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Leadership Secrets
The 5 Steps to Becoming a Top Leader in Tech, From a 40-Under-40 Winner
Photo Courtesy of IBM.
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“I was just really fascinated with nature and it never stopped,” Jamie Garcia told me over the phone. “I had a true curiosity for how things worked — everything from animals in the environment to the electronics in my house. My mom can attest to some of the pain I caused her by taking things, [like home electronics] apart and trying to put them back together.”

Now the Quantum Algorithms, Applications, and Theory and Master Inventor at IBM Research, Garcia’s job is doing just that: taking things apart and trying to put them back together in a better, more environmentally friendly way. 

Although this time, she’s doing it by connecting a team of leading researchers from around the world — and her mom isn’t having to pick up the mess. 

In fact, Garcia is making her mom proud with the ‘messes’ she makes in the lab. Last year, she was voted one of the Silicon Valley Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 for her advancements in recycling plastics. 

We spoke to Garcia about how she found work that made her want to change the world and how she found the mentors that helped her do it. She also gave us her best advice on being seen as an industry leader — and landing on an awards list.

1. Find work you’re passionate about. 

The best way to do industry-defining work? Find an industry you want to define. Despite her natural knack for chemistry, Garcia didn’t know she was interested in the subject until college, when she took a class that usually strikes fear in the hearts of its students: organic chemistry. 

“Organic chemistry was the first time I felt truly, truly inspired by an academic topic,” Garcia said. “I think some of that had to do with the visual nature of organic chemistry… where you have these shapes that are coming together in a very systematic and well-defined way… I took to it really quickly.”

As Garcia talked about this work, I could hear the sparkle in her eye. I had to ask how other women could find a career that made them this passionate. Her primary advice? Try new things.

“I always knew that I was very interested in science, and I knew that I was interested in nature and understanding the fundamental laws and theorems that guide natural processes, but I really hadn't had that ‘aha!’ moment yet where I just was completely enamored with a field,” she said. “It didn't happen until I was an undergraduate, a sophomore in college, that something really stuck. So, I think my advice for women who are kind of seeking that passion plus purpose is to continue being open minded about different fields and trying things out. And once you do encounter that field or subject that inspires you, you’ll know it when you see it.”

2. Build the confidence to take risks.

Taking risks is a critical part of doing industry-leading work. Garcia understands it’s easier said than done to try something outside of your comfort zone, but she says it’s critical for confidence building.

“I took a year and went to New York and did what's called a technical advisor role to the COO of IBM Research. I actually left my fiancé and my cat behind for a year and went and did this very immersive program,” she recalled. “What that allowed me to do was take a step back and look at the bigger picture. I think that really helped a lot with building the confidence that I needed to take the next step and to start my position that I have today. Taking some risks is really good for confidence building especially.”

3. Find mentors to elevate your work. 

Beyond confidence, doing visible work and earning a spot on an awards list often requires a strong support system to build you up and put your name out there. Garcia says that having mentors has been one of the most helpful parts of her career, and that it’s helped her navigate a traditionally male-dominated industry. 

“I've always sought out advice and that has really, really helped me navigate some of the challenges of my career and feel less isolated,” she said. “I think that expanding and sort of deliberately seeking out a network of women who have had successful careers in science, or people that I have personally looked up to for their different qualities, has probably been one of the things that has really helped me along.”

She started building this network on day-one of her career by asking her manager for a list of people she could reach out to. 

“Once I kind of had a list of people who I could talk to, I just sent them an email and said: ‘Hey, I am brand new, I'm looking for a mentor. I was wondering if you'd be open to talking over coffee for half an hour?’”

Garcia says it can be intimidating to reach out to senior employees, but people are often willing to help. 

4. Give back the help you receive. 

Reciprocating the advice and help you receive from your network is another key way of establishing yourself as a leader worthy of a 40 under 40 list, according to Garcia’s experience. 

“When an individual takes the initiative to reach out, build a network, talk to people, ask for meaningful feedback and advice and then reciprocate when someone comes to them, that is viewed as leadership,” she said. “You're acting as a connecting point between a network of people.”

5. Always be willing to grow. 

Even with a 40-under-40 win under her belt, Garcia isn’t done growing. Her genuine curiosity and willingness to go above and beyond to expand what she knows is part of what has encouraged her success. So, what will she learn next? She says her next goal is to continue developing the area that she’s working in now and continuing to seek creative solutions with new people and new perspectives. She’s also hoping to have an even more global role in the future.

For women who are just entering the tech field — but aren’t quite ready to be a CEO just yet — she has advice.

“Understand which skills you need to enter into a technical area, be resourceful and find out which jobs are available,” she said. “Connect with people and ask them: What are some of the positions that are available? What are the skill sets that are needed for it? Is it more of a technical path or is something like a people management role, and what are the things that are interesting to me?”

She mused: “I think sometimes figuring out what you want can be the hardest decision you have to make for your career.”

“Throughout my career, I've done nothing but follow my nose,” she added. “And so, when an opportunity comes up that I think I might be interested in, I go in with the confidence that I have a certain foundational set of skills that will enable me to be successful, taking on new challenges and opportunities.”

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