Inspirational Woman: Justina Nixon-Saintil, Vice President & Global Head, Corporate Social Responsibility, IBM

Justina Nixon-Saintil

Justina Nixon-Saintil, an IBM Vice President and Global Head of the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social and Corporate governance (ESG) initiatives, drives programs that enable IBM’s technology and talent to address societal challenges.

For example, IBM SkillsBuild, IBM University Programs, P-TECH, and STEM for Girls use multisector partnerships to help create more inclusive and innovative schools and workforces. She also spearheads practices that underpin the company’s uncompromising ethics and transparency in its operations and environmental footprint. Ms. Nixon-Saintil was previously director of CSR at Verizon.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role?

My family immigrated to the United States from the small Caribbean Island of Dominica when I was eight years old, and we settled in the Bronx community of New York City. My parents were professional educators, so scholastic achievement was a given. I was a curious child, interested in how things work. (My family knew that I liked to disassemble electronics, so they kept me away from our lone television, just in case I couldn’t put it back together!)

I graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Buffalo. I started my career as an engineer, but at Verizon, I became increasingly interested in ways the private sector could help create opportunity through better and more equitable education for people of color and women. So that’s what I did when I became Verizon’s director of education and corporate social responsibility.

A little more than one year ago, I joined IBM as Vice President and Global Head of its Corporate Social Responsibility efforts. That means I drive the strategic, socially responsible programmatic investments that enable IBM’s technology and talent to address some of society’s biggest challenges worldwide. We enable IBM’s employees to transform their altruism into reality for the good of humanity. In particular, we nurture environmental sustainability with our innovation and keeping our carbon footprint, and those of our supply chain, to a minimum. We promote civic, social and economic progress through community programs like IBM SkillsBuild, which promote an inclusive approach to education and career training. And, of course, we implement measures for good governance of our own company, ensuring that it operates transparently, fairly and responsibly. You might say that I firmly believe in the power of technology to address difficult societal issues, but also in the potential of imagination, integrity, and determination to challenge the status quo.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

That’s a great question. When I was growing up, there wasn’t nearly as many resources to help young adults. The World Wide Web didn’t really exist for the general public, so it was hard to perform research. At that point, the Internet was primarily email, and academic discussion groups. If you went to the library, you had to know exactly what you were looking for ahead of time. It was a real investment in time and persistence to uncover information.

Growing up, we had professionals in our community, but I never met an engineer, so I didn’t know much about the field. I frankly didn’t even know what I wanted to be when I grew up. It’s hard to be what you can’t see. My sister knew that I was good at math, so she suggested that I enroll as an engineering major at the University of Buffalo. When I graduated, I don’t think that I had any inkling that I would eventually transition to a role where I could help apply technology to address community issues, but the more I was able to see its potential, the more I wanted to be a part of it. I began to be more proactive and intentional about my career as I become exposed to more and more opportunities and roles in the corporate world.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I think my biggest challenge was as a student at the School of Engineering at the University of Buffalo. There were very few young women and even fewer who looked like me. It was intimidating to ask for help, especially when I felt as if I had to hold myself to an even higher standard than your average student. But I sought out mentors who gave me good practical advice. I graduated as the only Black woman in my program and entered a field where I didn’t often encounter professionals like myself. The continued encouragement from my family and mentors helped me through. My degree has opened a world of possibilities for me personally, while also putting me in a position to influence the next generation.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Last fall, IBM took a huge step toward broadening access to a culture of “skills-first” education across the globe when we committed to reskilling and upskilling 30 million people globally by 2030. We’re doing this together with partners such as universities, public high schools, economic development organizations, other companies in all industries, and job placement agencies. We’re working to ensure that our coursework, badge certifications and mentoring are helping students, aspiring professionals and military veterans — especially those from underrepresented and under-resourced communities. We’ve gotten terrific feedback on free resources like IBM SkillsBuild to help us fulfill our pledge.

We’re trying to address several important issues with this initiative. We need to increase representation of nonwhites into STEM fields. That’s going to be a win-win for everyone. It’s going to create opportunities for people who have traditionally been overlooked, untapped talent who have not had access to the pathways available in more affluent communities. At the same time, it’s going to be helpful to address the massive STEM skills shortage that has affected many businesses for a long time now.

