Shellye Archambeau: Racism and the road to tech CEO

Shellye Archambeau talks about being the biggest minority of all – a female African American tech CEO

“Have you ever encountered racism in the work place?” I ask Shellye Archambeau CEO of MetricStream and poster woman for ethnic female tech inclusion in the C-Suite.

Her answer surprises me. She laughs. Then she pauses, laughs again and replies: “Yes, I have,” with some emphasis.

Racism is one of those words that gets flung about a lot. And it is a tricky one. In some ways I wasn’t even sure if I should ask the question. There is a huge difference between lynching people for their colour and a casual prejudice. Yet speaking as someone who grew up as the token half-Indian person in a small Welsh town, small-scale casual racism can have an impact. And while the corporate setting may be very different from wider society, all the usual issues are still firmly in place.

“I’m sorry,” continues Archambeau. “The reason I’m laughing is it is very rarely anything that is overt. That is just not going to happen. It tends to be things that are just subtle. Yes, absolutely [I’ve experienced racism].”

“That is worse in a way?” I suggest “You almost doubt it is happening…”

“Exactly and that is why I laugh,” she says before offering an interesting analogy around having children. “If you’re pregnant you see everyone is pregnant – it is really funny how that happens. But if you’re not you don’t notice it as much.”

“Well, what happens with bias or racism, or what have you, is that if you let yourself, you see it everywhere – so you have to be even more conscious not to assume that is what it is.”

I can see exactly what she is driving at. And she makes a subtle but extremely pertinent point which doesn’t just apply to racism itself. On some level, it is in evidence through all society’s prejudices. It could be that you’re a slightly overweight man. It could be you’re not as slim, stylish and impeccably coiffed as women are supposed to be. Or it could be that you’re black, brown, or any colour really that isn’t Caucasian with a beautiful honey tan.

But the real problem is there are two things going on: firstly, there is your own internal worry about how this thing, whatever it is, marks you out in society. Secondly, there are other people’s reaction. Unfortunately the two can blend together in your own mind. So, on bad days, your ‘social fear’ is played out in everyone’s responses, on good days, you’re frankly oblivious.

“It is not an easy thing [to identify],” says Archambeau. “And that is why it is so important to have a good cheerleader, so you’re able to get out of those moods to be able to push on…”

Archambeau has indeed pushed on and forged an extremely illustrious career. This began at IBM, where she was the first African American woman at the company to be sent on an international assignment. It has seen her added to numerous “Most Important African-Americans in Technology” lists and resulted in her holding the position of CEO since 2002.

She tells me that back when she was very young her aspiration was to run a business and as she matured she saw tech was a growing industry and set her mind on it. There are “more opportunities in a growing arena,” she says and it was clear the industry was “going somewhere”.

“I’m a very driven person and very goal orientated,” she adds by way of explanation for her own success. “This is where I wanted to be”.

Once she set her sights on tech she “went to engineering classes in college” and systematically worked her way up to achieve what she wanted.

She describes how her first job was in sales because “every CEO at IBM had been in sales” she didn’t let the fact the she was often the only woman, let alone African American woman, bother her.

The first phase was “harder” she says because “I didn’t fit the profile” which meant “I had to over achieve”.  Yet “over time I do believe it became an asset because I was unusual.” If you’re doing a good job it is a bonus if people remember you. “The hardest thing” she says was getting the first management job and then the first executive job.

Archambeau spent half her career in the corporate world of large companies and half trying to “grow businesses”. Each threw up different challenges but in larger companies what struck her was the promotions and reviews discussions where “everyone is round the table” talking about who is ready and who is not ready to take the next career step.

“It just amazed me how often, when it was a female we were talking about the words were ‘not quite ready’ or ‘not strategic’. Those were the two things that were always said, so I took it on myself [to find out] - what does that mean? What would [a woman] have to demonstrate to show that she was ‘quote ready’ or ‘quote strategic’ because these are wonderful terms but if you never define them, why should you ‘quote not promote’ [her] yet?”

For African American and other ethnic minority women Archambeau believes you’re just adding another layer of difficulty. There is a bias towards males in the workplace. And a bias towards familiar sounding names. People ultimately want to work with people like themselves which is a self-perpetuating cycle.

“Do you think you overcompensate in the opposite direction?” I ask. “It is interesting,” she replies very candidly. “You know I don’t know - things are unconscious. I don’t know if I’ve tipped the scale, I’ve certainly tried to make it more balanced and self-aware.”

Archambeau feels very strongly that there are “a lot of opportunities for women in minorities in general” within tech though and part of that is to “realise that that is the case and just step in”.

She is also keen to stress there are plenty of areas within tech that “don’t require an engineering degree” so this should not stop women getting involved.

“You have to realise you’re responsible for your own career,” she advises. Nobody is going to “optimise” your career for you. “Think about what you want to do,” and what credentials you can get to “differentiate” yourself from others. “Take risks and volunteer for the assignments”.

But crucially she feels you must find a “personal cheerleader”. You need someone “who has your back” and believes you can achieve. This is very important. It will provide the mental support you need and help you find your way out of all the messy, personal stuff… that really might hinder your path to success.