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Rochelle Newton's "Diversity Chat" with Tracy Doaks [video]

min read

In this "Diversity Chat" on August 31, 2020, Rochelle Newton talks with Tracy Doaks, President and CEO of MCNC, a technology nonprofit delivering high-performance internet, networking, and other technologies in North Carolina. Doaks discusses "finding your tribe," letting go of ego, growing her career, and working in STEM as a black woman.

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Tracy Doaks
President and CEO
MCNC

Rochelle Newton
Assistant Divisional Chief Operating Officer
Duke Health Technology Solutions

Rochelle Newton: ... start by asking you will you please tell us your name and a little bit about you so we can get to know you a little bit better, please?

Tracy Doaks: Sure. My name is Tracy Doaks. I am a graduate of an engineering school here in North Carolina. I won't say which one. Very, very proud of it. Currently, I am the CEO of MCNC, which provides high-speed fiber across the state. Prior to that, I was the state CIO working in the governor's cabinet. I am married, two kids, and particularly focused on my Black son.

Rochelle Newton: Okay. Do you have concerns about your children? How old are they? Are they old enough for them to be out and about on their own without you, or are they still at home?

Tracy Doaks: My daughter is 25. She just graduated law school. She'll be out. She's got her own place now, working for a law firm, and away from that very sheltered college/university community. My son is 20. He goes to NC State, so he is on campus currently and a very heavy studier of society, socialism, all of the things that we take for granted and his generation looks at in a different way, certainly, from a different perspective. And yeah, I do worry about both of them very much.

Rochelle Newton: I have known you for maybe 10-11 years, and I have seen your career grow exponentially. You were a senior leader at Duke Health. You said about your time at state and now in MCNC. Can you tell us how is it that you have been able to be so successful? What have you had to let go? What have you had to gain in order to maintain that success?

Tracy Doaks: I attribute my success, besides all of the normal attributes that you would expect as base, foundational, it really is networking. My network. I say this all the time, especially to young Black women who are starting out, finding your tribe, Your tribe of people who support you, who speak your name with positivity and integrity, and remember you when things come about. My reputation, for me, has been everything. Every job I've gotten for the last, I don't know, 20 years has been by word of mouth, not by me applying for something. It's been by somebody knowing my reputation and asking if I'm interested. That's the way, the last 20 years or so, my opportunities have come about. It had everything to do with my network. It's tough in Research Triangle Park to be in a network that at least used to be predominantly men. But women, particularly in technology, we are starting to grow and build our own network so that we can also hire people that look and smell like us, too, and get away from such a minority of women and people of color in technology.

The thing that I had to let go was my ego. I've had some really tough experiences in my journey that ... I won't lie ... hurt me deeply, but shaped me greatly, where I knew I was clearly being sidelined, but my ego wouldn't let me go down. So I just kept fighting and fighting and fighting. I think, at some point, that kind of energy that you're expending can be negative to your spirit. It really can be. You have to figure that out early, sooner than later, so that you can say, "This is not the right place for me. I need to make a change for my spirit, in order for me to continue to be a good person and someone that is moving forward."

That's a different thing, to get rid of your ego. It really is. I'm not known as a conceited, arrogant person, but there's still, in all of us, an ego that kind of keeps us ... when we feel like we're being discounted, that we want to fight, we want to ... No, I'm going to show you. A lot of times it's not about them. Just release them and either create your own thing or find out where else you might be welcome so that you can make a change. I think that was one of the hardest things for me to do, is to be discounted and allowing my ego to just fall by the wayside. It was good for me to do that.

Rochelle Newton: I think that your success in doing that is probably attributable to the success you have now. But I will tell you, as a Black woman, 46-plus years of experience, never missed a deadline, never had a project not come in on time, and like you, I have a community. But, for me, my community is not one like you speak of. I let my ego go a long time ago. I'm done with it. The labels that are attributed to me, I'm like, "That's what you think of me. I can't worry myself about that."

