CIO role 2020: Everything you need to know about today’s Chief Information Officers

What does a CIO do in 2020? How has the CIO skill set changed? What’s coming next as the CIO role evolves? Everything you need to know about CIOs - including advice for aspiring CIOs from people who’ve made the leap
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cio role 2021

What is a CIO?
What is the role of a CIO?
How is the CIO role evolving in 2020?
What are key leadership skills for CIOs?
What is the difference between a CTO and a CIO?
What does a CIO do?
Who does a CIO report to?
What does a CIO earn? CIO Salary
How do you become a CIO? CIO career path
Does a CIO need a technical degree anymore?
Chief transformation officers vs. CIOs
Chief digital officers vs. CIOs
How many CIOs are women?
What is the future of the CIO role?

What is a CIO?

The CIO, or chief information officer, emerged as a job title in the 1980's: This highly technical person would oversee the information technology department's resources and staff. But in the decades that followed, CIOs themselves rewrote the perception of their role, coming out of the back office to become true strategic business partners, working alongside their C-suite peers. Today, CEOs look to the CIO to drive innovation and revenue-generating ideas throughout the business.

That's a far cry from a running joke In the early 2000's: that CIO stood for "career is over." Today, the CIO in many organizations leads the execution of digital transformation initiatives.

Many businesses see those initiatives - often centered around improved customer experience - as vital to their very survival. The CIO investigates how the organization can use its technological prowess, speed, and customer service to outperform rivals. This typically involves both building a digital platform and adjusting the organization's operating model.

[ Where is your team's digital transformation work stalling? Get the eBook: What's slowing down your Digital Transformation? 8 questions to ask. ]

Many CIOs came up through the ranks in a culture that was known for its "command and control" style. But today, CEOs charge CIOs with working on cross-functional efforts that demand collaboration and a broader leadership skill set, including strong emotional intelligence.

As ServiceNow CIO Chris Bedi puts it, the CIO role currently requires the CIO to embody three crucial personas: communicator, salesperson, and influencer.

"The biggest lesson learned from my first job in the CIO position was how critical it is, more than ever, that the strategy at the CIO level is completely aligned to enable the overall business strategy," Bedi says. "As we've seen time and time again in today's workplace, technology helps enable new ways of business, collaboration, productivity – the potential and possibilities are endless. However, ‘new‘ is often synonymous with ‘change,‘ and change is often met with trepidation. CIOs must sell the vision that technology will make life better across the entire business."

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

What is the role of a CIO?

The CIO's responsibility for digital transformation, along with the rise of DevOps and agile styles of work, means the CIO works in a more cross-functional way than ever before, as noted in our HBR Analytics Services report, Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership. "Fast-moving, cross-functional teams of people from different parts of the organization experiment and innovate together to deliver new products and capabilities at an unprecedented pace. The old leadership rules don't apply," the report says.

As Adobe SVP and CIO Cynthia Stoddard says, "When you work cross-functionally, you can't control everything. You need to collaborate and work together in different ways. At Adobe, we put aside titles when we're working across teams to encourage everyone to participate and contribute at the same level."

Cynthia Stoddard

Giving up control and embracing failure are key, Stoddard says. "One example of these two mindset changes in practice was our data-driven operating model, where we integrated data across the entire enterprise into a unified data architecture – to run the business, drive predictive data insights, and deliver personalization. It's always challenging when you have to get everyone on board with definitions, KPIs, governance, and bring together the right level of insight.

"This was truly a cross-functional effort, in which everyone from finance to product teams came together to lay out the vision. People had to give up individual tools and move toward a new way of working. If an idea didn't pan out in the way we expected it to, we learned from it and applied those lessons to new ideas."

That type of iteration exemplifies the agile style of work that many digital enterprises have found essential to improving time to market and customer experience.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

How is the CIO role evolving in 2020?

Successful CIOs have become business leaders of digital business units or have empowered IT to create a digital backbone.

As digital transformation efforts progress, alongside organizational changes like the ones Adobe's Stoddard describes, the CIO role continues to evolve. "Successful CIOs have become business leaders of digital business units or have empowered IT organizations to create the digital backbone to accelerate the move to hybrid cloud environments and new operating models," says Steve Hall, partner and president at technology research and advisory firm ISG.

