Cheryl Campbell is the first woman of color to be sworn in as Assistant Secretary for Administration in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This summer, she gave a virtual interview to US Black Engineer magazine. The conversation ranged from tackling the COVID-19 public health crisis to the significance of working with thousands of HHS career officials throughout the department.
USBE: You are the first female assistant secretary for administration and the first person of color to serve as assistant secretary for administration. What does this appointment mean to you, and what does it mean for professionals or students who are historically underrepresented in top federal jobs, information technology (IT) jobs in particular?
Ms. Cheryl Campbell: I am humbled to serve in the Biden-Harris Administration, with the first woman of color to serve as the Vice President and many aspects of President Joe Biden and his support for the Black community. So, it is exciting to serve in this administration. To serve with Secretary Xavier Becerra and with the deputy secretary, Andrea Palm. When you think about being the first woman and first woman of color, I say this is about the art of the possible. The next generation should be thinking I’ve broken the glass ceiling. That genie can no longer go back in the bottle. And in doing so, the next generation of technologists, the next generation of scientists, next generation of leaders have to understand that where I am is a stepping stone to where they could go. It is demonstrating that it is possible to achieve, no matter where you start. It is possible to be successful if you hone your craft and do the homework.
It is also important to know what this role is. Being an assistant secretary for administration, what is the role for health and human services HHS)? This role represents having oversight for over 84,000 HHS employees—representing unions, equal rights, diversity and inclusion, acquisitions, and representing billions of dollars in acquisitions for HHS. In addition, this role is responsible for setting the information technology direction for health and human services. So, this is a very engaging, broad role across government. I’m thrilled and honored to serve in this capacity. To serve at this point seems critical and speaks so much to this administration. So, I say to the next generation of leaders coming in this direction as Black Americans, as women of color, as women in general, there are no barriers to where you can go. And you need to make sure that you don’t allow those barriers to pull you back.
USBE: You have supported HHS operating divisions throughout your career. As the assistant secretary for administration, the office you lead supports these operating divisions during a pandemic. What has that been like? How has the pandemic changed your work?
CC: It is a unique position to be in when you’ve gone from being a contractor supporting the federal government, particularly health and human services, and being the person helping agencies like HHS to build software development systems. A very big part of my career in supporting HHS has been with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. So, when you hear about HealthCare dot gov, Medicare dot gov, the Affordable Care Act, these were all systems developed by my team and organization a few years back. And now to be on this side of the table, supporting these operating divisions, which are the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the list goes on, in terms of the impact and the operational components for the work that we do. So, for me to come in and bring that executive operating experience from industry speaks volumes. I’m excited about bringing that perspective and having another connection point with career employees and understanding the work they do. When I first came on board, and after starting meetings with a significant portion of the staff, I said I’d love to go on a campaign, go around the globe and talk about the work of civil servants. It is a great experience to work alongside these individuals, but it is also important that I bring industry best practices into government because I’ve worked with these operating divisions for so many years, the challenges, and the mission they need to achieve. So, coming on in the inside and walking shoulder to shoulder with them is a great opportunity.
USBE: You are a nationally recognized health IT leader. You have been named a “Healthcare IT Game Changer,” and you were recognized as one of Washington DC’s most influential women in technology. What advice would you give young people, young women, and men of color, who aspire to be as successful as you have been in the field?
CC: I talk about having an inside and outside game. From an inside perspective, you need to approach the environment you are working in. To make sure that you not only understand the immediate job that you have in front of you but the politics of the office that you are working in, the cultural components of where you’re working, the measures of success, and how you develop those skillsets that you need to be successful on the inside. The outside game is developing your brand. You need to make sure that you are engaged in outside activities, can expand your network, participate on panels, and have your thought process generated in other areas, so that you can broaden your capability and horizon. I’ve heard many times people say that I’ve been pigeon-holed into a lane. Well, okay, if you’re in that lane, how do you widen that lane? Don’t just settle for what’s in the lane. Always look out further on the horizon of where you can go from a career perspective, not just do the job in front of you. Think about the jobs ahead of you where you want to take your career.
USBE: How has IT/health IT changed since you first entered the field? Where do you see the field in five years?
