In the mid-1970s as a high school student in her native Ireland, Helen Norris had an experience that shaped her worldview and directed her future career. A nun discouraged Chapman University’s Vice President and Chief Information Officer (CIO) from majoring in mathematics.
“I attended a Catholic school and was told that girls didn’t need to study math,” says Norris, who became the first person in her family to attend college. “Consequently, the school didn’t offer higher-level math courses, but I needed that knowledge to study math in college.”
Norris worked around the restriction by teaching herself higher math and taking and passing a matriculation test. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in math from Trinity College in Dublin. Although she didn’t become a math teacher as she’d originally intended, Norris went into another STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career—computer programming.
For more than three decades, Norris, who also earned a master’s degree in Computer Resource Management and Business Administration from Webster University in St. Louis, has served in the information technology field at educational institutions. These include California State University, Sacramento and the University of California, Berkeley. She took on her current position at Chapman in 2014.
Encouraging Female Involvement in STEM
Given her high school experience regarding math, one of Norris’s missions is to ensure that females are encouraged to enter STEM careers.
“Even today in America, I’ve found that girls often aren’t encouraged and are sometimes discouraged from STEM careers,” says Norris, who has mentored a variety of women and volunteered her time to organizations such as Women inechnology International (WITI) and Advancing Women in Technology (AWT).
Norris took her first computer courses while studying at Trinity College. “The courses focused on computer programming,” she says. “I found I had a flair for numerical analysis and writing my own programs.”
After she graduated with her math degree, Norris moved to Frankfurt in 1981 in what was then West Germany. “I worked for the US Army as a computer programmer writing programs to manage supply procurement,” says Norris, who enjoyed living in Frankfurt, which was at the time more cosmopolitan than Dublin.
In 1984, Norris moved to the US and attended Webster University. After graduation, she worked for a time at Wang Laboratories and then as an IT director at an advertising agency. “The ad agency was a demanding group, but it was a fun, fast-paced environment in which to work with a lot of creative people,” she says.
University IT Positions
In 1997, Norris became manager of the computer department at UC Berkeley. “That was my first time working in higher education, and it proved a great fit,” she says. “I really care about the mission of higher education, so I felt lucky to be doing interesting work in technology while also supporting a mission I believe in.”
Norris left Berkeley in 2009 to work as Deputy CIO at Sacramento State. “That was a great opportunity,” she says. “I brought my university experience with me, yet at the same time, they are very different student populations. While Berkeley focuses on research, Sacramento State focuses only on teaching.”
By 2014, Norris knew she wished to be a CIO in the university environment, so she interviewed for the position at Chapman when approached by a recruiter. “I felt ready for the position, and I had more flexibility, because my youngest daughter had just graduated from high school,” says Norris, who has two daughters and is married to Gordon Adams.
During the interview and hiring process, she was impressed with everything she saw at Chapman. “The entrepreneurial culture seemed to be a great fit for me,” says Norris, who oversees all the university’s technology and has made many improvements to the system since taking over.
“Before Helen’s arrival, we had a fairly unsophisticated office for information technology,” says Chapman’s University’s President Daniele Struppa. “Helen professionalized the entire sector, with special attention to IT security. Under Helen’s leadership, we’ve greatly strengthened our firewalls and have continuous testing of our defense capabilities. Helen has also professionalized and greatly improved our internal customer service.”
Struppa is equally pleased to have Norris as a member of his Senior Cabinet. “Helen is truly a university leader—not just a leader in her area,” he says. “Her decisions are always made with the good of the entire university in mind. She is extremely calm, even under pressure, and has developed a positive rapport with the other members of the Cabinet.”
He also appreciates her honesty. “Helen is able to graciously present me views different from my own. This allows me to identify my blind spots,” he says. “The danger for people in positions of leadership like myself is to be told only what they want to hear. Helen has the rare ability to present me with different viewpoints in a constructive and productive fashion.”
Lauri Mantooth is Assistant Vice President, Enterprise Applications and Projects Information Systems & Technology at Chapman University and considers Norris a mentor.
“From the day I began working with Helen when she joined Chapman, I have watched her turn the reputation of Chapman’s IS&T department into a center of excellence,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot watching Helen handle herself with confidence and grace. As a result, my confidence and leadership skills have grown,and I’ve improved as a person. What I admire the most about Helen is her dedication to encouraging women in technology.”
To Norris, encouraging women to take on STEM careers is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. “I believe having a diverse team in any business produces better results by bringing in different perspectives,” she says. “Additionally, some stats show a talent gap on the tech side, so having more women enter the field will help this. From a macro perspective, these are well-paying jobs. It’s important for women to be able to support themselves. Tech offers the opportunity to be highly compensated.”
Teaching Financial Responsibility
Spreading financial know-how is another area where Norris donates her time and energy. She serves on the board of the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE). This nonprofit organization is dedicated to empowering and inspiring solid financial decision-making amongst individuals and families.
“The goal is to prevent people from falling into debt,” she says. “We teach, for instance, what it means to take out a payday loan and how much a person will end up paying for doing so.”
According to NEFE’s president, Billy Hensley, Norris has made a tremendous impact on the organization as a board member.
“Helen’s interest in the underlying issues of financial illiteracy drives her commitment,” he says. “Her obligation to fairness is particularly noteworthy. She strives to give voice to the underserved in our field by ensuring we consider multiple viewpoints before articulating vision or strategy. She’s also been a great source as we build our web and technology strategy. I truly think Helen is part Wonder Woman. She gets more done in one workday than most of us accomplish in three. Her ambition and intelligence are all underpinned by her kind and thoughtful demeanor.”