Being Black in IT: 3 tech leaders share their stories

You can’t offer solutions to racial problems in tech without a broader understanding of actual career experiences. Three Black tech professionals step forward to tell their stories.

Being black in IT: 3 tech leaders share their stories
iManage / Courtside VC / First You Leadership

The technology industry likes to think of itself as a vanguard for diversity and inclusion. But in the U.S., even at large tech companies touted for their diversity and inclusion initiatives, the percentage of Black professionals in tech management positions remains in the low single digits, little changed from decades ago.

Still, percentages alone do not tell the whole story. As with other areas of U.S. business, Blacks who overcome obstacles to succeed in tech have had to deal with racism in a variety of forms, from unconscious bias to career-damaging confrontations. 

In this cultural moment of reckoning, when much of America seems willing at last to confront past and current racism, the tech industry demands its own share of scrutiny. Inspired by a suggestion from Peter Beasley, executive director of the advocacy organization Blacks in Technology, this article recounts the personal experiences of three successful Black tech leaders: an ex-CIO of a Fortune 50 company, a venture capitalist, and the CIO of an enterprise software company.

Zackarie Lemelle: Corporate IT still has a long way to go

A former CIO for Johnson & Johnson, Zackarie Lemelle has a storied career in tech, stretching from the early days of the computer industry to his current position as an independent career consultant and a partner at the executive coaching firm First You Leadership.

Zackarie Lemelle, independent career consultant and partner, First You Leadership First You Leadership

Zackarie Lemelle, independent career consultant and partner at First You Leadership

In 1971, fresh out of high school in Columbus, Ga., Lemelle moved to Atlanta to attend the region’s first Control Data Institute class in computer operations, which guaranteed employment upon completion. The only Black person, he graduated second in his class, but soon discovered the job guarantee did not apply to him. “They had a number of jobs in the newspapers there in Atlanta, but they weren’t hiring any African Americans,” he says. “The excuse was: ‘You don't have experience; therefore we can’t hire you.’  Well, at that time no one had experience in computers, it was so new.”

So Lemelle joined the Army — and qualified for both officer candidate school and computer training school. He was turned down in both cases. “They wanted me to be a footsoldier,” he says. He refused to be sworn in and went back home to Columbus, where he contacted his Army recruiter and the office of his congressperson, the civil rights leader Julian Bond. Two months later the Army invited him to attend computer training school in Fort Ben Harrison, Ind. But promotions up the ranks proved uncommon for African Americans in the Army. “There was always something extra we had to do,” he says.

Lemelle left the Army after two years to start a successful consulting career at several boutique firms in Southern California, including as a CIO for the outsourcing firm Systems & Technology Corp. (later acquired by Sungard). "Out of their 44 clients nationally, I was the only African American CIO in the company,” Lemelle recalls. He was promoted and moved into sales, but “I was not allowed to engage with white male sales prospects in the South.” In one case, even though he identified a sales opportunity in South Carolina, he was told by his boss he could not be on the sales team because the white leaders there would not accept him.

A year later, in 1991, a recruiter reached out to Lemelle for the position of director of systems and programming at McNeil Pharmaceuticals, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary. “They purposely went out to look for an African American to hire at the director level, because they didn’t have any at the time,” he says. After four months and no fewer than 22 interviews, Ortho-McNeil hired Lemelle the same day it hired its first Black woman director, Charlotte McGinnis.

Lemelle’s career in corporate America got off to a rocky start. “I came from the consulting world. You do your quick analysis of what’s going on in the environment, you develop your plan of action, and you execute, because time is money. I came into J&J with that same mindset — not a good idea as an African American,” he says.

After six months, Lemelle was informed by several of his reports that they were holding an offsite planning meeting to which he was not invited. “I said fine, go ahead,” he recalls. Then a facilitator of the meeting asked him whether he knew the group was developing a strategy to get him fired. “These were all whites — 14 people in this meeting,” he says.

He was asked whether he wanted to have a conversation with them. “My reaction was, hell no, I’m not going to have a conversation with them. Are you kidding me? How dare they!” He was so upset that he offered his resignation to his boss, who refused to accept it and convinced him to meet with his accusers — and listen to their feedback without responding in the moment. At the offsite, on a Friday afternoon, he sat in a living room with “all 14 of them sitting around in a U-shape. They put me at the head of this horseshoe. One by one by one by one, they all gave me feedback about why this wasn’t working for them.” One employee objected that he used “too many urban colloquialisms”; another resented that he had visited her cubicle without warning.

To Lemelle, it was clear they were unhappy about the company’s desire to become more diverse — and he was the target. “Worst of all I saw a copy of the agenda. At the bottom of the page was a stickman on a noose on a scaffold, with a callout with my name in it. You can imagine how I felt,” he says.

