August 17, 2010 By Russell Nichols
Photo: Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, CIO, New York state/Photo by David Lubarsky
If you want to get technical, you might call Melodie Mayberry-Stewart an anomaly, as in one who defies expectations -- including her own. Three and a half years ago, she became the first black, female CIO of New York state. As the governor's top information technology adviser, she develops and oversees IT investments for the $134 billion state enterprise with more than 190,000 employees.
But this position provides only a peek into the groundbreaking legacy of Mayberry-Stewart, a black woman who found her calling in a field dominated by white men.
To understand how she got here, you have to backtrack beyond her 30-year IT career to her humble beginnings in Cleveland's low-income housing projects, where opportunity wasn't known to come knocking.
It was the 1950s. Her mother worked in a day-care center. Her father drove a bus for the city. Neither of them went to college. But at a young age, Mayberry-Stewart, with her two younger brothers, learned the value of hard work.
"In the nursery school day-care center, we had all kinds of things we had to do to earn our allowance," she recalled. "This was branded in us to take nothing for granted. We learned not to be afraid of hard work and to take on challenges."
Growing up, Mayberry-Stewart's parents enrolled her in various music and sports programs, and she went to camp every year. Most of the time, she and her brother were the only black kids at camp, so she had to work twice as hard to be recognized. A self-proclaimed tomboy, she had no trouble mixing it up with the guys.
But her world turned upside down on April 7, 1964, the day Bruce W. Klunder, a white Presbyterian minister and civil rights activist, was run over and killed by a bulldozer on her street as he protested the construction of a segregated school. Riots broke out. Protesters flipped cars. Police made arrests. Coming home from school, Mayberry-Stewart remembers the riots and the next morning picking up empty tear-gas canisters off the front lawn as chaos erupted around her.
"For me, it was a catalyst," she said. "That event set me on a track to not ever want to be in a situation where I felt so frustrated and powerless that the only option was violence. I did not want to be in a situation where I would feel powerless over my own destiny. You sort of develop a fearless attitude in terms of the challenges you can take on."
Rather than lose faith in her future, Mayberry-Stewart used the incident as fuel for her dreams. Three years after arriving in Lincoln, Neb., to study business and mathematics at Union College, she became the first in her family to graduate from college. She expected to leave Nebraska, but her decision to stay and get her master's degree in sociological research led to an opportunity that would change her life forever: a job as a systems engineer for IBM.
"It was a dream to have this opportunity as this little girl from the projects of Cleveland to work at a major corporation when there weren't many girls or blacks," she said.
In the data-processing division, she was, in fact, the only black and female employee, she said, but her white male co-workers took her under their wing as a little sister. In 13 years, she rose through the ranks. After leaving IBM, she became the first CIO of the nonprofit Community Health Corp. in California. She remained in the health-care field for 12 years.
Years later, after founding an IT consulting company that provided strategic support to nonprofit organizations, her career came full circle in 2002 when newly elected Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell appointed Mayberry-Stewart as the city's first CTO and CIO.
"Given the mayor's vision and my IT background," she said, "I felt this was a wonderful opportunity to help my hometown advance its agenda."
Five years later, she got a call from the New York governor's office, an invitation to take over the state's Office for Technology. Since then, she has worked with local and federal government agencies, using technology to deliver innovative state government services to citizens and businesses. She oversees about 5,600 state IT professionals and annual technology spending of around $2 billion.
Indeed, she was not in Cleveland anymore. But during her tenure, as the recession raged on, Mayberry-Stewart had to come up with different strategies to stretch dollars.
"You're always trying to look at how to get more out of the technology investments you're trying to make, pooling your resources for one and one to equal three," she said. "Whenever you have to downsize or lay off staff, you have to make a trade-off. That's where partnerships come in."
New York state, for example, invested in a $100 million partnership with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), a leading research and educational institution, and IBM to create one of the world's most powerful university-based supercomputer centers.
Operated by the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations at RPI in Troy, N.Y., the supercomputer system lets researchers in various fields create models of complex processes and solve modeling problems faster than ever.
As part of the investment, New York was allocated 20 percent of the supercomputer capacity, allowing state agencies to solve complex problems in public safety, cyber-security, education, transportation and health or human services at no cost, Mayberry-Stewart said.
This past February, state agencies started migrating from at least six disparate e-mail systems to NYSeMail, the state's consolidated enterprise system operated by Mayberry-Stewart's office. The centralized, standardized network would enhance communication and collaboration and could ultimately save New York $4 million, state officials said.
"You want to continue driving waste out and finding ways to be more cost-efficient," she said, "and at the same time stay at the forefront of newer technology."
No matter how far she has come, Mayberry-Stewart recognizes how opportunities shaped her path. That's why she supports Gov. David Paterson's push to increase the percentage of Minority and Women's Business Enterprises (MWBE) in the state. Her office has made strides to increase technology supplier diversity through a program that helps state agencies identify and include MWBEs as subcontractors in technology projects. Mayberry-Stewart's passion for this cause is personal.
"I want diversity in the work force," she said, "to get the technology field to better reflect the demographics of the communities we serve."
To that effect, she's also been on a mission to close the digital divide, which she recognizes as a solution to increase diversity and boost competitiveness on a global scale. She has been charging forward with the state's broadband initiative, a plan to deliver high-speed Internet throughout the state -- especially to underserved populations in rural and urban areas.
"We have a lot of broadband, but it's not all connected," said New York state Sen. Betty Little, who recently co-hosted a Broadband Summit with Mayberry-Stewart to talk about closing the digital divide in the state's northern edge, known as the North Country. "I'm very impressed by Dr. Mayberry-Stewart's whole understanding and knowledge of this technology. She's been very responsive, very hands-on."
Mayberry-Stewart never expected to end up where she did. But despite all the degrees -- she was also the first black woman to earn a doctorate from the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management -- and a lengthy resumé, her foundation, her inspiration to keep moving forward starts and ends with family.
"What I am most proud of is that I have a wonderful son, and raising him as a single parent," she said. "We just had our annual fishing trip in Canada last week." ¨
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