’re not being treated equitably or getting the opportunities, assignments or promotions, they will choose to leave.”

HP’s Harris agrees. “Representation matters and BIPOC hires need to see themselves in positions of power to feel the possibility that they too can ascend to higher levels,” she says. “Investing in Black talent is a testament to how serious a company is about having an inclusive environment that creates opportunities for success and growth for all.”

Mentorship is one such investment. Pairing BIPOC employees with mentors who share their experience, whether internally or through programs such as those run by the ITSMF, can go a long way to creating growth and opportunities for a more diverse workforce.

“Our goal is to really help people be everything that they need to be. And if we do that, then they’ll be the best technologists and they’ll make the biggest impact at their companies,” Scott says. “We’re leaders transforming leaders, and it’s got to be at that level in order to truly make a difference for leaders of color.”