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Focus on diversity

Women in technology get ahead through mentoring

These women are high in their companies now, and intend to move higher

Mentors often discover that the relationship is a two-way street, and welcome the insights they gain from their mentees

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Dr Ilieva Ageenko is Wachovia's senior VP and director of emerging enterprise apps. She's also an adjunct professor at a university and a business college.

Dr Ilieva Ageenko is Wachovia's senior VP and director of emerging enterprise apps. She's also an adjunct professor at a university and a business college.

Sonia Suber is VP of IS and technology for the healthcare and laundry divisions of food and facilities service provider Sodexho. She hopes to attain a CIO role.

Sonia Suber is VP of IS and technology for the healthcare and laundry divisions of food and facilities service provider Sodexho. She hopes to attain a CIO role.

Career paths are not always easy to follow. Having a guide, or sometimes a number of guides, can make a huge difference. They can point out possible routes and offer tips on professional development. In fact, many women who have been involved in mentoring relationships report not only greater advancement within their companies but greater job satisfaction as well.

Women, especially, seem to find that mentoring by supportive senior execs of either gender is a determining factor in getting ahead. The bottom line is this: most execs are flattered to be asked, and realize that the talent development they do is in their companies' best interests.

In fact, mentors often discover that the relationship is a two-way street. They welcome the insights that can be gained from relaxed conversations with employees who do not report to them.

Moving your career along
A lot of women think that doing a good job and getting an advanced degree will attract notice and lead to promotion. This can happen, of course. But career counselors usually point out that progress is likely to be faster if you have a plan.

Even that useful advanced degree should be part of a strategic plan. Laura Majewski, assistant dean at Lawrence Technical University (Southfield, MI), says, "I tell women that an advanced degree won't do much good if they don't know what they're trying to get out of it."

Lawrence Tech caters primarily to professional women taking courses at night toward a masters or PhD. "I see many of them getting their degrees and then returning to their same old jobs," Majewski notes.

"I tell them to use their education to make contact with people who can mentor them along the way. Use it as a reason to knock on people's doors and ask for their expertise. Being in school is a great opportunity to pick people's brains, and once they graduate they won't have that excuse anymore."

Meeting up with Menttium
Majewski is also involved with Menttium (www.menttium.com, Minneapolis, MN), an organization that helps companies design and deliver mentoring programs.

Leslie Rapp, Menttium's VP of program development for its flagship cross-company mentoring program for women, explains that Menttium asks its prospective mentees to "outline their business and professional goals before their first interview with Menttium. It helps us align the women with suitable mentors."

Some people need a mentor to help with business goals; others want help with career goals or work/life issues. Planning is key, Rapp says. "Think about why you want a mentor. Is it career planning, getting comfortable in your job, maneuvering in a new environment? Be clear about what you want and what your timeframe is. Consider what you are passionate about, and how you can arrange to spend more time doing that."

D/C interviewed six successful women who credit much of their success to one or more good mentoring relationships. If you don't have a mentor in your life, maybe it's time to start looking.

Gloria Schneider: partnering at PMV Technologies
Gloria Schneider

Gloria Schneider

Gloria Schneider is one of four partners in PMV Technologies (Troy, MI). PMV Tech is an IT managed-services firm that did more than $8 million in business last year.

Schneider freely admits that she might not be where she is now without the mentoring relationships and networking she has enjoyed throughout her career.

A 1977 graduate of Ferris State University (Big Rapids, MI), Schneider found her first job with Oldsmobile (Lansing, MI). She was one of just two women hired into a sixty-person department "to see if women could do programming," she recalls with a laugh.

"I was immediately put on the hot seat. I was on call 24-7, and at the age of twenty-two I decided I didn't want to live that way."

She went to the University of Michigan for a 1980 MBA and joined Ernst & Whinney (now Ernst & Young, Detroit, MI) to get the accounting experience she needed to take the CPA exam.

She got the CPA, but decided to move on for personal reasons. Here's where her natural tendency to networking paid off: she mentioned her problem to a fellow board member of a local business group. He happened to be a high-up exec at Comerica (Detroit, MI), the financial institution, and advised her to send in her resume.

