Robin Bienfait, CIO of Research in Motion
Like a lot of today’s business leaders, Robin Bienfait always keeps her BlackBerry mobile device within easy reach. She learned to depend on it during her years heading AT&T’s Global Network Services (an operation with 6,000 locations in 137 countries).
So actually going to work for BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) as chief information officer in January 2007 seemed like the natural evolution of her career.
“I like to say I run BlackBerry for BlackBerry using a BlackBerry,” says Bienfait, who now carries at least three of the devices with her at any given time.
She believes that earning an Executive Master of Science (now MBA) in Management of Technology from Georgia Tech College of Management in 2001 was instrumental in helping her attain senior leadership positions like her new job.
She shared her perspective on the program’s benefits and her industry as the keynote speaker March 14 at the College of Management’s first annual Alumni Reunion for graduates of its executive degree programs.
Technical MBA with Teeth
After 15 years rising through the ranks at AT&T Labs, Bienfait decided to enroll at Georgia Tech in order to compete with other technologists at her company who held master’s and PhD degrees.
“I felt like I knew just as much as they did, but I didn’t have the credentials,” says Bienfait, who earned her bachelor’s in engineering from Central Missouri State University. “It really helped me to come to a school that offered not only an MBA but a technical MBA that had more teeth to it.”
Designed to prepare leaders to excel in the fast evolving world of high-tech business, Georgia Tech’s Executive MBA in Management of Technology (EMBA-MOT) program teaches students to leverage technology for competitive advantage and manage innovation.
Taking classes every other Friday and Saturday, EMBA-MOT students are able to complete the 19-month program without interrupting their careers. “Learning from other experienced students in the program really opened my eyes to new things going on in the world of business,” Bienfait says.
Winding Road to the Top
When she first began her 22-year career at AT&T as a semiconductor device line engineer, Bienfait wouldn’t have guessed she’d eventually rise to senior vice president of the company.
More concerned with learning about various areas of AT&T than about titles, Bienfait actually resisted being promoted on several occasions so that she could move around easier.
“Whenever you’re in a space where you feel like you’ve stopped learning, go find another space where you can learn,” she advises. “If you don’t like what you’re doing within a company, I’m all for eliminating your own job. I’ve eliminated my own job several times. If you’re scared into defending your territory, that’s exactly where you’ll be when everybody leaves you in the dust.”
Nearly four years into her job as senior vice president when SBC acquired AT&T, Bienfait survived the transition, helping integrate operations. She says the company wanted her to stay, but RIM soon came calling.
“I sort of feel like I’m on holiday,” Bienfait says. “I retired early from AT&T, and I’m having lots of fun at my new job.”
A native of Valdosta, Georgia, who now lives in Norcross, Bienfait only makes it to her office in Dallas, Texas, a couple of times a year.
But that’s not to say she isn’t pulling long work hours. “My job is me being wherever I need to be and accessible,” says Bienfait, whose work takes her around North America and to parts of Europe and Asia on a regular basis.
She says that raising three sons – now ages 26, 25, and 14 – was good preparation for the tremendous demands of her career. “Women know how to do a 24/7 job like this because they do it all the time,” she says.
Balance between work and family is essential, she believes. “There are times when you need to step away, when your family needs to be first, so you have to build back-up support into your teams,” says Bienfait, who is very thankful for her supportive spouse, Michael, president of Global Aviation Company.
Uncertain about ever really retiring, Bienfait is excited about the future at RIM, a leading designer, manufacturer, and marketer of innovative wireless solutions for the worldwide mobile communications market.
Founded in 1984, the fast-growing company has approximately 9,000 employees, nearly a third of whom fall under Bienfait’s leadership.
“We’re already in our year of ’09,” she says. “A lot of people think it’s calendar ’08, but if you’re in a technology business, you need to already be in ’09.”
Responsible for RIM’s corporate IT and all BlackBerry operations, Bienfait recently started a professional services division at RIM to develop and adapt software applications to run on the BlackBerry.
“A lot of people think of BlackBerry as just for e-mail,” she says. “But when you get the application ability on your BlackBerry, and you’re actually using the device to transform your business, that’s when you’ve made a really big shift in your industry.”
Director of Communications
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