Still, Lemelle prevailed. The following Monday morning, one by one, the gang of 14 came to his office to apologize. “They said they were sorry, it shouldn’t have happened — and big heart, big love, I forgave every single one of them,” he says.

Lemelle went on to become director of reengineering for Ortho-McNeil (after McNeil merged with Ortho Pharmaceuticals) and in 1999, CIO for Ortho-McNeil — although it took another inordinate number of interviews to clinch the CIO role. “Those same people who wanted me to be fired were the ones who asked me to be their CIO and their boss again in a new organization within J&J,” he says. In senior management he was a tireless advocate for diversity, co-leading the formation of the African American Employee Resource Group at Johnson & Johnson.

“When I retired from J&J in 2010, I was very proud of what we had accomplished and the number of African Americans there,” Lemelle says. He also helped establish LGBTQ and South Asian and Pacific Islander diversity groups. But despite an obvious affection for his former company, he admits to a certain fatigue. “In my career, I have probably done 36 or 37 diversity sessions, because I was one of the few African Americans there at the time and they needed my voice in the room. And I got to the point when I said: I don’t want to do this anymore, OK. I’m tired of telling my story, I’m tired of talking about issues, because nothing was changing.”

Today, as an independent consultant and executive coach — a job he sees as his true calling — Lemelle’s Black clients continue to encounter systemic racism, including a lack of career development, a dearth of honest feedback, and double standards for performance reviews. Lemelle also believes the trendy “fail fast” approach doesn't apply to African Americans: “As a person of color, even in IT, you only need to make one mistake and there’s a high probability you'll be written off.”

Chief among his recommendations for Blacks in tech with senior management ambitions is to find an executive mentor in a position of power within their company. Yet career advancement remains an uphill battle. Lemelle can’t help but conclude that “there needs to be education and dialog within the IT community about systemic racism within IT and how to overcome it. It can be done. But only if we do it together.”

Kai Bond: The challenges of being Black in venture capital

Kai Bond got his start in tech 30 years after Zacharie Lemelle entered the industry. Today a Partner at the firm he co-founded, Courtside VC, Bond began his career with an internship at Microsoft while finishing his BA at Wesleyan — and accepted a fulltime program manager position at the company in 2001.

Kai Bond, partner, Courtside VC Courtside VC

Kai Bond, partner, Courtside VC

“I was lucky enough to work in MSN Mobile, where we launched MSN Messenger and Hotmail globally, starting in Asia,” he says. “We worked with NTT DoCoMo and South Korea Telecom and it was just a fascinating ride.”

At Microsoft, Bond benefitted from a program reminiscent of those Lemelle labored to create. Blacks at Microsoft, which Bond terms “an amazing support ecosystem,” helped the former New Yorker adjust to largely white Seattle, including “where the churches are, the restaurants, where I want to hang out.” Importantly, he was assigned a mentor — a senior director with 17 years of experience at the company. Bond appreciated being under the wing of “a professional who has been around and can help walk you through some of the challenges.”

One of those challenges came during his first week on the job. “I went into an engineer's office; he’d been around for a good 10 years at Microsoft,” Bond recalls. “I said, ‘Look, I want to go over the spec with you and talk through what you're working on and be helpful.’ And I remember him just looking at me going: ‘You know, you could be helpful. You could go home and mow my lawn.’”

That interaction stuck with Bond for years. “I always thought back to that one conversation. You're like, is this racist? Is he saying it because I'm the new guy? Is he saying it because I'm young? Is he saying it’s because I'm Black? Is it because I’m being hazed? I went back to my desk and kind of slumped down. It was just one of those moments that I don't know if I've ever come to full reconciliation with.”

Being, as best as he can recall, the only Black person in a team of approximately 70 people did not make it any easier on “a kid still figuring out the world.” And that isolation has followed him through his career, from when he left Microsoft in 2004 to his subsequent decade-long adventure in the gaming industry — during which he founded several startups — and finally, to his current career in venture capital.

Take Bond’s efforts to raise startup money. He recalls a typical situation: “There's like 15 people on an investment committee and not one of them looks like me. We're just not going to be the people they give money to.” That perspective is borne out by the oft-quoted stat that only around 1 percent of venture capital goes to Black founders.

Bond’s third gaming startup, Pixie, was acquired by Samsung, a successful exit that sparked his transition to venture capital — as a general manager at Samsung Accelerator, as an investor at Comcast, and today as a partner at Courtside VC. While at Samsung, he recalls being a couple of minutes late for a meeting in which a startup founder was already seated. “He's like, ‘Oh, great, the IT guy’s here, I can't connect.’ I’m like, ‘I actually run this office.’” That particular founder did not walk away with an investment that day.

At Courtside VC, Bond recently did a Zoom call with 10 other Black VCs who have raised capital for their own venture funds. “We all know each other,” he says. “It's crazy how few of us there are and how much we get lumped together. They just expect that because you are a Black VC that you're only going to invest in Black people, which is not the case.”

