Women of color in the tech industry: A Verizon perspective

Throughout her 25-year career in tech, Genia Wilbourn has seen how the industry—and Verizon—have transformed and become more inclusive. Wilbourn, senior vice president of business customer operations at Verizon, says the industry has made measurable progress, but there's more it can do to ensure diverse voices truly have a seat at the table.

In this interview, Wilbourn reflects on the importance of having diverse women in leadership and shares her perspective on how the tech industry can advance diversity, equity and inclusion.

1. Many organizations are now focused on inclusivity. Why is diverse representation so critical in the tech industry?

I've been in the industry for 25 years, and I've seen a lot. When I think of the tech companies of today versus before, I see higher retention rates with those that really build diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into their DNA. I see lower employee turnover. They can access better talent because the younger generation wants to work for companies that serve a purpose.

When you have companies that take this very seriously, you get higher customer satisfaction. You also get higher employee satisfaction, because people are now more comfortable in their roles compared to if they were in an organization that really doesn't talk about the importance of diversity.

With the trajectory of where diversity and inclusion are headed, it's every level of the organization that really matters—not just the top. You win or lose the war in that middle management space. If you're not building your base, you're going to have ongoing diversity gaps. If you're not constantly feeding the pool of talent at that midpoint, you'll start to see this gap. You may have diversity at the very bottom, but if you don't have it in the middle, that means your pool of talent and your bench isn't there. It's a constant churn you must continue to work on.

2. How would you characterize the industry's inclusion efforts, especially as you've navigated your career? What kind of environments were you in and were you usually the only woman of color at the table?

I'm still the only one at the table in some cases. But to be honest with you, when I first entered Verizon, I took a training workshop for Black managers. This was in 1998—that's pretty powerful.

Verizon had this program that was trying to capture talent early in their careers and build them up. At the time, leaders said this was critical. This was the best training I've ever had in my career. They would bring in other Black executives. You'd see them, they're talking to you and you would think "I can be that. I can do that."

But that's always been a Verizon thing. We've always talked about diversity. What has changed is it's not lip service anymore. It's more deliberate.

3. How has Verizon been deliberate about amplifying diversity?

The relationship we have with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). We have Verizon executives that went to those colleges. I went to Morgan State University. They came to me and said, "Genia, you're the executive sponsor that represents Verizon [at Morgan State]." In the past, people who didn't necessarily look like the folks that went to Morgan would go to the campus and do recruiting. Now, they're seeing someone like myself.

If I look at my existing team, I am a Chief Operating Officer at Verizon and I would say more than half of the people at the table are women. Twenty years ago, that would not have happened. Now there's a more diverse group. There are 40% people of color on my team. When large organizations see that, it's powerful for several reasons. One, you have diversity of thought at the table, but then you have this organization of 20,000 or 30,000 people that see it. There are a lot of people now saying, "I have a path forward."

That doesn't happen overnight. That comes with deliberate action. It was a journey for us to get there, but we still have more work to do.

  • Genia Wilbourn, Senior Vice President of Business Customer Operations, Verizon

    Genia Wilbourn, Senior Vice President of Business Customer Operations, Verizon

4. How important is mentorship for helping women of color ascend up the corporate ladder? What role has this played in your career?

I've had Black mentors, and I've had white mentors. Personally, I think you need both because you want those different perspectives. I've had a white male that has mentored me my entire career. I've also had a Black male and a Black female as mentors. It's so critical—mentorship, advocacy, sponsorship—because when you're not in the room, what are they saying? Do you have advocates in the room sponsoring you?

When I think about my journey, without my advocates and my sponsors, it would have been very difficult.

5. What advice would you give other women of color who are considering the tech industry?

I get this question a lot. The advice I give is the advice my Dad gave to me a long time ago, which is "run your race." I ran track and I remember my coach saying that if you look to the left or to the right, you lose ground. So, run your race, keep your eye on the prize. Don't worry about what others are saying about you. Do the homework, so that when you show up, you show up with the facts, because when you speak facts you demonstrate your capabilities and people will listen.

And then, be brave enough to speak up. The brave part is a struggle for a lot of Black women I mentor, but if you do your homework and have the facts, you will build confidence. That will lead you to being brave, being bold, and stepping out of your comfort zone.

6. Black women in tech leadership positions often encounter what's known as "the glass cliff." How can the industry better support them as leaders?

I don't see diversity as just a female issue or a Black female issue. This will require people from all races and genders to really be committed because many times they're the ones making the decisions. The decision-makers at the table and the folks who will need to support you, if they're not buying into this, then it's going to be a challenge.

7. How can other large enterprises truly integrate DEI into every facet of their culture? Where would you tell them to start?

Step number one is to show the numbers. What does the data say? If you have people of color and they only represent 2% at the leadership level, how does that compare [industry-wide]? Circle that and say, "That's a problem area. We need to create deliberate action to address that." You have to start by being honest and transparent about what the current situation is.

By starting with the data, it points you to where you can start addressing any gaps you see. From there, you have to put deliberate action in place, measure yourself and hold yourself accountable.

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