Feature image of Velda Otey

Before Velda Otey (BSBA ’75) climbed to the top of one of the most recognizable energy companies as a trailblazer for women of color in business, she grew up in a segregated Columbus. That part of her story, she says, shaped so much of her personal and professional journeys.

It was 1969. Despite the Brown v. Board of Education court case ending segregation in public schools more than 15 years earlier, Velda only knew segregated schools.

“Columbus Public Schools were still neighborhood schools,” she recalls. “Since neighborhoods were segregated, schools were segregated. As a result, my primary and secondary schooling was at all-black schools.”

But what she learned in those schools, from her classmates and her teachers (black and white alike), as well as from her parents and her community of Black professionals, ultimately fostered the principles that Velda would lean on as she became the first female chief information officer and vice president in American Electric Power’s century-long history.

You began your professional career in the 1970s pursuing a degree in computer science. Talk about the path you forged as a woman of color in this traditionally male-dominated field?

Truly, I knew nothing about computer science when I started college. I was good at math and science in school, so my teachers encouraged me to major in engineering. I didn’t know any engineers or what engineers did, but I trusted my teachers. I also didn’t know that there weren’t many women or Black people in that field. I was accepted in the College of Engineering and Architecture at Howard University; so off I went to make my family proud.

I believe that there is an art (innate talent) and a science (book learning) to everything. I was excellent at the book learning but not so excellent at the art of engineering or architecture. After my first year, I transferred to Ohio State because I got married. That’s when I learned about computer science and was accepted in the College of Engineering and began my studies.

Describe that transition from Howard University, an HBCU, to Ohio State at that time.

On my first day, I knew something was different because I was the only woman and the only African American in the classes. I had never experienced this. As I think back, it was a lonely, but not difficult, time for me. I lived off campus, so I was only on campus to study. I did enjoy the smaller class size of these courses, and I mostly had the same people (white men) in all of my core classes.

It was here, though, that I experienced my first direct racial incident. Even though Columbus was segregated, I was never exposed to any direct racial confrontations. The professor in one of my classes said something very derogatory to me. If it was said today, he would be fired, but back then I had no faith that I would be listened to. It was bad enough that I walked out of the class. Some of the guys in the class followed me out and encouraged me to return. I did. This is where I began to develop my resiliency.

Velda Otey graduation portrait
Velda Otey's graduation portrait.

As I learned more about computer science, I realized that I enjoyed the application side more than the hardware design and building side. So, I transferred to the College of Business to focus more on management information systems. While the College of Business did have more women, there still were no women of color in my major areas. I was still very naïve about being the ‘only one’ in many situations.

As you encountered more instances of being the “only one,” how did you begin to utilize the resiliency you had begun to build?

Upon graduation, I landed my first job in the insurance industry. There, I was not the only woman, but I was the only woman of color. From the first day on, people assumed I was the either in the call center or the secretary. I got used to being underestimated. I learned to politely correct them and enjoyed seeing the ‘Ohh’ on their face as they realized their mistake! Over time I expected to be the only one in the room, sometimes ignored and more times not acknowledged.

I learned to apply the life principles I was taught — be polite, be good, be on time, be curious, demonstrate your value and never give up. The smart ones will learn to depend on you. Of course, there were many times when I felt lonely, discouraged and defeated, but those were outweighed by the guidance and support of friends, family and trusted colleagues.

Over time, my contributions and knowledge became valued and showcased. There were many men, as decision makers, who provided me the opportunity to make larger and greater contributions to the company’s success. As I look back, I also did not have a fear of speaking up. Because there was no one above me who looked like me, I didn’t have the fear that speaking up could ruin my career, even though that seemed to be the culture.

Describe your climb to CIO and VP at AEP.

My journey to the C-suite was much slower than the current generation’s. The higher I progressed the more resistance I experienced. Things like being told my raise was smaller because men had families to support, or not being invited to play golf with the other men, or having my projects and results challenged more than others. Despite that, I learned to focus on my work and on helping others develop and succeed.

