Prudence Kuai: From Math Major to CIO [Podcast]

Posted on Jun 27th 2014 by Kate Warnock

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There are certain professions where women are grossly underrepresented as leaders. This especially holds true for the science, technology, engineering and math fields (these commonly referred to as STEM), which provides context for the statistic that only 9% of all chief information officers (CIOs) in the nation are women. Prudence Kuai is the CIO for Florida Blue, which makes her unique. Her upbringing, perspective and accessibility to employees of all levels make her special. Letty Godwin, Florida Blue’s director of enterprise escalations, interviewed Prudence for our Women in Leadership series on Florida Blue Radio.   http://www.brainshark.com/mkt_images/bcbs/Kuaiinterview/Kuaiinterview.mp3   Jokingly calling herself the “head geek” for the enterprise, Prudence explains her role isn’t limited to technology. Rather, she sees herself as solving business problems, and advancing business through technology solutions. As a woman who has held numerous leadership roles in her career, Prudence admits that she doesn’t focus on barriers. Rather, she advises women to look beyond potential roadblocks: “Go for what you like to do, and don’t be afraid of what others might say. Seek support from mentors to help you through the issues. Often, we have the answers within ourselves. And confidence in what you believe you can do can break any barrier in anyone’s career, man or woman.” When questioned how she balances confidence with humility, Prudence looks back to her upbringing. “Humility is part of having respect for others. My parents instilled respect in me from an early age. I find respect opens many doors.” Much like a math equation, being confident to Prudence means knowing what you don’t know as much as what you do. She suggests humility in that sense is critical, and being respectful of others will help you fill those gaps in a meaningful way. Prudence agrees that society holds girls back from excelling in STEM careers because of the perception that girls simply can’t do well in those fields. She feels it is crucial to support girls in whatever path they choose, much as her mother did for her when Prudence was pursuing a math degree. As a way to pay it forward, Prudence offered her time to be a mentor for our employees – not just in her field but across the enterprise. “My mother was my biggest influence, and she always encouraged me to do what I loved to do. I like that women leaders at our company have personally committed to helping women advance their career.” Prudence was most personal when she recounted advice she gave as a panelist at a conference. A mother of two sons, she knows that work-life balance isn’t easy. To some in the audience, it was shocking when she counseled that it is absolutely acceptable not to advance your career if it is not the right time in your life. “Sometimes, the right thing for you is to be mindful of where you are in your life, prioritize what you want in your home and career, and be okay with where you are right now. Don’t define “being better” as getting the next promotion. Instead, be confident in yourself and know what’s best for you.” We would like to hear if Prudence’s wisdom resonates with you. Leave us a comment about your career journey or mentoring experience, especially if you’re in a career where women aren’t equally represented. Lastly, help us make our Women in Leadership series a valued resource by sharing topics to explore or leaders we should interview in future sessions.   The complete transcription of our podcast begins here: [MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to Florida Blue radio where we explore healthcare topics important to you, whether you own a business, are a health practitioner, or are an individual interested in how healthcare is evolving. Experts from across Florida Blue will keep you in the know. In today's session, we interview our chief information officer, Prudence Kuai. We'll learn more about her career journey with a special emphasis on her mentors, motivators, and lessons learned along the way. Our host is Letty Godwin, chair of our women in leadership employee group and director of enterprise escalations. Now here's Letty. Hi everyone. This is Letty Godwin. I am the chair of the women's interactive network, and I'm the director of enterprise escalations here at Florida Blue. And I have the great honor today of interviewing Prudence Kuai, our chief information officer. So with that, let's begin. Prudence, can you please explain your role at Florida Blue and tell us the favorite part of your job. As you have stated, I am the chief information officer for Florida Blue. In this role, I am responsible for all the technology enablement for our enterprise. Now I jokingly tell everybody that my role really is the head geek. That probably conveys a lot. However, I think beyond technology, it is all about how do we partner with a business and make technology the most effective enabler for business advancement. And that is the part that I enjoy the most, is really solving business problems and understanding the business strategy in advancing our company, not just technology itself. There's a statistic from the Tampa Bay Technology Forum that is pretty shocking. And it states that only 9% of all CIO's are women, nationally, in the United States. Can you tell us how you were able to break through the barriers along your career journey to be in that top spot here at Florida Blue. It's interesting because a lot of people do talk about barriers. And I have done some reflection in thinking about it. I think the most important thing is that, don't focus on what's the barrier-- and it may be a little bit catchy here-- but I think the most important thing for me is to actually look beyond things people are talking about that is in your way. Don't look at the barriers. Think about what you can do and believe in yourself and really go for what you like to do. I