Episode 420: SHOW YOUR WORTH. Creating Value and Making a Difference with Shelmina Babai Abji

Episode Summary

In this episode, we meet the extraordinary Shelmina Babai Abji. Throughout this episode, you’ll hear Shelmina’s fascinating and inspiring story of resilience, commitment, and determination to see her hand raised and the thoughts that helped her create and maintain that bullet-proof mindset. Shelmina also shares captivating thoughts about raising self-confidence, leadership and legacy creation, personal branding in the corporate world, and much more.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. We have a special guest with us today. I’ve been looking forward to this interview. She is an author, board member, speaker, former IBM executive VP, angel investor, and distinguished alumna who’s devoted to creating gender equality in leadership by helping career women emerge as leaders. As an immigrant of humble beginnings and a first-generation college graduate, she rose to become one of the highest-ranking women of color at IBM while raising her two children as a single mother. Welcome, Shelmina Babai Abji.

Shelmina Babai Abji: Thank you, Steve. It is an honor to be here.

Steve Shallenberger: We’re going to have a great interview today. I think what we discuss will be helpful and surprising to our listeners. Shelmina has led global teams in various businesses and mutual sectors, delivered over $1 billion in revenues annually, and has consistently maintained high client satisfaction and team morale. She was a decision-maker in hiring and promoting hundreds of professionals. At the peak of her career, she left IBM to pursue her passion for creating gender equality in leadership. Shelmina now speaks at corporations, colleges, and conferences globally and has appeared at TEDx. She has mentored hundreds of individuals, women and otherwise, and impacted the careers of thousands. We are delighted to have you with us, Shelmina. Let’s start off by having you tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that had a significant impact on you.

Shelmina Babai Abji: Thank you, Steve. I grew up in humble beginnings in a small town in Tanzania called Mwanza. Watching my parents struggle to make ends meet, especially my mom, who used to cook for people, and we sold food on the streets, I was convinced that obtaining a college degree would lift my family and me out of poverty. That first decision was a turning point for me: the decision to obtain a college degree. It was a lofty goal because there was no education past the 10th grade in the town I grew up in, no one in my family had obtained a college degree, and people like us didn’t qualify for a bank loan. However, none of these obstacles stood a chance to stand in my way because I was stubbornly determined to achieve what I set out to do.

Steve Shallenberger: I love it. How did you end up in the United States?

Shelmina Babai Abji: My first degree was from India, where I got a degree in mathematics. Upon completion of that degree and going back to Tanzania, I realized I wasn’t going to make enough money to lift ourselves out of poverty. It was 1981, and IBM had just announced the PC Junior; computing was in its infancy. I read an article that said that if you’re good at math, you could program computers, get a degree in computer science, and you would make a lot of money. At that time, the United States was the only country I knew of that was offering a degree in computer science. That’s what motivated me to come here. I went to a small university in Wisconsin, La Crosse because my brother knew someone there who could help me get admission. That’s how I came here.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, I love that background, and then you were off to the races.

Shelmina Babai Abji: It wasn’t that simple. I had a one-year work visa because I was a foreign student. Upon graduation, obviously, no one was coming to my university to interview students because it was such a small university. I went to a conference and handed out over 300 resumes. No one would even interview me, even though I was on the Dean’s list. I worked 35 to 40 hours a week while having a full computer science workload to support myself and my education. The reason they didn’t interview me is that I didn’t have the right visa status. On the last day, a technology startup company called ETA Systems in the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota interviewed me and hired me. The $27,000 they offered me as my starting salary for a year was more money than my parents could make in 10 years. I thought, “That’s it! We’re never going to be poor again.” Except, when I showed up to work, Steve, in a company of 2000 engineers, I was the only woman of color. Everyone there was obviously more experienced, but they also had better education from higher-ranked universities like MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Yale, and Harvard. They spoke better English and wore better clothes. I started looking around, thinking, what would I know that they don’t already know? What value could I create? I was stuck between a rock and a hard place because, within one year, if I didn’t figure out how to become difficult to replace, if I didn’t figure out how to create unique value that someone else couldn’t easily create, my company, by law, was required to hire someone with the right visa status. They wouldn’t go through the expenses and the resources it would take to extend my visa. So that’s where I started.

