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Smashing the glass ceiling

Adriana (Andi) Karaboutis, Chief Information and Digital Officer, shares why choosing the road less travelled is now more important than ever.

I grew up in the US although my parents were from Greece; I didn’t learn to speak English until I went to school in Detroit at the age of six. In my first job at my Dad’s gas station, I learned how to change spark plugs and oil – and I can now probably build an engine for you! As a 13-year-old girl pumping gas, along with the need to work hard, I also began to learn about attitudes towards women in roles traditionally dominated by men.

Mom was a hairdresser, which I thought looked really fun. But her expectation was that I should go to college and get a degree, then do whatever I wanted. So, I chose the road less travelled. I won a scholarship and worked my way through university to a BS in Computer Science, something that attracted fewer women. I was really drawn to mathematics and I also recognised the future of computers. For me, technology is a great way to drive a business forward.

I worked in the automotive industry for 20 years in various international leadership positions including computer-integrated manufacturing, supply chain operations and information technology at General Motors and Ford; then moved to Dell as Vice President of Information Technology and within the year was promoted to Global Chief Information Officer. I served as an Executive Vice President of Technology, Business Solutions and Corporate Affairs in the biotech industry at Biogen Idec Ltd before switching to the utility industry to take on my current role.

Because my parents pushed me to take on challenges and always learn new things, I’ve embraced working in different industries. Crossing industries and companies has given me tremendous perspective. It has taught me to be agile, provided opportunities to learn new skills and allowed me to take lessons in leadership from one industry or company to another.

Never underestimate yourself and get out of your own way.

There was a time when I’d have said being a woman in a male dominated industry is no problem. But, with hindsight, I think I was a bit naïve and I now realise you do have to work a little harder to prove yourself. I think there’s still a tendency to put people into certain styles rather than appreciating those differences in styles and the value of diversity.

I believe there is still work to do to break the glass ceiling for more women, but we’ve come a long way. If we focus on building high performing, diverse teams, and changing things for the next generation, the progress will continue. As the former President of the Michigan Council for Women in Technology (MCWT), I worked to ignite an interest in technology in girls and open doors for women in tech careers. Currently as member of Women Corporate Directors, I have two mentees, and leverage this as a means to continue encouraging women and girls in technology and executive leadership.

My family’s humble beginnings helped me overcome some tough hurdles in life and taught me to never steer clear of a challenge. The advice I always give to my mentees: 1) Never underestimate yourself, 2) compete with yourself first and own your success, 3) get out of your own way and 4) truly value diversity – of style, of thought, of approach. Keep learning and developing, and pass it on.