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Posted: May 01, 2011

Athena finalist: Kristin Russell

State's secretary of technology defies stereotypes

Maria Martin

Athena_Russell-05-2011.jpg

Ask your average citizen to describe the person who might fill the role of secretary of technology, and you'll likely hear a litany of clichés.

Techno-geek. Calculating. Workaholic.

Male.
Erase all that and meet Kristin Russell

"People look at me and scratch their heads," says Russell, secretary of technology and chief information officer for the state of Colorado. "I didn't come from a technology background. I got my undergraduate degree at CU in international affairs, with an emphasis in Spanish."

She pauses a moment before ticking off a list of her former roles over the years: statistical process control analysis, work in pre- and post sales, customer service.

And then the role that really got her career rolling.

Sun Microsystems.

"I submitted my resume, and I was one of the first 10 people to be hired," she says with a laugh. "I walked into the room, and one of my first tasks was to hire my team. I walked into the room, and there were resumes stacked from floor to ceiling. I just scratched my head and wondered how I got hired."
She soon discovered.

Sun was conducting a test to see if non-tech people could manage tech people.

When Gov. John Hickenlooper offered her the position of secretary of technology, it seemed apparent that she passed Sun's test with an A-plus.

She moved to her new role from a position at Oracle, which acquired Sun in 2009. Russell was vice president of Global IT Service Operations, where she led the organization that provided all infrastructure services, as well as their external customer relations.

Russell, 40, adds the honor of being named an Athena Award finalist to her other honors: She earned the Denver Business Journal's Forty Under 40 award and was a recipient of the 2009 Silicon Valley Tribute to Women in Industry award.

It's a privilege, she says, to be honored as a woman in the business world. Her daughters, 9 and 11, represent her hope for the role of women in the future.

"I feel lucky to be their mom," she says. "It humbles and inspires me. And because I'm in the technology field, they know they can grow up to be anything they want to be."

Without her husband, Scott, her decision to take a job in the public sector would have been difficult.

"Scott has been incredible," she said. "When I transitioned into this role, it was a family decision. I remember him saying, ‘I am here to make sure that you do what you are most passionate about.'"

When Hickenlooper met with her, she says, his first question was, "Why do you want this job?"

"I answered, ‘That's funny, because on the top of my list of questions was, ‘Why should I take this job?' I didn't start out wanting it. But I realized I could leave a legacy and make a difference in a much bigger way than in my previous roles."

And, she adds, she is able to work for a man she respects.

"I started out saying, ‘Hey, I get to meet the governor.' Now I can see what an honor it is to work with him. He's an amazing person. He really listens to people."

Russell looks forward to the day when it no longer seems unusual to have a woman in a position like hers.

"Someone once asked me, ‘Are you feminine or are you feminist?' I'm both, was my response," Russell says, and then pauses to gather her thoughts.
"As women, we have a huge opportunity to lead in ways that are unique. We know how to listen, and we know how to care. We know how to serve with integrity, and give back to our community.

"There's a song by Nickelback that I go back to a lot. I love this lyric, and I try to live by it. ‘Each day's a gift, and not a given right.'"
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Maria Martin is a freelance writer.

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