From the classroom to the C-Suite, electrical engineering has been Dr. Sandra Johnson's lifelong calling, a field in which she succeeded despite formidable challenges. Sandra shares her journey as a Hidden Figure — the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in computer engineering — and how that journey has informed her current mission to "lift as we climb."
Q: You have had a storied career in engineering and computer science. What prompted your interest, as a young woman, in these fields?
In junior high and high school, I loved math and science. One day when I was in high school, I received information in the mail about the Engineering Summer Institute at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That seemed like a wonderful opportunity to spend a summer away from home and live in a college dorm even though the only kind of engineering I was aware of at the time was the kind that involved driving a train. I applied and was accepted. It was when I was on campus and took courses in electrical, chemical, civil, and mechanical engineering that I learned about the other engineering professions. I fell in love with electrical engineering — it felt like something I was born to do. I still feel that way.
Q: You went on to get advanced degrees and become a Hidden Figure — the first Black woman to get a Ph.D. in computer engineering. What made you take that next step when very few women — let alone Black women — were entering the field?
As an undergrad at Southern University, I was excited about the coursework, enjoyed the learning, and really wanted to learn more, so I decided to apply to graduate school. Initially, I wasn't interested in a Ph.D. because you had to stay in school too long. However, prior to starting graduate school I switched to a Ph.D. fellowship program because the cost-of-living payments were higher than in a Master's program. My intention was to drop out of the Ph.D. fellowship program after earning a Master's degree from Stanford. Then, an encounter with William Shockley at Stanford's Electrical Engineering Department changed my mind. At the time, Dr. Shockley was a highly regarded emeritus professor -- the winner of the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for co-inventing the transistor. But he also pursued research that he believed quantified that Blacks were inferior to Whites. When I learned about that, I had the passion to continue school and earn a Ph.D. to prove Dr. Shockley wrong.
Even 10 years after my graduation, there were only a few Black women who had earned a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering. You could count them on one hand. Three decades later, the actual numbers are significantly greater, but the percentage is still small. We have yet to reach critical mass.
Q: As a trailblazer, you faced many obstacles. What were some of them and how did you overcome them?
In graduate school, we worked on problem sets, which required students in the class to form small groups to work on a problem together. In my first class, I made multiple attempts to form a group with other classmates, but every time, my classmates, including the women, would look at me head to toe and say no. So, I'm standing by myself trying to figure out what to do and one of the foreign students — from Lebanon — approached me to say he was experiencing the same thing. He and I formed our own group and were then joined by another student from Australia. This happened class after class, so eventually I just went straight to the foreign students to form a group.
As a Ph.D. student, I encountered similar issues in the lab. New on campus, I went into a lab and started working. The lab assistant came to me with great confidence and said, "I believe you are in the wrong place." I was sitting down, looking up at him and said "no, I'm not." We went a few rounds in this vein, because of course I knew I was in the right place. Finally, he asked a few questions and learned that I was a Ph.D. student. He was only a Master's student, but continued to press me, asking who my advisor was. When he learned my advisor was one of the most powerful people in the department, he became nervous and apologized. I accepted his apology, but took this confrontation as an opportunity to educate, telling him, "the next time someone who looks like me walks into this lab, don't be so sure of yourself."
And I continued to be overlooked and underrecognized when I started interviewing for jobs; I knew I wanted to work in an industrial research organization. When IBM came on campus to interview, I went to sign up at the Career Development Office, but I was told that I was overqualified because IBM was not looking for Ph.D. candidates. I had worked for IBM one summer and knew that could not be the case. And, of course, it turned out it wasn't. Some days later, when I walked into my office, which I shared with two other students, I encountered a guy talking to one of my office mates. It turned out he was a Rice alumnus who worked for the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, and he had come on campus to interview students like me, who were about to graduate with the background that I had. When we introduced ourselves, he got really excited, because I was the type of person — and, frankly, the only person at that time — who had the skill set he was looking for. He was really concerned to hear that, despite having advised the Department Office weeks in advance that he was coming to campus and what type of student he was looking for, no one told me he was coming. So it was pure luck that I happened to log into my office at the right time. And that's how I ended up at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center.