Other achievements I’m proud of include partnerships with non-profit organizations and schools across the United States to bring innovative resources and experiences to under-resourced students, and the creation of educational content powered by 5G.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?  

I try to learn from everyone who I meet, no matter their title or seniority. Everyone has a skill or point of view that contributes to the conversation or builds on whatever idea I may have. To learn from them, I keep an open mind and don’t assume that I know everything. I try to be an active listener and to be truly present when I work with people.

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What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

There are a variety of strategies which I think have a lot of value. For one thing, education is a lifelong process, especially when it comes to technology. It’s always changing and the best way to maintain your edge is to keep taking courses that bring you up to date. It’s not a one-and-done. The intervals between breakthroughs are getting shorter and shorter, so you’ll definitely have to work hard to stay current. Be curious. The good news is that there are plenty of resources, like IBM SkillsBuild, that can help you with that. In that same spirit, I recommend that younger professionals, in particular, stay flexible when it comes to finding their niche. When you’re a student, take on a variety of internships to get exposure to a whole spectrum of roles and industries. Remember: technology and STEM now touches practically every industry. Once you arrive at a company, maintain that same curiosity. Take on new assignments and roles so that you can find the position that will allow you to best contribute your talents. Understand how your specialty impacts and is impacted by adjacent job roles. That’s going to give you fresh perspectives about how technology can be improved. Oh, and always find yourself a mentor. That can be invaluable for just about every workplace situation and career planning.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I think society is becoming much more open to the notion that women need to play an equal role in the tech workplace, in both technical and leadership roles. Smart folks know that gender, ethnic and cultural diversity produce a more creative and profitable product. Of course, there is no denying that there is still an outdated mindset around women in the tech workforce, but I think the younger generation is coming in with less biases. That said, this is a transformation that needs to be addressed during the education process — well before women reach the workforce. Educators need to instill confidence in young women that technology is cool and rewarding. We know that girls are highly participatory in STEM classes at a younger age, but something happens socially when they reach a certain age. By high school, the male / female ratio become noticeably lopsided.

At the college level, what might make a big difference is letting women know that there is more to technology than might meet the eye. Perhaps syllabi and course catalogues can reposition the curricula. You know, the American Association of University Women found that women assign higher value to careers that involve team cooperation and altruism. Inspired by this insight, Harvey Mudd College created computer science and engineering courses that emphasized collaboration and problem-solving. As a result, the school produced engineering and computer science courses where women were in the majority. Dartmouth College enjoyed similar results when it created an engineering program with an emphasis on problem-solving and collaboration.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

There are a variety of support systems that companies can establish to make the tech workplace more female friendly. Companies need to start early, even before young women choose a profession. For example, they need to collaborate with schools and clubs, sending their female employees to establish rapports with students. Female interns need to be recruited. Confidence needs to be instilled that a tech career is exciting and fulfilling.

Once women view tech careers as viable for them, then the culture and policies need to be human-centric, welcoming, accommodating and flexible. Employees should be given the choice of working remotely on a regular basis so that they can create a manageable work / life balance and be their most productive and healthy selves. Managers need to be flexible about when and how work gets done. Arrangements need to be available that allow women to put their career on hold without repercussion when their personal lives take priority. Women can also benefit from the wisdom and support of both more senior colleagues and contemporary peers. All employees need to be held to high standards at all times when it comes to collaboration and professionalism.

There are currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

In some ways, gender representation will also improve when there is also more ethnic, racial and cultural diversity. At that point, people will take it for granted that the workplace should mirror society at large. That means that to be more female-friendly, companies also need to be more welcoming to nonwhites. The issues of gender and racial equity go hand in hand. The issue of female under representation in tech job roles begins well before young adults finish their professional training, so I think one key is intervention during the education process, with more creative classrooms tactics and more training opportunities when it comes to internships, mentorships and apprenticeships as people’s career choices are being considered.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

For students and enthusiasts, I like particularly like Techbridge Girls; Girls in Tech; NCWIT (National Center for Women and Information Technology);; SWE (Society of Women Engineers); and American Association of University Women. For a podcast, I highly recommend The #womenintech Podcast.