Virginia “Ginni” Rometty was born in 1957 in Chicago to very young parents. “My mother had just finished high school,” she says. “My father worked for his father, mostly in real estate, and my mother stayed home to take care of me and eventually my three younger siblings.”
Rometty was greatly influenced by the women on her maternal side. Her great-grandmother came to this country from Russia and worked as a cleaning lady. Her grandmother had a lamp store and made lampshades. “I have many memories of my grandmother teaching me to cook and sew,” says Rometty. “In part, I got my strong work ethic from her. She often worked until midnight. I will always remember that.” Rometty was also influenced by her mother’s sister, who and had a college education and a career. But above all, it was her mother who made the greatest effect on Rometty and her siblings.
Rometty’s family lived in a property owned by her grandparents until she was in the third grade, at which time the family was finally able to purchase a house. Rometty describes her childhood as normal and middle class until she was 15. Her parents had just purchased a new home, but before they moved in, her father left.
“My father was not home very much, and I don’t remember him playing a very big role in my life,” says Rometty. “But we were dependent on him financially. My mother had not worked outside of our home, so his leaving was devastating in that respect. We had nowhere else to go, so we moved into a new home. Our house had no carpeting or landscaping, so we painted the wood floors brown so that it ‘looked’ like carpeting. We had no money to put in a lawn, but with help from our neighbors, we kept the weeds nicely mowed.”
Rometty’s family did have to accept food stamps and financial aid until her mother could find a job. Soon her mother was working multiple jobs while putting herself through community college. Rometty helped take care of her siblings in those years. She had a brother two years younger, but her sisters were only four and six at the time. Throughout their struggles, Rometty learned from her mother never to allow others to define who she is. “My mother could have been defined as a victim, or a single mother, or even a failure,” says Rometty. “But she just didn’t accept that. She went to work, took care of our family, and had a 25-year career in a Chicago hospital. Her actions taught me a lot about how we should react to challenging circumstances and how we think of ourselves in those situations.”
Rometty grew up with female relatives always telling her she could be or do whatever she could dream. She had always liked school and was a good student. She was fully involved in school activities, including band, volleyball, and student council. “I got good grades,” she says, “but only because I studied hard. My mother and her family imparted to me that if you work hard, you will be rewarded.”
Although Rometty was not sure yet about her career path, she did want to go to college. She applied for and received several scholarships and grants, eventually attending Northwestern University, which was close to home. She majored in computer science and engineering, and she was the only woman in most of her classes.
During the first two years of college, Rometty supplemented her financial aid by working at the post office, sorting mail on the night shift. Money was tight, and she remembers that at the end of her first semester, she had only 25 cents left in her account. After completing her sophomore year, she applied to the General Motors Scholar program, which selected only two students from a handful of top universities for the prestigious award. Rometty won the scholarship, which paid her tuition, room, and board and which included a job at GM during her two remaining summers. “That funded my last two years, for which I was very thankful,” she says. “During my first summer in Detroit, I met my future husband, Mark Rometty, and we married a year after I graduated.”
In 1979, Rometty graduated with high honors. Feeling a debt of gratitude to GM after all the company had done for her, she accepted a job with the company, but she soon realized it was not the career path she wanted to follow. Her husband suggested she apply to IBM because she enjoyed computer science. To prepare for her interview, Rometty bought a new blue suit. It was not until after she returned home from the interview that she realized she had left the price tags on the cuff of her jacket. Whether that was noticed or not, she will never know, but Rometty got the job.
She started with IBM in 1981 as a systems engineer, then went into sales, next into product development, and then spent a little time in finance. Over the next three decades, Rometty took on a succession of executive roles of increasing responsibility and varying characteristics that included local, global, technical, and client-facing emphases. She also spent time with big enterprises and with startups.
In 2002, Rometty led IBM’s acquisition of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting—the largest takeover in professional services history—and created a global team of more than 100,000 business consultants and services experts. She has served as senior vice president of IBM Global Business Services and senior vice president and group executive of IBM Sales, Marketing, and Strategy.
In 2012, she became chairman, president, and CEO of IBM—the first woman ever to head the iconic, 104-year-old company. In 2014—the year Rometty was named one of Forbes magazine’s “World’s 100 Most Powerful People”—IBM earned $92.8 billion in revenue and employed more than 370,000 people.
Looking back on her career accomplishments, Rometty says that when she first became head of IBM, she was reluctant to be defined as the company’s first woman CEO. “I felt I should be judged simply as the leader of IBM, not as the first woman CEO. But since then, I have come to appreciate that I am also serving as a role model.”
When asked about the difficulties of steering a company in a new direction, Rometty says, “I believe there is a leader for every time, and this is my time. IBM is the only technology company that has thrived and survived for over 100 years, because it has continuously reinvented itself. Remember, when IBM began, it produced clocks and cheese slicers.”
Rometty believes that although we each have an innate core set of skills, it is important to grow—and the only way to grow is to challenge oneself. “Growth and comfort never co-exist,” she says. Midway through her career, someone offered Rometty a challenging promotion, but she told that person she wanted to think about it before accepting. She then told her husband she wasn’t ready for the job and needed another year or two to gain more experience. But when he asked her if that is how a man would react to the offer, Rometty realized he had made a good point. “Many women are so critical of themselves,” she says. “I was trying to be comfortable before accepting the job, rather than believing in myself enough to know that whatever challenge I faced, I would find a way through it. It proved that growth and comfort never co-exist, and I believe this is true for a person, a company, an industry, and even a country. Understanding that is what made me accept risk. If I’m uncomfortable, then I know I’m learning something important.”
Asked how she defines success, Rometty says, “I think it’s your impact on the world. But how you make that impact is also important.”
Rometty addresses young people often in her role as IBM’s leader. In offering advice, she goes back to what her mother taught her about identity. “Don’t let others define you,” she says. “I watched my mother go through difficult times, but rather than throw up her hands and call herself a victim, she went to work, got an education, and supported our family. And she did it all without any complaints. That is the best way to go through life.”
Rometty has served on the Council on Foreign Relations, the Board of Trustees of Northwestern University, and the Board of Overseers and Board of Managers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Like previous chief executives of IBM, Rometty has helped pioneer new approaches to education, such as overseeing the rapid expansion of IBM’s groundbreaking Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH. The program provides poor and minority students with college courses in a technology discipline, and by “grade 14,” they have completed both their high school diploma and an associate degree. “Currently, we are involved with more than 100 schools that offer this program,” says Rometty. “I have taken President Obama with me on visits to these schools, which are in Connecticut, Illinois, and New York—and the program is now spreading around the world. We started with one of the poorest-performing schools in Brooklyn, and it is remarkable what we have achieved in a short amount of time. Once the students complete the program, many of them are hired by IBM. I feel very good about that.”