But the key is how do people like you and others see what's happening to Black and brown people, and I would even say women of all races, and bring them along, and bring them with you, or introduce them to your network, or explain to them how to create their own tribe, as you described? I think that's really an important thing because it's sort of like some of us get so high up we forgot how we got there. You don't look back down and see all the people's shoulders you stood on to get where you are.

Tracy Doaks: Yeah. I stay very connected to the people who got me where I am. From the person in college that knew that I was struggling to feed myself, and found a little part-time job for me, I still know that person, and I interact with her. And when she needed help a few years back, I helped her because it was the right thing to do and because I remembered that someone did that for me. She gave me a chance, and she did many other things that really helped me significantly as I was trying to learn and grow with a whole bunch of obstacles in my way.

As well as today, I spend a lot of time with other nonprofits that are female based or female and people of color, because I think it's important. I remember feeling isolated in college because of the predominantly male-oriented groups and cliques that congregated together. As a female, it was hard to break into those things. There's several organizations. There's one called CORRAL Riding Academy, out in Cary, and it is a horse farm. They do equine therapy for at-risk girls, mainly girls of color. They start at middle age. A lot of these girls have come from very abusive homes, not very supportive communities around them, and the job and the mission for this group is to help change that for them and their families.

I sit on the board of that group. I talk to the girls. I volunteer there so that they can see that there is a way out of there, that there's somebody that looks and smells like them, that is different and is doing something different. I think that's really important. I spoke at their graduation this year so that I could get an expanded group of girls. Some of it was onsite, but most of it was online, and really trying to get more donors for the mission of that group so that they could continue to educate and support our girls throughout the summer, when they had nothing to do. A lot of them didn't even have high-speed internet access. That usually spells trouble for girls like that. Keeping those summer programs up and keeping them engaged so they also don't get behind when everyone else is starting school, I mean, that's just one example.

Sue Harnett, who does Rewriting the Code, is very, very focused on STEM girls across the country and having a tribe and a network, even if it's across the US and I believe Canada, so that there is a connection between each girl, and some companies that help support and fund some of the work that they do. It's been tough for them this year because of COVID. A lot of those girls lost their internships, and offers were rescinded. So being able to come back and try to inspire the girls to hold on and to encourage other companies, as they're getting back on their feet, to remember that those internships that went away, make sure they find a way to get those back, and the offers that were rescinded. So I do spend time in nonprofits that are focused on those things.

Rochelle Newton: Does your network also include just people who you know in STEM areas?

Tracy Doaks: No. Not at all. I think that's important. One, there's just not that many of us. And, two, I think we're getting stronger, but all the power is not ours yet.

Rochelle Newton: Will it ever be?

Tracy Doaks: I don't know. I don't know in our lifetime. But it is certainly spreading out a little more than it has, which I'm thankful. But I will say I do get tapped a lot for stuff. It's like, well, would you be interested in this? And I get it. It's like, whoa, she's a Black woman, and she's doing stuff. Black Lives Matter. We're trying to be diverse. And it's like I don't have that kind of time. There's plenty of other people out here that have the time, the inclination, the energy, to do that. That's the thing that I struggle with a little bit, is, oh, there's one. Let me tap into that one. I do think we need to publicize ourselves more, so they don't just see one or two of us.

Rochelle Newton: Interesting. I have a question. It might be an uncomfortable question. Do you think that you are, in the work environment, still a Black woman, or are you simply just a woman?

Tracy Doaks: I'm always going to be a Black woman. There's no way around that. I'm always going to be a Black woman. I'm going to carry that with me no matter what. I'm always going to be a woman. Now, I was hired because of my skills and what I could do with and for MCNC. I'm known for being able to manage services, build new services, cost structures, new models for how you cost the recover cost. I know that was a major part of why I was hired. But I don't think anybody can neglect the fact that I'm a Black woman. I just don't think, in this instance, I was hired because I was one.

