“It’s always been a fight.”
These words rang in my ears as I heard them spoke. They made me think of the time I had to fight for a 50% pay raise to be paid the same as my colleagues (many of them male). They made me think of the time my schedule was changed drastically after I had a baby. They made me think of the dynamics in my own household, which force me to choose family over work because I’m the de facto caregiver.
“It’s always been a fight,” said Dr. Sandra Johnson to me, as I interviewed her as our November Woman to Watch. When she says “fight”, she means the struggle to earn her Ph.D. in electrical engineering. She means fighting discrimination because of the color of her skin. She means working for 35 years in the technology industry for IBM, sitting in meetings where her ideas were sometimes dismissed, and accepted minutes later after they were echoed by a male colleague.
“For example – you go into a room, a conference room. I’m the only women, only one of two – we have this brainstorming discussion, I’d say something, I’d be ignored. Then someone would say the same thing and it would be an excellent idea,” she shared.
When I tell you her story it will seem familiar to you for one of two reasons, or maybe both. The familiarity may come from walking in her shoes at some point in your career. Or if you’ve been lucky to dodge the chauvinistic culture that still creeps into our workplaces, it will be familiar because you’ll think of the movie, Hidden Figures.
After attending a historically black college, Johnson attended Stanford for graduate school, to pursue her degree in electrical engineering. She was one of a handful of women in her class and describes breaking up into groups for class projects and study groups.
“I wouldn’t call it hostile, but it was less than supportive. No one wanted me to be in our group, including their women,” she said.
That didn’t deter her. She was approached by a student from another country, who was experiencing the same thing and from there she formed her own groups in class.
“In most cases they were the best students in the class so it worked out better for me,” she shared, with a slightest hint of humor in her tone.
Johnson became one of the first African American women to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.
From there she went to work for IBM and for more than three decades faced gender and racial stereotypes. Nevertheless she persisted. She was a member of the IBM Academy of Technology, which is made up of the company’s top one-percent of technical professionals worldwide. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for her dozens of awards for her inventions, patents and leadership. She is a Master Inventor, and the first African American woman Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the first African American woman to reach a technical leadership position at IBM.
And in the process she learned a few tricks around the workplace. She’d form partnerships with advocates and make a plan before going to a meeting.
“You meet before the meeting with someone going to meeting and agree if I say something – speak up to back up what I said, and vice versa,” she confided.
She admitted, sometimes it didn’t work out, and a male colleague would try to take her idea as his own.
“I’d say instead, ‘well, joe, I’m so glad you reiterated what I suggested a few minutes ago.”
I wish I’d have known her when I was trying to climb the corporate ladder.
And undoubtedly making it to the top after 35 years in the business, what is Johnson doing now? (I can tell you, I’d be on a beach somewhere.)
She’s starting her own new company, SKJ Visioneering, LLC. Her company provides mobile app and other software development, technology consulting and much more.
“Even in all the years I worked, I knew that there was more that I was put on this earth to do, than what I was doing.”
About 10 years ago Johnson met a traditional leader on a trip to Africa, who shared his vision of the continent with her. From that conversation was born her understanding that Africa is the next frontier when it comes to technological growth and startups.
Among the things she’s developing is a way to easily send money to and from Africa and beyond, using more secure technology than is in place today.
Currently Johnson is finding funding through iFundWomen, a crowdfunding platform that recently began a cohort of women start-ups in the Raleigh area. She’s preparing to start a whole new endeavor and has her boxing gloves ready.
“Yes it was a fight. I’m not sure if the fight has gotten any better or if I’ve just gotten used to fighting,” she said.
And these next words should ring loudly in your ears, if your heart is beating.
“If it’s something you were born to do, then don’t let anyone else’s opinion of you dictate who you are. Just continue to use skills you’re born with, and find people who are mentors, and sponsors, support you, even if they can’t help you technically, you can’t underestimate the power of moral support. Find your support group, and continue to do what you know what youre’ put on this earth to do, because that’s you’re opinion.”
Yes ma’am. Finding what we were born to do. Fighting the fight. If you can, we will, Dr. Johnson.