As Enterprisers' Stephanie Overby recently reported, CIOs that struggle in these areas have lost some of their responsibilities to other functions or business units.

Rahul Singh, managing director with management consultancy Pace Harmon, describes the CIO as evolving into what he calls a "Chief Digital Innovation Officer," helping the company grow and become a data-driven enterprise.

"This step will require CIOs to gain a better understanding of not just new digital technologies and how to cost-effectively operate them, but also to better understand the specific business their enterprise is in and how IT can drive new revenue opportunities and accelerate company growth," Singh says. "CIOs will need to sharpen their business skills and build relationships with the CEOs and GMs so they can collaborate as strategic partners."

Change management skills continue to gain importance. "CIOs that do lead the digital transformation charge are asked to wear multiple hats – that of business strategist and change leader," says Ankur Laroia, managing director at BDO Houston. "It's not always a natural fit."

The CIO role is also seeing a return of decision-maker clout with vendors and consultants in digital transformation work, versus line-of-business heads.

"We've seen a swing back towards IT as decision-makers as digital transformation starts to mature," says Patrick Heffernan, senior analyst at Technology Business Research. "As it becomes increasingly clear that even the most CX-focused or operations-centric projects still come back to IT for change management, implementation, and sustainment, CIOs have re-assumed their place as the key decision-makers – and therefore the target, again, for IT services vendors and consultancies."

One other trend to watch in the CIO role: The CIO will take on a bigger part of their organization's people strategy.

"CIOs are increasingly being handed the keys to drive digital transformation throughout the organization, including areas that have been traditionally outside their purview," says Chris Bedi, CIO at ServiceNow. He predicts CIOs will shape more HR issues in 2020.

"The CIO and CHRO are partnering more to make the employee experience as great as the customer experience."

"Like the CIO, the CHRO is also stepping into a more strategic role, and as a result, the CIO and CHRO are partnering more to make the employee experience as great as the customer experience," Bedi says. "IT and HR teams are aligned at a high level and want to create great experiences, but they're also often focused on different initiatives. To achieve both objectives, IT and HR will begin to work together more closely to create a common framework and language, as well as a joint plan."

Expect CIOs to take more of a lead on hiring and training for new skills and identifying who enterprises need to develop over the near- to medium-term, predicts Patrick Heffernan, senior analyst at Technology Business Research."CIOs that are active now in setting the training agenda are the ones to watch," he adds.

What are key leadership skills for CIOs?

While CIOs used to make their careers on their tech credentials, today's most successful CIOs stand out for other skills, including communication, building bridges between groups, and empathy – all-important at times of big cultural change.

You might call them "soft skills," but any CIO will tell you these are the hardest skills to learn. (Read also: Goodbye soft skills, hello core skills: Why IT must rebrand this critical competency.)

As Red Hat CIO Mike Kelly has noted, "Good IT teams manage change. The best ones lead change. As the pace of change accelerates today – and at a time when technology is in many respects the asset of a company – organizations are demanding their IT departments demonstrate more leadership than ever before.

"As their teams become more inclusive and collaborative, leaders must shift their strategies and tactics to harness the energy this new style of work generates," Kelly says. "They need to perfect their methods for drawing multiple parties into a dialog and ensuring everyone feels heard. And they need to hone their abilities to connect the work their teams are doing to their organization's values, aims, and goals – to make sure everyone in the department understands that they're part of something bigger than themselves (and their individual egos).

[ Want to build these skills? Get the free eBook: "The Open Organization Guide to IT Culture Change," featuring advice from 20+ IT practitioners, industry leaders, and technologists.]

"In short," Kelly adds, "today's IT leaders need to be culturally competent as much as they are technically competent."

Communication skills and the ability to give autonomy go a long way in these change-filled environments. Notes Jay Ferro, CIO, Quikrete: "I work hard to be a leader who

can say, ‘You're here for a reason. I trust you. Keep me informed as needed, but go for it.'

"I know what it's like to work for leaders like this and I make sure to pass the same privilege and respect on to everyone on my team."