Steve Shallenberger: You had to make a breakthrough there. How did you do it?

Shelmina Babai Abji: What happened, Steve, is the fact that I had undermined my own capabilities. The fact that I had convinced myself that there was nothing I could add and no value I could contribute towards the success of my organization. I had convinced myself that my ideas wouldn’t matter, that instilled fear of speaking up. Anytime I had an idea, this voice of fear would ring loud in my head: “Don’t say anything. You’re going to state the obvious. They already know everything. They might even think you’re stupid. They might even fire you before the one year is over.” So, I sat quietly in all these meetings. I do a really good job on my own project. But whenever I was in a meeting or even a one-on-one conversation, I was afraid to speak up. However, one afternoon, I had this great idea. While my voice of fear stopped me from speaking up, it was as if my idea flew from my head into the head of the guy sitting right across from me. He stated exactly what I was thinking. When he was done, everyone started giving kudos to him. I heard someone say, “What a unique way of solving this problem.” Obviously, I did what women do: I went to the women’s restroom, looked at myself in the mirror, and said, “Shelmina, you should have spoken up. Your ideas do matter.” That inner victory in my own head, going from “my ideas don’t matter” to “my ideas do matter,” is what I needed to then face that voice of fear by feeding my voice of courage to speak up the next time I had an idea. I recognized that courage is not the absence of fear. I recognized that fear and courage were in my own head, and I could feed the voice that I wanted by giving it reasons why it should do what I must do. That’s when I coined the term “Power Quotient.” It’s when you get a disempowering stimulus; it’s just a voice in your head that wants to react. Well, you can stop, scan your mental chatter, and feed that voice that allows you to show your worth and never give your power away to a situation or a circumstance.

Steve Shallenberger: Shelmina and I have the opportunity for all our wonderful listeners today to talk about how these principles apply across the board for everyone; they certainly would apply to women, but also to men, those who are insecure or unsure about themselves. I love the fact you’re talking about this because I think, maybe not everybody, but most of us have had a similar experience that you just described: “I really don’t have something to contribute,” or “It’s not that big of a deal.” But the fact is, if you’re feeling it, you need to—I love your Power Quotient—be able to sort through that and say, “I will share it. It’s okay. There’s value in what I do.” So, I like what you’re saying about that; it’s wonderful and beautiful. How did you make a breakthrough in your career and continue to progress? You ended up at IBM; how did that happen?

Shelmina Babai Abji: There was a lot of learning, Steve. The first learning was the importance of unique value creation because that was the only way I was going to get my company to do the visa, to process that paperwork, and to keep me in this country so I don’t go back to being poor. I started going to work every single day with the intention of creating unique value, maximum value at my maximum capacity. I did a really good job at that. Obviously, they did my green card. Then, what happened is that about four years later, they ran out of money and they shut down. But by then, I already had my green card, and that’s when I joined IBM. When I joined IBM, I was already wired to create value at my maximum capacity. I was already wired to lean into my authenticity and my uniqueness to create unique value. Because of that, I got an award called the Rookie Systems Engineer of the Year Award. Because of that award, I was invited to a women’s roundtable; our general manager, Susan Whitney, was visiting from Chicago. There were all these high-achieving women in that room, and I was one of them. While I didn’t say anything in that room, it felt good to be in that room. My boss’s boss had asked me to walk Susan back to his office at the end of the meeting. As we were walking back, Susan first congratulated me: “Congratulations, Shelmina, for winning such a prestigious award.” And I thought, “Oh, wow, she knows about my award.” Then, just as casually as someone would ask you about your restaurant preference, she goes, “Where do you want to be in five years?” I looked at her with a glazed look in my eye, and I said, “I don’t know. I get so focused on doing the best possible job in my current role that I don’t think about what I want to be in five years.”