My career in the IT space was typical: programmer to analyst to leadership. But because I asked a lot of business questions (not typical of programmers then), I was selected to work on many corporate projects, which is where I took the opportunity to learn more about the business and build a network outside of IT. I also stayed at my company for 33 years, so there was time for decision makers across the company to know me and the quality of my work. In fact, supporters outside of my department were probably more influential to my being named CIO.

Through it all, though, I could not afford to be a slacker or make any mistakes. I knew eyes were always on me, and that, at every level, I was the first. I felt the pressure to be outstanding so that there would also be a second, third and more.

What do you remember most about that accomplishment?

Velda Otey and former AEP CEO Michael G. Morris
Velda Otey and former AEP CEO Michael G. Morris, who appointed her the first female CIO and VP in the company's history.​​​​

I remember the day my promotion was announced, our CEO came to my office (an unheard-of trip from the 30th floor to the 8th floor) to tell me he received an uncountable number of emails from throughout the company congratulating him for ‘finally doing the right thing.’

Despite the great news and so much support, there were still those who said I was a token promotion because it helped the company check two more diversity boxes.

After years of good work, special assignments and plenty of missed school activities for my children, though, I am convinced that I finally leaped from the ‘sticky floor’ to break the ‘glass ceiling’ because my mentor was advocating for me, other candidates for the role spoke highly of me and the person ultimately making the hire (the CEO) knew me.

What advice do you have for those with goals of reaching the C-suite?

I came from the generation that depended on their work to speak for itself. This generation must “toot their own horn” in the right way, seek mentors in the C-suite (within and outside of your company), and  find allies who have a seat at the table to speak up and advocate for you. Because, as research conducted by McKinsey & Company shows, women (especially women of color) remain the most underrepresented segment in all levels of a company especially at the C-Suite level.

To prepare for the C-suite you must first understand the role. You should learn all you can about the strategic focus of the C-suite and the responsibility that it holds for the success of all elements of the company. This is much more important than your personal success. You must have the vision to inspire, courage to listen, wisdom to trust, strength to make difficult decisions and passion to drive an inclusive culture. Then if you decide this is your goal, you must speak up and let people know.

Complete this sentence: “Graduating from Ohio State meant…

…gaining a quality education, enjoying lifelong friends and having a foot in the door to major corporations. When I graduated, I had three job offers and all had larger salaries than my parents and grandparents’ salaries.

What’s the most interesting fact about you that isn’t on your resume or LinkedIn profile?

I have developed a love for genealogy. When I have down time, I spend it researching my family lineage and finding historical stories to share with my family. I create family history books for my grandchildren, nieces and nephews in hopes that they will continue to keep our history alive.

How has Fisher and Ohio State’s extensive network of alumni and friends helped you?

Thanks to that network, I realized that being ‘the only one’ wasn’t a hindrance to my career and that my professional mentors didn’t have to look like me. I learned to trust that there are many people who are willing be in your corner — you just have to find them.

You have a strong passion for mentoring women and young girls in leadership and STEM. Talk about the role of mentorship in your life.

From childhood, my parents and teachers were my mentors. They helped establish the ethics and foundations for my life and my work. Career-wise, I didn’t have any formal mentors until the last 10 years of my career (coincidentally, all were men). I didn’t know anyone like me in the IT field. In my early years, my network was in my head. I learned to observe leaders (good and bad) to hone the traits that I wanted to shape my leadership skills.

Mentoring, especially women and girls of color, is a passion for me. It’s important for me to pay it forward by sharing my knowledge and giving them tools and skills to empower them to reach their goals sooner. I work with organizations such as Girls LEAP (Leadership Empowerment Achievement Purpose), WiNUP (Women’s International Network of Utility Professionals), AABE (American Association of Blacks in Energy), SAALT (Senior African American Leaders in Technology) and WELD (Women for Economic and Leadership Development), which serve a variety of girls and women, from fifth graders all the way to the energy sector professionals and minorities in IT.

Mentoring is so very personally rewarding because it keeps me mentally sharp, and it is my way to help ensure a future where we eliminate ‘the only’ and ‘the first’ and move to true equality.

You must have the vision to inspire, courage to listen, wisdom to trust, strength to make difficult decisions and passion to drive an inclusive culture.

Velda Otey (BSBA '75)Former Chief Information Officer and VP, 
American Electric Power