[ Read also: 10 TED talks to sharpen your communication skills and Top soft skills for IT leaders and how to master them. ]

What is the difference between a CTO and a CIO?

Whether a company has a CIO, a chief technology officer (CTO), or both depends on company culture. Some people hold the CTO title without much difference in responsibility from a CIO. At other firms, the CTO focuses more on external products, especially in technology companies.

Whether a company has a CIO, a chief technology officer (CTO), or both depends on company culture.

For example, Jenny Peng told us about her transition from CIO to CTO at Aptean. "As Aptean's CIO, my customers were internal – our users and business units. In the CTO role, my customers are external. Instead of improving the bottom line (increasing profitability), the focus is on developing strategies to increase the company's top-line revenue," she says.

"Here at Aptean, both CIO and CTO roles are tasked to be technology thought brokers in the enterprise, helping to figure out how to leverage technology to enable the business. The difference with the CTO role is that I am looking to commercialize and monetize technology. In the CIO role, I focused more on optimizing, streamlining, and allowing employees to be more productive with tools to get their job done more quickly and easily."

Sven Gerjets is EVP and chief technology officer at toymaker Mattel. Here's how he describes his role: "Like many tech execs, I was hired to wear multiple hats. When I joined Mattel [in 2017], I was tasked with moving the company into the future by shifting the technology organization into a more strategic function, modernizing our business systems, and figuring out how to utilize tech with toys in a more cost-effective and scalable way."

Bryson Koehler

Bryson Koehler served as chief technology and information officer at The Weather Channel Companies (TWCC) before it was acquired in 2015 by IBM. Today he serves as CTO at Equifax: "At Equifax, one of the most exciting aspects of my job is our work to build a culture that embraces new challenges," he says. "I often view myself as the ‘chief disruption officer' because I think we constantly have to help our teams feel comfortable disrupting themselves, pressurize the culture, change the way we think and the way we interact."

What does a CIO do?

While CIOs used to make their careers on cost-efficient and reliable infrastructure, today they make their careers on revenue-generating ideas. As previously noted, many CIOs play a central role in digital transformation.

Listen to how Equifax's Koehler describes his main job right now: The key word is culture. "Whether you're in the midst of a transformation or operating in daily maintenance mode, culture change is the most difficult part of any technology leader's job. At its core, culture is about the way people think, talk, and interact with each other. If that foundation is not in place for the leadership team and your line-level employees, dysfunction, finger-pointing, perceived bureaucracy, and missed opportunities will creep in.

Technology leadership is different today than it was just five years ago.

"Technology leadership is different today than it was just five years ago. Many technology problems that were priorities in the past have become commoditized, simply consumed services. Because there are less underlying technologies to invent and fewer basic technology problems to solve, our unique value as technology leaders is in how we assemble these services to operate more dynamically and provide better uptime, performance, and responses to our customers' needs.

"Technology leaders of today must balance creating like-mindedness with the ability to promote, debate, and allow different ideas to flourish while also making clear, quick decisions and creating an environment in which everyone supports those ideas as if they were their own," Koehler says.

In other words, today's CIOs are not only sharp analysts on the lookout for business opportunities, but also skilled people motivators.

"Every CIO I know is emphasizing the essential value of leadership, communication, agility, and the other non-technical competencies."

Dan Roberts, CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, argues that those people skills are so critical, in fact, that IT needs to stop calling them soft skills and rebrand them as core skills. "There's nothing soft about soft skills. Every CIO I know is emphasizing the essential value of leadership, communication, agility, and the other non-technical competencies," notes Roberts. "CIOs tell me we must put more emphasis on them because these are the skills that drive IT success."

A CIO's top concerns today often start with security, in partnership with the CSO. (If you want a refresher on the history of the CSO role, check out this one, at The unique story and evolution of the CSO role.)

On the emerging technology front, a top CIO concern is how to apply AI and machine learning in sensible and ethical ways.

Then there's the matter of how to make use of – and protect – ever-growing pools of data. But again, these problems also call on the CIO's people skills. As Jonathan Feldman, CIO of the city of Asheville, NC, notes, when his team opened up data sets to new internal and external customers, the hardest part was the people management challenges. "Data by itself won't be used usefully without data engagement. You need to make relationships – with people in your community, with other partners, and with other departments – before you need them." (Read also: 5 lessons on the people side of data: City of Asheville CIO.)