Q: What kind of work did you do at the T.J. Watson Research Center?
I spent my first eight or so years at IBM just conducting research and having a wonderful time. Much of the work that's done in IBM research is considered bleeding edge. I was part of the research team that developed this supercomputer — that's how it was referred to at the time - called Vulcan. Vulcan was the prototype to the actual commercial machine — eventually called "Deep Blue" - that competed against the then world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Garry won the first match and IBM won the second. IBM wanted a third match, but Garry declined. He was smart enough to realize that the computer was going to get even stronger and more powerful with each match. Deep Blue was raw computing power, looking at all possible combinations of chess moves.
Q: How did you move from research to managerial and executive positions at IBM?
Life was good in research. But then I was approached by a woman who I later learned was the first Black woman vice president at IBM. She said she wanted to help me become an IBM executive. Initially, I didn't want to do that. I liked the work/life balance in research and the egalitarianism — we all had Ph.D.'s and, while your compensation increased over time, there was no concept of promotion. However, this woman was not the type of person to take no for an answer, and she became my mentor.
My mentor introduced me to important contacts within the company and taught me how to navigate the promotion process. Then, after 18 months or so, I left research and moved to California where I became a manager in the Development Division. Following a move to Austin, Texas, I developed an interest in Africa and began to look for IBM opportunities in that part of the world. I eventually found an opportunity in the Middle East and Africa, which involved moving to Dubai. When one of my mentors became the Chief Technology Officer for the Middle East and Africa, I worked with him to create a new role for me as CTO of IBM Central, East and West Africa, a sub-area of his targeted region.
Q: The company you founded after leaving IBM has its origin story in your experience in Africa and the Middle East. Tell us about that and how your interest in Africa has evolved.
Once I took the on the CTO role in Africa, I moved from Dubai to Nairobi. While I was living in the Middle East and Africa, I traveled throughout the continent of Africa, visiting 22 countries, many of them several times. I learned that most of these countries are cash-based societies. Most people have no bank relationship and no checking account, but almost everyone has a mobile phone.
Understanding the business opportunity, the mobile telephone service providers created the concept of a financial account associated with a mobile telephone number. It's called mobile money. Even though people don't have bank accounts, they can move money back and forth with the telephone number serving as the account number.
I used this system myself. But what I discovered when I'd go back to the United States was that it was difficult for me to send money back to Africa. It was time-consuming and expensive. So, when I started thinking about what I was going to do next, I knew I wanted to leverage my technology skills to benefit the African continent. I came up with the idea of a remittance mobile service provider, where funds are deposited directly into mobile money accounts of the recipients and not in banks. I left IBM, came home to the U.S., founded Global Mobile Finance, Inc., and developed geeRemit, a mobile app that does just that.
I gave myself five years to build Global Mobile Finance, and, during that period, my interest shifted. I've concluded now is the time to assist, encourage and inspire people of the African diaspora. Traveling throughout the continent, I learned that there are incredible, smart, innovative young people throughout Africa. I have a passion to work with them and people across the African diaspora to help them become tech entrepreneurs. I believe some of the next tech billionaires are going to come out of Africa, and my goal is to assist at least 100 Africans to become tech entrepreneurs.
Q: Your career has such an amazing trajectory - from researcher to executive to entrepreneur and now to board director. You recently were on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange ringing the bell with Black Women on Boards, an organization that pays homage to Patricia Roberts Harris who in 1971 was the first Black woman to serve as a director of a public company, which happens to have been IBM. This seems to bring your career full circle.
At Black Women on Boards, we focus on lifting as we climb. Our mission is to lift up the next generation. The day we were at the New York Stock Exchange, there were about a dozen young women from Spelman College in the balcony. And, of course, we were making history in our own right. In the 230-year history at the New York Stock Exchange there had never been so many Black women on the floor. There were 100 of us!
Q: What advice do you have for women who face challenges that seem insurmountable?
If you know that there is something you want to do, do not let anyone convince you otherwise. You are the captain of your own ship. Steer it in the right direction.
See what it looks like when women own the floor of the New York Stock Exchange: Black Women on Boards Rings The Opening Bell® - YouTube