Senior Vice-President, ITAC
Every time I get the chance to visit the XRCC – Xerox Research Centre Canada the question mark shaped building on the western edge of Mississauga – I take it, and I always come away inspired and wiser. My latest visit was no exception. On March 9 about 130 of us showed up for a breakfast conversation with Dr. Sophie Vandebroek, Fulbright Fellow, Fellow of the IEEE, Xerox Corporation’s Chief Technology Officer, and one of the most influential executives in technology.
Her appearance marked the first in a new series of events co-presented by ITAC and CWC (Canadian Women in Communications) and designed to showcase the careers and achievements of prominent women in the information and communications technology industry. We couldn’t have asked for a more auspicious beginning.
She talked about her career path, describing her earliest fascination with science – memorably fueled by being roused out of bed in the middle of the night (she was raised in Belgium) to watch the moon landing with her family on a neighbour’s TV. From that moment she wanted to be an astronaut. That ambition lead to studies in engineering in Europe and the United States.
After completing her PhD at Cornell, Sophie applied for work at two major upstate New York employers. One recruiter was at pains to make her aware that by granting her an interview he was fulfilling a corporate gender quota requirement. Fortunately the other employer offered Sophie a job which she accepted.
Sophie is both an advocate and an exemplar of the progressive and inclusive professional development practices she encountered throughout her career at Xerox. She described the flexibility the company showed as her career advanced and her family life became more demanding (she raised her children single-handedly following the death of her husband). Today she is responsible for the corporation’s R&D effectiveness and oversees six major labs around the world. When she announced her plans to remarry, the only concern this provoked in her bosses (Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and Chair Anne Mulcahey) was the possibility that she might be thinking about leaving her job, a concern easily resolved by simply relocating Sophie to Boston.
The breakfast was a great opportunity for young women in tech (and old girls like me) to hear from a woman who has accomplished a great deal while balancing a rich home life and broad array of other interests. She advised that high aspirations can be an excellent survival strategy, admitting that the toughest job she had was her first supervisory assignment where others kept putting meetings in her calendar. She pointed out that work life gets a lot easier when you control your calendar.
The conversation passed too quickly. At one point Sophie acknowledged her challenges when she assumed the leadership role at the XRCC over a decade ago. A corporate coach was called in to assist her. The coach did some research, talked to colleagues, and reported that people at the lab felt Sophie was aloof. “As a non-English speaker I didn’t even know what “aloof” meant,” she said. Well that must have been some coach! The Sophie we met was funny, warm, and graciously generous with her insights and her story… in fact the very opposite of aloof.