Rose Robinson of CMD-IT: “Integrity is key in making decisions”

Integrity is key in making decisions. I never ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. As a leader, ethics and moral values have served me well. Not just the staff I’ve managed over the years or the communities I’ve tried to help, but for myself and what type of leader I want […]

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Integrity is key in making decisions. I never ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. As a leader, ethics and moral values have served me well. Not just the staff I’ve managed over the years or the communities I’ve tried to help, but for myself and what type of leader I want to be and perceived to be.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rose Robinson.

From 2018 to 2019, the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds who completed a Ph.D. in computer science decreased by 13 percent. Rosario (Rose) Robinson, an innovative thought leader, speaker and global transformation change agent in technology and diversity is working to reverse this trend. As a woman technologist with more than 25 years of experience, she serves as the Executive Director for the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in IT (CMD-IT), where she leads efforts to disrupt industries, investing in building an inclusive workforce in computing and IT that elevates minorities and people with disabilities. At CMD-IT, Robinson is leading targeted efforts by partnering with tech giants such as Google to work toward this goal, and has inspired students from all over the country to be part of the change. In an interview, Robinson can discuss: — How she is guiding CMD-IT to become a leader in the tech space when it comes to increasing diversity in STEM -Why she is determined to ensure underrepresented groups are fully engaged in computing and IT — How she will level the playing field and promote innovation that enriches communities

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I can remember when I was very young, in elementary school, I really loved to tinker with stuff. My papa was a career Navy officer and we would visit him on his ships often in Charleston, South Carolina. My Inay (mother) always pushed me and my siblings to go into healthcare, to be a doctor or a nurse because that was the success she saw in her family and neighborhood. But my papa always loved Math and Technology because he saw so much of it while deployed. Sundays, the only day she had off most times, would talk about why we should want to be a doctor or a nurse as she often did on Sundays when she was off. I remember so vividly to this day, my Papa’s response was, “Sally, let her go into Computers. She will be good at it because things are going to change.” Then the conversation shifted. Me and my siblings wanted to know more about Computers but Papa could never talk about his work.

From there, I really focused on Math and Science and did quite well. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are both in Mathematics with concentration in Computer Science. I thought I would teach Mathematics but somehow entered industry rather quickly after graduating. I graduated from Savannah State University (HBCU — Historically Black College and University) for my undergrad and from Georgia State University (Minority Service Institute) with my graduate degree. I thrived in both places while working full time during my graduate degree.

I come from 20+ years of industry experience in large enterprise software development and implementation. I was always the only woman, black person and black woman in the room. Because of this, I’ve had to navigate my career carefully and with mentors and sponsors that would help me with connections and guidance on managing interaction within my companies so that I gain experience required to advance to the next level. And I am grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded to me.

In 2011, I started working for a nonprofit helping other women find and elevate their voices while learning to navigate the nonprofit space, donors, partners and donors in a different way. It became incredibly meaningful to me that I could make a difference in someone’s life. I was also able to keep my hands in technology through many of the open source programs that I expanded and create strong relationships with technical communities and companies that want to support inclusion efforts. And now in my current role, I’m able to expand the mission into some of the most overlooked technical talent.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I started CMD-IT in September 2019 part-time at CMD-IT while I was wrapping up my work with the prior organization. Then moved into full-time in December 2019.

But the first day of starting full-time with the organization, I found out my mother was in pretty bad shape and was diagnosed as terminal. I had to be there with her during this time and with my siblings. My CEO and the board of directors were so supportive during this time and allowed me to really focus on my family as my mother passed in that same month.

For an Executive Director to be able to spend final months with my mother and my family was incredibly important to me. I realized the enormous support that I had coming into this role. Everyone wants to feel like their organization will support them during trying times and it just allowed me to thrive even more this year.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

After having time to be with my family after my mother passed, I hit the road hard when I came back home and started working at CMD-IT. My first week I had to travel for a program, the following week, I started at Said Business School at the University of Oxford, then traveled again to attend and present my strategy for the organization at my first board meeting. I hired a facilitator to keep notes, manage our time and keep us engaged on topic so that I can focus on presenting and answering any questions. In retrospect, I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be having known of these prominent board of directors and their accomplishments. I also had tremendous guidance from our CEO, Dr. Valerie Taylor, as her experience with this board was invaluable. I was surprisingly at ease in presenting for the first time in front of this audience. Call it the fatigue from my enormous loss of my mother or the travel, but I was about to learn why I felt at ease.

I’m very cautious when presenting as I know whatever comes out of my mouth I can’t take back. I plan and rehearse timing, meeting with my facilitator over weeks in virtual meetings, but also the day before in person. I reviewed the material over and over, changing little things, here and there, like I didn’t trust myself or second guessed my own knowledge and I hate that. Questioning whether ‘they’ would think I’m crazy or would second guess hiring me as their Executive Director. So, on the first day, I came early to meet with my facilitator, make sure the room was set and equipment and was there to greet everyone upon arrival. We had a moment of greetings and then we started.