Shelmina Babai Abji: She says, “Shelmina, it is critical that you do the best possible job in your current role. It is equally critical to know what you want to do next and next so you are always working towards something bigger. You have so much potential.” That two-minute walk changed the way I thought about my career because I wasn’t really thinking of next and next; I was just thinking of what I do today: the best possible job. That’s when I started understanding the importance of preparing yourself and building the competencies that are going to be required for you to keep moving ahead, next, and next. So, there were a lot of learnings in my career, and that is what is in my book. The biggest learning, frankly, Steve, was when I got my first promotion. It took me 10 years to ask for my first promotion because I never saw anyone who looked like me in any of the roles that I had, nor the roles I was aspiring to. So, I was inadvertently settling for small successes. I was overqualified by the time I asked for my first promotion, and I got it. But once I got that promotion and sat in the meetings where promotions were being discussed, that’s when I realized what truly matters. Once I knew that, I got promoted every two years or moved into a role that set me up for a promotion every two years. But prior to that, I had no idea what really mattered—a lot of women don’t. We think that if we just say yes to everything, we put our nose to the grind, and we work 60 hours a week; someone’s going to recognize the great work we do and tap us on our shoulder and say, “Hey, Shelmina, let me promote you.” It’s not how it works. In fact, that works against us.

Steve Shallenberger: You said a couple of really important things, at least from my perspective. One is in your roles. By the way, you were really motivated to get that green card; you had a big motivation. Second, you showed up to work every day not only motivated—you had something that motivated you—but you had a focus, and that is that you wanted to create value, which is amazing. Third, your mentor, who, on the two-minute walk, asked what your vision was. That’s a really set of powerful things. Thank you for sharing those, Shelmina. Those are awesome. Anything else you want to say about that?

Shelmina Babai Abji: No. Let’s just ask another question.

Steve Shallenberger: Here’s my next question; you just talked about how people should know what to do and what matters most. So, what are some of those things? Then I want to hear about your book here in a moment.

Shelmina Babai Abji: The things that matter are in my book. The first time I sat in a meeting, we were actually talking about who goes to what we call the “100% Club.” The salespeople that overachieve their targets get to the 100% Club. The outliers, obviously, are on the list. But then there are people that are neck to neck, and there are few slots and a lot of people. I realized that what people say about you when you are not in the room determines your career trajectory. I realized the importance of your personal brand. No one in that room should say anything against you, and someone or multiple people in that room should say something that is in favor of you. That’s how you get differentiated. I have an entire chapter in my book. The first one is Intentional Value Creation because of what we just discussed. Then, there is an entire chapter on intentional growth based on what Susan told me. Then, there is an entire chapter on intentional personal branding because every impression that you leave behind in all your interactions forms a personal brand. So, you need to show up to work with the intention of creating a leadership brand and sustaining a leadership brand. That becomes even more important as you rise up the corporate ladder.

Steve Shallenberger: In other words, I love that language, which is that each of us really creates a brand as we move along in our careers. We need to be thoughtful about what are the things we’re doing and what that brand looks like. So, when they see us, what do they think about? What are some of the most important things, Shelmina, that somebody should be mindful of to create a strong, effective brand that’s creating value?

Shelmina Babai Abji: The first thing is that you must define who you are, what you stand for, what your values are, and what attributes you want people to talk about when you are not in the room, and then you have to show up like that. This is not about pretending. When the environment gets chaotic, which it does in our workplaces, which are moving so fast and so many things are constantly changing, and all the uncertainty, you want to actually work towards becoming the person you want to be talked about. This is a journey. If you don’t define yourself, and if you’re not intentional about how you want to show up, you will be defined by others because you will be reacting to people, and you will be showing up in a way you don’t want to be talked about. So, I tell women and men that you must decide who you want to be and become that person. The attributes are what you have decided and not just show up on autopilot and react to situations. Listen, the situation is not always going to be the way you want it to be. People are not always going to be the way you want them to be. If you start behaving like them, or if your behavior depends on the situation or the person, then your brand is going to be all over the place. If you use your Power Quotient, and no matter what people are doing or no matter what the circumstances, you don’t react to it; you intentionally respond in a way that is aligned with the brand you want to create, especially when the going gets tough because people remember this.

