by Beth Stackpole

Black IT leaders: The challenging path to the top

Jul 27, 2020
CareersDiversity and InclusionIT Leadership

For Black IT professionals, the path to leadership remains fraught with systemic racial issues and few outlets for support. Here, Black IT leaders shed light on their experiences and share advice for change.

diversity in it black woman with binary background and cityscape overlay by marilyn nieves getty im
Credit: Marilyn Nieves / Getty Images

As a Black kid from Frederick Douglass High School, which is in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Atlanta, Richard Cox carved out a very intentional path to break from the confines of the inner city. He worked hard to excel at school, threw his all into high-school football, earned a scholarship to a prominent college, and later, followed up with an MBA.

Yet despite a proven game plan, Cox initially struggled to advance. After 17 rejection notices for jobs where the minimum requirement was a high school degree, a frustrated Cox was nearly ready to give up on the corporate world and get a master’s degree in teaching. Then a lone manager intervened, creating introductions that led first to a customer analyst job and eventually to a decades-long career in top-level customer experience and operations management, including his current role as CIO at Cox Enterprises.

“He saw something in me as a person over and beyond me being a Black person,” Cox explains. “Once I was afforded an opportunity based on merit, I progressed relatively quickly. I was stuck and I got lucky. By engaging people, I had an opportunity to change my life.”

Like many rising IT professionals of color, Cox’s career path was blocked at multiple intervals either by systematic racism or unintentional bias in an industry long dominated by white males. Most Black IT leaders have stories of being passed over for jobs they are overqualified for, of being sidelined in meetings, and of being mistaken for subordinates to white colleagues even when they are the manager or project lead. Even today, amid recent events that have amplified a national conversation around long-standing racial injustice, Black IT leaders say the tech sector is still up against a diversity problem that shows few signs of going away.

Richard Cox, CIO, Cox Enterprises

Richard Cox, CIO, Cox Enterprises

According to the U.S. Census, on average, 7.3 percent of computer operations jobs are held by Blacks, 6 percent by Hispanics, and 25 percent by women, 10 percent of which are women of color. The executive level is even less diverse. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Black professionals accounted for just 3.3 percent of all executive or senior-level leadership roles and just 3 percent of CEOs.

Keeping the pipeline full of diverse candidates primed for technology roles continues to be a problem at the K-12 level, into college, and throughout all phases of employment. Yet Black IT leaders say diversity in IT hasn’t progressed the way it should, not just because dollars aren’t being devoted to STEM education or attention to the pipeline. Rather, they point to systematic racism and lingering cultural norms that make people of color feel unwelcome to pursue a lifelong career in this sector.

For example, research shows Black professionals are more likely to encounter prejudice and microaggressions (58% vs. 15% of white professionals) more than any other racial or ethnic group, according to a study published by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a nonprofit thinktank. Black professionals are also less likely than their white colleagues to have access to senior leaders and gain support from their managers, the report found. Sixty-five percent of Black professionals believe they have to work harder to get ahead.

“If you look at the [diversity] numbers, you have to see it’s not improved, it’s actually gotten worse because we know there’s a problem and there hasn’t been any real commitment to make change,” contends Sharon Kennedy Vickers, CIO of the office of technology and communications for the city of St. Paul, Minn. The biggest hurdle to diversifying the ranks, Vickers says, is the common recognition that it remains an industry catering to white males.

Sharon Kennedy Vickers, CIO, City of St. Paul, Minn.

Sharon Kennedy Vickers, CIO, City of St. Paul, Minn.

“People come into unwelcoming spaces and they’re not taken seriously or given projects and they face a higher level of scrutiny on their work so the individuals leave,” she explains. “As a Black woman in this space, I want to see real action around this — I want companies to understand that having Black and brown individuals in your company isn’t just a moral imperative, but a business imperative as well.”

Cultural shock and then some

Vickers, who entered tech in 1997 as a single parent looking for a compelling career path that would also allow her to help others, enjoyed some mobility in her early years in IT then hit a wall. There were meetings with business partners that directed all questions to her white male counterparts and suggestions that she should be taking notes. Vickers flirted with the idea of leaving tech when she didn’t see a leadership path, but eventually reversed course after consultation with a long-time mentor.

What Vickers and other Black IT leaders say routinely gives POC pause is not seeing anyone relatable in upper management that might have shared experiences. Without clear leaders to emulate, incoming Black IT professionals struggle to navigate corporate culture and forge the requisite connections.

Take Ed Sewell, a Black entrepreneur now CEO of Velocity AI, an AI startup. Sewell was identified early on as a high achiever with an aptitude for STEM and on track for an Ivy League education. Then his dad got sick, forcing him to abandon college plans and take a temp job in a top consulting firm’s mail room to help support the family.

Ed Sewell, CEO, Velocity AI

Ed Sewell, CEO, Velocity AI

While Sewell’s dedication and hard work landed him on the radar of an office manager for promotion, his lack of a college degree was an immediate barrier to moving forward.

“It’s all about access and culture,” he says. “As an African American, you typically don’t have access to the networks, whether it’s at university or living in more affluent areas. If you don’t go to school or interact with counterparts until you’re actually at the job site, there’s a lack of understanding on both sides.”

Sewell, who admits his path was one of the hardest possible, overcame that obstacle, getting hired at EY and eventually becoming a partner in his practice without first getting a formal degree.