don't think that I have ever sat down and said, oh, these are the barriers of my career. I just went for what I believed was the right thing to do. And with some luck, I had great mentors in my career. And I think that really helped in the opportunities that was presented to me. When I had doubts in my mind, I had sounding boards to help me through the issues. And I don't see this is a gender issue nor educational issue. But really, it's the personal confidence in what you believe you can do and that probably break any barrier in anybody's carrier. How do you balance confidence and humility? That's a very good question. I personally believe that humility is part of having respect for others. And I have the great luck, again, in my parents and that was instilled in me ever since I was little. Respectful of others will give you a whole lot, will open a lot of doors for you, because people will see that. And at the same time, believing what you can do but also know-- confidence to me is that you know what you know at the same time that you know what you don't know. And that itself is the definition, for me, confidence. And not be afraid, admitting what you don't know. So that to me is the balance between having confidence in yourself but also having confidence in your own humility. That's an awesome definition. I love it. And I totally put her on the spot for that. In your opinion, why aren't women pursuing more of the STEM, the greens, which means science, technology, engineering, and math? Why aren't they pursuing both those degrees and those careers? You know, I have read some statistics about the environment that women-- female, I should say-- had been in ever since we were little in our growth paths. I do believe that, from a society's standpoint, there's this perception that girls just won't do well in the science, technology, or math, engineering aspect. Unfortunately, I think that is true to a certain extent. And I do hope that, in our educational system, in our family and social setting, that there are more words of encouragement that, for young female, that anything's possible. Don't let peer pressure or social setting discourage what you truly like and enjoy. Sadly, we do live in a society that values looks, for women, over intelligence. And I couldn't agree more that we need to lift each other up, encourage each other, and motivate each other, and build that confidence in each other instead of putting each other down. And sadly, sometimes women tend to have a negative stereotype associated with being catty and not helping other women out. So that's very important. What is Florida Blue doing to support women in technology roles or women employees, in general? Well, Letty, you know very well, being the chair for our WIN, W-I-N, network. I think that that we will start from the grassroots effort. That's one. And the other one I personally am doing is that I have-- went out of my way-- I've gone out of my way to really asking who will like to be mentored by me, especially women. Not only in IT but also across the organization. I do welcome the opportunity to pay it forward because, in my career, I have had many mentors, both female and male, in helping me sort out in a time of doubt for my life. So I would like to pay it forward. And I do believe that the company, we are talking about and doing a whole lot of things to help women with their career, not just technology, but I think in general. Florida Blue has been a place that really pay extra attention. I wanted to name a few-- Camille Harrison, Joyce Kramzer-- we are all of the same mindset that we do want to put in personal time as investment to help other female to advance their career. That's awesome. Thank you for your commitment to do that. What or who inspired you to pursue a technology career? I cannot really say any one particular person but I do want to give my mom the credit. My mother has never, ever told me that girls cannot be good at maths. And it just so happened, I was a math major. And it was really my mother's encouraging me do what I believe I can do. So that probably is the biggest influence. Who are your STEM role models-- so STEM, again, is science, technology, engineering, and math-- and how do you keep tabs on their career? There is not one particular person but with my major in college and also with my career, I have gotten to know quite a few number of women who have done well in the STEM space. We just encourage each other and not necessarily keeping tab on their career, per se, but it is really a support network, support system, that I take advantage of. I know that you're a mother. You have two boys, right? Yes. How have you balanced your work life and your family life? My children are all grown so it's much easier now. Right. While they were growing up, I just prioritized my time. And there is one particular tasks or one particular activity that has always been the most important was that I need to be home to have dinner. And I'm proud to say that probably 90% of the time, we sat down as a family and had meals together until they were in senior years of high school. It wasn't easy. It shows that you can set boundaries and stick to your guns. That's impressive and helpful for me having a five-year-old son. Based on your own experience, will you give us some practical advice for women who are struggling to find the right support for their career choice. Well number one, self-awareness is quite important. So if someone is struggling with their career and the direction of their career, my first suggestion would be find someone that you trust-- a good friend, family members-- as a sounding board and just talk it out loud and then see what is not fitting the situation for yourself. A sounding board is really critical because I do believe that a lot of times, we have our answers in ourselves. It's just that, as all the noises going on in your mind, it is not clear. And once you can find someone and talk it out loud, you'll find-- the other person may or may not be able to give you