Ginni Rometty, Chairman, President & CEO of IBM
Ginni Rometty is truly a self-made woman, working her way up from poverty with coding chops and business instincts that took her all the way up the ranks from engineer to chief executive officer at IBM.
Chairman, President & CEO of IBM
As Chairman, President & CEO of IBM Ginni Rometty is engineering big change for women and the world.
Why She's a MAKER: Ginni Rometty went from broken home to breakthrough leader, winning a STEM scholarship and working her way up the ranks at IBM to become its first female CEO. She's guided Big Blue to become the world's leading AI and Cloud company, all the while making it more inclusive for women.
Starting Over: Rometty had an all-American childhood in Chicago until her father abandoned the family, forcing her mother to upend her entire life. “She was determined. She went back to school, got a job, then got a better job, a better job. And I watched my brothers and sisters. It was one of the most defining elements of my life. We all learned you never let someone else define who you are. Only you define who you are.”
Opportunity 101: Despite her challenged circumstances at home, Rometty graduated at the top of her high school class and won an engineering scholarship to Northwestern University, where she was one of only a few women in the program. “It was just not the norm. I came from no money, no anything to go to a great school. That’s why I feel so strongly that in this country that where there is a will, there is a way to get something done.”
Owning Success: Ten years into her career at IBM, Rometty was offered a big promotion. She declined the powerful position, telling them she wasn’t ready for it yet. That night at home, her husband challenged her. “He said, ‘Do you think a man would have answered the question that way?’ No. So I went back in the next day and I took the job.”
Reinventing IBM: In 2012, after 30 years of introducing innovation across IBM’s services and sales channels, Rometty became IBM’s first female CEO. As she’s led the company to leadership in cloud computing and AI, she’s also spearheaded programs for women returning to the workforce. “There is no doubt in my mind that attracting women and great people in general has to do with your values. You live them every day. It’s not what you say, it's what you do.”
GINNI ROMETTY: Growth and comfort never coexist. And if you're going to grow as a person, as a leader, you got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You welcome challenge. You welcome risk, because you know you come out better at the other side.
I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. And I think I was always the one that was sort of the mother hen of my brothers and sisters. Most of my memories are of taking care of them in one way or another.
I really loved school. I was always good in math. I loved this idea that you should be able to derive where everything comes from. But I did a lot of activities. I played basketball, volleyball, and I was student council president.
In that moment, our world changed. We went on food stamps. And my mother felt ashamed to have to do something like that. And I can remember that pain in her eyes. But she was determined that this would not be how this story ended.
And so she went back to school, got a job, then got a better job, a better job. And I watched my brothers and sisters. It was one of the most defining elements of my life. And we all learned you never let someone else define who you are. Only you define who you are,
I often meet people. And they'll say, hey, I was with you in class. I'm like, that's interesting. I'm sorry. I'm embarrassed. I don't remember you. But there was like 30 of you and one of me. [LAUGHS] So you probably remember me. It was just not the norm.
I came from no money, no anything to go to a great school. And it's really the why I do feel so strongly that in this country, where there is a will, there is a way to get something done.
10 years into my career, I had been offered a promotion. The man who had offered it said, look, you should take my job. And I said, ooh, I'm not ready for this thing yet-- just give me a little bit more time. I went home that night. And my husband looked at me, and he said, do you think a man would have answered the question that way? No.
So I went back in the next day-- I took the job. And he looked me in the eye, and he said, don't do that again. I said I understand.
To lead IBM, I mean, wow, it is with great gratitude and a great sense of responsibility. But I didn't want the world to define me as the first woman CEO of IBM. I just wanted to be a good CEO of IBM.
It was another pivotal learning point that you do have to recognize you are a role model, that for people to aspire to be something, it does really help if they see other people around them that are in that role and therefore, take that seriously.
This era, I believe we'll reflect back on, data will be the issue of our time. And handled with care, you will solve some of the world's most intractable problems. And that's behind all our investment in artificial intelligence and cloud. The most important thing you have to do is have conviction about what you believe is right and then stay your course.
When I think about women in the workplace, it's about inclusion. I do believe it's a company's job to create a good environment for that. Companies-- they will take everything you can give. So you have to set your boundaries. And that's what gives you your balance.
And I guarantee you most things adapt around them. And so I think the state, the focus on that of how to advance women, it is a constant. It isn't about one moment. This is about continuity and about persistence. That is what will solve this problem.
There is no doubt in my mind that attracting women and great people, in general, has to do with your values, and you live them. You live them every day, not what you say, it's what you do.
GINNI ROMETTY: When I was about 16, my father one day decided-- really he didn't want anything to do with the rest of us. And he left my mom. She was a great mom, but hadn't gone to college in those days. And in fact, was left with no money and soon to be no home.
And so she went back to school. She, of course, had to go to school during the day, work at night because we had to find some way to get along. She was so determined.
We all learned, you, only you, define who you are. You always need to be able to take care of yourself. Never depend on someone else. And so that when you are never dependent on someone, you therefore have a great freedom to make the choices you need to make.
GINNI ROMETTY: When I first became CEO, what I didn't want was for the world to define me as the first woman CEO of IBM. I just wanted to be a good CEO of IBM. Now maybe, in retrospect, that was maybe not always a great decision because, in fact, I could have been defining IBM at the same time. But it was really probably another pivotal learning point to me that you do have to recognize you are a role model. That for people to aspire to be something, it does really help if they see other people around them that are in that role, and therefore, you know, take that seriously.
GINNI ROMETTY: I think this is wonderful, that there is so much focus on advancing women in the workplace. But it is across a whole dimension of time. It isn't about one moment. I'm glad there's focus now, but it's not about a moment in time. This is about continuity and persistence. It is about persistence. That is what will solve this problem.
GINNI ROMETTY: This idea about work, life balance-- it's the company's job to create a good environment for that. So we could talk a little bit about the things you do, but there is another side of this coin. You have to set your boundaries, and that's what gives you your balance. It really does work that way.
If you have the courage to say no and to prioritize, it will work out OK. So I try to give people that control. I say, take that control back to yourself. You do it. You set the boundary.