New beginnings are always fun and exciting. I’ve had the opportunity to observe several of my millennial friends complete their educations and embark on professional careers this year. Even more interesting, several of my friends and colleagues are launching Act 2 of their careers. One such person is Florence DiStefano Hudson, the focus of this Her-Story post.
Earlier this year, Florence assumed a new role as Senior Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer at Internet2, a not-for-profit consortium of 295+ academic institutions and 150+ research organizations developing innovations around the internet. W-O-W! This is both a major milestone and accomplishment in her career. How did she do that?
In this post, we’ll take a look at her path from engineer to senior vice president. Let’s start at the beginning. She was born Florence DiStefano in Long Island, New York. In her first speed-bump in life as she calls it, her mother died three hours after Florence was born. She was put up for adoption by her father, however, as destiny would have it, she was legally adopted by her maternal grandparents. Waiting at home for her were two brothers and a sister, who, naturally, were her uncles and aunt. Needless to say, she found herself feeling different in many situations. These differences set the stage for her to embrace diversity in so many areas of her future career and life. She attended elementary and secondary schools in the Centereach Community.
Florence always loved science and math. When she was very young, her brother would wake her up to watch the NASA manned space mission lift-offs early in the morning. Perhaps this was the earliest spark for her interest in aerospace engineering. One day while watching a space launch, probably when she was between three and six years old, she started to wonder…how do they do that? How do they get up into space? How do they come home safely? These early questions were the beginning of her quest to become an aerospace engineer.
When her high school guidance counselors suggested she apply for a Grumman Scholarship, Florence complied but didn’t expect much. When her father (grandfather) drove her to the scholarship interview in his plumbing van, and she came out quite a long time later, all the way home he told her, “I know you won it.” Guess what? He was right! However, her high school physics teacher told her he was “disappointed” Florence won the Grumman Scholarship rather than one of the boys. Florence started to second-guess herself. Was the teacher right that she should not have won this scholarship? Well, since she was salutatorian of her class, and Grumman chose her, she decided that they had picked the most deserving person.
- Rule #1 = Believe in yourself, especially when others don’t believe in you.
Along with scholarships from Grumman, Society of Women Engineers (SWE), the National Association of Secondary School Principals and her future alma mater, she was able to attend Princeton University. Her mother (grandmother) was a cafeteria lady, her father was a plumber, yet they were able to send her to Princeton. Her dear parents along with her brother were the personal cheerleaders in her life – and what a cheering squad they were! They encouraged her to pursue her dreams and reach for the stars.
- Rule #2 = Build your support network, including your personal cheerleaders. They are especially important when you forget Rule #1.
Florence’s parents encouraged each of their children to pursue the lives they wished for and their own dreams. Their first daughter married right out of high school and had five children. The oldest brother became an engineer, and another brother a plumber. Her brother, the engineer, encouraged Florence to become an engineer and to apply to MIT. She was accepted to MIT, however, the heavily male dominated environment just didn’t feel natural to her. Therefore, she went to Princeton where women were 20% of the engineering school. These are good gender stats for 1976!
- Rule #3 = follow your instincts, including living your values.
She matriculated to Princeton University and pursued an undergraduate degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering. During her undergraduate studies, Florence was a scholar and engineering intern for then Grumman Aerospace Corporation. She also spent one summer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on their Jupiter projects. She was president of the Society of Women Engineers Collegiate Section at Princeton University, and won the Tau Beta Pi Prize for her commitment and leadership service to the engineering community at the university.
Immediately following Princeton’s commencement exercises where she received a bachelor of science in mechanical and aerospace engineering, two males in her graduating class approached Florence to tell her that she was wearing the wrong cowl. You see, she had an engineering cowl on, and they thought she couldn’t possibly be an engineer. She just said, “It’s the right one, but thanks.” She was Chairman of the Engineering Council that led the engineering school student body, was President of SWE and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) collegiate sections, and worked at Grumman and NASA. I guess she didn’t’ look like an engineer to them. By the way, what does an engineer look like?