Such misperceptions can be a real inhibitor when Courtside needs to raise money from limited partners, the gatekeepers for VC funding. Often, says Bond, he gets pushed into the “diversity bucket.” Individual investors tend to be savvier, he says, but at the institutional level, “it’s like, ‘Oh, we have a program for people like you. Go and use the other door.’ It's a fraction of the amount of money that is available. My fund does well. Why don't you give me a look instead of forcing me through the lens with which you want me to be perceived?”

Bond sees a possible blueprint for change in the Me Too movement’s successful reform efforts in California, where publicly traded companies are now required to have a female on their board. Women “were given a seat at the table through regulatory regime change. But until you have that, it's not going to be the same for Blacks,” he says.

Van D. Richardson: The isolation of Black success in IT

An aptitude for tech came naturally to Van Richardson. Like many who began their careers in the ’90s, he was self-taught — and in his case, opted for an MBA instead of a formal tech education. He got his start in tech as a senior network and Windows Server admin at Citibank, worked his way up to the IT director level at several companies, and then took a left turn into startup-land, where he became head of IT for Grubhub.

Van Richardson, CIO, iManage iManage

Van Richardson, CIO, iManage

Today, Richardson is CIO of high-growth document management and AI company iManage and recently completed an executive leadership program at Cornell. He’s also working on a doctoral thesis for the University of Phoenix on the underrepresentation of African Americans in tech.

Back in 1995, Richardson landed the job at Citibank in Chicago through a combination of chutzpah and luck. “I just walked in the door, which was very unique at that time,” he says. “I walked into an officer position for the bank. I was given a chance, essentially, which was weird and scary at the same time, because I had to manage Windows 3.11, NT 3.51, and Novell NetWare 3.11. But I did that job and I enjoyed it. It taught me a lot about how to manage IT.”

He built on that competency to establish a successful career. But persistently, Richardson has seen his legitimacy questioned. “I hear it even in social circles,” he says. “I’m always asked: How did I get there? That makes me feel like they either think I don’t deserve to be here or it’s like, for lack of a better term, who did I suck up to to get to that position?”

The fact that there are so few Blacks in senior IT management positions ratchets up the pressure, he says. “Even now in my career, I feel I have the burden of everybody, of all Black folks. So I need to make sure I do it right, I lead by example, I don’t mess up. Because I’m deathly afraid if I mess up, I’m going to ruin it for the next possible Black person to get into a leadership role.”

Over the course of his career, one racial confrontation stands out from the rest. “I was told that I wasn’t smart enough, I didn’t belong here, and I’m not qualified for the position that I had,” he says, describing an incident that occurred eight years ago. The person who told him that felt he was entitled to the director job Richardson held at the time.

“I knew I deserved to be there. Basically, based on the color of my skin, just because things didn’t go their way, the first reaction they had was a race one,” says Richardson. “Those things don’t scare me, but it was disheartening” that a racially charged scene like that could still occur.

Proficiency aside, Richardson knows that you can’t stand still in tech. “Gone are the days of trying to mask whether you know stuff or not, because everybody knows a lot nowadays. The more I keep my pulse on technology, the more I network, the more I find people and learn from them, that’s an important piece,” he says.

In 2016, that continuous exploration helped him land a job at Grubhub as director of technical operations; a little over three years later, he became Grubhub’s head of IT. “I learned a hell of a lot there,” he says. “The evolution of technology was amazing. We were processing thousands of orders per minute.”

Though Grubhub is headquartered in Chicago, the transition to a Silicon Valley workstyle was rough. “For a while, I was nervous of the system going down or that I couldn’t go out to dinner at times because it’s 7:00 p.m. and that was our busy time. My phone would ring and there goes my night. I got the evil eye from my wife every day.”

Grubhub prepared him for his current position as CIO at iManage. “We’re a cloud-first business,” he says, though the company also offers an on-prem version. “We’re using AI, we’re delivering mission-critical cloud solutions, and we’re evolving. I’m happy that my leadership supports me and has backed me in every decision that I’ve ever had to make for the organization.”

But still, as the topic of his dissertation suggests, he’s troubled by the scarcity of Blacks in positions like his. “I’ve been the highest-ranking African American in almost all of my companies,” says Richardson. “I’ve basically been the only one. It’s nerve wracking, because I’m in the spotlight. And while I try not to let it bother me, I think it does, because I want to see others who look like me, and not just in administrative jobs.”

Lack of access to educational resources and the catch-22 of few Black role models in tech stand in the way. “I just want fairness and equality, period, for everybody,” he asserts. “I’m not looking for handouts. I’m not going to say that every black person needs to be an executive. I would love to see more Blacks in technology; I would love to sort of be a catapult for them. I would love to help lead and show others that you can succeed in IT. And I’m going to do everything I can to be that example.” 

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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