Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Geeks Gone Great Chats With National BDPA President Yvette Graham

Cross-posted from Blacks Gone Geek
Yvette Graham has grown up in BDPA and is currently enjoying the crest of her term as national president of the premiere organization for African Americans in Information Technology.

A BDPA leader since the early 80’s, Yvette Graham has made an indelible impression throughout the organization since her early years of service with the Chicago chapter, up through recent years, to emerge as spokesperson and chief executive officer representing over 40+ chapters across the  United States.

I had the opportunity to chat with Ms. Graham, just after the August 2011 BDPA Technology Conference in Chicago.  She shares her perspective on attaining success with BDPA as well as key values she ascribes to.  It was a very special space shared...

BGG: Madame President, what would you like to share regarding how your experiences as a young person helped to shape the woman and leader you are today?

YG: Well I’ve been fortunate every step of my journey to have the help of special people who are close to me. Right out of school I was fortunate enough to land a position with Allstate, which would prove to be a career defining move.  It was actually at Allstate where I received my first exposure to BDPA.  I found out about the corporate chapter there, and was asked to be a guest speaker to present on “DB2 Relational Databases”.  I had no idea then that I would dare to achieve the many successes I’ve enjoyed with BDPA.  BDPA helped me to be a stronger professional and leader at Allstate. But I must also credit my strong church background as an early influence that shaped who I am.  And I would be remiss if I did not speak of the support that I have received from my husband. For 25 years, he has supported me throughout my journey of who I am today. So you see I’ve had strong support systems along the way that have helped me to learn and grow.

BGG:  A strong support system is everything...and you have given us an idea of how you were able to embrace your success.  Who would you say has been your greatest inspiration from a mentor perspective?

YG: In terms of a mentor role, as far as corporate America goes, I have to say there is a gentleman from my church who provided many years of guidance and mentoring.  In fact I admire this person so, because he is one of the first African American officers at Comm Ed.  He worked very hard to come up through the ranks to become an executive. He is the type of person who believes in giving back and therefore helped to mentor me professionally.  He has given me a great deal of advice, for example something so simple like learning from the good habits of people. I have learned how to observe others as well.  To this day I can refer to the “toolkit” created in my mind that holds those handy tips that I can use when I need to.   

I also can thank my personal mentor, my mother, who really instilled in me the value of being a lady.  No matter the situation, she instructed me to always be a lady – from dressing like a lady, to behavior. It’s been something that I’ve carried out, and it works for me.  I don’t try to be someone other than who I am in any circle I travel in.  Although I interact with a largely male population, I conduct myself in a manner that people can respect.

BGG: For anyone who does not know, let’s talk about the many roles you’ve held with BDPA over the years.  Tell us about your evolution and also the work that launched you to another level?

YG:  I had chaired the Allstate Corporate Chapter, which I have to say was a wonderful introduction to the senior officers at my company.  My management was committed to invest in my development and has been extremely supportive through the years. 

The number 1 thing I was so passionate to accomplish was the work to help our young people. In fact, BDPA created a position just for me, which was centered on college students.  This presented my first really big introduction to corporate America, having to create a national internship process.  All of these resumes started rolling in, from all over the United States, mind you, and I had to articulate to corporate CIOs and the like, the value of our program and help to place these students.  I stayed actively involved with all stakeholders to create a strong model for this program.  Eventually National BDPA asked to take over the program which was the SIP (Student Internship Program). 

The work I was able to accomplish there, paved the way for my leadership role with BDPA Chicago. I continued to learn and develop, with the support and backing of my company to evolve into a stronger leader, both where BDPA was concerned and also as a director at Allstate.  As president of Chicago chapter, I started attending national board meetings and began to identify where I could help and a new level within the National organization, and the rest as they say is history.

BGG:  As a wife, mother of a college senior, church leader, and leader in corporate America, you are responsible for so much, on top of being president of a national organization, which requires a rigorous travel schedule, countless appearances, chairing untold board meetings, etc. What advice would you impart for such success for others with high ambition?

YG:  I learned very early to balance, but I also have the help of many great people who do wonderful work. Who you have on your team is very important for your success. I would say building relationships is so important, I can’t say enough about the value of good relationships I continue learning many things from observation. And whenever I am faced with major decisions, I don’t make a move without weighing all the circumstances and without prayer.

Towards the end of my presidency with National BDPA, I can say that I’ve grown mentally and spiritually. My time in office was met with many challenges and opportunities that have stretched me. I’ve learned so much and I’m not even the same person I used to be.  And it’s funny, but I really never thought that I would be national president; I had no ambitions towards being national president of BDPA. 

BGG:  Really??!  It seems with the various roles you’ve held at the local Chicago level, and then moving on to hold offices at the national level, that it would be a logical transition to position to run for higher office?

YG: No, never did I think of it.  I’ll tell you.  I had worked with so many people along the way - I knew so many people across the organization (nationally) that 6 different chapters nominated me for national president, including Chicago.  I looked at the situation from the point of the opportunity was presenting itself to me.  But before I made one move, I weighed it.  I had conversations with my husband, I discussed with my Chicago Chapter leaders, and I discussed with my Allstate organization.  I had the backing and support of all three.  If I had not had the encouragement of any one of them, I would not have run!

BGG:  Every president has a legacy. BDPA has existed since 1975, now for the first time, starting in 2012 the regionalization of chapters, will be attributed to your administration, correct?  What challenges were overcome to deliver this major organizational change effort? 

YG: This is correct, although the research and initial analysis on moving the organization to a regional model took place under the prior administration (which I was a part of), it was this administration that moved it forward by including it within our 2010-2011 Strategy where a team was pulled together to: 1) design the bylaws to support regionalization; 2) define the breakout of chapters aligned to the four regions; and 3) finalize the stage of electing the Regional Vice Presidents and Regional Directors during this past delegates meeting held in Chicago.

As far as challenges, I would have to say it centered on communication. Change is very difficult for everyone, but to overcome that change we had to ensure that we were communicating the right message to the right people at the right time. As a leadership team, we had to be sure that we provided a message for the local chapter presidents, for the local chapter “incoming presidents”, as well as being available to discuss this with all members of the organization.

Finally, because this new model was starting under our incoming president, Monique Berry, we decided that she should be the voice of this change since it will be led by her. This gave BDPA the opportunity to begin hearing from Monique, instead of me. I believe all of this helped with the implementation of regionalization.

BGG: What are the greatest advantages to regionalization and what are the important next steps members can look forward to? 

YG: The greatest advantage of regionalization is that more focus can be placed on the needs of chapters. Under the current structure of BDPA, it is expected that the National Executive Committee would be able to design programs that would support our 40+ chapters. This was a great model in the 70s and 80s, because we were a growing organization without as many chapters. Now that we have grown, to better serve our chapters, we needed to put leaders in place that support the needs of the chapters within a region (for example the programs needed on the east coast could be completely different that the programs needed for the Midwest).
BGG: So, what’s next for Yvette Graham?

YG:  I really don’t know!!  There’s a lot of talk and speculation around my next move, to be honest, I really haven’t fully processed that yet. I’ve had a very full term as national president with so much activity going on, and I even served as Chair of my church’s 90th Anniversary Program last year, in addition to everything else going on in my life!  There wasn’t any time to think about what will come next for me.  I do know that at some point I would like to hold a corporate board seat, but as for right now, I’m just enjoying my time!   I will just say I’m having fun considering the possibilities! 
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This article was written by Sheila Marionneaux, contributing editor for Blacks Gone Geek.

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