Perry Hewitt, One of the Few Female Chief Digital Officers? One of the Few, Period.

Originally posted to Forbes.

In recent interviews, we’ve talked about the lack of women in the technology world, but we haven’t yet touched on the need for more women in leadership roles in academia. In 2009 The White House Project found that women hold just 23% of the leadership roles in academia, this despite the fact that for over a decade women have outnumbered men in college enrollment. My interview today focuses on an individual who is making waves in both pools: tech and academia.

Photo credit: Rose Lincoln, Harvard Staff Photographer

Perry Hewitt is part of the small but impressive club of female Chief Digital Officers (other members include Rachel Sterne and Angela Wei). You may not be familiar with the title of CDO: it’s a relatively new role created to help organizations navigate the world of digital media. Given the complexity of the job, and the whole tool box of skills it requires, it’s a safe bet that anyone carrying around the title is uniquely talented. And if you’re the CDO of Harvard University? There are few higher and more challenging posts out there for a digital strategist.

What’s more, Perry is an incredibly accomplished individual — and one whom I’ve come to look to for modeling JESS3 given her roles at a disruptive agency (Razorfish), a data-driven startup (Crimson Hexagon) and now one of the world’s leading universities (Harvard).

Since joining Harvard nearly three years ago, she has played a key role in some monumental changes at this prestigious school. She oversaw the recent redesign of Harvard’s website, which earned the school an Interactive Media Award—with a perfect score, no less! She has also helped to develop Harvard-related images for alumni and fans on Facebook—of which there are more than one million—to use with the new Timeline layout.

Helping a nearly 400-year-old institution create and maintain an impressive social media presence is no easy task. Not to mention establishing the new role of CDO within the organization. Let’s hear more on this from her…

LB: In a discussion on social media at Harvard, you spoke about the effects of social media on story-telling. How are you and your team telling the story of Harvard? What are you wanting to tell, but haven’t found the right way yet?

PH: Our belief is that individual voices can resonate more than institutional ones — even and perhaps especially for organizations with global reach. Social is an ideal way to share these individual voices, and we use platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube EDU to “show, don’t tell.” From a content perspective, we’re doing much more multimedia with projects like Harvard Stories to surface individual experiences of the University. This year, for the first time, President’s Faust’s opening message to the University was delivered as a video — and elicited a lot of positive response, especially from students. Our belief is that social stories allow us to shift the balance from only heavily curated narratives of Harvard to a plethora of personal ones. We do try to “shape” stories by organizing them into categories that we think are important to emphasize. But beyond that, we’re applying good cooking advice: fresh and diverse ingredients, minimal processing.

In terms of where we’d like to go, there’s certainly room for growth around event-based social stories. University-wide events like commencement are fertile ground for social content in a world where everyone is independently creating media around shared experiences.

LB: In the same interview, you discuss the concept of “writing yourself into being.” Can you talk about this process and how you use it in shaping Harvard’s online presence?

PH: The concept of “writing yourself into being” comes from Danah Boyd‘s compelling work on teens and social networks; how teens use public social personae in part to shape who they are or may become. Harvard, like many institutions, had an opportunity to use social tools to surface information from across this large and busy university to tell its story. Rather than funnel through a central communications office in an effort to control all University-wide social content, we chose an approach of aggregating content, syndicating it out through owned channels like our social dashboard or outposts like Twitter and YouTube, and reaping the benefits of amplification.

LB: Can you speak a little bit about how have you navigated Harvard’s nearly 400-year legacy to incorporate social media in its communications and engagement strategies?

PH: Well, frankly it helped that the legacy was in offline and analog channels. Our digital presences were largely a reflection of their analog corollaries just a few years back, and presented an opportunity for us take advantage of the digital-first and social-fueled approaches. At the same time, we of course had and have many faculty, students, and alumni far ahead in these new competencies, so it wasn’t a question of whether we would go there, but how. We benefited from forward-thinking communications approaches from leadership like Christine Heenan that supported experimentation, and research from leaders at places like the Berkman Center. There’s also tremendous advantage conferred by that legacy: 375 years of content. From Harvard’s substantial archive to groundbreaking faculty research, there is a treasure trove of knowledge and ideas to feature and drive engagement through digital, mobile, and social channels.

LB: As the Chief Digital Officer of Harvard, you sit at the table in a position few women hold. Other than you and New York City’s Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne, what other women do you know of that hold the CDO title? What is needed to have more women fill these types of roles?

PH: CDO is a new role with not many people in it, period. The position requires a balance of traditional marketing communications skills and technical experience, and presents a tremendous opportunity for women who are marketing communications leaders with a digital bent. I’ve been fortunate in my prior roles to work with some incredible software engineers, from whom I’ve learned a great deal. I’d strongly recommend that there’s no substitute for hands-on experience in building that balance—it’s a knowledge mix you get in the trenches, not from a lateral move in the C-Suite.

LB: There is a lot of talk about the dearth of women in technology — whether it be through the White House’s recent focus on getting more women and girls in STEM fields or through various discussions and conflicts in the conference, start-up, funding and founder circuit. What do you make of all of it?

PH: It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in technology. In part, it’s a matter of time and mentoring, just as it’s been in lots of other fields. Mentors are invaluable for setting a career on course—and for periodic course correction. Women also have both an opportunity and and obligation to “get under the hood” with any technology they manage—whether that involves problem sets, requirements documents, or personal social accounts. That hands-on experience engenders confidence — and the ability to discern where digital can impart real value rather than be technology for technology’s sake. At Harvard there are many women in leadership roles from President Faust to deans to faculty, and that’s advanced opportunities for others by showing what’s possible.

LB: You’ve worked in the agency world (Razorfish), then you went to a startup (Crimson Hexagon) and now you are in academia at one of the premiere universities in the world (Harvard). How and why did you make the career moves that you did?

PH: I’ve been very fortunate in the opportunities I’ve had, which have enabled me to work with forward-thinking professional services teams, groundbreaking algorithms, and now to be at a world-class university steeped in innovation and tradition. Maintaining a balance of client-side and vendor side experience has been critical—it affords a far deeper understanding of challenges faced on both sides of the table. I’ve tried to always be challenging myself and learning—and most importantly, to do good work with good people. John Lilly from Greylock had a great blog post that summarized this career thread perfectly: “Figure out the people around you that you want to work with for the rest of your life. Figure out the people who are smart & awesome, who share your values, who get things done—and maybe most important, who you like to be with and who you want to help win. And treat them right, always.”

More About Perry:

Name: Perry Hewitt

Online at: @PerryHewitt and

Current City: Boston, MA

Employer & Job Title: Chief Digital Officer for Harvard University

Educational Background: A.B. from Harvard University in Russian and Soviet Studies

Previous Work Experience: VP of Marketing at Crimson Hexagon, Principal at Colechurch Consulting LLC, VP of marketing Razorfish, Company Director of Marketing at ArsDigita, Editor-in-Chief and Director of UX at Harcourt Online, Editor-in-Chief of for Lotus Development and Senior Editor at Pearsons, Editorial at Houghton Mifflin.

Disclosure: My company and I are honored to not only call Perry and Harvard friends, but also clients.

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