Who does a CIO report to?

While CIOs and IT leaders traditionally reported up through finance, that has become less common. Many CIOs say a direct reporting relationship to the CEO works best. This is also often a signal to job-hunting CIOs of a progressive organization, recruiters say.

"The top four reporting structures for a CIO are to the CEO, COO, CFO, and – at times – the CAO," says Carol Lynn Thistle, managing director at CIO recruiting firm Heller Search Associates. "The CIO is required to know every aspect of operations in a company, and in order to do that they must be situated correctly on the org chart," Thistle says. "With every company essentially becoming a technology company, the CIO reporting to the CEO makes the most sense, regardless of industry."

A recent study by Deloitte's U.S. CIO Program found that just over half (51 percent) of CIOs in the U.S. were reporting to the chief executive (as were 40 percent of global CIOs overall).

"While the number of CIOs reporting to C-suite executives other than the CEO has been declining through the years, Forrester found that almost half still do. Its Predictions 2020: CIO report went further, suggesting that companies that failed to change their CIO reporting structure to reflect the business-critical nature of the role would struggle to hit their growth targets," as we recently reported.

However, in some cases, a different reporting relationship than CIO/CEO may fit. For more details on the pros and cons of the four reporting structures Thistle mentioned above, read also: CIO role: Who should the CIO report to?

What does a CIO earn? CIO Salary

The average CIO makes $170,726, according to Glassdoor data.

The average CIO makes $170,726 in annual base pay, according to Glassdoor data. (Their estimates are based on salaries submitted anonymously to the site.) Of course, most CIO compensation packages come in much higher than that, including stock, bonuses, and other perks. The average CIO earns additional cash compensation of $38,863 a year, according to Glassdoor's data.

Some CIOs rake in $1 million to $10 million in extras, as points out in its comparison of 25 Fortune 500 CIO pay packages.

How does this compare to other IT salaries? According to the Robert Half Technology 2020 salary guide, which rates top IT jobs by salary for 2020 (ranked by national median salary) big data engineer checks in at number one, at $163,250.

[ Which certifications will advance your IT career, pointing you toward a CIO role? Read also: 7 valuable certifications for IT leaders. ]

Want to become a CIO? Let's explore how to prepare - and look ahead at the future of the CIO role.


How do you become a CIO? CIO career path

Customer experience expertise is important, as is the ability to manage people amid great change and uncertainty.

How do you prepare yourself to earn a CIO role? It's definitely not just about your tech cred anymore: The qualifications and traits that companies want range from communication skills to business acumen to empathy. Customer experience expertise is important, as is the ability to manage people amid great change and uncertainty. You'll also be expected to influence the larger organization.

[ Want to assess and improve your EQ? See our related story: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]

To keep progressing on the CIO career path, look for opportunities on cross-functional teams that will let you demonstrate these skills - and build business knowledge in areas such as supply chain, finance, or marketing. Rotational opportunities to work in other groups can also prove useful.

Work on your personal brand, including a LinkedIn page that tells your story, and seek out speaking opportunities at industry events. You can count on interviewers investigating your ability to speak to audiences ranging from customers to non-technical audiences.

However, tech chops still matter, says Net Health CIO Jason James: "Beyond understanding that having a firm grasp on the business is just as important as the technology, aspiring IT leaders must be strong technologists before taking their first CIO job. Too often, I see people in other C-Suite positions think that they can have a strong business leader with a weak technical background serve as CIO, and simply rely on other tech specialists in the company to fill the knowledge gap.

"If the CIO doesn't have a strong grasp of technology – from IT automation to DevOps to cloud technologies – that person will ultimately struggle in the role," James says.

James took his first effective CIO job back in 2006 at Servigistics, a provider of service lifecycle management software that was acquired by PTC. He started as a network engineer and became vice president of global IT.