Now, what I will say about the state, Governor Cooper had the most diverse cabinet in the history of North Carolina. That was truly amazing to be a part of that, and the strength in numbers and in how it was like normal conversation. The white male was the minority in the cabinet. So it was very [inaudible 00:14:18] particularly when we got to Black Lives Matter and how we wanted to handle that, and how the governor supported us in the way that we did.

Rochelle Newton: Excellent. You mentioned Black Lives Matter. Tell me what that means to you when you hear that phrase.

Tracy Doaks: I'll put it to you this way. It should always matter. It's a sad day when we have to get megaphones out and remind people or to tell people that. That hurts me to my soul that we are at that place. For someone who has a Black son, that has always mattered. Black lives have always mattered to me because I've always seen discrimination, bigotry. Coming from a really small town in the valley, that happened to me all the time. It was not new. I watched and worked through and maneuvered and navigated through a world like that my whole life.

I think it's gotten way more violent and way more visible. Probably more violent first and more prevalent, and then more visible. It hurts. It hurts every time I see a new incident that's come about. I worry for my son getting pulled over, something happening, because he's down for the cause. He's got the dreadlocks. He is very, very civil rights oriented and has no shame in his game about talking about that very vocally. He also understands, because his sister is a lawyer, what his rights are and will be quick to say that. But that still doesn't mean that he can't get hurt. That scares me for him, my husband, my brother. I've gotten to the point now ... And I hate to say it. I hate to say this publicly, but it's true. The George Floyd video, I could not watch. It hurt me so, so much. So, so much as a mother and hearing that he was calling out for his own. That could be my son. That could be my son. Black Lives Matter is so important. I'm just struggling to see a change.

Now, for my son's generation and my daughter's generation, what I will say is when they interview for jobs, their first question is what's your diversity look like? Can I see your numbers? My daughter, when she was searching for law firms, that was what she wanted to know. I do think there's a generation coming that is not going to settle. They're going to be a little pickier about where they're going to go because they want to go where they know they have a chance. And they want to be able to use that opportunity to reach back. For my daughter, for example, pro bono work was really important to her because she works on the Innocence Project, and she wanted to be able to continue to do that. You've got a generation of people that are coming up, that look at things much differently. For them, they want to live the life of diversity, not just trying to find pockets where there is diversity, if that makes sense.

Rochelle Newton: It does. Well, I would just tell you, when I think about Black Lives Matter, I think I feel a little bit differently than you do, probably because I'm much older than you are. But I will say I think Black Lives Matter, and I often give this analogy. The way Black lives are in America, and maybe globally ... I can't say. I don't know what other countries are doing. But it's like there's a house on fire. You call the fire department. The fire department arrives on the street, and they start pouring water on all the houses that are not on fire, that are just sitting there. The house over here that's on fire is going to burn to the ground. When that house is burnt to the ground, there you go. So I am not optimistic.

I, like you, have a son, too. I have a son who has had a chronic health condition ever since he was about 15 or 16 years old. Don't remember exactly when. My son is extremely affable. He's pleasant. He's easy to get along with. He's not controversial. In fact, he would prefer to be away from you than with you. When he started going to college, we'd have these conversations, like, "Tell us as soon as you get there. Tell us where you're going." Monitoring him, almost like a helicopter parent for a man. Trying to make sure. He's constantly telling me nothing is going to happen to him. I'm willing to bet many of those young men who died ... Trayvon Martin probably thought nothing would ever happen to him. She probably thought that wasn't going to happen to him. The fact that we live in a space where, as Black parents, we're constantly cautioning our children on how to survive in a world where we're almost invisible.

When I asked you the question earlier, were you a woman or a Black woman in your role at MCNC, because, to me, it's hard to break that part, because those little things that go on behind you with the subtle comments, those little subtle actions that remind you that you are who you are. It also goes back to the other thing, when I asked you. I mean, what you said about your charity work is absolutely wonderful. But for the women that you know like me, how many of us have you remembered and what we've done and contributed? To me, that's what Black Lives Matter means, that you are advocating for someone who you know.

