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The Importance of Belonging in the Mainframe Community

By definition, belonging is a unique, subjective experience that relates to the desire to connect with others—according to American psychologist Carl Rogers. It’s how a person feels supported, respected, heard and valued; how they can feel proud of themselves and the others around them. So, how can the mainframe community make belonging a reality for everyone involved? That was a guiding question in the latest installment of the Making Our Strong Community, Stronger collaborative initiative on diversity, equity and inclusion, sponsored by Broadcom Mainframe Software, IBM, Open Mainframe Project, Rocket Software, TechChannel and VirtualZ Computing.

Produced and moderated by Dr. Gloria Chance, psychologist and CEO of The Mousai Group, the webinar brought panelists together to share their experiences and focus on one important factor of navigating DEI: belonging. Panelists included:

  • Dr. Gina Bullock, Assistant Professor, North Carolina A&T State University
  • Chinedu Ibeh, Corporate Vice President, Enterprise Compute Services, New York Life
  • Byron Smith, Senior Mainframe Security Engineer, Systems Technology Banking Officer, M&T Bank
  • Nicole Nwakalor, Specialist, Systems Engineering, Infrastructure, Operations and Cloud, Charles Schwab

The webinar “From Educators to End Users: Leveraging Holistic Approaches and the Importance of Belonging Across the Tech Ecosystem” took place on February 23, 2022. You can watch the webinar here. Read on to catch the highlights.

How Culture Impacts Experiences

To kick off the discussion, panelists shared about their background and what led them where they are today, highlighting the way their unique culture impacted their experiences.

For Ibeh, life has been a series of transitions, and with them, varying levels of belonging. “I got into corporate America and I felt lonely. I felt imposter syndrome. There wasn’t anyone that looked like me, that I could lean on or that maybe even had the experiences as I did. It was challenging,” he noted. Dr. Bullock had similar experiences of being isolated and misunderstood. After moving to the South from New Jersey, she noticed, “My dialect was different. I was misunderstood and had to learn how to adapt to the culture.”

On the other hand, Nwakalor found that coming from an African culture to the US, she felt a great sense of belonging. She says, “You would expect that you would only feel that sense of belonging from people that are of a similar race or culture as yourself, but for me it has been quite different. I have felt more welcomed and valued by people from a different background, culture and race than myself. They’re interested in knowing about my country and my culture.”

In each case, the panelist’s individual history and culture informed their experiences—and whether they felt a sense of belonging at work, at school or in their community. Nwakalor noted, “Diversity is not only in cultures; it’s in personalities, in academic grades and professionalism.”

What Makes People Feel a Sense of Belonging?

With that in mind, Dr. Chance asked the panelists what makes them feel valued in the groups they belong to.

In the discussion, Nwakalor reflected on her experience in the Broadcom Vitality program, noting that the educators consistently sought feedback and checked in on how students were doing in the program, and they encouraged students to build relationships. She adds, “I never had anyone speak to me slowly, you know, the way they do when they feel like you don’t understand what they’re saying.”

According to Dr. Chance, unfortunately many Black people and immigrants experience behavior known as microaggression, which is generally described as an indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. One example of a microaggression, as described by Nwakalor, was someone speaking slowly to her as if she could not comprehend what is being said.

Smith shared a story about his time in the IBM Academic Initiative program. He felt valued and supported in his program through the ups and downs. He reflected, “I asked an IBMer …why do you guys like me? Why did I get chosen? He said, ‘Byron, we like you because of you. You’re being yourself. You’re not a 4.0 student. You’re not calling every executive. You’re asking people interesting questions …’ Having a great conversation that people liked gave me the confidence to do it more.”

According to Ibeh, problem solving also contributes to belonging. “Bringing me into a problem so I can be a part of a solution, that drives the feeling of belonging, and ultimately, I can bring a different perspective, which is one of the biggest values of a diverse team,” he says. When leaders turn to team members to help solve problems, it shows they value their opinions and trust in their abilities.

The Value of Authenticity

So, what does belonging look like in practice?

Often, DEI initiatives are driven by metrics. How can companies hit DEI benchmarks? But for Smith, belonging is about more than KPIs. It’s about talking to one another, having genuine conversations and uncovering what drives people. His advice? “Start with your current employees regardless of ethnicity, background or anything. Ask them what makes them come to work every day.”

The panelists also pointed to leaders, highlighting the importance of accountability. “As leaders, we need to hold ourselves accountable as far as who we are developing, who we are choosing to be our next set of leaders, how we will identify talent, where the pipelines are,” notes Ibeh. So, who should leaders be hiring? Smith advises, “Hire based on character and motive, and not just skills. Skills can be taught but character and motive cannot.”

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that creating a sense of belonging starts with authenticity. When DEI initiatives come from a genuine desire to do good and be authentic, everyone wins. Diverse employees don’t want handouts—they want to be appreciated and supported. Dr. Bullock sums it up: “Don’t overaccommodate. We’re human too. No specialness is needed.”