John Marcante recommends that an aspiring CIO should practice thinking like a gardener, not a chess master. As he puts it: "Prepare yourself as a 'blended' executive with a passion for the business and technology. It's important to have skills and experiences outside of IT. That said, you have to have a true understanding of technology and what it can enable in your business. Remember you are part of a team that includes senior executives and board members. Build relationships and never put yourself first. The order should be clients, crew, colleagues, community, and then you.

"Gen. Stan McChrystal once said that the temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing," Marcante notes. "A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an 'eyes-on, hands-off' enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates. Another way to think about it is that gardeners don't produce fruit, plants do. Gardeners enable their growth."

While on the CIO career path, you should also prioritize caring for your professional network, advises Deborah Gelch, CIO of Curry College. "If you don't have a robust network of IT professionals with every aspect of the IT skill set, develop that team now. These colleagues will be your future hires, consultants, and vendors," she says. "My best hires and vendors are the ones with whom I have maintained a relationship with for years. Your team and your network of connections are key to your success."

[ Read also: 7 ways to win the CIO role you covet and Is your IT career stalled? 7 tips to get back on track. ]

Does a CIO need a technical degree anymore?

Given the role described above, does the CIO need a technical degree in the digital age?

As we recently reported, "Many IT leaders say the answer is no ­– with some important caveats. CIOs don't need to have an engineering or technology-related diploma, says Larry Bonfante, veteran CIO and founder of executive coaching and consulting practice CIO Bench Coach, but they do need an understanding of what's possible and how to leverage technology."

Melissa Swift, leader of Korn Ferry's Digital Advisory for North America and Global Accounts, points out that businesses such as Cisco, GE, and Petco have appointed top IT leaders from finance, marketing, and supply chain backgrounds – while adding diversity to the ranks - with success.

Consider this data point: 96 percent of technology hiring professionals said that over the past two years it has become more acceptable to hire technology candidates with alternative qualifications, according to a survey conducted by talent management software maker iCIMS. "We're seeing that it's no longer a requirement for CIOs or other tech leaders to have a technology-related degree," says iCIMS CTO Al Smith.

One last point: Today's talent wars practically demand looking at candidates with non-technical degrees, recruiters say. For more on this topic, read also CIO role: Does a CIO need a tech degree anymore?

Chief transformation officers vs. CIOs

In late 2018 and into 2019, a growing number of companies started filling a new C-suite role: the chief transformation officer, as Michael R. Wade, a professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD's Global Center for Digital Business Transformation (DBT) explained to Enterprisers Project.

"Not to be confused with the chief technology officer, the CTO's most common mandate is to harness organizational change to drive new growth," Wade writes. "Both luxury retailer Neiman Marcus and logistics group UPS appointed their first-ever CTOs this past November, with mandates to commercialize new ideas, spearhead growth initiatives, and facilitate change management. Another U.S. retailer, JC Penney, followed in January this year by appointing its first CTO – responsible for developing the company's strategic initiatives as it aims to overhaul its 116-year-old business."

[ Read the full article: Meet the Chief Transformation Officer: 8 key tasks for this new role. ]

Chief digital officers vs. CIOs

Does this spell trouble for the CIO? Not necessarily. Many times, pundits have predicted the fall of the CIO role – for example, as CMOs gained influence and budget, and then more recently with the rise of chief digital officers (CDOs). That fall never came to pass.

The CIO should view the CDO as an ally, not a threat, says longtime IT chief Anil Cheriyan.

Indeed, the CIO should view the CDO as an ally, not a threat, wrote Anil Cheriyan, formerly SunTrust's CIO and currently director/deputy commissioner, technology transformation services for the U.S. Federal Government. "There is a notion believed by some that if a company brings on a chief digital officer it indicates that someone else isn't doing his or her job," notes Cheriyan.

"I wholeheartedly disagree. In fact, I think hiring a dedicated digital leader is in line with the ongoing evolution of what a CIO should be doing. Creating this role is a great way to deepen business alignment and build better experiences for clients." (Read the full article for more about how that relationship worked at SunTrust.)

CIOs may also go on to other C-suite roles, such as COO, and in some cases, CEO. profiled 3 CIOs who did just that. Check out their tips for making the leap to CEO.

How many CIOs are women?

Fewer than one in five CIOs are women, according to recent Korn Ferry research, Korn Ferry digital transformation expert Melissa Swift notes.

