Blazing the Trail for African-American Women in IT

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Dixie Garr loves a James Brown song that features the lyrics, "Don't give me anything, just open the door and I'll get it myself."

Garr, vice president of customer success engineering at Cisco Systems, says that technology opened that door for women and minorities. And the gifted African American engineer, whose high-tech career has spanned nearly a quarter century, was one of the first to stride purposefully through.

"Technology is a great leveler for women and minorities," she says.



Today, Garr is not only a top executive with one of the world's most renowned high-tech companies, but also a sought-after industry and motivational speaker.

From rural Louisiana to Los Angeles

Growing up as the youngest of eight children in a tiny Louisiana town, Garr knew early on that she had an aptitude for math and science. When she found out "I could make money doing something I loved," she hit the ground running.

After high school, she enrolled at Grambling University. Since she had two older sisters who were in college at the same time, she was determined to save her family money by finishing her degree in three years. She took extra classes each semester and interned as a systems analyst with a division of General Motors. She managed to double-major in math and computer science and still graduate summa cum laude a year early.

Garr then headed for UCLA to earn a master's degree in computer engineering. To help pay the way, she applied for a prestigious Hughes Aircraft Fellowship.

Despite her academic record, she was initially turned down. Garr refused to accept the decision, and lobbied company officials to change their minds. "They [finally] said 'OK' because of my sheer determination," she says.

Garr says her family - including a strict but fair-minded father - taught her to put herself on the line and refuse to take "no" for an answer. Behind her determination to succeed, there was also another motivating factor. "When you go to a historically black school, you want to be as well prepared as you can be [for the outside world]. You need to understand the barriers you have to overcome to project yourself into being comfortable," she says.

"At that time I felt I was a representative of everybody - black folks and women, everybody. I felt I owed it to my [childhood] community to do everything I could to succeed."

Garr says that she wanted other African American youngsters to see what was possible. "Information technology was not just for me, but for that community, [so I could become] the role model I didn't necessarily have," she says.

Being an African American woman in the IT world

Armed with her goals and master's degree, Garr began her career with Hughes Aircraft, ironically the very organization that had tried to turn her down for the fellowship. For the newly minted engineer, "it was like playing in a candy store."

Technology giant Texas Instruments soon hired her away. As their director of software engineering, Garr led a team of over 800 software engineers responsible for development and deployment, software quality engineering, configuration management and engineering. She also founded a corporate minority leadership initiative.

Garr enjoyed a successful 19-year career at Texas Instruments. During that time she found that whenever she was ready for a new challenge, the company was more than willing to offer her one. In 1997, she was chosen Black Engineer of the Year in Industry by U.S. Black Engineer and Information Technology magazine and The Council of Engineering Deans of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

While Garr acknowledges that being a woman of color in IT could have been an isolating experience, she says she made a conscious decision to stop that.

"The biggest challenge that I face, and that a lot of black people and women share, is that I have to not allow myself to be left out, or to feel left out," she says emphatically. "I do not allow myself to be lonely."

Garr decided that she doesn't have to wait for others to make the first move. If, for example, she isn't invited to join a group, she starts one herself and invites others to join her.

The call from Cisco

Garr's drive and accomplishments did not go unnoticed, and in 1997 Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers recruited her for her present job.

At Cisco, "I feel I am part of a leadership team that is incredibly changing the world," Garr says. [When] I get up every morning I don't think, 'I'm going to run a team called Customer Success Engineering.' What I think is, 'I've got to go change how the world works.'' That's just incredible adrenalin!"

Garr, a working mother, admits she's constantly trying to achieve that elusive work/life balance by keeping her priorities straight. "My daughter and my husband will still be with me in 50 years, and they'll remember that I had dinner with them. A company won't remember two or three hours of extra work."

For inspiration, Garr keeps over her desk a photo of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. "They were a group of ex-slaves that wanted to start a college, but had no money," she explains. "But they went to Europe and sang for royalty and raised enough money to build a college and purchase the land it stands on.

"I look at it and say, 'if they could do that, what am I complaining about?'"
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