Diva Tech Talk recently met with the vibrant Tracy-Ann Palmer, a female IT leader and South African expatriate, with a fascinating and multi-faceted career, from entrepreneurship to Fortune 500 companies to community/nonprofit organizations.
Having started out in the entertainment industry in her native country, one of Tracy-Ann’s first watershed roles, after migrating to the United States, was as a sales executive/manager at a worldwide experiential marketing firm: Marcus Evans, who concentrates on organizing and implementing events for the “C suite.” There she got her first taste of what makes global and regional businesses “tick” and learned amazing lessons. “Marcus Evans taught me that anything is possible, nothing is impossible,” she says. The culture bred entrepreneurship. “80% of my former colleagues, there, have gone on to start and own their own businesses!” It was also at Marcus Evans, and later at a company she founded (Arzika LLC) that Tracy-Ann got her first deep exposure to the technology industry. “At both Marcus Evans and Arzika, we were always participating in technology from the sidelines,” she explains. “We tracked what was hot and happening and impacting the way companies and executives functioned and were enabled.”
From being the founder of Arzika, Tracy-Ann then moved to a dynamic IT company, well known for a pioneer in “cloud-based” computing applications on a large scale: Salesforce.com. “I started out in their Partner Marketing organization,” she explains. “We steered and established the App. Exchange and built their Partner Program.” While successfully doing that, her community work came to the attention of a colleague who had moved over to the philanthropic Salesforce.com Foundation. Logically, she married her interest in philanthropy to a new challenge and Tracy-Ann also migrated to the Foundation to head up their Alliances Program.
“Much of my career evolution has come from taking advantages of opportunities,” she shares. So when “second-stage” Michigan-based startup BillHighway called, she accepted a leadership role as their Chief Growth Officer, regretfully moving from the Salesforce.com Foundation to do so.
“BillHighway was a Salesforce.com partner,” Tracy-Ann says. “And I learned so much there. First of all, I learned how to break ground in new markets, where you have no brand recognition. I also got the chance to participate in venture capital discussions, for the first time. And, I learned the crucial importance of ‘company culture’ to success.”
From BillHighway, Tracy-Ann has now moved to one of the technology leaders in the communications space: Cisco. Why has she done that? “They offered me a ‘change agent’ role, and I love challenges,” she laughs. “Passion and courage have allowed me to take on change agent roles. I am prepared to take the risks.” Her current role is a transformational one, helping her Cisco team penetrate the 155 Midwestern companies they are targeting; and changing the image/mindset of decision-makers so that they see Cisco as not simply a communications hardware company but a leader in the Internet-driven software sector, as well.
In all of these roles, Tracy-Ann has built and led teams, and thinks one of her key strengths is that “I truly care about the companies for whom I work, and people. My number one priority is to impact people’s lives, and make them better at who they are, and what they do.”
That same philosophy has driven her natural affinity for philanthropic work, too. “I have started to think about my personal legacy,” she says. Prior to moving to the Midwest, Tracy-Ann lived in Connecticut and was involved in the Self-Esteemed Women’s Foundation. In Michigan, she became deeply enmeshed in the work of The Michigan Council of Women in Technology Foundation. “The people in philanthropy are so self-sacrificing,” she exclaims. “They are the most passionate and hard-working people I have ever met.”
Because of that, in the last several years, she co-founded another worthwhile regional nonprofit of which she is proud. We Build Character was created to support people who Tracy-Ann thinks have been inadvertently neglected —those in mid-career. “The middle tier of our workforce is often forgotten,” she says. “Yet if you think about how many people are leaving the workforce and retiring, the next generation of leaders is coming from that middle tier!” The We Build Character program has four facets. “We set up a person with a senior executive mentor, with whom they meet monthly for coaching,” she explains. “We also have monthly facilitators and speakers” who give advice and guidance to participants. “We also work with people on professional network expansion, and elevating the relationships in their network. “ And finally, close to Tracy-Ann’s own heart, “any leader, no matter who you are, needs to have some kind of ‘pay-it-forward’ aspect to their career.” So the fourth facet of the program helps participants join and benefit community impact organizations.
We Build Character participants are a fairly diverse group. Participants include “any individual who cares about where they are going, is interested in having a professional mentor, and who wants to focus on more professional, personal development,” Tracy-Ann explains. “We have participants from all the major Michigan companies.”
Being a woman has not fazed Tracy-Ann in her own career evolution but she does believe that more women executives are needed. “Statistics show that companies with more women leaders have higher productivity and better return on investment,” she says. Being a transplant to the U.S. is also a source of Tracy-Ann’s inspiration. “I wake up every day and I feel that I am incredibly blessed and privileged to be in the U.S. You can be whatever you want to be, here.”
What three main pieces of advice would Tracy-Ann give to other aspiring women leaders?
1. “Be bold. Don’t give up on your dreams.”
2. “Be authentic. Be who you really, truly, are.
3. And finally: “Don’t judge. Accept everyone and everything from the perspective of what you can learn from them, and from the circumstances you are in. Know that everyone has something very special to give you.”
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