Melissa Swift

Swift makes the case that in order to increase that number, companies need to do more than take traditional measures to boost diversity. She recommends several concrete changes: Kill off linear succession, make the CIO role more of a stepping stone to CEO, make more non-technical leaders CIOs, and change the vision of leadership.

"As C-suite roles have increased in strategic importance, organizations have looked to more diverse pools of talent to fill them," Swift writes.

"The CFO role used to be the exclusive province of CPAs; today that job is often done by former strategy consultants. It's time for the CIO role to get the same treatment – and as seemingly every company across industries declares itself a 'tech company,' shouldn't we have more CEOs who have been CIOs? In turn, this means pulling more CIOs into the role from other functional or general management tracks – yielding a greater assortment of women leaders as candidates for the role.

"One might ask, doesn't this yield unqualified candidates as well? Well, Cisco, GE, Harvard University, Caesar's Entertainment, and Petco might beg to differ: These organizations plucked female CIOs from areas as diverse as finance, marketing, and supply chain."

[ Read the full article: Want more female CIOs? Break these 3 rules. Read also: How to develop the next generation of female digital leaders. ]

What is the future of the CIO role?

Reflecting the CIO's expanding digital responsibilities, we have seen an increase in the number of CIOs who have dual titles. For example, Jack Clare serves as chief information and strategy officer for Dunkin' Brands. Similarly, James Swanson serves as SVP/CIO and head of digital transformation for Bayer Crop Science.

Looking ahead, AI, ML, and RPA also look to change the makeup of the IT organization - and the leaders of it - as more work gets automated. Says Dan Roberts: "We know the future of work, for IT teams in particular, will involve artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotic process automation. Every assessment of that future says our roles will become less focused on hard technology and more focused on interpreting data, communicating across teams, and collaborating to understand the challenges our technology should address."

[ Read also: How to explain Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in plain English and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) vs. AI, explained. ]

Bill Mayo

Notes Bill Mayo, CIO, Broad Institute: "We can seize the opportunity offered by a world where agile, public cloud infrastructure, and SaaS solutions have taken so much off IT's plate, and pursue a new level of collaboration with our technologically savvy business partners."

Mayo continues, "For example, we have worked with one major cloud partner to build a comprehensive training plan to allow scientists across the institute to enhance their expertise building scientific pipelines in the cloud. I still have a team that can help with specialized issues, but by collaborating instead of competing for ‘ownership' of technology, we are embracing the technical fluency in the organization and the institute is able to accelerate significantly."

CIOs who have shown early results with digital transformation efforts will continue to be heavily recruited.

Indeed, CIOs who have shown early results with digital transformation efforts (and the related change management skills) will continue to be heavily recruited.

What distinguishes these CIOs?

Stephanie Woerner, research scientist at MIT Sloan's Center for Information Systems Research, has studied which digital transformation paths work and which don't. She says it's imperative to have "great IT and a great CIO."

The winning formula for CIOs right now has four parts, Woerner says. A strategic CIO:

  • Works with the C-suite/executive committee to create a vision for what digital transformation will create
  • Builds digital discipline across the enterprise – not just in IT
  • Relentlessly delivers on operational efficiencies
  • Focuses on customer engagement

IT teams that have this formula down deliver 24 percent higher profitability compared to competitors, MIT-CISR research shows, according to Woerner.

More on CIO role in 2020

Want to learn even more about the CIO role and career path? Consider our resources:

CIO salary: Stats and trends for 2020

CIO role: 9 ways it will evolve in 2020

CIO role: 3 areas to focus on in 2020

CIO role: Do you have what it takes to be CIO? 7 questions

CIO role: How to prepare for your first board-facing CIO job

From CIO to CXO: How to move into a new role

CIO role: 8 tips to get along better with the CFO

5 underappreciated skills for leading digital transformation

7 ways to win the CIO role you covet

20 ways to create a sense of urgency

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

This article was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to include additional information and updated data.

What to read next

Laurianne McLaughlin is Editorial Director, Digital Communities for Red Hat, leading content strategy. Previously, she served as Content Director for The Enterprisers Project, Editor-in-Chief at, and Managing Editor at