I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Elberfeld, Senior Vice President, Shared Technology & Executive Lead, Diversity in Tech at Capital One.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I was born in a small Midwest town to hard working parents. As a young girl, I was fascinated with the space program, collecting every article I could find from newspapers and magazines. I even convinced my parents to let me stay home from school once for a launch of one of the Apollo missions — unheard of in our house.
I stayed a student of math and science throughout my education, and loved learning anything and everything I could. My parents fed my thirst and never set any boundaries on what I could become. I majored in Mathematics at Miami University. I started down the path of getting a PhD in Math with a plan for academia, but discovered I wasn’t cut out for teaching.
What happened next changed my life: I was invited to learn to be a “computer programmer” at a bank in Cincinnati. After studying reams of green bar print-outs of code, I was soon a self-taught COBOL software engineer. My career has been full of new and exciting opportunities, including implementing one of the first home-banking applications in the US in 1995. I was so enthralled with the demanding work of the tech field that my three kids were often found in the office on weekends. My colleagues would laugh at the white board graffiti or stray puzzle pieces found under the conference room table. I even let my kids test out the banking software, since it needed to be easy enough for all our customers to use — banking from home was a brand-new idea. My career progressed through various technology leadership roles, until I found myself the CIO for Commercial Banking at that same bank. In 2009, Capital One recruited me to be their first Commercial Bank CIO, the best move of my career.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began working at Capital One?
When I arrived at Capital One eight years ago, my calendar was already full of “meet-and-greets” as part of my onboarding. As person after person arrived in my office with their presentations to show how they could help me, I was overwhelmed by the support. I kept asking myself, “I wonder what they want from me?” My conditioning was that there must be an alternate motivation to this generosity. It took me nearly a year to realize that it was just an awesome culture of collaboration at Capital One — people genuinely want to help each other succeed. I had to laugh at how much energy I had put into waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop.”
What do you think makes Capital One stand out? Can you share a story?
Not only is Capital One doing amazing technology work in a field ripe for digital disruption, from public cloud to machine learning, but we have an amazing culture, centered in our values. We are also completely committed to playing a role in shifting diversity and creating a culture of belonging for all across the technology industry.
Four years ago, we launched our Women in Tech program internally to elevate our focus on women working in technology. It started when two software engineers in our Technology Development Program, Kaylyn and Katie, came into my office to share their observations from media and college friends that the tech industry was declining in women’s representation and some cultures were even hostile to women. These ladies wanted to prevent that from ever interfering with the inclusive culture at Capital One. As I contemplated the long-term impacts of the technology industry being devoid of balanced perspectives, combined with how tech is so fundamentally changing the world, I knew something had to be done. I knew the industry that had welcomed me at the start of my career was one many women would love, if they could just get to know the possibilities and break through the stereotypes. That meeting turned into a working group, which developed into local chapters that then grew into a movement. The initiative is bringing Capital One women and men together to focus on developing a love of technology in girls, improving the representation of women in the technology field, and supporting the career development of women in tech roles in tangible and impactful ways.
Along the way, we’ve also found meaningful ways to engage with community partners and support their vital work, including Women Who Code, Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, and AnitaB.org. We have expanded the work to also focus on intersectionality and broader underrepresented groups in Tech, specifically African American and Hispanic people. While we’re proud of the work we’ve done thus far, we’re not satisfied — there’s more work to do and we’re committed to being a part of this journey for as long as it takes.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
I have the best job in the industry! I am leading an important and complex portion of our cloud technology journey at Capital One. Not only do I have this interesting technology challenge to tackle, I am also spending 50% of my core work on diversity and inclusion in technology at Capital One. I believe it is unique in the industry to have a technology executive focused directly on D&I, supported by, but outside of, Human Resources. The willingness to embrace this model is a testament to the elevated commitment from Capital One. I have been in this new role for 18 months, and the progress we have made has been heartening — the most rewarding year of my career, hands down.
What advice would you give to other leaders in the diversity space to help their employees to thrive?
Leading diversity initiatives can be some of the most rewarding but most difficult bodies of work, given the challenges we face are often rooted far beyond the boundaries of our companies. I have certainly had my moments where I had to seek inspiration and look for the small wins to push through difficult moments, and the last year has offered several.
I approach the work with passion and professionalism. A leader must be authentic and bold, while utilizing everything already known about solving business problems. Define the value to your associates, your company and the world by making the workplace more diverse, included and engaged.
Most fundamentally, create a culture where everyone has a voice, where it is safe to have open dialogue, where differences are embraced, and everyone has an equal opportunity to be visible and work on meaningful assignments that will allow them to grow. It is a tall order, but it is not at all insurmountable with genuine commitment and focus.
