Former IBM exec forges new career to support diversity in tech

3 May 2016

Education, access, mentors and sponsors are crucial to encourage diverse bright minds in tech, according to Inspirefest speaker Lauren C States.

What do you do after you have built a globe-spanning career in technology and blazed a trail for women in leadership? For former IBM executive and Inspirefest 2016 speaker Lauren C States, the next step is to help young people become engaged in STEM and support them as they develop their own careers.

States has spent the last 16 months or so looking at early engagement and career development and believes education, role models, mentors and sponsors all have key roles to play.

Maths in mind

States recalled that her own love of maths started in high school. “I did very well in math, in algebra,” she said. “I was a minority girl and there were very few minorities in my community and in my high school, so being really good at math was a good way for me to build confidence.”

Her mathematical aptitude also saw her go for leadership roles early on – including class treasurer: “When I was a sophomore, my friends decided my motto for running should be ‘Unite Your Money with States’,” she said.

States was all set to follow in her father’s footsteps and study accounting at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, but while there she took a class in coding, fell in love with it, and ended up studying decision sciences. IBM came looking for new hires on campus and States started working with them in 1978 as a systems engineer in Manhattan. “My career has been in technology ever since,” she said.

That career has seen States work with colleagues and customers around the world in areas such as corporate strategy and technical sales and by the time she left IBM in 2014 she was VP of Strategy and Transformation.

In 2015, States took part in the Harvard Advanced Leadership Program, which is designed to prepare experienced leaders to take on new challenges in the social sector. During the year-long fellowship, she began exploring how she could use her experience to help young people into tech.

Young tech minds

“One of the great things about technology is that it is always changing. It is such an interesting career to be in and you can never really be bored with it,” said States. “New things emerge and now I want to work more with kids to help them be successful, and to help them see what they can be. With kids, I think we have to focus on making sure they get the foundational courseware that they need in maths and literacy, and kids also need role models, they have to see what they can be, they have to see what is possible.”

States is currently in “exploration mode”, talking to people who work in the area, and the use of technology in education has caught her eye.

“I am excited about some of the things that are emerging in personalised learning and I am hopeful that in the long-term, when we look back, we will see that technology made a significant difference in the delivery of pedagogy and curriculum, and was able to individualise for particular students and also provide more access for students who don’t necessarily have the access that they need.”

Mentors and sponsors

Once the spark of engagement is there, mentors and sponsors are important for fanning the flames, and States has experience in that area too.

“Mentors and coaches make a big difference in terms of helping with performance and sponsors make a big difference in terms of opportunity and access,” she explained. “I really believe that mentoring, coaching and sponsorship have a big impact in terms of career success, and they have made a difference to me, personally.”

‘Kids also need role models, they have to see what they can be, they have to see what is possible’

A strong advocate for women in technology and leadership, in 2014 States was inducted into the Women In Technology Hall of Fame.

“I spent many years working with women in terms of career development and progression while I was with IBM and I really enjoyed that,” she said. “It really gives me great joy to see people be successful and take on higher levels of leadership and when I got to my Fellowship programme I had that in my mind as a model of what I might do going forward to help others.”

Eye on the pipeline

One of her ‘aha’ moments, while stepping back and looking at the technology pipeline, was that we need to ensure that young people entering the tech world have room to progress their careers, rather than being funnelled into a system that lacks the capacity to support their growth.

“My big learning last year as I pivoted from the day-to-day world of tech to how are you going help more people be in tech, was that you have to look at the pipeline holistically,” said States.

“So, at the start, right from elementary school, it is about mastering literacy, then getting your maths mastery when you are in middle school and taking the right courses in high school so you are prepared to apply for engineering or computer science or even the more technically-oriented business schools and other programmes. Then you have the transition to your early career and your progression up your career. I thought a lot about do we have enough capacity at higher levels along the pipeline and what is the impact of reducing the leakage at the lower levels of the pipeline.”

While States is keeping her eye on that bigger picture, for now she is starting with youth engagement with maths and literacy, and she wants to talk to as broad an audience as she can reach. “I am excited to participate in Inspirefest because I think you have to show what is possible to everyone, not just to kids but to career professionals too.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Join us again from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Book your tickets now.

Claire O’Connell
By Claire O’Connell

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology from University College Dublin and a master’s in science communication from Dublin City University. She has written for Silicon Republic and The Irish Times and was named Irish Science Writer of the Year in 2016.

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