CC: Technology is one of my first loves. Anything associated with technology, and my eyes light up, I get excited. But information technology has grown tremendously and will continue to grow. In the earlier years of technology, it was more about setting up systems, databases, moving from large mainframe systems to mid-tier solutions, to laptops, and so forth. As we move forward with artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the bringing technology to the forefront of everything we do, the chances are endless. It’s a scenario where we are not even sure how technology is going to take us. We have some strong ideas and great infrastructure supporting them, but it’s endless regarding where the technology will go. In terms of health IT, the whole issue during the pandemic about telehealth. It is something that some people thought about, some people did, and now it’s modern-day. It’s the current day. It’s kind of how we operate. And it will not go back the way it was previously. We can support people in terms of having experts across the globe from a health perspective versus being in one hospital. The idea of information technology as it continues to advance, as we think about the reports that we see on the news every day with the rise of COVID and the number of people in hospital, that’s information that comes from systems that are collecting that data., making that data actionable, and making decisions against that data. So, the era of digital will be us for a very long time. And see the impact and the difference across many industries. So, you can name the industry, and technology has had a tremendous impact on that field and for the future.
USBE: Tell us about a project you are excited to work on in your new role.
During the pandemic, the opportunity to support the information technology systems to COVID initiatives is very dear to me. The beauty of the mission of HHS is that it is about the wellbeing of the American people, so no matter what project it is, no matter how big or small, you have an impact on the American people. You think about the well-being of our society. It is so critical for our success.
USBE: You founded the EagleForce Warrior Foundation, which supports military service members and their extended families as they recover in the Department of Defense’s critical care facilities. Why did you start the foundation, and what has the foundation achieved thus far?
CC: My father was a World War II veteran. My husband is a former Navy pilot. I’m a mother of three sons. Our middle son serves in the Navy, as we speak. And I had the opportunity to tour Walter Reed Medical Facility many years ago. It was clear that those individuals with family members around them had a sense of hope and recovery. Those who were there alone seemed to languish and not have the energy they needed to be successful. So, from a regulation perspective, I understood that our government paid for one family member to be at the bedside. If you think about that eighteen to thirty-year-old enlisted person, and they might be married, who do you send that ticket for? Do you send that plane ticket for the young spouse? Do you send it to Mom? Or do you send that plane ticket for Dad? And I recognized the importance of having family at the bedside for that person’s recovery.
After starting the foundation, particularly during the pandemic, our services need to expand differently. We were providing transportation services for families to the bedside. During the pandemic, it moved to individuals who needed to pay their rent, who needed to pay a car note, who needed to pay to pay a cell phone bill. We had one woman, a veteran herself. She had a disabled son, her car was starting to fail, and she needed maintenance done. We were able to pay for the maintenance of that vehicle. We helped a young man go into business. He transitioned from military service, and he wanted to start a photography business. So, we helped him set up his studio and the information to establish that. So, our reach started to expand beyond the transportation component, thinking about the services, and needs for those individuals.
For the men and women who serve, many of them are persons of color. I wanted them to recognize that there were people of color there to support them. The foundation was for all, but it was also a representation for people of color to understand the importance of giving back and that Black Americans are very big on being philanthropists. I love that we walk through the airport, see a military person, and hear people say, thank you for your service, thank you for your service, thank you! I wanted to put something behind thank you for your service. I wanted to make sure they were recognized and had the support they needed to achieve, so as they transitioned out of the military back into civilian life, they had the skills necessary to help them do that. We did a mentoring program, providing interviewing skills, helping them think through how to update a resume to prepare them to find that job outside of military service.
USBE: Before earning an MBA, you earned a bachelor’s degree in information systems (IS) management from the University of Maryland. What about the field interested you?
CC: I started at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts, thinking I was going to be an accountant. Great field, and I had—my maiden’s name was Matthews—my CPA firm thought through at nineteen/twenty years old. The name of the CPA firm was going to be Matthews, Hollis, and Johnson. Whoever Hollis and Johson were, I didn’t know it at the time, but it was just starting the CPA business. And then, I took my first computer science class, which was a programming class, and I started to recognize that this is the thing that keeps me up late at night, gets me up early in the morning. At that time, it was about the computer run, coming back to get the results the next day, or when your computer program generated the results. But that was the bug that caught me.
At the time, Bentley did not have a computer science program, so I came home. I’m a native Marylander. The University of Maryland has a phenomenal computer science program. But the reason I went into information management systems is sort of what those words represent. Information, information, information is at the heart of everything that we do. If you think about management, how do you manage that data? How do you manage information? And if you think about systems, most of everything we do has some level of systems associated with it. But it was taking on that field because it allowed me the flexibility to operate in many aspects of computer science and technology. It wasn’t locking me into one field. It gave me the enterprise view to move in any direction I wanted. I could be an analyst. I could be a technician. I could be an engineer, a programmer. It gave me the flexibility that was needed to advance my career.