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?
I would have a tough time narrowing to a single person who helped me most, as each turn of your career brings new challenges, opportunities and people who step up to be sounding boards and sponsors. I would have never taken that very first coding role had my father not convinced me to embrace my fear of failure. My children played an incredible role in encouraging me and motivating me to be a role model. My husband has been my biggest fan and sounding board. I worked for a gentleman, Mark Bitter, for ten years who personified everything you think of in a sponsor — providing actionable and candid feedback, giving me new opportunities to grow, and creating visibility for me. Mark’s sponsorship led to my first divisional CIO role. In the past three years, I have been supported by a coach and thinking partner, Andy Stefanovich, who I can honestly say has forever positively changed my approach to work and life; he has encouraged me through challenges with some of the most difficult work of my career.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have come to appreciate the key role that banks play in helping people realize their dreams, and I have been so fortunate to play a key role in shaping technology in banking for the last 30 years. I now have an unbridled passion for ensuring the next 30+ years in the broader technology industry is shaped by a diverse set of perspectives.
We are in the midst of a digital revolution. Technology is changing the way we experience the world; frankly, it is changing everything. Machine Learning (ML) will again change the world in fundamental ways, in our companies and in our everyday lives. ML models are only as good as the people who create them, and without a diverse team at the table, we could end up in machine-driven world fraught with unmitigated bias. When I think of the world we will leave for our grandchildren, I know that diversity in the tech field is critical, and it is the right thing to do. Computing jobs are growing 3X the average rate of other jobs. Ensuring women and men of color have a welcome seat at the table of technology is my life mission; my approach is to change the narrative.
I’ve often thought, “If I were a high school student interested in computer science, but all I saw or read about the field were negative, would I even want to try it?” Or, “If my children were going to college and considering a tech major, would I encourage them to pursue it, or steer them in another direction?” Without access to the positive stories of the women and men of color who have stayed in tech and thrived, it’s difficult to imagine these children seeing a path for themselves.
I’m frequently asked what my advice is for women in tech or women considering a career in tech. My message is always ‘stay in.’ And if you are not in, get in — and then stay in. The industry needs you, we need the women leaders of tomorrow, and besides, it is something that can be so fulfilling. Girls and women are natural problem solvers, and you can solve the world’s greatest problems with technology. Organizations like Black Girls Code, Women Who Code, and Anitab.org — all organizations that I’m proud to partner with and support through Capital One — do incredible work to elevate girls and women interested in tech, and I’m personally grateful for their critical efforts. Part of what they do is provide role models for girls and young women, whether they be volunteers teaching them to code or mentors to help them navigate their early career.
Can you share your thoughts on the top five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line.
Study after study shows that increased diversity drives a company’s bottom line. When employees see that you are invested in their talent and who they are as people, they are more invested in the success of the company because they feel like a true part of it. Diverse perspectives in our conversation help to find solutions to better meet the needs of our customers.
Here are the top elements that I think companies should focus on to increase diversity, no matter where they currently are in the process:
1. Focus on leadership growth first.
2. Be specific about what you want to focus on and measure it. Be bold — if you set goals of incremental change you will tweak your current processes. If you have big goals it will encourage everyone to reevaluate the system.
3. Drive it from the business leaders leveraging and collaborating with HR, not the other way around.
4. Have the conversation. Be curious, be kind, and allow everyone to be on their own journey.
As an example, the nature of our conversations at Capital One have changed over recent years. The more we talk about D&I, the more comfortable our associates feel in using inclusive language and asking new questions. Creating the safe space for potentially challenging conversations leads to knowledge and understanding. As we provide more education on diversity, we’re focused on training associates about how to ask questions to open the conversation instead of closing it. Learning about other cultures leads to a better work culture.
5. Reflect on progress. This work is hard and it will never be done. Sometimes it can feel like you have so far to go no matter how far you’ve come. It’s important to be able to show progress and push for more at the same time to keep yourself and your team motivated.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Do the right thing, be a good citizen and care for others — that is everything.
These words are from my father; they define what he fundamentally believed, how he lived, and how he taught his children to live. They are the foundation of who I am and how I strive to impact my company, my community and the world.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
I would love the opportunity to talk with Melinda Gates. She is an accomplished woman in technology herself, who has a passion for seeing more women enter and stay in technology. I follow her on Twitter, and I love the work she does on every dimension. I would relish the opportunity to seek her counsel and to share game-changing ideas on how to sustainably improve diversity and culture in technology.
Originally published at medium.com