She worked at Comerica from 1983 to 2000, and all the time her board member associate mentored her. She came in as a project manager in application and development, moved to VP of affiliate services, then became first VP of organizational reengineering and expense reduction, network services and IT support.

At Comerica, she says, "I never turned down an opportunity to solve a problem. There aren't a lot of people in a big corporation who are willing to take responsibility like that."

But her last project at Comerica, a three year project centralizing network ops and support, was too politically charged for her to return to a productive working relationship. When it was successfully completed she decided it was time to move on.

Once again, networking came to the rescue. Schneider mentioned to friends that she was planning to leave Comerica, and a friend's husband advised her to apply to accounting and management consulting firm Plante & Moran (Detroit, MI). In 2000 she joined its technology consulting group as a manager in technology consulting and solutions.

PVM Technologies was formed in 2004 to provide IT services to clients, including audit clients of Plante & Moran. Schneider loves its dynamic environment.

She's also active as a mentor with Menttium, giving back for the many helpful mentors she has had. One Ernst & Whinney manager used to sit down with her after every client meeting to discuss what had happened there. "Not many managers would do that," she says with gratitude. "I don't know how you'd move ahead without a mentor."

Networking is also essential, she notes. "It's good to get on the board of some worthwhile organization. People get to know you more quickly." And often, she adds with a smile, "You get to go to meetings at very nice places."

Dr Ilieva Ageenko: senior VP and mentor at Wachovia
Dr Ilieva Ageenko

Dr Ilieva Ageenko

In 1993 Dr Ilieva Ageenko arrived in the U.S. from the Soviet Union seeking political asylum. She was thinking about a job, not a career. "My husband and I had $5 and two kids," she recalls.

She came with a 1983 masters in economic cybernetics from the Moscow Institute of Management in Russia, and a 1993 PhD in artificial intelligence and expert systems from Kiev University in Ukraine. She was a scientific researcher at the National Institute of Economic Research in Havana, Cuba from 1983 to 1988 and at the Microelectronics Center of Ulianovsk, Russia from 1988 to 1990, so she'd not only worked in technology, she'd been on the cutting edge.

But she was not strong in English, and was advised, perhaps mistakenly, not to push her background for fear she'd seem overqualified. Instead, she took a clerical job at First Union Bank (Jacksonville, FL).

This was entry level, indeed. The Kiev U PhD found herself "moving papers from one table to another." One day at the water cooler she got talking with a senior woman who could look beyond her accent. "She told me I needed to start producing for the company."

Before anything could come of the contact, her senior friend was transferred. But Ageenko decided to move ahead by taking banking certification classes and earned her general banking diploma in 1996.

Then came an e-mail from her friend, telling her she was needed at the bank's Charlotte, NC office. Ageenko moved her family to Charlotte, where she quickly rose from senior auditor in internal audit to VP for knowledge-based marketing and alternative marketing-channels manager.

In 1999 she became VP for e-channels, managing and developing the bank's customer response management strategy. By the time First Union merged with Wachovia in 2001, Ageenko was VP of emerging apps and product development manager. In 2003 she moved up to senior VP and director of emerging enterprise apps.

After the sponsorship she enjoyed from her first friend, Ageenko was helped by other senior people who took an interest in her career. She's a strong believer in the value of mentoring: "It provides you with a role model," she says.

And when an opportunity comes, your mentor will tell other execs "that you can fulfill a need."

Ageenko is now a mentor to two Wachovia people in the company's formal mentoring program, and an informal mentor to others that she frequently advises over lunch or coffee. She's learning from them at the same time, she says. "There are things you may forget over the years. Having mentees helps me be a better manager."

She notes that her work as an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and at Belk College of Business (Charlotte, NC) grew out of networking at a meeting of professors she attended.

"Don't be afraid to reach out to senior people," Ageenko advises. "We're all very open to those who come to us looking for advice."

