IBM struck gold when they hired Rashida Hodge as an intern nearly 18 years ago. Today, Rashida not only serves as IBM’s Vice President of North America Go-To-Market Sales, but she was also recently the recipient of Fortune’s 40 Under 40 award in technology. Her unique expertise lies in artificial intelligence, having developed, strategized, and implemented Watson AI solutions for clients around the world. Rashida has also made outstanding contributions to IBM’s supply chain management, sales, product management, and global operations—all while supporting and inspiring the next generation of Black and female engineers.
Describe your executive journey so far.
I would describe my executive journey as one of being curious… one where I said yes when most people said no, and one where I was smiling or laughing when others wanted me to cry. When I think about the different moves I’ve made as an executive, it was always those challenging situations that allowed me to stretch, extend, and create my muscles—which made all the difference.
Where did your executive journey start?
I received my first executive position when IBM finished their debut of Watson, our AI technology, via Jeopardy, and they decided to commercialize this technology for clients. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to be the COO and Chief of Staff to our Senior Vice President, Mike Rhodin and after partnering on this grand mission, I went on to build and scale the Watson Technical Services team across the world. Leading the Watson Technical Services team, I had the opportunity to usher new technology into the industry, moving IBM’s AI technology from research to a commercial business, and ultimately figuring out how to deliver AI solutions for clients.
What core values drive you as a leader?
For me, honesty, trust, and respect equal integrity. Great leaders produce outcomes with integrity, and if they fail to deliver those outcomes, they learn, reset, refocus, and start over—but they never compromise their integrity.
There are two more values that define my leadership. First, it’s building from your circumstances. My mom was a teenage parent and I saw her juggle life, home, job, and trying to go to school all at the same time so that we could have more than she had. She always said: Take what you have and finesse it into your greatness.
The second one is something that I call being “unapologetically tough”. As a leader, I believe it’s important to push my teams to their highest potential. Many times we don’t even know what our potential is until we’re forced to deliver. However, I want them to know that I’m here to support them. It’s about their development, their growth, and them exceeding their potential.
How has your background propelled you to become an advocate for culture and diversity in the workplace?
Growing up, as teen parents my parents did not have much, but my mother in particular was a believer in education. My parents could not afford to pay for me to go to college, so I had to work hard to receive scholarships. Grateful for the opportunity afforded to me through scholarships, I wanted to give back in the same way people gave back to me, which led me to start the Real Hope for Next Gen Engineers Scholarship for minorities and women in the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University. My goal is to provide people who look like me the ability to attain an engineering degree, without any financial burdens. I also want to demonstrate that, we too, have the capacity to give.
What have been some of your greatest successes as an executive so far?
On the business front, one great success was the building and scaling of our Watson AI Technical Services business. As a female and minority technologist, it means so much to me to set a new standard in technology. To see the impact that AI is driving in business has been absolutely profound. It was an exhilarating experience to build this practice from the ground up. There’s usually a blueprint to follow—but I was building the blueprint.
Tell us more about being selected as one of Fortune’s 40 Under 40 in technology.
It was an honor to be featured on this list. It was such an emotional experience for me and my entire family circle, specifically my mother. Given COVID, we were all able to celebrate, create pandemonium, and share in this honor as a family together. This honor was a testament to the fact that we have to expand our image of success. If you look at my existence in this world, I was not the person people would naturally bet on. Yet, many placed bets, provided me with an opportunity, and I was able to succeed. We need to give others chances, because if people didn’t give me the chance, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I will always be eternally grateful.
How has Athena helped you in your journey?
I found out about the Athena Alliance during a board readiness course with How Women Lead. Soon after, Christine Heckart, CEO of Scalyr, introduced me to [Athena’s Founder & CEO] Coco Brown. After Coco and I met, I had the honor of joining Athena through its fellowship program. We all want to be valuable and successful board members (I am aiming for a seat on a public company board), but we also want to help each other along the way, which is the foundation of Athena Alliance. I deeply admire Athena’s spirit of transparency: transparency of dialogue, transparency of opportunities, and openness within the community.
What advice would you have for fellow women leaders rising in the C-suite or into the boardroom?
First, own your vibe. Your nuance is your differentiator. It’s important to own it, love it, and be vulnerable with it. Let people see it, hear it, and experience it—because that’s the difference we’re going to make.
Second, don’t be afraid to travel the road less traveled by. I think it’s important to gas up your car, get in it, turn on the engine, and just go. My story was crafted because I took the curious, dark, and bumpy roads that most people said no to. When I fell and people wanted me to cry, I didn’t. I laughed and smiled and kept moving.