Ep 90: Teri Takai: Giving Back and Getting Things Done

Diva Tech Talk was honored to chat with Teri Takai,  former CIO for the U.S. Department of Defense; former CIO for both the state of California and state of Michigan; and automotive industry technology executive with robust accomplishments.   Today, Teri is the Executive Director for The Center for Digital Government, a division of eRepublic, focused on innovation and best technology practices for public sector.

Teri’s parents grew up on the U.S. West Coast where “in World War II, Japanese-Americans were interned in (concentration) camps.” Just graduated from high school, her mother and father were fortunate that the University of Michigan entered the camps to help. “If you could get security clearance, you could (with $25 and one suitcase) take a train to Ann Arbor and get a job.” Her parents were respectively employed as an elevator operator, and a surgical assistant when they first arrived in the Midwest. “I always give the school so much credit! They got these kids into productive situations.” But wistfully, she said: “My dad had a year of junior college,” before moving to Michigan. “He wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. but didn’t feel that as a Japanese American, he would get that opportunity. He decided to go into civil engineering.” However, the concentration camp, and subsequent move, disrupted his plan.  “While he did not have the opportunity to get a degree, my dad was always interested in engineering,” Teri said. He became a draftsman in the automotive industry, ultimately working for several small automotive suppliers. 

Teri is one of four siblings, two brothers and a sister. “I wasn’t interested in technology, at first, but I was good at math. Really enjoyed, of all things, geometry!  It was the problem-solving.” Valedictorian of her high school, Teri matriculated at the University of Michigan as a mathematics major. “I found the University to be daunting. I kept trying things, came back to math, but the challenge was I didn’t want to teach.”  Her family was mired in ethnicity, and “as Japanese, felt they had to overcome their past, blend in, and succeed on the terms of the world around them.” A friend of Teri's mother suggested she pursue computer programming. At the time, the university computer science program was highly theoretical.  Practical Teri devised an individualized curriculum of statistics, industrial engineering and more. Graduating with strong Fortran skills, she joined a  small division of Ford Motor Company, focused on tractors.   “There I learned Cobol.”  More importantly, Teri developed a fascination for “the way technology impacted and supported the business.” This inspired her to go back to school for a Ford-financed MBA. “I loved being at a small division, because I wasn’t caught up in the big company,” she said, and afforded varied opportunities and challenges. Teri worked in engineering, manufacturing and traveled internationally, staying with the division for a decade, and enjoying steady promotions, many of which involved people management. 

Teri feels fortunate that, prior to “diversity” being acknowledged as integral to progressive workplaces, she had a Ford boss who supported her taking a formal leave of absence to move to Germany, along with her husband, who was transferred as an engineer --- before Ford had a formal policy for working spouses.   “I never heard my boss talk about women, or diversity; but he went to bat for me! He did what he thought was the right thing,” long before it was fashionable to do so. The leadership lesson Teri learned and frequently shares, is “what we need to do is follow our belief systems. Do what is right.”

At the end of the 10 years in Ford’s tractor division, Teri was “pretty much tapped out, there.” She got moved to the mainstream automotive side of Ford, as part of a consulting team working to build and sustain Ford Latin America. This opened Teri’s eyes to how people, from different cultures, might view her, as a colleague/leader. “It forced me to get outside myself, learn to be assertive and establish myself.”   Teri did that for 5 years, and then moved to a Ford thinktank directed to meeting the competitive threat of GM’s innovative Saturn division.  “From there, I had a number of great opportunities,” she said. One of Teri’s personal insights is “I am pretty good at getting things done.  I am not necessarily your leader for ‘big picture’ strategies. I am focused on how you organize, bring people together and deliver a product.”  As part of Ford’s software development, she worked on complex internal ERP and administration systems, a large supply chain initiative (CMMS), and then moved to the assembly division, managing plant floor systems. Then Ford gave her an overseas assignment, in the United Kingdom, where she led the development of a global purchasing system, which involved the expansion of a European-based purchasing system all over the world. Then Teri came back to the U.S. to Ford Credit, for a large system launch, and then moved back into leading CMMS.  Teri completed her 30 year career at Ford involved in the acquisition of Land Rover, and Volvo, and then as a leader in strategic planning. “My time at Ford was about delivery.”

