Interview: Blackhawk Network CIO Christine Vonderach

Christine Vonderach is CIO of Pleasanton, Calif.-based Blackhawk Network, which uses proprietary technology to offer a broad range of gift cards, other prepaid products, and payment services in more than 20 countries.

Vonderach is one of a rare breed: According to a 2013 survey by recruiter Harvey Nash found that just 8 percent of American CIOs are women. Her approach was simple to express: Focus on being an overachiever. Before joining Blackhawk in 2010, she held leadership positions at Ask.com/IAC, PayPal, Netscape, AOL and Accenture. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Engineering from Bucknell University.

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You’re the CIO of a publicly traded company. What are the foremost challenges you face today?

Christine Vonderach  In the post-Target-breach era, our biggest focus continues to be security. We take security seriously and work to protect employees and our customers from any breaches. I also spend much of my time making sure I have the right technologies being assessed or built to keep pace with the business, or even stay ahead. Our business team is amazingly successful so I make sure my team stays one step ahead.

Finally, hiring and retaining amazing people is worth every second of time my team and I spend on it. It’s how we get ahead, solve a security threat or dream up something new. These challenges—security, innovation and people—are part of what makes my job so exciting and so different every day.

You’re one of the few woman CIOs at a large public company. What does that mean to you, and what advice would you have for women IT professionals looking to break the glass ceiling?

I come in to work each day thinking, “How can I be a better CIO?” I think about how I can best use my talents to make Blackhawk a better business and a better place to work. And I think about how I can be a strong female leader and am fortunate to have joined a wonderful group of other very senior women at Blackhawk.

That said, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In highlights some very important gender gaps that still exist and prevent companies from harnessing the best accomplishments from everyone regardless of gender. It really comes back to knowing my people, knowing how to encourage the best out of them, and doing my best to ensure that gender differences don’t hinder tapping into the knowledge and strength that exists in all Blackhawk employees, or in anyone that we are interviewing to hire.

Did you ever feel as if being a woman in IT came with particular challenges?

If I think back to my days fresh out of college with an engineering degree, working as a consultant at a client where the IT department’s average age was 30 years older than me and 0 percent female. I felt very unique from the start. Personally, I found great satisfaction in overachieving—delivering better and faster than most of them. I think that whenever you are a minority in any way in any organization, you strive to perform, be recognized and find supportive peers and mentors.

But another challenge for women with careers is juggling work responsibilities with having children. There’s no official, prescribed way to address this challenge. I encourage women to open up the conversation to other women who are peers, already have kids or are in management. Talking through options with people in similar situations can provide some great solutions to consider.

So what’s the solution to the dearth of female talent in IT? And specifically in the role of CIO or CTO?

To improve the number of executive women in technology, both CIOs and CTOs, let’s fill the educational pipeline in science, technology, computers, and engineering classes with equal diversity, and keep the pipeline full through college to careers by providing opportunities and positive encouragement. That pipeline stays full at the college level by having peers and professors who embrace gender or cultural differences and find tailored ways to challenge and encourage continued success.

It starts way before women are choosing their major in college or what company they want to interview with. The current push on STEM for middle school and high school girls is fabulous. It’s filling that early pipeline and it’s making it cool to be a girl nerd!

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Image: Christine Vonderach

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