advice but sounding out your own thoughts, and really having someone help you organize it, will help tremendously. So what I would suggest is really having someone as a confidant and then talk through the issues and you can sort it out most of the time. So that goes back to having mentor, have a support network system is really important. Being Chinese-American and the stereotypes associated with Asians being good at math, has that stereotype impacted you throughout your career, throughout your education? Number one, I do agree with you. There is such a perception and stereotype. I have to say that that's one of the stereotypes that I enjoyed. Whether I was really good at math or not, I had the advantage of having that perception by others. So I don't think that whether it play into what I did and what I have done but definitely I enjoyed that one. Do you have any other nuggets of wisdom that you'd like to share? I was at a conference also about women in leadership. I was on the panel, one of the speakers. The question asked by the facilitator was talk about a time when you are at the crossroad of your career and how difficult was it to make a decision and just talk about a situation and what's the lessons learned from the speaker on the panel. There are other people talking about a time in their career. And so I actually teed up a scenario. And I said to the audience, and I said, every conversation we've had at this conference is about how do you advance your career and it's always about what is the next thing, the next big thing, the next promotion? And I said, you know what, if you step back and look at a person, the life, the stages of life in their life. And there are different scenarios and different situations based upon what you're doing in your life. You got married. You had children. Whatever the next thing-- care for your parents. There's so many things in life and life happens. I don't believe that every one of us really need to put career advancement as the must have every single day, in every single stage of your life. And it is perfectly OK to say, for the next five to 10 years, my focus is having children. I do want to have a career and I want to balance it. And you really need to prioritize what you want and then be OK with where you are in your career. And I have seen-- but it's not just women-- I've seen man also struggle with that. That they also want the career advancement at the same time they have other things going on in their life. And I think that you brought on so much stress for yourself, trying to do everything. That's not necessary. So a lot of people ask me about career advice. My advice is, actually, sit down and take a look at where you are in your life and make a choice of what you want out of your personal side of the life and what your professional life. And that to me is the ultimate work life balance. To be totally OK and in peace with yourself, what you have chosen. And I was on my soapbox, talking about this. And I looked at everybody in the room, especially the facilitator, my peers on the panel. I think they were a little bit taken back from what I said. But after the conference, I couldn't believe there's so many people walk up to me and thanked me for saying that. Because that's what was on their mind, thinking if I don't go for the next promotion, is it going to be looked upon as that I am not ambitious, that I don't have the aspiration to be better. And I think what I said to them gave them some comfort and assurance to say, it's OK. Because to be better, you should not define to be better is the next promotion. Don't define that narrowly. And it's really the whole person that's more important. I couldn't agree with you more. And I have personally lived that. When my son turned two years old, I chose to go part-time. And I knew that by going part-time, I was essentially putting my career advancement on pause because I have proclaimed that, right now, my priority is my son. I also took a demotion and that's something else that people don't talk about. When we talk about career advancement, it tends to be a ladder and that letter only goes up. And that's not true. It's more like a maze. You can go down. You can go sideways. You can take laterals. You can go up. And sharing that perspective and hopefully my sharing that I've done it will give people the permission that they need to understand that it's OK. Hopefully we're just assuring everybody. And I want to say that no one needs the permission except their own. Right? We're giving them the support to say it's OK as long as it fits you. And that's the confidence part. So the final question. If you could write a note to your younger self, what would you say in only two words? That would be happiness and confidence. Thank you so much, Prudence. You're welcome. You've been listening to Florida Blue radio, recorded at our Jacksonville headquarters. For notes from today's program, vist our blog at FloridaBlue.com. Be sure to leave us a comment there with your ideas or suggestions for future programs. Until next time, here's to you and your pursuit of health. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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Kate Warnock

Kate Warnock is a member of the Florida Blue social media team and has loved being at the forefront of the social wave @FLBlue. A marketer with ten years’ experience, Kate is also a wife and mom to two children. When not at work, you’ll find Kate listening to NPR, reading The New Yorker and Cooking Light, and arriving two minutes late to yoga class.

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Great questions asked by the interviewer. I'm a male but I definitely got a lot out of this podcast regarding career choices and the intrinsic value of respect for others.

Michah, we're so glad you found Prudence's points helpful. We sincerely hope you listen in to future recordings (and would love to hear your suggestions for future interviewees)!

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