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Melissa Woo Brings Diversity to Education's C-Suite

Now the senior vice president and CIO for Stony Brook University in New York, Melissa Woo has become a trailblazer in education IT.

Woo knows first-hand the challenges of being a minority in her field as both an Asian and a woman, and has worked passionately to advocate for diversity and inclusion in the IT sector
Christopher Beauchamp
You might say that romance led Melissa Woo to the IT world. After completing her doctorate degree in biophysics at the University of Illinois, she took a job as a health physicist on campus as a way to stay close to her first husband. Her responsibilities included computer-related duties, such as managing websites and international email lists. While this work was outside of the scope of her background, Woo discovered an affinity for and deep meaning in the world of IT. “I realized that it was breaking down communication barriers between people,” she said. “I saw it as a means of connecting people.” From there, Woo was hooked and made the decision to start a new career in IT, working her way up from an entry-level position.

Since then, Woo has blazed a trail as an IT leader in higher education. She has worked in key IT roles at the University of Oregon, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Today, she serves as senior vice president for information technology and chief information officer at Stony Brook University in New York. 

Woo knows first-hand the challenges of being a minority in her field as both an Asian and a woman, and has worked passionately to advocate for diversity and inclusion in the IT sector. Women and minorities including Asian-Americans tend to make up a smaller percentage of the IT workforce. In fact, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report, Asian-Americans make up 19.5 percent of the 2.3 million professionals in the tech sector who were represented in the report. Out of an approximate 5 million sample size, women hold 20 percent of tech executive positions nationwide. 

Keith “Mac” McIntosh, vice president and CIO at the University of Richmond, has collaborated with Woo on many publications, panel discussions and presentations around diversity inclusion, and notes that she stands out as a true leader in the field. “She is not afraid to speak up about what she believes in,” he said. “She is willing to put her neck out and throws her energy behind things she believes in.” He points out that, despite managing many other high-level priorities, Woo demonstrates a firm dedication to making positive change. “She is carving time out of her day to speak, write and share as much as she can to get folks in leadership pipelines to think about higher education in IT. She’s not been afraid to say that there are different directions to go in and guide the IT team in that direction. That’s the essence of leadership.”

For Woo, diversity inclusion is also about having good business sense. “In the business world, it’s been demonstrated that there are better outcomes when you have diversity throughout. The same applies to higher ed — it’s important to have diversity of all kinds to advance innovation and bring new ideas to the table,” she said.

She works closely with EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit community of IT leaders and professionals focused on advancing higher education, and received the organization’s 2012 Rising Star Award for her accomplishments. Joanna Young, senior managing director at BlueLine Associates and former CIO at Michigan State University, collaborates with Woo at EDUCAUSE and values her strong leadership in the IT field. “We’re both part of a small group — women leaders in the C-suite — and we both get that more participation by women is needed in IT at all levels, as part of the overall need for more technology talent in the U.S.,” she said. Young and Woo continue to “talk” every week on Twitter’s #CIOchat along with others and help widen their circle to include CIOs from a wide range of industries.

Ask Woo, and she’ll note one of her greatest accomplishments is supporting researchers. Case in point: She recently made history by establishing Stony Brook University as the first higher education institution in New York to achieve network speed of 100 gigabits per second to the research and education network NYSERNet. For researchers, that increase now allows them to transfer data back and forth faster, meaning they can get more accomplished in their research. 

Beyond enhancing innovation in higher education, Woo is a passionate mentor who is motivated by seeing others grow and advance to places they dream of. That’s also the reason why working in public higher education remains so important to her. “We are training the minds for the next generation; the people who are going to provide all the innovation going forward,” she said. “This means something. It’s not like working for a company and trying to justify that ‘widget x’ is the most important thing to mankind. We are helping to educate the minds of the future.” 

Besides driving positive change in the technology sector, Melissa Woo is also passionate about books, food and music.
Favorite books: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks, by Mark Buchanan; nearly anything written by Mary Roach and most things written by Neil Gaiman.
Favorite food: A self-described “flexitarian,” she eats meatless most of the time and focuses on a plant-based diet. Her favorite meal is the “meatless Joes”  (i.e., vegetarian sloppy Joes) that her husband makes on brioche buns.
Best playlist: Woo changes up her listening favorites quickly and even posts a musical selection of the day every morning to her Google+ stream. Her current favorite is anything by 2Cellos, whom she recently saw in concert.
Inspiring person: Bruce Maas, a former manager who retired in April from his position as vice provost for information technology and chief information officer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Favorite quote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”  Viktor Frankl