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Managing

At Allstate, Rhonda Boyd heads up an innovation lab

Boyd’s career has been diverse, but she’s always proved herself a leader: something she wants other African American IT pros to take to heart


Rhonda Boyd: toys and gadgets to help people think more creatively.Rhonda Boyd is a literal “dream weaver.” It’s her job to help employees of insurance giant Allstate Insurance Co (Northbrook, IL) articulate their ideas and, in many cases, make them come
to life.

Boyd manages the innovation services team, which is in charge of a laboratory filled with both kid’s toys and the latest cool technology. Employees bring their innovative business ideas there, toss them around and shape them up.
Boyd’s team then works with each person to help solidify the idea. In some cases the idea may become a company process or patent.

Reaching potential
Boyd is an IT pro with a two-decade career of business application development and management jobs. She’s also president of the Chicago chapter of Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA), the organization’s largest chapter. She prides herself on helping people reach their potential, whether they’re Allstate employees, BDPA members or high school teens needing the guidance of BDPA volunteers. She’s especially anxious to see more African Americans succeed in the IT arena.

“There aren’t enough people out there in the field, and there aren’t enough kids coming out of college or kids going into college with an interest in technology. Elementary-school kids are not exposed to IT except in games,” Boyd says.

In business a year
The lab opened in February 2008, and Boyd took over the team this past June. The basic idea is, of course, to look for innovative ideas from company employees, rather than turning first to outside experts.

The lab is full of fascinating children’s toys and gadgetry, put there to amuse and disarm people so they can think more creatively and discuss ideas more openly. Employees bring their ideas to the team, which may send their concepts off to the appropriate business area for evaluation. Some ideas are related to technology; others are aimed at business improvement and other areas.

“It’s fun to see people’s eyes widen in the lab,” says Boyd. “They smile and become happy.”

Three of the walls are windows. People come into the sunny room, see the toys and throw a ball in the air while they’re thinking, or play with gadgets while talking with others. “Departments hold meetings in here all the time to help their people think outside the box,” Boyd notes.

Fielding great ideas
Since the lab opened, Boyd and her team of strategy consultants have fielded some 160 really promising ideas. The consultants come from a variety of backgrounds, like journalism, recruiting and of course information technology.

“What we do is create a safe environment so people are free to express their ideas and are not judged on them.” The team is currently working on an “ideation” tool to predict how the internal market might respond to some of the ideas.

Boyd sees herself as a laid-back manager who even encourages her team members to try out other areas of the company if they seek more fulfillment. Her people look to her to help them develop, she says.

And on the side...
Besides her work in the innovation lab, Boyd heads strategy on the leadership team for the Allstate Women Information Network (A*WIN). It’s a company employee network group with more than 400 members, and has been the leader in setting the standard for other groups, she says with pride.

When Boyd became BDPA Chicago president at the beginning of 2008, she also became a member of the Mayor’s Council of Technology Advisors for the city of Chicago. “My role is to be sure the BDPA’s technology education efforts support the mayor’s vision,” she explains. The council was created in 1999 to support Chicago’s role as a leading high-tech metropolitan area. The council works to promote sustainable technology-based economic growth and bring the benefits of the new economy to all Chicagoans.

Boyd is in the first year of her two-year term as BDPA Chicago chapter president. Her goal is to get more elementary school kids involved with IT, and the chapter is currently formulating a program and curriculum to do just that, she says.

She also points to the good done by the famous BDPA High School Computer Competition, a super-popular feature of the group’s national conference for the past twenty-three years. Chicago chapter’s team has placed in the top three for three consecutive years. “We’re shooting for first place in 2009,” Boyd says.

In fifty chapters nationwide, BDPA volunteer mentors coach students in Web development, apps and database projects, readying them to compete against the other teams for scholarships. “It’s a really big deal,” Boyd says. “Corporate sponsors give them laptops and a lot of support, and we feel we’re feeding the pipeline.”

Child of the Midwest
Boyd was born in Indianapolis, IN. Her family moved to California when she was eight, then back to Indiana when she was in high school. But she’s spent most of her life in California since graduating with a bachelors from Cal State-LA. She also has a 2002 MBA from Pepperdine University (Malibu, CA).

Originally she wanted to be a lawyer, but her father convinced her that she would have a brighter future in computers. Both her parents were in education: her dad was superintendent of one of the largest districts in the country, and her mom was a teacher and then a principal.

Striking out
Boyd’s first jobs after college were in retail promotion and sales, first for a Christian record producer, then for a copier company. But after a year she found a job as a developer/analyst in IT for an aerospace company.

She stayed there until 1990, when she became director of IT for a Christian not-for-profit organization. That year she was also running an ice cream and yogurt business. “The bank wanted my house as collateral, and I told them no and funded it myself. I sold it and broke even after a year,” she says.

In 1991 she moved to a messenger company of 300 employees as assistant manager, then manager. Besides reducing costs by 40 percent and improving customer satisfaction, Boyd managed the customer service department and all the company’s technology. She was also the Unix admin. The company’s systems included digital cards for telephones: a new technology back then.

Project manager and more
In 1995, realizing that new technologies were emerging, she left the messenger company for work as a contract project manager for Southern California Edison’s transmission and distribution division. In 1996 she joined a telecom company as western regional manager of fifty employees, and managed accounts and projects there for the next three years.

In 1999 Boyd returned to the utility company as a project manager. But she was still a contractor and funding for her position ran out, so she went back to school to complete her MBA. She and three co-workers also went to work for one of the dot-coms that were so prolific and profitable at the time.

“That was fun!” she recalls. “We were of different ethnicities, Asian, Hispanic, African American and Caucasian, and we talked about having our own company one day. But then the dot-com bubble burst.”

Back to the Midwest
After finishing at Pepperdine in 2002, Boyd took a job implementing PeopleSoft, an ERP application. But in 2004 she decided to quit and move back to the Midwest. She arrived in Chicago, IL without a job.

“I found a house and signed on with a contracting company that sent me to Allstate. I was there about three weeks when Allstate offered me a job,” she says.

Throughout her fascinating career, she’s learned to “persevere and have confidence” in herself.

“Regardless of obstacles that stand in the way and challenges you may not know how to address, continue to work hard, work smart and market your brand, and you can be successful,” she advises.

That’s certainly worked for Rhonda Boyd.

D/C




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