As I progressed through my presentation, the board was attentive and engaging. Asked hard questions that made me think and stretch my own understanding of our mission and community we serve. They challenged me in the what and why of my strategy. Sometimes stopping and delving a little more deeper into a particular topic to have a conversation that embraced openness and the future. They went in hard, and I so appreciated it. The experience left me uplifted and ready to start the work. Inspired that not only am I excited about the position and the opportunities we were about to create for our community, but that I had a full on Squad that would back me up and support me in whatever road I was about to take. And that is why I felt so at ease, a lesson learned.

What do you think makes your organization stand out? Can you share a story?

Our mission is to support African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and people with disabilities. These are 4 groups who are traditionally underrepresented in Computer Science, IT and Technology. What is key here is our community is filled with amazing Computer Scientist and Technology professionals but we often don’t hear about the contributions we are making in the innovation of technology.

You can’t be who you don’t see. Hidden Figures movie really heightened the opportunity for us to bring more acknowledgement to the many in our community that have and are contributing to STEM fields. Our annual conference, CMD-IT/ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing conference, highlights our community, provides guidance and support to students and professionals in the tech industry, and provides access for Companies to recruit diverse students from our 4 core groups into technical roles.

The career fair is one major component of Tapia, but it is a unique conference that has diverse speakers presenting about their work and research which is important for next generation technologists that are not highly represented in the industry.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on elevating our community and sharing our stories of how we have been and are contributing to the technological innovation we see today. It’s very rare that you see us in mainstream media especially as innovators, but we’re trying to change the tech and innovation media landscape so that the next generations have role models and they seem themselves in possible roles for the future.

We’re also hosting a Career Fair February 2021. Great timing as we know not only students, but diverse tech professionals have an opportunity to learn about open positions at companies and meet with recruiters and hiring managers in a virtual environment. This is a free event to ensure we make it largely accessible to those looking for jobs.

Additionally, we’re ramping up our Tapia 2021 planning. Our Call for Participation (CFP) opens in late January. We offer scholarships for students that we hope to have many companies sponsors where a portion of their sponsorship dollars are used to support diverse students from a wide range of colleges and universities including Minority Serving Institutes (Including but not limited to HBCUs, Hispanic Serving Institutes, Tribal colleges and Community Colleges). This is important because we want to reduce/remove any barriers our student community may face in attending technical conferences like ours that offer enormous benefits and opportunities for them to connect with organizations to land an internship/job or universities recruiting for their graduate program.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

As an Black woman and mother, as many other Black American families across the country, I am certainly not satisfied with the “status quo” by any means. My organization, CMD-IT, supports 4 communities that are marginalized and continue to see barriers because of our race and/or abilities. Even before getting into nonprofit work, a white technical woman professional told me blatantly and with no hesitation that “we should focus on women first then minorities” thinking this would automatically improve minorities in STEM when we focus on women movement. But that focus has not had focus on minority women and in essence the number is even lower.

There are organizations and communities where minority women and allies in STEM support them in their careers and just being part of the community like BlackComputeHER, Latinas in Computing, Latinas in Tech and Natives in Tech. These communities are important where young minority girls can see the possibilities in the future. But we also need to amplify all this talent and get more companies to go where the talent is rather than expecting talent is going to come to them. Those environments are the “status quo” so we need a shift in how we recruit talent, for instance recruit on campuses where you haven’t recruited before rather than just the top tier schools. A mind shift is necessary to change the landscape in STEM.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

It amazes me to this day that I still see reports about asking a woman if she has kids. What, men don’t have kids? And particularly for women of color, especially black women, the backlash against our names and our hair is far too often still in the news. If a white guy has a mohawk or white woman has bright blue hair, that’s considered cool. What does my hair have to do with my ability and technical skills to do a job? Actually, a black woman’s crown is our pride and heritage and an extended expression of my creativity.

However, change has arrived with The Crown Act which is one step closer to eliminating race-based hair discrimination. And it’s not just black women but black girls. Why can’t we just BE? And why does the work for change always land on those shoulders who are the marginalized? Decent human beings and organizations should want everyone participating in society as we have many problems to solve; education, climate change, transportation.

A great example is the book Hidden Figures by black author Margot Lee Shetterly which was made into a great movie that revealed how Black women have always contributed to the technology innovation. NASA’s progress was also possible by black women who were part of the space race in the 1960s. NASA had to know that to do the impossible, they needed a large number of talented people and in this case, it was Black computers/women.

But with the continuous exposure of these amazing talents, we can change the “optics” of what an innovator looks like.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

Going back to my story of how my Papa was instrumental in me being encouraged into Mathematics and Computer Science. After graduating with my B.S in Mathematics, I went directly into industry as a Programmer. I advanced pretty quickly in various roles and expanded my experience through great projects and being exposed to emerging technologies.

I love Tech!

It offered me learning, creativity and challenged my mind all the time. How do I make things better? What approach to take? Will this work? It is a fascinating field and I’m even geekier than the next geek. I was introduced to open source in 2007 in the Systers community (largest community of technical women) when an amazing Syster asked if anyone wanted to learn Python virtually. We have women from New Zealand, Ethiopia, England, and every time zone in the US. It was amazing! We geeked out like you would never imagine.

