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Athena Award winner: Carita Watson

Lisa Ryckman //May 1, 2012//

Athena Award winner: Carita Watson

Lisa Ryckman //May 1, 2012//

It wasn’t the journey from a secretary to an executive with influence spanning 60 countries and 70,000 employees. It wasn’t earning a business degree, and then a master’s, from the University of Denver, even if she did it magna cum laude.

It wasn’t even opening one door after another for other women, particularly African-American women, or encouraging at-risk middle-school girls to pursue science, technology, engineering or math.

Ask Carita Watson what’s she proudest of, and she doesn’t hesitate for a second.

“Raising four well-adjusted sons,” she says, “while working full-time.”

Watson was a secretary at IBM, and later a financial analyst. But she didn’t accept a leadership role until her youngest boy turned 13.

“He had gotten to the point where he started to sprout his little wings. That’s when I went back to school and started focusing on my career,” she says. On the decision to wait, she adds, “That was a purposeful decision. I knew that maybe I won’t go as high as I could have, but this is more important to me.”

Watson began her IBM management career as an administration manager and moved into the executive ranks in 1996, providing leadership for an organization of more than 1,600 technology professionals with responsibility for IT infrastructure services, operations and technical support for numerous IBM divisions. Today, she serves as Global Director, System Server Operations – Transformation Executive, tasked with driving the accelerated deployment of IBM’s Global Delivery Framework.

When Watson moved into management, she took to heart advice from one of her bosses: Stay out of the trenches.

“If you’re down in the nitty-gritty day-to-day, you’re not leading,” she says. “You’ve got to let your team do their work. You can’t be down there telling them how to do it. I’ve seen managers do that, and they fail because they were too busy down in the trenches telling their team how to do their jobs. You’ve got to empower your people.”

Watson was the first African-American woman executive at the IBM Boulder location, where she helped to establish and serves as the executive sponsor for the Colorado Black Network Group and is an active member of the IBM Multicultural Women’s Network Group.

“Years ago, when I first came in, the attitude was that women didn’t belong in the workplace. You don’t see that attitude anymore,” Watson says. “I feel a lot more accepted, especially by men. The challenge is, don’t get overwhelmed and try to be a superwoman and do it all. Know your limitations and your boundaries.”

Mindful of the dearth of young women of color who choose careers in the sciences, Watson helped establish IBM’s EXITE technology camp, a program that introduces technology to middle-school girls in the U.S. and worldwide. She also sponsored IBM’s participation in the Denver GESET (Girls Exploring Science, Engineering and Technology) program.

“As dean of The Women’s College of the University of Denver, I’m always eager to lift up the women who truly make a difference for women and people of color,” says Lynn Gangone. “(She) is someone who personifies integrity and deep commitment to the women and men with whom she works, and in particular, those for whom the road is a little more difficult.”

When IBM challenged every employee to log at least eight hours of community service last year, the Watson-led Colorado contingent racked up more than 211,000 hours making blankets for babies at Children’s Hospital, raising money for public television and mentoring fifth-grade students on math, among other things.

In 2011, Watson became senior state executive for IBM in Colorado, an appointment based on her professional excellence and commitment to leading and volunteering in the community. In this position, she represents IBM’s interests and community relations with the governor’s office and legislature as well as local governments and community organizations in the Colorado communities IBM serves.

“She has dedicated her life to personal and professional excellence by taking initiative to further her education (and) take on ever increasing responsibility,” says IBM colleague Linda Brown, who nominated Watson for the Athena Award. “Carita has devoted time to building community and working with universities and leveraging the resources of IBM to improve not only our community in Colorado but for women globally. Her current work takes her around the world and provides opportunities to inspire women in economic-growth countries like India, China and South Africa.”

When she’s not working or volunteering, Watson enjoys reading – she’s on a James Patterson kick right now – and spending time with her 17 grandchildren and husband of 45 years, Rudy.

“As you move up the ladder, you need to always keep a good work-life balance,” Watson says. “It’s pretty lonely at the top if you get there and there’s nobody with you to celebrate.”