Teri’s next pivot came through intense self-reflection.  “I had to say: if I spend another ten years at Ford, what will I learn?”  She took a two-year position at EDS, because “I felt the wave of the future was not going to be big, internal IT organizations.” There, Teri learned the technology services business, and had the chance to work directly with GM.  She left to take a short assignment at Federal Mogul, an automotive supplier;  but was then approached to join Governor Jennifer Granholm’s Michigan cabinet, where she became CIO and Director of the Michigan Department of Information Technology.  “The governor said to me, now is the time for giving back, for public service,” Teri said.  “I am forever grateful to her for that.” The transition was eased for her because a previous EDS colleague, Paula Blanchard (ex-wife of former governor, Jim Blanchard) introduced her to a strong, professional network of women in Lansing, the state capital; and another previous colleague from Ford shared insight about forging public policy. “Michigan had undergone a precedent-setting change in organization.”  Teri inherited a single government organization that centralized all the information technology staff for the state (“at the time, very unusual”). She and Governor Granholm were “great colleagues; I understood her strategic planning initiative, and what she wanted to do across the state.” Teri came to a deep understanding about the collaborative nature of government, and how to effect lasting change.  

She stayed for 5 years, one year into Governor Granholm’s second term.  Then Teri was approached by the State of California, which “had a very rocky history with technology” and had been without a CIO for over 5 years.  “Governor Schwarzenegger, at the time, had gotten advice, from tech companies, that California needed a CIO,” she said. “His team approached me, because Michigan had achieved recognition for what we had done, and I was the President of one of the national associations.”  The team wanted Terri’s counsel on their plan, and then recruited her. “California was a challenging place to be,” since she had to create the Office of the CIO from scratch, get it staffed, and operational, in a limited 3-year timeframe, simultaneously with the state’s budget crisis. While the learning curve was challenging, Teri grew through it, and “a number of women reached out to me, there; influential women in Sacramento.”  She also loved the fact that she could now be “part of an Asian community” since California has a substantial one. “I have a support network now in Lansing. And I have a support network in Sacramento!”

Toward the end of three years in California, Teri made another big transition.  “A friend of mine had become President Obama’s Chief Information Officer,  and Chief Technology Officer. He called and asked me to come and interview for Chief Information Officer for the Department of Defense.  In my naïve way, I felt I was doing him a favor. This was for a friend.” Teri felt the interview would be just a great experience, but nothing would come of it.  However, despite her lack of federal government experience, she was offered the job. “It took me a year to get security clearance! It was the hardest, most stressful, job I ever had. You have a role that is accountable to all the men and women in uniform.  Everything thing DoD did, for security and protection, was based on technology.” One of Teri’s fondest memories was that her dad, coming full circle, attended her swearing-in ceremony at the Pentagon. Teri worked for four different Cabinet Secretaries for Defense in her 3-year tenure interacting with other members of the cabinet, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (“amazing leaders”).  

Having left the Federal Government, Teri is now continuing to give back by leading the Center for Digital Government, a division of eRepublic. “The overall role of the company is to link technology companies with state and local government.”  Teri personally guides key programs. “We do surveys, so cities, states and counties can compare themselves to each other, and get rankings/grades.  We try and provide an opportunity to share best practices and celebrate!” Teri also provides advisory services for technology companies, in government. Additionally, she works with start-ups, helping bring tech to the market.  Right now, the majority of companies she assists are in the cybersecurity industry. 

In moving forward, Teri strongly believes her unique background, and skills, emanate from both success and failures. “Sprinkled through the good stuff was a lot of learning, a lot of mistakes, and setbacks. I learned, later in life than I should have, the importance of collaboration. It takes time to understand how important all the different viewpoints are.” She also believes that networking is vital, but a person does not necessarily need to attend a lot of events or act in an extraordinarily extroverted way. Her success at building network(s) has come from “taking the opportunities, extra step, when I do meet people to ‘grow’ the relationships” selectively (focusing on “people I know are going to be long-term friends and colleagues”).   

Teri defines ultimate happiness as “having a mission in life and giving back.” Her advice to other evolving women leaders is:

  1. “Be patient with yourself, as you are going through your career.”  Understand there is a natural pace to growth. Teri acknowledged that she, sometimes, felt she was stalled in her progress, and “I think I made that into more of a crisis than it was.”   She counseled that you should simply stay open to opportunities, and appropriately ask for help.

  2. Teri is proud that colleagues have called her “a survivor” because she learned from every obstacle. “Believe in yourself. Stay the course.  Keep moving ahead.” 

  3. And finally, “follow your intuition; do what feels right.”

Teri can be most easily reached via LinkedIn.  Her profile is at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/teri-takai-607b279/.

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