Me, coming from a software licensed environment, open source trajected me into a space I never would have imagined; a vast community of tech professionals around the world, open source technologies and projects that had the possibility of changing access and lives around the world especially in developing countries. I am still an open source advocate and developer today working a great project and collaborating with incredibly open source developers.

Women are often seen, as well as I was, more for management track managing people because that’s what we do best. Until recently, we have been seen as not having the technical acumen to contribute or advance to higher technical roles like Principal Engineer. That is simply not true. Women go in for Geekism and Techism than are traditionally a man’s world. We just know it as a Geek’s world.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

My 5 Leadership lessons I learned along the way.

Integrity is key in making decisions. I never ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. As a leader, ethics and moral values have served me well. Not just the staff I’ve managed over the years or the communities I’ve tried to help, but for myself and what type of leader I want to be and perceived to be.

Be authentic. People are insightful, especially women. This is an advantage. Always.

Vulnerability. I’m a very private person at least in my personal life. However, I’ve learned that sharing my own stories and challenges have helped and continue to help others in their own life challenges. I’m a Breast Cancer Survivor. I’m working on being a thriver. But it’s hard. I’m also working on getting to my 5 years which in the cancer world is a significant milestone. But I often surprise myself and I’m still learning. Sharing this publicly I know offers unique insight into other’s own challenges and ways to thoughtfully think through resolutions.

Transparency adds to your credibility. As much as you can be especially with your staff, it’s important that they feel like they understand the goals and direction of the organization. No one wants to feel that you have a hidden agenda and believe me it shows. As much as you can share, at the very least your team or organization, ensure everyone, every department is beating to the same drum and feel like they are contributing to the goals you’ve set. It also allows buy-in when your staff knows how their work will impact the audience they serve or products launched.

Humility and Compassion carries you far in your role. Both my parents graduated from high school but they never went to college so I am a first generation college graduate. And I was the first to really change the economic outlook for our family by landing what is labeled a “white collar” job. My entire family was/is very proud. But my great grandmother always had this saying, “Don’t get too big for your britches” and “Never forget where you come from and the ones that are left behind.” A southern small-scale woman with big heart and presence. What that translates to is to stay humble and stay compassionate because as I’ve learned being laid-off twice, things can change for the better or even for the worse.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

You belong! You are there for a reason so have confidence in your experience and what you bring to your team. And if you make a mistake, own it, learn from it, and move on. Your team’s advantage is you are leading and your experience is what will help them in the long run.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I have not been co-located to a team since 2000. I’ve always worked “remotely”. 1-on-1 check-in with your leads gives you perspective on what’s going on in the front-line. But also host town halls for your department so that you can hear from the front-line works. It’s important that you are seen as a leader that listens and invites feedback, good or bad. You do not do it alone and need your team’s efforts to be successful so have an open door policy.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Dr. Prince Jackson, Jr.

He was my mentor and my professor in many of my advanced level classes at Savannah State University, an HBCU. Dr. Jackson has since passed away, but he left his mark on this world and his students. An African American Mathematics professor and former president of Savannah State University was also former NAACP Savannah chapter president. He always invited his students to discuss what’s happening in our community and our country. A devout Catholic who advocated for those mentally challenged and voter empowerment in the community.

One thing that stood out in my memory of him, I was sitting on the stoop at Herty Hall (Math and Computer Science building at the time) along with other Math majors, when Dr. Jackson was discussing how we change the economic status in our community. He always said, “Change will always come at the local level.” Which is why I work with various local and affinity communities to bring about change.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have a great network of technical professionals and I often make introductions to people for support or questions or just connections. Many in our community lack this network so it is important that we extend our own networks to the groups we are supporting. That provides opportunities to individuals and exposure to information that can certainly assist with navigating their careers and personal lives.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Share The Table.

There has been lots of conversation around who’s at the table, bring your own chair at the table, build your own table, do you own the table, etc. But why not “Share The Table.” Many have experiences where they have meal gatherings that have invited family, friends, guests and sometimes strangers. If there is no room, somebody always finds chairs, piano stools or lawn chairs to make sure everyone gets a seat at the meal table. This is not a new concept. Why not have this same concept at the tables of board meetings, team meetings, conferences and everywhere.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate action of its members.” Coretta Scott King. I did not get where I am today without the help of my Inay, Papa, family, teachers/professors, mentors and vast community. It was because these sponsors in my life are why I’ve had so many opportunities throughout my career and personal life. It has shaped major decisions in my life on what it is I want to do and how I want to make an impact in the world.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have lunch with Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox. As a leader of a large technology company, I’m sure she has had her share of challenges rising through various leadership roles. And as a woman and a black woman, I can only imagine what she went through in a company where men traditionally dominated many of the technical roles during her time. She has achieved what very little women let alone black women have done becoming the CEO.

I share something similar with her that my Papa said something similar that Ursula said her mother told her, “Where you come from is not what defines you” or something similar like that. My parents passed on to their children strength and a foresight of success through education, hard work and believing in yourself, always. But as a Black women tech professional and leader, the journey has been difficult and at a point where I just want to Be. I am almost certain Ursula Burns shares this too.

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