Shelmina Abji. All photos courtesy of Abji.
“To pay forward what the universe has so graciously bestowed upon me,” says former VP of IBM, Shelmina Abji. Abji, born in Tanzania, was the first person in her family to obtain a college degree, and went onto to be one of IBM’s highest ranking woman of color while being a single mother of two children.
By Guru Ramanathan
Mother, global empowerment speaker, women’s advocate, former IBM Vice President, distinguished alumni, angel investor, board member and a mentor.
What do you do?
After having had career success beyond my wildest dreams, I was burdened with gratitude and wanted to pay forward. I now use my time, talent and treasure to empower girls and women worldwide. I do that in a few ways. As a global empowerment speaker, I am able to share my insights to accelerate the success of others. I have witnessed such tremendous transformation in other women and girls as I have shared my insights that I have now decided to write a book on women empowerment. I also mentor many women and advise entrepreneurs and C-suite executives. I am also on boards of organizations focused on empowering women.
What are some of the foundations that you are working with right now?
United Nations Girl Up, which is an organization that engages girls to stand up for girls, empowering each other and changing the world, Young women empowered, which cultivates the power of diverse young women to be creative leaders and courageous changemakers through transformative programs within a collaborative community of belonging. We envision a society rooted in social justice, where all young women live their truth, achieve their dreams, and change our world. And TiE Seattle which fosters entrepreneurship where my role is to increase women participation through funding and mentoring.
According to global statistics, women make up more than two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate people. A large gender gap remains in women’s access to decision–making and leadership due in part to their lack of education. Can you discuss how the various foundations you are working with help women in both the U.S. and globally in being empowered and getting more access to helpful and educational opportunities?
All the foundations I work with are focused on educating and stupporting women leaders. Education can be attained in so many different ways today. Learning and growing is a life long pursuit and we encourage that in all of our foundations. United Nations Foundation Girl Up works with UNHCR to ensure girls in refugee camps receive education and school supplies. Internationally, there is a strong gender imbalance in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The WiSci Camp at GirlUp aims to help bridge that gap through access to education, mentorship opportunities and leadership training. TiE Seattle has formal education for all aspects of entrepreneurship. Personally I have established a scholarship at my alma mater for a woman of color studying computer science. My husband and I helped finance a secondary school in Tanzania (the Amahoro secondary school) as our gift to the children in Tanzania as our wedding gift.
You have traveled the world for your education, receiving degrees from University of Wisconsin and Wadia College in India. You have also received training from Harvard University and UCLA. How important do you think education is in making progressive change for female empowerment?
The value of education for a woman is a game changer at many levels: not just for the woman but everyone she interacts with and for many generations. For me personally, my desire to obtain a college degree helped shape my entire childhood. I had to leave home at 15 to pursue higher education even though my family did not own a phone. I obtained my first degree in mathematics from India and paid for it by buying clothes in India and selling them in Tanzania. I was very scared at first. Overcoming these challenges made me stronger and built my self trust. After obtaining a degree in mathematics, I could not find a meaningful job so I decided to come to the United States to pursue a degree in computer science. I paid for this by working 35-40 hours a week making $3.30 cents an hour. I worked every weekend and holidays. When it snowed and someone could not come into work, I gladly walked in multiple feet of snow with less then perfect boots to make more money. My degree in computer science from the University of Wisconsin in LaCrosse was my passport out of poverty. It enabled me to financially take care of my parents and raise my children as a single mom. It was the platform which started my incredible career. My leadership education from IBM, Harvard and UCLA, as well as the many leadership opportunities provided to me by IBM made me the leader I am today. I have also learned from my mentors, supporters, books, travels and insightful conversations with so many. Now I am at a stage in my life where my insights are empowering thousands of young girls and women. Based on the tremendous transformation I have witnessed in the folks I have had the good fortune to mentor and share my insights, I have decided to extend my sphere of influence by writing a book.
What is a recurring piece of advice you share in the various talks that you give, i.e. what is the central philosophy regarding your empowerment talks?
Women are often in a conflicting and competing web of expectations about who you are supposed to be. I encourage women to define what success means to them. Make it personal and make sure it is aligned with their strengths and their values.
I make them realize that their real power lies in their choices. They own their thoughts and their thought process that sits between the stimulus ( internal and external) and the response. Don’t ever give this power to anyone. They should encourage the thoughts (and hence their choices) that build their strength, self belief, self trust and self confidence and replace the ones that don’t.
With the #MeToo and Times Up movements, there is a global shift in the treatment of women in the workplace, classroom, etc. What do you think are the long term effects of these movements in relation to female empowerment and opportunities given to women?
These movements are very powerful in the fact that they have given voices to many women who felt they did not have any. No woman should put up with such abuses. However when any strength is overdone, it has the potential of it turning into a weakness. I have spoken to many well meaning men who are now afraid of being friends with women at work, mentoring them or advocating for them. This could have dire consequences in the future if the pendulum swings too far in the direction of “ keeping a distance”.
How has being a mother influenced your perspective of your overarching career, moving from working at IBM to becoming an empowerment speaker?
It has influenced me at many, many levels and I have uncovered just a few. First of all, motherhood is one of the most exciting, challenging and rewarding chapters of my life. I have learned so much by being a mother. I have learned many leadership skills from my children: empathy, positive intent, patience, learning how to prioritize what’s most important and balance being in the moment. I learned to redefine failure…as long as one learns and grows, it is success. One of my definitions of success earlier in my career was to pay for my children’s college education and have enough money to retire. When my daughter Sophia graduated from Yale in 2014, I felt that I had done what I needed to do for me and mine, I had achieved everything I had ever wanted and then some, and it was time for me to extend my sphere of influences and to have an impact on others: to pay forward what the universe has so graciously bestowed upon me.
Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
I used to think that taking care of my parents financially for many years–especially since they are no more and raising my two children as a single mother since they were 2 years old and 4 years old were the achievements I was most proud of. Now I know that touching lives of people I meet by sharing my insights, is that achievement I am most proud of, and I want to continue to do so.
What’s the biggest hurdle you have overcome?
Getting over becoming a single mother unexpectedly when my children were 2 years old and 4 years old.
What has been the most rewarding experience while working at the various foundations you are a part of?
Ability to influence young women to believe in themselves and step up to becoming all they are capable of becoming. Learning how to own their power of choices and not to give their power away to anyone including the distractions and noise.
Currently watching/reading/listening to (can be TV, film, novel, podcast, album, etc.): reading:
The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer.
When you’re not working, we can find you:
Traveling, entertaining, hiking, reading, doing yoga or at a local spa!
Best piece of advice you’ve been given:
The experiences themselves don’t matter, who you become as a result of the experiences is what’s most important.
Who is a Woman of Empowerment in your life (a woman who inspires you, who you look up to)?
I have so many: my mother who worked tirelessly to raise us, the many young women who inspite of facing incredible challenges, decide to move forward with courage and hope. They chose to become victors instead of victims. The ones that shift their mindset from self doubt to self trust. The ones who express themselves fully. The ones that are always lifting others up…I could go on and on… so many incredible women.
How are you a Woman of Empowerment?
I take personal responsibility for all my choices. I never let anything outside myself make any decisions for me… my choices and their consequences are mine. I trust myself to figure things out: whatever comes my way. I have the strength and confidence to live my life on my terms.
My mission is…to positively impact as many lives as I possibly can and to achieve self realization.