USBE: A team of psychology researchers found that the more a discipline is perceived to demand raw talent or “brilliance” to excel, the more women and early-career academics feel like “imposters.” That relationship is even stronger among women of color, who continue to be underrepresented in various fields. When you are the only woman and person of color in a room, sometimes you can experience imposter syndrome or stereotype threat. How have you dealt with this? If so, how do you overcome it?
CC: A big part of who I am, and I have had the opportunity to work with retired military officers. So, whether they were wearing the uniform or not, they commanded a room. Because they came into a room with a sense of presence. I learned early on that I had to command the room by just being in the room. That was a big part of how I managed to overcome many aspects, many stereotypes, and it didn’t just have to be the smartest person in the room. It was making sure that I brought value to the room. We often feel we must be the one talking the most, contributing the most to the conversation, but sometimes it’s great to be a listener, observer, and move out. I always operate from the presence of mind that a person doesn’t know who you are until you tell them who you are. So, I took it on as my mission to let people understand my value proposition and what I brought to the table and make sure my voice was heard.
USBE: Most successful people in public life talk about mentors they have had along the way. Mentors in their early years, mentors during college, or mentors as early-career professionals. Tell us about a mentor you have had and the impact that the person has had on you.
CC: I meet a mentor every day, and it depends on the encounter and how you receive that person. My mentor could be the guard I meet in the morning because he greets me with a smile or a conversation. My mentor could be my executive assistant, my children, my husband. My mentor could be superior to me or share a nugget that you carry along the way. I’ve had many mentors in my career, so it’s hard to focus on one. But there was one gentleman. I am, by nature, an introvert who is quiet and shy. As a young person, one of the reasons I gravitated to technology was because I was behind the screen. I didn’t have to talk to people very much. This person saw in me what I didn’t see in myself at the time. It turned out that going into business development was the best decision that I ever made in my career. So, if I could tell the next generation, say yes more often, and say yes to the opportunity of what you can do. That mentor said to me, you have a technical understanding because you’re a great listener. You’ll be able to go out and speak to clients, understand the challenges, come back, and tell that to developers and business leaders in your organization to come up with solutions for a client. By moving into that era of marketing, I was able to connect with people and the challenges that they were facing. And then from there moved to management, and I never looked back from there.
USBE: In every culture in the world, parents are regarded as the first teachers for their children. What lessons did you learn from your parents?
CC: Where do I begin? My father, as I mentioned, was a World War II veteran. He and my mom did not have a college degree. I’m a first-generation college graduate. When my father went into the military, into the Army of Corps of Engineers, he learned construction. He was a farmer when he went into the military. When he came home, he married my mom and told his dad he would start a construction company. Talk about entrepreneurship at its best! Here is a man who had a fifth-grade education, and he decided to take the skills that he learned and turn that into business. He raised five children and sent us all to college without loans. They were pillars of their community. I learned about business watching my parents manage the business from what I call the kitchen table. We had one telephone, and when it rang, we had to answer that phone as a businessperson, not as a social person. We had to learn the art of business from day one. My parents also taught me that everyone has value. It doesn’t matter where you start, your economic status, or your educational background. Every single person has value. So, I carry that in many aspects of who I am and what I am about. I had four older siblings who nurtured me. I had one sister who was an English major, so the art of communication and writing was important to me. My other sister was about gracious living, so she taught me the art of being gracious. My brothers were part of the business, but my youngest brother helped me develop my engineering skills. It was all the things he did growing up, using tools, and learning things. Believe it or not, my father made me understand how a car operated, how to change the oil, how to change the tire. He did a very good job of making sure that I was the businessperson and comfortable with things around me. They made it possible for me to go into the field. They had no concept of information technology, but they never said no. My parents gave me the stability to try new things and know that I had family support around me.
Prior to her appointment, Ms. Campbell served in an acting role where she laid the groundwork for 21st-century HHS operations. She has supported HHS operating divisions throughout her career. Ms. Campbell earned a Dual Global Executive MBA from Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business and ESADE Business & Law School. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems Management from the University of Maryland and is the wife of Stanley Campbell and mother of three sons.