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Titans of Tech

November 25, 2022 - 4

Titans of Tech: Ginni Rometty About Professional Growth/About Embracing Scary Challenges

Former CEO of IBM teaches us resilience and boldness

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It's a short step from big sister nanny to truck engineer or even to president of one of the world's most famous Tech companies. 

Virginia (Ginni) Rometty was anything but pre-destined for a thrilling destiny as a tech company leader. However, through hard work and perseverance, she became one of the very few women CEOs of a top 500 US company, IBM, from 2012 to 2020. 

This woman symbolises the essence of existentialism, the philosophical movement embodied by Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 20th century France. Its key idea is very simple: "existence precedes essence". Ginni is the very embodiment of the fact that everyone is the master of their own destiny. Contrary to pre-written life scenarios from which there is no escape, this strong-willed businesswoman shows us, in her own words, that "where there is a will, there is a way." Portrait.

A childhood of hardship and resilience 

Ginni was born into a middle-class family. Her mother was a housewife, raising her and her three siblings. When she was 16, Ginni’s father left home. Her mother and her four young children were left destitute, with no money and no home. 

We were on food stamps and my mother felt ashamed to have to do something like that, she stated. But she was determined that this would not be as the story ends. She went back to school, got a job and then a better job, and so on. It was one of the most defining elements of my life”. This image of a determined and brave woman certainly shaped Ginni’s mantra for the rest of her life...

‘Only you define who you are’

Ginni  started from nothing and struggled to build a career that matched her ambitions. She graduated at the top of her high-school class, earning a big scholarship from General Motors to further study. With this money, she attended Northwestern University, as one of the few women in their engineering program. “I came from no money, no anything, to go to a great school. It was just not the norm. This is why I feel so strongly when there is a will, there is a way”. 

After graduating with honors in 1979, she took her first job with General Motors, working as an engineer on trucks and buses. A year later, she took a job with IBM as a systems engineer. She quickly became a rising star within the company… You think you know the rest? Not quite yet!

‘Stand up to scary challenges.' The scarier, the better

Like many women, Ginni almost missed out on a successful career because of impostor syndrome.10 years into my career, I was offered a promotion. The man who had offered it said: ‘you should take my job’. I said, ‘I’m not ready for this thing yet. Just give me a little more time…’. I went home that night and my husband said: ‘do you think a man would have answered the que/stion the same way?’ So, I went back the next day and I took the job."

Let's make a little digression that is not (really) one. It all began in 1995 in Pittsburgh, USA, when a man named McArthur Weeler decided to rob two banks with his face uncovered. He was arrested and stunned. He had smeared lemon juice on his face, convinced that it would make him invisible to the cameras. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger conducted a three-part study on students to find out how someone so ignorant could overestimate himself that much. They found that the more gifted students tended to underestimate themselves, while the less skilled clearly overestimated themselves. But what accounts for this 'overconfidence' on the part of the less gifted? According to the Dunning Kruger effect, the answer is simple: the less skilled the person is, the less likely they are to know they are ignorant

This syndrome leads to some pretty funny situations, where men usually take the liberty of explaining life to women who are more expert than them on the subject they are distorting. Rebecca Solnit, an entrepreneur and author of 'Men explain things to me', has coined the concept of mansplaining. It is the act of explaining to a woman what she already knows. She once found herself in a conversation where a gentleman was trying to explain her own book to her without listening to the fact she was actually the author. 

In short, Ginni's husband's words resonate with Rebecca Solnit's work, as several studies have shown that men are far more likely to take a job they are not 100% confident to master. Ginni's journey teaches us that you have to throw yourself into the void and build your glider in flight.

In 2012, Ginni became the first woman CEO in IBM’s 100 years history. With 30 years of experience under her belt, she blows a mischievous look in an interview: “Growth and comfort never coexist. If you want to grow as a leader, you welcome challenge, you welcome risk. Because you know you come out better on the other side."

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