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Dr. Lydia Campbell: Leading Global Health at IBM While Paving a More Equitable Society

February 21, 2021

During Black History Month, IBM is reflecting on the stories of many Black IBMers, from those in our history to trailblazers today. We interviewed Dr. Lydia Campbell, IBM’s vice president and...

During Black History Month, IBM is reflecting on the stories of many Black IBMers, from those in our history to trailblazers today. We interviewed Dr. Lydia Campbell, IBM’s vice president and chief medical officer, who discusses her role leading the safety of more than 350,000 employees across the globe, what Black History Month means to her and the quest to pave a more inclusive and equitable workforce in tech.

Tell me a little about yourself.

I am the youngest of seven children. Although by the time I was born there were only two other siblings still living at home, we were all very close. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan in the 1970’s and 1980’s when times were getting better for Black people. After the riots and social unrest of the 1960’s, many people of color were beginning to find stability and good jobs working in the booming automotive industry. I found myself looking into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

Who or what inspired you to go into STEM?

For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a doctor.  The idea of helping people and solving problems appealed to me. My interest in STEM motivated me to leave for college one week after graduating from Cass Technical High School where I then joined the Spelman College Summer Science Program. In college, I majored in natural science to prepare for my career as a doctor. This led me to attend Morehouse School of Medicine for my medical education and complete a dual residency training program in Internal Medicine and Occupational and Environmental Medicine. I also obtained a Master of Public Health degree in Environmental Science from Columbia University School of Public Health.  

What is your role at IBM?  

I am IBM’s Vice President and Chief Medical Officer. In this capacity, I have responsibility for the health and safety of IBM’s over 350,000 employees around the globe working in over 170 countries. My journey with IBM began 22 years ago, where I was one of three physicians working at the RTP site.  

What are some interesting projects you’ve worked on during your time at IBM?

There is no doubt that both the most interesting and the most challenging project I have worked on during my IBM career has been providing leadership for IBM’s COVID-19 pandemic response.  This unprecedented event drew on every facet of my experience and expertise as a clinician, a coach and a leader to ensure the health and safety of every IBMer across the globe. 

A second very memorable project was leading the creation and deployment of IBM’s Milk Delivery program for nursing mothers. As a physician, I understood the well reported positive impacts that breastfeeding has not only on an infant’s immediate health but on their longer-term growth and development.  Being able to innovate a solution to allow mothers who needed/wanted to return to the workforce but still continue to nurse for as long as possible was extremely gratifying. This type of leadership is positive on so many levels.

How does the work you do at IBM impact society? 

One of the things I love most about my role at IBM is that the culture and vibe are all about continuous growth and development. I challenge the team I lead, Corporate Health and Safety, to embrace and adopt the same growth mindset that the business leaders have and to innovate new and different ways of working with particular focus on leveraging the tools and expertise of our own enterprise. 

A very recent example of this is the deployment of an application that assists with pandemic self-screening and access controls using technology created in collaboration with our IBM Watson Health team. This solution has also been deployed outside of IBM to help other companies manage the health and safety of their workers. Having these types of technologies available has made a great impact on society by helping employers that must continue to have workers access worksites during the pandemic mitigate exposure risk for their employees and for society at large while continuing to provide critical services.

What does Black History Month mean to you? 

For me, Black history month is a time to be reflective. Sure it is a time to celebrate the achievements of those who have paved the way for us and have contributed so much to our progress, but for me it is also a time to pause and do a self-inventory of where I am and of what I personally have done to improve the conditions and create opportunities for black folks. To get to this point in my life and career, I have stood on the shoulders of many giants. The question I have to ask myself is, “Have I built shoulders broad enough and strong enough to support the next generation of leaders.”  So, Black History month for me is not just about reflecting on the past and celebrating our progress, but it’s equally about recognizing that there is yet much to be done. It is also about being accountable to the role that I must play in continuing to move the needle on issues of racial disparities and social injustice that continue to exist today.

Do you think the Black experience in technology is a unique one?

In the technology industry, the possibilities are limitless. Every new tool or innovation can have a significant impact to anyone in the world regardless of color or race and the outreach is greater since access can be virtual (e.g. telemedicine). I think that when it comes to technology, like many other things, the way in which Black Americans experience it is certainly different to how other ethnic groups experience it. However, in many ways, technology allows Black people and other groups to connect with one another in ways that were not previously possible. Like many other issues that face Black America, equity and access as it applies to technology plays a big role in the way Black Americans experience technology. 

I think the other key aspect of the Black experience with technology is having role models that look like us that are engaged in the development and deployment of technology at all levels. This ensures that technologies in development reflect a diverse and inclusive culture not only for Black people but for all groups and individuals.

What is an interesting fact about you that not many people know?

Most people don’t know that one of my true loves is for the arts. I began taking dance lessons at an early age and by the time I was 13 years old auditioned for a semi -professional dance company and was accepted. I danced with that company, The Fuller Ebonaire Dancers, until I left Detroit to attend Spelman College. I don’t dance anymore but I still enjoy attending concerts and watching professional companies like Alvin Ailey perform. Some of my former company members danced with Alvin Ailey and other professional companies and/or today own their own studios.

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Know your strengths, grow your weaknesses, and don’t take either one too seriously; things will work out just fine.

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