Without access and opportunity, Black IT professionals feel ignored and struggle to be heard. Bennetta Raby, a former IT executive and now a transformation consultant and executive coach, says her hybrid business and technology background made her stand out, but a path wasn’t as clear for a small pool of Black IT peers. She recalls being proud of being awarded a transformational role because of her ability to bring people together only to question the utility when her POC colleagues wondered why she needed to be the funnel to present their innovation ideas to top management.

Bennetta Raby, former IT executive and now transformation consultant and executive coach

Bennetta Raby, former IT executive and now transformation consultant and executive coach

“I started realizing that’s one of the fundamental holdbacks for anyone, especially Black IT professionals — they feel like they never get in the circle to be able to share their perspectives,” Raby recalls. “They don’t see many people that represent them and when they do, there’s an expectation that will open the door to their perspective and ideas. But by and large, that doesn’t happen.”

Being the sole person bearing the burden of the entire Black culture can also get old quickly, says Aaron Saunders, CEO of Clearly Innovative, a web and mobile development firm focused on hiring and training POC from non-traditional backgrounds. Saunders says he saw few, if any, Black folks when he first got into coding in corporate America, and always felt like a stranger when attending conferences in Silicon Valley. That lack of representation makes it difficult for up-and-coming Black IT professionals to want to leave the safety net of their support systems and communities just to stay in tech.

“It makes it challenging to make that transition,” he says. “And if there’s not a lot of us going, it’s hard to bring in others and pull them up.”

Mentors, sponsors, and resource groups

In fact, mentors and executive sponsors have been the secret sauce for most successful Black IT leaders, delivering access to networks and opening up doors to new opportunities. H. James Dallas, one of the first Black CIOs, having held the role at both Georgia-Pacific and Medtronic, credits sponsorship at critical stages of his career as the ticket to advancement in what was often an inhospitable corporate climate. While people often self-select their mentors, Dallas underscores that a sponsor must pick you. As a result, he advises up-and-comers to gain attention by working hard, taking risks, and stepping up for the tough and potentially less coveted assignments.

Aaron Saunders, CEO, Clearly Innovative

Aaron Saunders, CEO, Clearly Innovative

Dallas learned that lesson early on when a new IT director, after talking up Georgia-Pacific’s then move to state-of-the-art client/server, asked him to take the less glamorous role of supporting a mainframe transportation application. Dallas, determined to make lemonade out of lemons, soaked up everything he could about the system, the transportation sector, and worked closely with business counterparts to make the effort a success. When one business leader pushed back with a racist remark, Dallas’ sponsor not only had his back but paved the way for the next opportunity.

“That incident did me a favor,” Dallas recalls. “It made my boss aware of my environment, put me on the radar screen, and got other things working.”

H. James Dallas, former CIO, Georgia-Pacific and Medtronic

H. James Dallas, former CIO, Georgia-Pacific and Medtronic

Compared to Dallas’ early days, there are a lot more resources and organizations today to help Black IT professionals navigate corporate culture and learn what it takes to make themselves visible to internal and external sponsors. The Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF) is one organization dedicated to increasing representation of Black professionals in the tech industry through a variety of programs, including formal symposiums and specialized leadership and training academies such as one targeted at director-and-above level IT professionals and one for women of color. The organization has graduated 600 professionals, three quarters of whom have received a promotion or increased job responsibility within 18 months, according to Viola Maxwell-Thompson, ITSMF president and CEO.

Maxwell-Thompson says Black IT professionals face cultural challenges that go against the grain of climbing the corporate ladder. From an early age, she says Black people are taught to keep their head down and get their work done, not to make waves, and to not make mistakes at the risk of getting fired.

“We’re quiet, so it’s assumed we don’t have the answer or can’t contribute to what the business is trying to achieve,” she says. Black professionals also work from the playbook that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead, but that strategy isn’t as effective for senior-level positions.

Viola Maxwell-Thompson, president and CEO, ITSMF 

Viola Maxwell-Thompson, president and CEO, ITSMF 

“Performance is important, but image and exposure takes a much larger slice of the pie,” she explains. “If you don’t have a sponsor in the room, it becomes much harder and the path takes much longer.”

With that in mind, Cox Enterprise’s Cox advises Black IT professionals to be intentional about everything, from doing your best work to seeking out mentors to taking control of what can be controlled. To promote more diversity at the global conglomerate, Cox is following a similar playbook when forging partnerships to help build a talent pipeline in places that are typically overlooked, in entering alliances with organizations like ITSMF to help nurture existing POC employees, and in creating metrics to hold the organization accountable.

“We have to be more intentional now to be sure we move the needle,” he says. “Black people have been protesting and asking for years, but it will take a collective effort to change systematic issues.”

Paying it forward

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As you’re climbing the ladder, it’s also important to be the voice for the next generation. Ron Guerrier, CIO and secretary of innovation and technology for the State of Illinois, has taken that to heart as has most of his fellow Black IT leaders. Sewell works to help Black IT startups raise money from the venture capital community, Dallas regularly lectures and participates in sponsorships and mentoring, and Guerrier does everything he can to promote STEM education, including doing a monthly Tech Talk Tuesday with Secretary G, where he speaks with teachers, parents and students statewide to help POC understand opportunities in tech. Guerrier also encourages firms to put significant budgetary and executive backing behind enterprise resource groups and mentoring programs that support POC and diverse groups.

“As you progress in the organization, you have to find a way to be the voice for the next man up,” he says. “The more you bring people along with you, the more they’ll do the same. We all need to make sure we’re bringing up society as best we can.”

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