Now, if the person is a total goofball, I get it. No skin in the game. I'm not putting my name on anything. But from those in middle school all the way up to people who have been in a career like me for 40-some years, we're still struggling to be accepted, heard, and not be invisible. Every time I see something on LinkedIn about you, you almost look like a woman. You never look like a Black woman. It's like you're a woman. Obviously, your skin color defines you're a Black woman. You look like a Black woman and all that stuff. I'm sure you know how to code switch in your talking and all that stuff, all the things that we as Black people know how to do. But yet still, Black Lives Matter to someone.

I don't think we matter to ourselves as much as we matter to white folks, because you could walk down the street, and this is my experience. You walk down the street and speak to a Black woman. She'll put her head down and not acknowledge you. Or she'll call. Some of them call me. A woman called me the other day. She said, "I've been unemployed since this thing started. Can you help me get a job?" I met this woman once. I didn't even know whether she could do the job or not. I picked up the phone, and I called somebody. She had a job the next day. That's an unusual experience. That's not the common experience.

Tracy Doaks: It's not, but I will tell you now that hiring people has been probably my number one priority for the last few years, Black people, people of color, or women, or both. For example, I met a young lady on Facebook. She was talking. It was on one of the Triangle Black-owned businesses sites. I guess she was asking, "Does anybody have an opportunity out there?" Yeah. Well, okay. That's bold. Let me send her a note back. We went out for coffee the next day, and she had a job as my executive assistant within two weeks. She was the absolute best assistant who wants to get to IT. So, for her, that was getting in the door. And then I had people mentoring her across the different technologies so she could get a feel for where she might want to fit. There have been other women that I have hired. Sometimes they already have jobs, but I think they'd be really good somewhere else, especially if we were working together as a leadership team. And then there are others that I will recommend to other people. I do that a lot. I do that quite a bit.

Now, my only downside of that is as the state CIO, I hired a lot of people who came to work with and for me, and leaving has been really tough for them. Now they're all asking, "Well, is there going to be a place for me where you are? Is there going to be a place for me where you are?" It's just reminding people you also have to stand on your own two feet. I had to make a choice that was good for me and my family. But you're going to be okay. I'm going to be here. So I'm having Zoom cocktails with them, so they can ask me questions and feel supported as we move through this, and stay connected in case another opportunity comes up that I might be able to pick up the phone and say, "Hey, So-and-so, they are good people. How about we connect her with that and do this?" So I absolutely have used my journey, experience, expertise, and reputation to do that.

Rochelle Newton: Excellent.

Tracy Doaks: Absolutely.

Rochelle Newton: We have about five minutes. I'm going to leave the remainder of the time for you, for any comments or thoughts or things we did not cover you wish to share.

Tracy Doaks: I think STEM, as we call it, people in STEM, people of color in STEM, women in STEM, at some point, it's all going to be STEM. And then, if you add the A, which is the art part, then it's STEAM. Technology is everywhere. It's in everything we do. It's in my refrigerator. It's in my car. It's in everything you do now, and I think it's just so pervasive that eventually it is going to open up the world for lots of people to be what's considered STEM, because it just goes across everything. I see it in farming. I see it in, of course, manufacturing. It's always been there. That's where I started. I see it in odd places that you wouldn't normally see it. So what I tell people is, "Don't be afraid of your journey because it may take you somewhere you hadn't intended, but it's the right place for you to go."

Rochelle Newton: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me. I will send you a link to this once it's converted, and you can look at it and let me know whether I can upload it.

Tracy Doaks: All right. Very good. Good to talk to you.

Rochelle Newton: Thank you. Good to talk to you as well. Stay well.

Tracy Doaks: You, too.