Careers

How a janitor went from cleaning floors to the C-suite as a 6-figure tech exec

Gail Evans is an accomplished technology executive, with a LinkedIn profile full of leadership positions at Bank of America, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. Currently, she is the global chief information officer at Mercer, a human resources consulting company with more than 22,000 employees based in 43 countries.

But before landing a corner office at some of the world's greatest companies, Evans began her career mopping those corporate floors.

In the early 1980s, Evans was a janitor at Eastman Kodak, tasked with cleaning building no. 326 at the company's campus in Rochester, N.Y., The New York Times reports.

"I always knew I wanted something better in my life though," she tells CNBC Make It.

Evans was raised by her mother with five other siblings in Rochester. "I was very happy being poor, because I didn't know any better," she says. "We didn't have computers, we didn't sit in front of computers, we learned to play together — I was happy. But I knew that there was something more than where I lived," she says.

After high school, Evans spent three years at Hobart and William Smith College in New York, but left during her junior year to help support her family with the custodian job.

"I built a lot of character as a custodian," she says in 2015 commencement address at Nazareth College. "It is amazing how people treat you when you are there to pick their garbage up every day."

Gail Evans is Mercer’s Global Chief Information Officer.
Mercer
Gail Evans is Mercer’s Global Chief Information Officer.

And Evans knew she was working toward something important.

"I wanted to be in a position to buy a home for my mom, take my mom out of the inner city, be a role model for my family," she says.

She began taking classes at Nazareth College in 1980, working toward a Bachelor of Applied Science in Computer Information Technology. That meant an exhausting schedule of working nights and studying in the day.

"I would get out of work at 7:00 a.m., my first class was at 8:30 a.m.," she says. "While most people were out enjoying their lives, I was probably in the library for 10 or 12 hours on the weekend.

"I knew then that technology would change the world, and I wanted to be a part of that." -Gail Evans, Mercer Global Chief Information Officer

"There were days that I wanted to just give up and quit," she says.

But one night in her early years at Kodak, her drive began to pay off. A manager, Dianne Newhouse, saw Evans at a computer and asked what she was doing.

"I told her I was a janitor, but that I was going to school full time and I wanted to become a software engineer or in technology," Evans says. A week later, Newhouse asked if Evans could help teach new software to her team.

"Man that was the best day of my life, or one of the better days of my life," Evans says.

"I still did the janitorial work, but three hours of my shift I was able to teach her leadership team on ways to use [Microsoft] Excel to calculate a lot of their input and output and volumes of the film that was coming off the line," she says.

Evans completed her degree in 1986. She saw a succession of promotions at Kodak: first from custodian to a production assembly operator, then to film slicer in the dark room and finally a software engineer. By 1999, she was the Chief Technology Officer of Kodak.com.

"[Technology] was what I wanted to do, what I wanted to become and I wanted to be good at it," she tells CNBC Make It. "I knew then that it would change the world, and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to do something great."

Of course reaching that executive level is no easy task, especially for a woman of color in the tech world. While women account for about 40 percent of managers in the U.S., it often doesn't translate into higher ranks. Looking at 2014 data, researchers found almost 60 percent of firms studied had no women on the board and about 50 percent had no female C-suite executives. Few Fortune 500 companies have women as CEO's.

Further, only about 8 percent of managers in the U.S. are African-American, according to 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For managers in technology, the numbers shrink. Of people who hold jobs as "computer and information systems managers," 25.5 percent are women and 6.2 percent are black.

"All women have challenges becoming executives," Evans says. "I feel black women face challenges at different depths and frequencies during their careers which can really hit you emotionally at times."

Evans says her resolve was inspired by her mother. "She always had faith in me and believed I would accomplish great things in my life," Evans says. "She counted on me — she was my rock."

Although Evans says her mother died before she had the chance to buy her a home, she found another way to honor her. Evans now sponsors a scholarship at Nazareth College to help students pursue an education, The Louise Evans Scholarship, named after her mom.

For Evans, being, "willing to fail, willing to learn, willing to ask for help to strengthen my own tool set — I think is how I have been successful in my life."

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