Florence thought computers would run the world one day, so she started her career in information technology (IT). She worked at Hewlett-Packard in northern California in Sales and Marketing Support. She learned her technique for task management from her HP sales leader, Tom Spain, writing each action with a hollow box to the left of it. She uses that technique to this day – until the box is checked in her book of notes, the task is not done. While she lived in California, her father became ill. Her mother sounded very emotional over the phone. Sensing that her mother was overwhelmed by her father’s health challenges, Florence made the only decision that she could. She moved back to New York to help take care of her family members who took care of her when she was orphaned as an infant. We must take care of those we love!
It was 1981 and Florence was back in New York. She went to work for IBM and began what some call a storied 33 year-career with this firm. During her tenure she was appointed to a number of leadership roles including Vice President and Director of Corporate Strategy, Vice President in Systems and Technology Group, and Vice President and acting Chief Technology Officer of the IBM Global Industrial Sector. Most recently she was Director of Business Development in the Internet of Things Division within the IBM Analytics Business Unit, executing the strategy she built.
During her leadership roles in IBM Corporate Strategy, she led the development of business and technical strategies across IBM including Emerging Business Opportunities for which she is cited in a Harvard Case Study, the Internet of Things, energy and the environment, smarter planet, smarter buildings and cities, advanced water management, cognitive computing, analytics, cloud computing, growth markets, ecosystems and channels, financing, hardware, software and services. I am very grateful to Florence for sharing some of her knowledge and wisdom on developing strategy in organizations with me.
Question 1: What would you say was the crowning achievement of your accomplishments at IBM?
Answer: The Journey was the achievement! I was able to work in leadership roles in sales, marketing, development, strategy, and even Human Resources when I was the SWE executive-on-loan. I grew tremendously and the wealth of accumulated experiences allows me to lead more broadly across many parts of a business or ecosystem with a focus on growth, collaboration and innovation.
Florence has lectured widely on many topics, including a TEDx talk regarding energy and the environment in 2012, as well as at Advanced Energy Conferences, Princeton, Columbia and Harvard Universities, and in many countries including China, South Korea, Vietnam, Spain, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Trinidad.
Stated earlier, she spent a year as executive-on-loan and IBM Vice President of Strategic Planning for SWE where she developed new programs to inspire girls and women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) worldwide. Florence helped develop the SWE international strategy, a Junior SWE strategy, and the Wow! That’s Engineering! program that are in place and growing today. I am happy to report that her one-year assignment began during my final month (June 2005) as national president of SWE.
In her new role, Florence is leading the Internet2 community in identification and development of new innovations leveraging the high speed 100 gigabit network that Internet2 provides to bring greater value to Internet2 research and education members and the world.
While her professional accomplishments are many, she has and continues to serve in a number of volunteer and external leadership roles including Princeton University’s Technology Advisory Council and Advisory Council for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She is also an Executive in Residence at Adelphi University School of Business.
Previously, she served on the SWE Board of Directors and Board of Trustees, and was honored with their Upward Mobility Award for her exemplary business and technical leadership and for serving as an outstanding mentor and role model for women worldwide. Other achievements include being selected as a Wise Wonderful Woman of Westchester and the 2014 Top Woman of Machine to Machine Award by Connected World Magazine.
In addition to the above, Florence has attended executive education programs at Harvard Business School and Columbia University. This was critical in adding credentialed business skills to her technical background.
- Rule #4 = Build your skills.
Question 2: You do a lot of traveling. What do you do to have fun when you are on the road or at home?
Answer: I have a husband and two adult children. For fun, I play golf with family and friends, walk wherever I travel – whether on a beach or in a city, and visit friends and family whenever possible during my business and vacation trips. I also love doing crossword puzzles and knitting. Me too!
- Rule #5 = Reach for the Stars, Be A Star
In closing, Florence offers these words of wisdom to every woman:
A star is not something that flashes through the sky.
It stays in place and gives off a strong, steady glow.
A star always works at being a star.
Stars never take themselves for granted.
That’s why they’re stars.
Be a star!