Steve Shallenberger: You mentioned two things that really stand out for me that I want to swing back to; it’s on this very same line that you’re talking about now of being mindful of it and about what’s going on in those rooms where people talk about you, and that is how you are known and who knows you. What advice do you have to really do well in both of those categories?

Shelmina Babai Abji: We just talked about how you’re known. This is about intentionally showing up in every interaction in a way that is aligned with your brand. Your brand is not just about your business expertise; it’s also about your personal attributes. You want to display the best of you. First of all, you have to know what your best personal attributes are, and you make sure that you are demonstrating those in all your interactions. So, that’s how you’re known. Who knows you become really important, especially as you rise from middle management into executive-level positions. When you are vying for an executive-level position, you’re going to run a large chunk of your company’s business. Your performance is going to determine your company’s earnings per share. If you’re a public company, your revenue is going to get reported. The stock price depends on it, so the stakes are high. Everyone who is applying for the job already has a great leadership brand; otherwise, their name would not be on the list. They already have a successful track record; otherwise, their name would not be on the list. The differentiation then is who around the table is going to put their credibility on the line and say, “I trust Shelmina to get this job done.” Because no one’s done that job, only one person is going to get that job. The person who puts their credibility on the line is not going to do it because they like me. If I don’t perform, it goes against them and their credibility. They’re going to do it because they have watched me; they have watched me struggle, they have watched me get outside my comfort zone, they have watched me build new competencies, they have watched me be confident when the stakes are high and when the environment is emotionally charged, and they have watched me bring energy to my team when they are demoralized.

Shelmina Babai Abji: All this is really important because when you take on that executive-level role, you will be required to learn competencies that you didn’t have before. In fact, nobody has that. But if you have demonstrated that you have the ability to learn new competencies, if you’ve demonstrated trust in yourself, if you’ve taken a chance on yourself by stepping outside your comfort zone, then they will also take a chance on you. When people watch how you show up, day in and day out, when the times are good and when the times are not so good; when you achieve your outcomes and when you don’t achieve the outcomes; when the economy changes, when the client changes—all these uncertainties—how do you respond? When they have watched you and you have responded true to your brand, true to who you are, then they will take a chance on you because they have watched you.

Steve Shallenberger: I like that. The discussion today and the comments you’re bringing up took me back to about 30 years ago. I was associated with a wonderful company called Covey Leadership Center. Stephen Covey was the chairman of that group. I have worked together with a number of people. So, getting back to who you know, as well as the skills and the contribution you’re trying to make, I’ll never forget that one fellow—he and I didn’t always see eye to eye, but I loved him; he inspired me, and he was so talented. I didn’t know how he really felt about me. There happened to be a meeting. They were looking for someone to head up one of their international groups. I ended up being asked to take those responsibilities and later found out it was this fellow who made the recommendation in the meeting. I think there’s a lot to that you’re building your career, making a difference within your organization, trying to leave it better than you found it, creating strong, good relationships, asking for people’s advice, and learning from them. So, the type of thing you’re talking about is awesome. What inspired you to become an advocate for gender equality in leadership roles?

Shelmina Babai Abji: Before I answer that question, let me tell you that Stephen Covey’s book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” was one of my favorite books when I was coming up the corporate ladder. I have so much respect for him and his principles. I learned so much from that book. Thank you for bringing that up. I did not know that. The second thing that you talked about was that you weren’t sure how this guy felt about you. One of the best career advice I got from my sales leader is to aspire to be respected, not to be liked. Even though he may not have liked you, he respected you and that’s why he advocated for you.

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great. Later, we became very close friends. Now, back to your question.

