'Smart girls always have options'

Tammara Combs walked into her dissertation defense at the iSchool with a 2-year-old in wet diapers and a patient 4-year-old who, at meeting’s end, walked up to Combs’ adviser and said “Thank you for helping my Mom save people.” The boy extended his hand for a gentlemanly shake.

The year was 2008, and Combs, a lifelong math lover, had beaten all the odds in earning her Ph.D. She was a single mother, recently divorced, and a minority working full-time at Microsoft, where she was a rising star, mining and crunching data on newsgroups and their conversation threads. In her spare time, she led a professional development group for blacks on the Microsoft campus.

Her hours were long, her time short, and her rigorous iSchool doctoral work required keen focus. She wouldn’t have made it, she says, without the support of her friends, her family, and the iSchool’s strong community. The faculty mentored her, advised her, even babysat for her when she went to class. “The people at the iSchool were my lifeline,” says Combs.

She thrived in the close-knit culture. “The professors were so open to treating us like colleagues from day one that nobody was Dr. anything – they all went by first names. They made us treat one another as if we were longtime friends. There was such a level of respect, a building out of a culture of trust and interdependence. I had never seen this in a department before.”

iSchool associate professor Joseph Janes, one of her doctoral advisers, describes Combs as a diligent and focused student rising to multiple demands. “Ph.D. programs are hard enough on their own; when combined with other responsibilities they get even more challenging, and only the people who truly dig in and do what needs doing make it through to the end.”

Today, her boys are 9 and 11, and Combs is a successful 40-year-old tech entrepreneur, named one of Savoy Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential Blacks in Corporate America in 2010.

That’s the year she founded and became C.E.O. of a boutique marketing technology firm called Serendipity Interactive. The five-year-old global company, with six employees and a dozen contractors, specializes in operations planning, web development, and strategies for business expansion. “We map digital strategies onto clients’ business strategies to show them what they need to do to grow,” explains Combs. 

She also works as interim C.E.O. for other tech firms, stepping into the leadership role and “keeping the wheels on the bus” until a permanent replacement is found. “It’s very demanding work,” says Combs, who is also a highly respected blogger, Tweeter, and inventor. Her long list of innovations includes an image browser for Eastman Kodak, patented in 2002.

Giving back is essential to this hard-working Renaissance woman, who has volunteered for everything from coaching recovering drug addicts to counseling families dealing with HIV. At any time, she mentors up to a dozen women trying to improve their lives. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for my mentors. I had mentors for work for school, for life, in church,” she says. “I could not in good conscience, keep moving forward without giving back the same way others have supported me in my life.”

Combs’ interest in technology took off in junior high school, when a teacher asked who wanted to practice writing code. The teacher had an Apple2 computer. “It was kind of funky, like a typewriter with a TV attached,” she says. “I picked up a book on Basic, and taught myself.”

In high school, she was asked to pick an area of study. “I saw this new thing on the paper that said computer science. I asked all our mentors, what is computer science? Nobody knew.”

She signed on, taking “the path less chosen.” Seven years later, she had both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer science. She was often one of the only women in her advanced classes. “At times it was a lonely path. I’m not only a woman, but a woman of color, and when people started huddling in familiar clusters, I was always on the outside.”

She was studying for a Ph.D. in computer science when she heard about the UW’s iSchool. “I had been asking myself, what about these humans who are going to be dealing with all these computers? The iSchool had this brilliant program that pulled it all together – the people, the systems, the technology.”

She’s never looked back. “At the iSchool, I began to understand science and theory – why the knowledge I had needed to be situated in context if it was to make any sense.”

As for diversity at the iSchool? “There had to be an openness and acceptance of diversity, because I never even thought about being diverse when I was there.”

That’s a strong statement from someone sharply aware of racial and gender imbalances in tech fields.  Last year’s reports from Silicon Valley showing extremely low numbers of women, blacks, and Hispanics at big tech firms were no surprise to Combs. “I was thinking, really? After all this time you’re offering the excuse that you can’t find diverse people? I am going to find them and bring them to your doorstep. We exist, I’m here, and I know others.”

To that end, she has put together a high-power workgroup that will connect diverse small companies and individuals to major tech firms like Google, which disclosed last year that, in the U.S., only two percent of its workers were black and three percent were Hispanic.

That makes for a limited conversation. “When you bring together people with diverse thoughts, you get significantly different outcomes,” says Combs.

Seven years after writing her iSchool dissertation on online discussion groups, Combs has settled in a small rural town 30 miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina, with her two boys. Her office is on the town’s Main Street.

She regularly talks with young girls in the region about science, math, and sheer determination. “I tell them that, regardless of race, the smart girls always have options. I tell them, be the one who is going to study the hardest, show up the longest, and be the smartest.”