Sonia Suber is IS and tech VP at Sodexho
Sonia Suber

Sonia Suber

Sonia Suber reached out for help when she began her career. The guidance she received has helped her rise at Sodexho (Gaithersburg, MD), the food and facilities service provider. She's currently VP of IS and technology for the company's healthcare and laundry divisions.

In 1988 Suber graduated from Coppin State University (Baltimore, MD) with a BS in management science. She found a job as an administrative assistant with a division of Marriott in Baltimore, MD which was later absorbed by Sodexho. She worked in contract food service and healthcare, got involved with financial apps, then moved into training others.

By 1991 she was overseeing automated food production training and development for the company's southeast and mid-Atlantic regions, traveling extensively. After having a child in 1993 she changed to a remote role, doing support and training by telephone to assure successful implementation of a new financial system.

Her job expanded into training in other areas, and Suber got deeply involved in QA and testing.

The conversions required when her Marriott division was absorbed by Sodexho were soon followed by the challenge of Y2K compliance for the company's healthcare division. Managing five employees and two contractors, Suber "made sure everyone had the right hardware loaded with the right software." Her success led to a promotion to business info officer and eventually to her present VP role.

Along the way she has relied on the mentorship of willing senior execs. The first was her district manager. "He responded very positively when I asked for help," she says. "He told me if I had an issue I could pick up the phone and call him anytime."

Today Sodexho CEO Dick Macedonia is a helpful advocate. "If he doesn't hear from you, he'll call you," she says. "The relationship is valuable to him, too, because it gives him feedback."

Suber has been a mentor herself to several people in the company. "One year three people came and asked me to be their mentor, which told me I was doing something right," she says with a smile.

She hopes to move on to a CIO role. If she gets there, she'll have both mentors and mentees to thank for helping her along the way. "Mentees are part of our family," she says. "We get busy but we must put them on our schedule. It's important to reach out and give back."

Test VP Debra Williams relies on her network at AmEx
Debra Williams

Debra Williams

At the advice of several mentors, Debra Williams decided last fall to take on her current job as VP of testing capabilities at American Express (AmEx, Phoenix, AZ). It's a role that serves all the company's business units.

It meant leaving her successful job as director of fraud applications, and she was anxious about the decision. But she relied on her network of mentors, most of them previous bosses. "We were all aligned in believing it was the right thing to do," she says.

"The higher you go, the more important it is to have a support group," Williams notes. "I've reached out beyond my area of technology because I thought it would be advantageous for me."

Williams has been in technical roles at AmEx for seventeen years. Before that she spent eight years in banking at Valley Bank (Phoenix, AZ), which became BankOne and then Chase. She'd already picked up experience that she continues to draw on today, by managing a fast food restaurant right out of high school.

Williams joined AmEx as a systems analyst, which meant "problem solver," she notes. In this role she worked with applications groups across the enterprise. "I was able to get an understanding of what the company was out there doing," she says.

Williams became an operations leader of change management. Then she became a development leader, dealing with applications that supported fraud and small business units. "I moved from a team that provided mainframe support to one that provided programming and coding on the Web.

"It was a huge change," she says. "Of course I own my own personal development," but she also profited from a number of informal mentoring relationships.

One mentor advised her to move into a new job at the company every two years. She shouldn't think too much about money or title, but "find a job that would get me where I ultimately want to go," she says. This advice has worked well for her.

Along the way, Williams founded the American Express Black Employee Network (BEN), a group open to all employees. The company has mentoring programs of its own, but BEN also addresses the need for mentoring.

Before BEN, some employees were blaming discrimination for job problems that had nothing to do with race, Williams says. "We want people to take accountability, and sometimes it's more helpful to hear something from your peer group than from others."

For her, BEN has been "a huge opportunity to meet people and connect with folks who need mentoring and sometimes those who want to move into technology."

Williams is very clear about one thing: you should never expect a mentor to get you a job. And as a mentor, it's important to remember that you're not there to discuss whether a mentee's boss is right or wrong. A mentor's responsibility is to help the mentee "put herself in a situation where she won't be faced with the same challenges that may be limiting her growth now."

