Pledge 1%’s #WomenWhoLead series celebrates female leaders who are paving the way for the next generation. While our featured leaders come from a variety of backgrounds and industries, they are united in their efforts to promote equality for all women in the workplace. We’ve asked them to share a bit about their journey to success, as well as lessons they’ve learned along the way.

What is your name and title?

Kelly Ireland, CEO & Founder at CBT (CB Technologies, Inc.).

Briefly (1-2 sentences) describe your current role.

I am the Founder and CEO of CBT, an award-winning Domain Expert Integrator with a roster of Fortune 50 clients. My role is to create an environment where both my employees and our customers thrive!

How did you get here? Please share any quick stories from past work experiences.

I have been involved in the IT industry since 1976 and have always described myself as a “techie”. I was an early participant in programming, attending IBM’s RPG II/III classes out of high school at a time when there were virtually no women in the industry. From the beginning of my career, I was customer-obsessed and always working to develop the best solutions for them.

I founded CBT in 2001 to leverage all the things I’d learned from two decades’ work implementing corporate enterprise solutions. I knew I could make a difference – and that I’d apply the best practices not just in technology, but in managing people. So, I decided to create a company that would offer employees the optimal work-life balance, knowing that they would in turn create exceptional experiences for our customers.

I launched CBT from the spare bedroom of my small home. It was an extremely modest start. I was a single mom starting a business in the highly male-dominant technology industry, but I had a secret weapon for success – put employees first.

I had always had the feeling that there was a better way. So, I risked everything to create a business based on two simple principles:

  1. Cater to your customers and make them feel special (because they are)
  2. Appreciate your employees and they will appreciate you, your customers, and your business

And, my gamble paid off!

In your opinion, what’s the #1 decision or move you’ve made that has helped advance your career?

Being raised by a teacher and a coach, collaboration and teamwork are key principles that are at the forefront of how I have advanced my career. They are also a core part of the DNA of CBT. Great things in business are never accomplished by individuals, but by teams through collaboration.

The key to my success has been to run CBT with a human touch. Although we are a tech company, we always recognize that people come first. This is a radically different approach to how most IT Solution Providers and Value Added Resellers do business, and it is the reason that the industry has recognized us for carving out an entirely new category – Domaine Expert Integrator. We are really proud to be in a league of our own, and we think deservedly so.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned this past year?

2020 strengthened our commitment to our internal family, knowing that a happy and healthy team will invigorate our partners’ and customers’ innovation. That’s why in 2021, we’re focused on continued evolution, acceleration, and growth based on the foundation we solidified in these challenging times. So while NOT a new lesson learned for us, this last year has served to edify our core CBT values and what makes us truly unique.

What’s the number one challenge you face as a woman in your industry?

Unfortunately, tech still has a “perception problem”. The myopic image of the white male engineer, and frankly the executive as well, persists along with the mistaken bias that men are better suited in these roles.

It’s frustrating that change has been so slow and so hard-fought. Being a woman in tech is a challenge, but I love this industry and I love the people. I am also a lifelong competitive athlete, so when it comes to work I let my performance do the talking. I’ve also created an environment at CBT where people can bring their whole self to work, and our diversity numbers reflect that. For us, the differences are celebrated and our team is stronger for it.

Do you have any mentors? What does mentorship mean to you?

I’ve had numerous mentors throughout my life, both male and female, as well as personal and business related. I gleaned something from each of them, and it helped me become the leader that I am today.

For me, being a mentor is by definition affecting someone’s life – sometimes in profound ways like radically shaping a person’s career trajectory, and sometimes more subtle ways like providing a scholarship to attend a conference. My goal, in either case, is to add value to their professional (and hopefully personal) lives.

What advice do you have for women who are just starting their career?

I’ve heard it a hundred different ways – build your tribe, create a network, establish a peer group, etc., but what it all means is assemble a personal Board of Advisors. Be sure to take on high-profile assignments, and don’t be afraid to fail. Secondarily, but just as important, be honest and embed integrity in everything you do.

What is one thing companies can do, big or small, to help create an environment that advances women into leadership positions?

Companies can only attract diverse talent if women and minorities are in visible leadership positions. All other efforts will fail if women can’t visualize and believe there is a path to leadership positions.

What is one thing you hope to accomplish in the next year?

My personal company weathered 2020 quite well based on investing heavily in the previous years to research, develop and prove the feasibility of IoT solutions. With that progressing well, I want to put more focus on my workforce development philanthropy and launching a non-profit that connects industry to local/regional education systems to provide an avenue for gainful employment in underserved communities.

Is there a cause that is particularly close to you? If so, why this cause and how did you get involved?

I have always mentored young people and have been an active supporter of social and economic justice causes. Most recently, I began coaching, mentoring, and sponsoring students from the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project in Bangalore, India. Shanti Bhavan educates children from the untouchable caste and supports their learning from preschool through college. Their unique mission and commitment to change is that each of their graduates in turn bring 100 people out of poverty.

Prior to COVID-19, I visited with the school and brought some of my CBT leadership team to India with me. We met the students, saw the villages that they came from, and had many in-depth conversations with the school’s founder as well as the faculty. We provided scholarships to students and helped them update their technology and computer lab.

My other philanthropies include serving as an advisor to various nonprofits including the Board of Directors for education non-profit GenerationYes, and the Board of Governors for Uplift Family Services at Hollygrove, an EMQ FamiliesFirst Agency.

When did your company join Pledge 1%? What does your impact program mean to you?

CBT joined Pledge 1% a year ago. We had been looking to strengthen our company’s impact program, and to make it more of a formal part of our culture. The Pledge 1% program helps us assess and track how we are doing as a company in putting people and the communities where we live and work first.

What do you like to do outside of the office? Any interesting (or unique) habits or interests?

When I am not working, you will find me and my family on the water! I am an international water ski racing champion and in recent years, I picked up powerboat racing. I participate as one of the few females in the APBA Formula 1 Lights racing circuit. I also enjoy mentoring and sponsoring young people in these sports.

Are you reading/listening to anything interesting at the moment? Please share your most recent favorite book or podcast!

I have to spend so much time online, on conference calls and reading about IoT and digital transformation that in my spare time I like to read historical fiction/non-fiction. I’ve been reading about a book a week over the last year but the latest one is taking a bit longer. It is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett – an old classic that I had never read before.

What’s been the one (or two!) things that have helped you navigate this past year? Any tips or tricks to dealing with remote work?

CBT had an extremely smooth transition to remote work. For our customers, our Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) Solutions such as Connected Worker have helped them to sustain profitability and keep their employees safe. Our remote training/mentorship solution has allowed teams to collaborate from all over the world. It utilizes tailored software combinations enabled on wearable devices, smartphones and tablets to provide an effective way for field workers to visualize, consume and communicate actionable information. It gives maintenance and operations teams the tools they need to assess operations performance so they can make critical decisions safely, in real time, and at the actual point of work. We hear from our customers that this has saved jobs, and more importantly, saved lives.