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International Women’s Day, the IBM Service Corps, and Learning Who We Really Are

By Marilyn Thornton posted Mon March 22, 2021 02:24 PM


In case you missed it, March 8th was International Women’s Day, a day to answer how we will forge a gender equal world. A day to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness against bias and take action for equality.

For me, it was also an opportunity to reminisce about a trip-of-my-lifetime to India to help small farmers and introduce young women there to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM.) It was 2017 and I’d never been to India. Honestly, other than the Taj Mahal, it wasn’t exactly on my bucket list. Now, I’m no glam girl but I’d gotten it in my head that India was a difficult trip. Would I like the food? Was it always crowded? Maybe London, Paris or Amsterdam was more my style.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I didn’t know I had it in me but going to India and meeting so many wonderful young women taught me a lot about my own—mostly imagined—limitations. In 2008, IBM established the IBM Service Corps to provide employees the opportunity to use their professional skills to help people and communities tackle complex issues. Small squads of IBMers partner for several weeks with nonprofit, government, educational and civic leaders to address high-priority issues in education, sustainability, health and economic development around the world.

Before COVID put a damper on travel and in-person meetings, 4,000 IBM employees had participated in 1,400 projects in 40 countries as part of the Service Corps program.

It sounded exciting, I’d been at IBM for a few years so a month of paid travel sounded like a great and inexpensive adventure, and I was hoping I would get an assignment in some place I’d never been…somewhere I could eat exotic five-star cuisine, and you know, maybe sneak in a spa treatment between helping people in a quaint European village (ha, ha). That never happened.

I waited and waited for the “perfect assignment in the perfect location.” Looking back, I’m pretty sure that no one got the posh assignments that I’d imagined.

Finally, I couldn’t stand the tension of waiting any longer. I reached out to the Corps organizers and asked, “what project do you have available now?!” The answer was India, so I gritted my teeth and off I went.

I’ve never regretted a moment since.

We were India Team 33 – which means 32 other IBM teams had gone to India before us!  We worked with a non-profit in the agriculture sector that helps small and medium farmers in the semi-arid tropic regions of the world.  Our project was to help the farmers of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh organize among themselves, establish some basic business practices which would ultimately lead to being able to charge a fair (equitable) price for their products. 

We started by visiting the farmers on their farms – growers of coconuts, bananas, turmeric, and other crops – to understand their unique challenges.  The land was lush and tropical, and I’m convinced, if it grows anywhere in the world, it will grow in India.  In the end, our recommendations were presented to the non-profit, the local government, and representatives of the farmer organization for their adoption and ongoing implementation.

Plus, we also got to see the magical Taj Mahal and the Red Fort as well as beautiful temples and shrines all around the area where we stayed.

Were there any challenges? Sure. You can’t travel to the other side of the planet without at least a few challenges. I’m still not a big fan of Indian food though I do have my faves. But worst of all, on the way over AND on the way back, I missed my flight connections in Amsterdam which added to the travel anxiety and made the journey a little longer.

Overall, this is what I learned about myself and how I would you guide other professional women if they wanted an adventure like mine: you must get out of your comfort zone to experience something completely different.  I’m not good at this and must push myself every time, but I do it and I grow. Here’s a quote from our CEO at the time that I always remember: “I learned to always take on things I'd never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist.” — IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. 

1 comment



Tue March 23, 2021 12:21 PM

This is a great "all of us" story. Many times, the path to improving inclusivity is to first push ourselves out of our own comfort zone. Hats off to you, Marilyn.