Williams' own mentors at American Express have been super. "There are so many great leaders here," she says. "I've never had a situation where someone wasn't open to providing the support or mentorship I asked for."

VP Luisa Light does strategic planning at Citigroup
Luisa Light

Luisa Light

Ecuador native Luisa Light has also benefited from supportive senior execs. Fifteen years ago Light graduated from the University of Maryland and went to work on Wall Street for the Salomon Brothers brokerage house.

She thought it would be a temporary job, but the years went by. In 1997 Salomon was acquired by Citigroup, the world's largest financial institution, and Light is still there.

She advanced from systems analyst to senior programmer analyst, engineer, and assistant VP and team leader in global ops, apps support and integration. Today she's a VP in the corporate and investment banking technology division, operating under the umbrella of capital markets.

"Most of my mentors have been my managers," she says. "I can think of at least four who wanted me to do well and helped me advance. You need to make known what your ambitions are."

One helpful mentor was based in Texas, but, "When you find someone on the same wavelength you have to be verbal and reach out," she says. "Because I didn't see him day to day, I made sure I always had time with him when he was in town."

Light also benefited from her active membership in Citigroup's Hispanic Network. She remembers one meeting where she learned about an important restructuring that led to a better job for her.

As a mentor, she uses her Spanish-language skills to reach out. "When you can help people solve problems in their own language you feel very fulfilled," she says. She has connected with and helped Citigroup folks in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil.

Light's new VP job involves process management rather than people management. "It's about planning and gathering information, moving from development and system support to more strategic planning," she says. "My days are a little more predictable. I know what's on my plate as contrasted with the days when I was putting out fires."

The absorption of Salomon by Citgroup has made differences, too. "When you become part of a worldwide company your spectrum changes," says Light. "There are more demands for documentation, concerns about terrorism and backup. And with consolidation," she adds with a smile, "you want to be sure you're working in an area that will still be around."

Elizabeth Gray: coping with change at Ameriprise Financial
Elizabeth Gray

Elizabeth Gray

Elizabeth Gray is a program director in Ameriprise Financial's variable assets technology group in Minneapolis, MN. She's been through corporate changes and has found a mentor to help her cope with them.

Gray was never in a formal mentoring relationship until she joined the Menttium program last year. Before that, however, she was "reaching out to people higher up" to realize her goal of moving from programming into management. In finance, she says, she's found a business career where her early interest in numbers and programming is still fulfilled.

Gray started as a programmer after graduating from Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN) in l987 with a BS in CS and math. She worked for four years at General Dynamics (Fort Worth, TX) and did mainframe business apps at McLane Co (Temple, TX) for another four.

Then she wanted a change, and worked as a contractor for catalog company Montgomery Ward (Chicago, IL). She was programming marketing applications there, but decided she didn't want to spend her whole career supporting marketing.

In 1996 Gray joined American Express Financial Advisors (Minneapolis, MN). Last year it became Ameriprise Financial, one of the largest advisor networks in the country.

For five years Gray was a project manager in the company's client asset technology system. Then she moved into the variable assets technology group, first as an application leader and then as a project manager. She got into her program director job in 2004.

When she joined the Menttium program she was paired with the male CIO of a healthcare company. Gray likes the Menttium approach of pairing mentees with senior execs from other industries. "Senior leaders have a broad perspective and understanding, not just of their own worlds," she says.

She never talks technology with her mentor. They talk about how to navigate through an organization, why organizations are structured the way they are, and why various decisions are made.

"He makes me see that I need to think about the business value of what I'm doing, not just the technology," and encourages her to reach out to people in her company who aren't in the technology division. "I wish I'd known the value of that earlier in my career," she says.

Change is looming for Gray. She hopes to advance to VP, and if it happens it most likely will be in technology. The spin-off from American Express is being implemented, and her mentor is advising her on ways to deal with institutional restructuring.

This puts Gray in a good position, because she loves change. "Rather than lamenting the way things used to be, I like to look forward," she declares.


Lisa Furlong is a freelance writer and editor in Center Harbor, NH.

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