Not Your Typical Diversity Event: Actions Shout, Words Whisper

by Jennifer Tejada September 28, 2017 | 8 min read

A night for Diversity and Leadership

Sisterhood in Silicon Valley is alive and well. On September 5, we gathered leading innovators, CEOs and founders in Silicon Valley’s tech industry to encourage inclusivity and diverse thinking. We were fortunate to have some of the most talented women leaders in tech who were willing to share their thoughtful insights, personal journeys, and lessons learned along the way.

The Panelists

  • Alvina Antar, CIO Zuora
  • Merline Saintil, Head of Ops, Product & Technology, Intuit
  • Pamela Rice, Head of Technology & Innovation Labs Engineering, Capital One
  • Sheila Jordan, CIO of Symantec
  • Yvonne Wassenaar, CEO of Airware

While many organizations strive to improve diversity, many have not yet figured out how to make the environment inclusive in which all people feel valued and respected and have access to the same opportunities. This event, attended by executives, customers, investors, and community leaders put a dent in the diversity barriers by starting change at the top.

The event centered around connecting female senior executives with male leaders to discuss positive and constructive ways to influence, encourage and execute on diversity and inclusion at all levels. With an open mindset, we challenged each other to walk away with new ideas that can be implemented across organizations and networks.

The Highlights

“I’m often the only woman or person of color in the room, and I never give anyone the power to tell me where I belong.”

Merline Saintil, Head of Ops, Product & Technology, Intuit

Merline is passionate about advocacy for helping women from girls all the way to the boardroom. As leaders she believes that, “It is just our responsibility!” and credits her success today to the many people that invested in her along the way. No matter what life brings, she never forgets how she got there and gives back as much as she can. Recently, Merline was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by Girls in Tech for being a role model who takes time to send the elevator back down. “If I can make a difference in one person’s life, it is all worth it.” The advice she gives to women and minorities facing adversity in the boardroom and beyond is, “Don’t wait to be invited. Show up, own it and make it known why you are there. Never let anyone have the power to tell you where you belong.”

“It’s not about excuses. #Noexcuse”

— Pamela Rice, Head of Technology & Innovation Labs Engineering, Capital One

Pamela Rice, Head of Technology & Innovation Labs Engineering, Capital One, spoke to how self-belief is the foundation to both building an organization and succeeding in your personal journey. She underscored the importance for organizations to uphold their grounding truth regardless of where the company needs to go. For her, it was building a foundation of inclusion and diversity, and not just on paper, but how the company operationalizes it, makes it a part of our common language and how we talk to each other every day. In the common everyday meetings and conversations, are we checking ourselves at the door? Are we supporting diversity in the hiring process, in the opportunity process and even in the early conversation process? Pamela did not take what she sees as “the traditional route.” She had her son, and when she stepped back into her career and getting her degrees, she felt like she was far behind. She said she heard a lot of voices telling her, “You can’t do this. You can’t do that, But it was then that I asked myself who made these rules anyway and told myself, Oh hell, c’mon on, let’s just go for it!”

“Trust, educate, act. Change starts with you. #BeEmpowered”

— Yvonne Wassenaar, CEO of Airware

Yvonne Wassenaar, CEO of Airware shared she has found people with the best of intentions can say or do things that are biased and/or exclusive. She recommends in these situations, to start from a position of trust that this was not the person’s intent. Take the opportunity to educate them (in a nice way) as to why the action is perceived as biased or exclusive by you. If the person is open to the discussion you are collectively making the world a more inclusive place. If the person is not open to the discussion, keep an eye open to see if this is a one-time action or a pattern and act accordingly. If this bad behavior is a pattern, you are likely best off finding a better place to thrive or call in reinforcements for change. Another important lesson that came from Yvonne was to ensure you have sponsorship defined as powerful people who can fight for you in the decision-making rooms you are not in. After 10 years at Accenture Yvonne had checked all the boxes and was expecting to be promoted to Partner at her firm. She was shocked when she didn’t make it. Why? Turns out while she was qualified, there were a limited number of spots and no one in the room was advocating that in a tight race she should be the winner. Yvonne had a lot of mentors who had helped her do her job well but no sponsors at the next few levels up who were able going to fight hard to promote her. Her advice? “Recognize there are only so many top jobs. Not every qualified person is going to get one. Get out there and get yourself to be known in the broader power circle in your company and industry. Hard work without strong sponsorship will only get you so far.”

Millennials are gender blind. We need to learn from them.”

Sheila Jordan, CIO of Symantec

Making an impact on someone’s career and life by being a mentor or sponsor is rewarding, but one of the biggest issues to tackle in this industry and around the world is changing the mindset and culture of behemoth companies. And there is actually research supporting the fact that gender parity and diversity deliver results, produce better revenue, more profits. But the challenge is often times making it a priority because there are always so many other demands that seem more urgent and in your face. And no one has better experience at supporting this type of inclusive cultural shift than Sheila Jordan the CIO of Symantec.

She came into Symantec to insource IT, but she learned so much more. The company underwent a massive change and was faced cultural disparity across 85 countries. In efforts to help close the cultural and gender gap and unite women within the company, Sheila became the golden sponsor of SWAN, the Symantec Women’s Action Network, which plays an integral role for women at Symantec by building cultural awareness and providing opportunities to serve as cultural community ambassadors, mentor females in cybersecurity, volunteer and advocate on issues. She aimed to build the network to support, connect and provide a sense of consistency amongst all the change. She said they still have a long way to go, but it really has been a stabilizing effort for women across the company. Sheila’s advice is in the current culture of rapid change in Silicon Valley is to continue to pay it forward, being that example and stay anchored on the things you care about.

#YouCANHaveItAll. I have three young children and yes, you CAN have it all.”

Alvina Antar, CIO Zuora

While big companies are taking strides to make change, younger, fast-growth companies are not immune. It is critical for younger companies to take conscious steps to make diversity and inclusivity core to the company’s foundation. Alvina Antar, the CIO of Zuora knows this well and is championing Zuora’s Z-Women initiatives and hosts inspirational diversity panels at Zuora’s Subscribed conferences. She described her reason for joining Zuora driven by her passion for the technology and vision for enabling business transformation. She described that her recruiting strategy “is not just about hiring X number of females, it should be truly organic. It should be about finding the best candidate. The way you attract the best talent is by having people driven by a shared passion for technology with an incredible culture. You can’t define culture by words, but by stories. Zuora’s ZEO culture is defined by stories that showcase empowered individuals and teams creating great impact. People want to work at a company that is inspired by a shared vision and that celebrated self-empowerment.”

Perhaps the best surprise from the event was saved for last: The San Francisco Gay Men Chorus. Their presence lifted the spirits of those in the room. The chorus was on their Lavender Pen Tour around the country to sing and inspire activism, compassion and to foster unity in the LGBT community and beyond. They are a beautiful testament to a group of people having the courage to take action, raise awareness and support others.