Shelmina Babai Abji: Back to what inspired me to be an advocate for gender equality in leadership roles. Steve, this wasn’t an aha moment that just happened one day; this was a journey. Just like my career success, where every level of success unfolded more possibilities, every level of success got me to dream bigger, got me to dream bolder. When I left my career at IBM, all I wanted to do was to really honor the people that had helped me. In my book, “Intentional Relationships,” where I talk about the sponsors, I used the great American author Alex Haley, who says, “When you see a turtle on a ledge, you know it had help getting there.” That’s the story of my career. So, I wanted to honor the people who had helped me by helping a few other people become successful. As I started mentoring them and sharing my insights, I learned that they, too, were facing the same internal and external barriers that I faced. They, too, were facing microaggressions and negative stereotypes. A lot of this is because there are not enough people who look like us in leadership roles. It’s not people’s fault; they’ve just never seen anyone that looks like us, so they start undermining our capabilities. We have to educate them. We have to inform them of our capabilities by showing our worth, contributing value, etc. When I saw that my insights were actually transforming their career trajectories, that my insights were enabling them to emerge as leaders, I decided to write the book because I figured if I could help hundreds of women, then I could help thousands of women. When the book started getting traction, thousands of women were being impacted and helped, and also, when I was on the board of the United Nations Foundation, Girl Up, it was all about gender justice. Then, I thought to myself, “You know what, I can actually become a change agent. I can dream bigger, and I can change this equation of gender equality in leadership roles.” That’s how the journey brought me to where I am today.

Steve Shallenberger: I’m just reflecting. It’s been such a delightful discussion today. As I think about some of the relationships I’ve had working with other organizations and partners in our industries but outside of our company, some of the best leaders have been women, and some of them of color, who have been such dear friends for me. I adore them. But they’re also really inspirational leaders. Hopefully, all of our listeners will accept people for what they can contribute, who they are, and the difference they are, and set everything else—the color of their skin aside, and their gender aside—and just judge them for what they can do because they can make life so wonderful and rich, and lead successful teams and organizations. Shelmina, I can’t believe we’re at the end of our interview already. I have so many questions still to ask, but what final tips might you have for our listeners today that you’d like to leave with them?

Shelmina Babai Abji: Thank you for asking that. For everyone who’s listening, I want everyone to know that we all have the capacity to lead. When I was growing up, I had no idea; I couldn’t even dream of becoming a senior executive. Leadership is a learned skill. Stephen Covey talks about this as well: we learn to become a leader. So, opt into the leadership pipeline. I am teaching you what matters. I am teaching you what strategies you can intentionally execute so you will rise up that ladder and there will be no more broken rungs. There will be people who look like us, who speak differently, who have diversity of thought, and who will be in those rooms where decisions are being made. Together, we will advance gender equality in leadership roles. This is not something I can do on my own. I need the help of every single person to get there.

Steve Shallenberger: I love your perspective. How can people find out about what you’re doing?

Shelmina Babai Abji: You can follow me on LinkedIn. I have a website. My name is unique enough; my website is actually I post a lot on LinkedIn. I speak in a lot of places. So, follow me, invite me, interact with me. Let’s join forces. Together, we are so much more powerful.

Steve Shallenberger: Amen. Well, it’s been a delight to have you with us today. Thank you for joining us.

Shelmina Babai Abji: Thank you for having me, Steve. It’s been an honor.

Steve Shallenberger: We wish you the best in that passion and mission that you have. Hopefully, we can help contribute to that as well.

Shelmina Babai Abji: I would welcome that.

Steve Shallenberger: To all of our listeners, it is always a privilege to have you join us. You add so much to our lives. We admire the fact that you’re working on becoming your best in every way possible. In the process, you’re touching so many lives for good. So, thanks for joining us today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, Entrepreneur, and Community Leader

Shelmina Babai Abji

Best-selling Author

Best-selling Author, Keynote Speaker, Angel Investor, Philanthropist

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