As vice president of IBM's global initiative Smarter Cities, Sharon Nunes is focused on improving the quality of life at urban centers worldwide by partnering with city governments to improve transportation, waste management and energy use.
Smarter Cities counts over 1,000 city governments worldwide as its clients. Over the next three years, it will be distributing $50 million in grants to 100 cities as part of its Smarter Cities Challenge, a program that is meant to help municipalities manage sustainable growth.
Nunes, 54 but "going on 30," graduated in 1983 from the University of Connecticut with a Ph.D. in material sciences and engineering. She started at IBM the following year and has held various positions at Big Blue, including director of its life sciences unit, as a VP working on IBM's Watson research and as a leader of various emerging business units at the company.
FINS spoke with Nunes about her job, her leadership skills and why she doesn't treat all people equally.
Shareen Pathak: What was your first big career break?
Sharon Nunes: Working for a manager that saw leadership potential in me and encouraged me to go into management. I had been at IBM eight or nine years and I was asked to take an assignment at IBM's research headquarters. It gave me a view of what the rest of IBM did.
SP: You've done a lot of work advocating women in technology and have been recognized with numerous awards for your mentorship of young women. What do you think needs to be done?
SN: In general, we don't have sufficient women in technical careers. We don't have women who are considering science, technology, engineering and math as career paths in middle and high school. The challenge is how do you encourage people from early on and get them thinking about the leadership opportunity.
Another thing is companies providing support systems so women can balance work and personal life and travel and other demands.
SP: Why did you join IBM? Your background isn't a typical one for the company.
SN: When you're in that material sciences field, you don't think of IBM as an employer. But IBM does use a lot of material science, chemistry and engineering. I joined as part of a team developing new materials for disk drives. Back then, they were eight inches in diameter and we were migrating to the five-inch.
SP: What did you want to be when you were younger?
SN: A teacher. My first year of college was in teaching. But I found I wasn't challenged enough with the classes and as a whim, I decided to switch into chemistry because I liked it in high school. I didn't have the mentor or encouragement -- it was almost an accident going into it.
I spend time mentoring women to go into those careers because I didn't have a mentor.
SP: Who have your mentors been?
SN: Nick Donofrio [former executive VP of innovation and technology.] He kept a senior interest in mentoring and guiding women and under-represented minorities. He's the type of person that would just tell you that you could do anything. Don't set your sights low, set your sights high. He encouraged everyone who came to him with an idea.
SP: What keeps you up at night?
SN: Whether we can grow the Smarter Cities business fast enough for the need we see in the market. Right now, it's a big growth area for us. Especially when you think of the economic recession in the past five years, the need to figure out how to save money for governments around the world.
SP: If you were forced to retire tomorrow and could give your replacement one piece of advice, what would it be?
SN: You have to be flexible. Flexible means dealing with people, dealing with cultures, clients, business partners, dealing with the rest of IBM. It means being adaptable. To me, that's a successful leader.
SP: What's the most important thing to remember throughout your career?
SN: I think the one thing is to remember that people should not be treated the same everywhere. They should be treated fairly. One person's needs aren't the same as another person's needs. My needs as a working mother are very different from a new employee's needs or someone dealing with elderly parents or sick family members.
Write to Shareen Pathak