Unlocking the Future
In an April 29 conversation moderated by Southern California Public Radio’s Alex Cohen, President Lara Tiedens, along with Heather C. McGhee, president of the public policy organization Demos, and Salle Yoo ’92, general counsel of Uber, explored questions around how women in influence and inspire change in leadership positions. This is an excerpt of their conversation; a full video of their talk can be found at scrippscollege.edu/inauguration.
I thought we could begin from a long time ago, when we were kids. My daughter is just about to turn six years old, and this is about the time that curious grownups start asking, “Well, little girl, what do you want to be when you grow up?” She asked me the other day, “What did you used to answer, Mom?” I always had three standard answers, and I’d love to hear from the three of you in a moment what you thought right around this age, because things change. I wanted to be a monkey trainer. For those of you who are a bit older, the Clint Eastwood film Any Which Way You Can had monkeys and orangutans, and I thought it’d be cool to train them. Or be a professional ice skater or an actress. None of those things really panned out. I’m very pleased to be doing what I’m doing now. I’d love to hear from each of you. When you were a little girl, what did you think you wanted to be when you grew up?
Heather McGhee: When I was little, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I was obsessed with animals. Then I remember I was getting a ride from a teacher after school who said, somewhat cruelly, I thought, “If you’re a veterinarian, most of the time you’ll be overseeing animals dying. You’ll have to put them to sleep.” He was trying to emotionally prepare me for life. I don’t know if it was immediately that I started to turn to different pursuits, but I do remember that conversation very well!
Salle Yoo ’92: Age six was an interesting year for me because it was the year that my family emigrated from Korea. When we got here, our first order of business was getting settled, and then the Asian American dream of being a doctor was pretty quickly imposed upon me by my immigrant parents. I think that I kept that dream until I got to high school and realized I disliked biology.
AC: President Tiedens, how about you?
Lara Tiedens: My parents are here, and I heard them laugh when you asked the question because they know the answer, which is that I wanted to pump gas. I thought those gas machines were very cool. I’m sure this did not match my parents’ aspirations for me, but, to their credit, somehow they found this little jumpsuit, and it had these patches of all the different kinds of gas stations on it, and I wore that thing every day for months. They supported my dream!
AC: That goes to show the importance of parental support! I’d love to hear a little bit from each of you about the arc of your career. How you go from having that dream of being a veterinarian or a doctor or a gas station attendant to doing something totally different?
LT: Very early on I was interested in psychology—interested how people felt about the world, thought about the world, and how that impacted their behavior. Throughout most of grade school and high school, that’s what I oriented myself toward, and then in college I became a psychology major. I was going to go in the clinical direction and tried that through some summer internships, but I realized how hard that work is and didn’t feel I was up to the task of it. But through that I became involved in research, which I fell in love with. Then I applied to graduate school, and I began looking for academic jobs in psychology. I ended up at a business school, which was not the plan, but at that time business schools had become interested in psychology as important to the field of management. I became a faculty member, and I got involved in leadership and administration a bit by happenstance. I was asked at the time whether I was looking to do something new, and I said, “Sure, I’ll try it. I can always go back to the fun stuff of being a faculty member,” and there you have it.
AC: Salle, I feel like you’re in closest proximity to your childhood dream—being a doctor or lawyer fits into that sense of “I’m going to do right in the world, have some success.” What drove your pursuit of a career in law?
SY: I majored in government, which is really about political ideas and how those ideas get expressed in society is largely through laws. There are other ways, of course, but the foundation is laws, so I thought I would like to go into the legal profession. After law school, I worked for a candidate for Congress. Unfortunately, she lost, which meant I had to go get a real job, so I ended up finding a job as a lawyer.
As I’ve met people throughout my life who’ve had interesting careers and interesting lives, they seem to have had a plan, but when you actually talk to them, a lot of them talk about the deviations along the way. That was certainly true for me. After I had entered the profession of law, somewhere along the line I read a study in the American Bar Association journal that said the probability that a minority woman would stay in the 200 largest law firms in the United States after 10 years was zero. So the chance that I, as a minority woman, would make partner was statistically zero.
That’s when a little bit of grit kicked in. I had been getting some indicators, no promises, that maybe I could make it, and I said, “You know what, I’m staying in the process. It’s not fun, but I’m going to try to make partner, try to figure out how to do this, and then teach other women how to do it, so that we can try to change that probability.” I was on this clear path, and then 2012 came along and a confluence of events opened me up to another path.
Very late in the day on a Friday, a new client called in, wanting to sue somebody on Monday. I had two associates—in law firms, you tend to work with very tight teams—one was on her way back from India, and the other had gone to San Diego to deal with a family health issue, so I was on my own. I had two very young stepsons, and their joint birthday party was that weekend. All of the things that we deal with as women, as men—all of the balancing—happened that weekend. And then I had lunch with a friend of mine, an associate who I had stayed in contact with as our careers progressed. She said to me, “Would you ever go in-house?” Until that point I had been committed to this path, to being a partner, figuring out that puzzle, trying to help other women crack that puzzle. But because of all these things, I said, “Perhaps for the right experience.”
Then she opened up her gigantic purse, and she pulled out this listing and put it under my face. As a good Asian woman, I politely looked down and read it, and it was a listing for Uber. And that’s how my path to Uber started. To cut to the decision point: When I had been made an offer for the job at Uber, I sat down with my husband, and we asked each other, “What is the right question?” For me, it was, “What’s the chance that you leave this partnership, the startup tanks, and then you come back and you lose the partnership, the thing that you worked at all your life?”
There’s been this thing that you’ve been committed to your entire life. It’s more than about work. It’s really about a personal commitment to trying to help women advance. How do you drop that and move on to this other thing? Then I sat on it, and I thought, “Actually, I think the question at this point is, ‘When is the next time I’ll be offered the chance to be general counsel of a tech company?’” When I asked myself that question, the decision was clear.
One of the things that I encourage everyone in the audience, and especially young women, to think about is that it’s really important to have a plan, but be flexible. Otherwise, you’re going to miss those opportunities and those moments where you are trying to balance everything. Then, when you come to these decision points, make sure you’re asking yourself the right questions.
AC: When I started college, there was a feeling that I had to pick everything perfectly—every class, every exam. There was a feeling of, “If I don’t have it figured out by 20, then it’s never going to work,” and I feel like that pressure has only increased, especially for women. Heather, tell us a bit about your path and how you wound up doing what you’re doing.
HM: I was born in the first year of the millennial generation, and I think the pressure that you just alluded to was very real. The idea that you just do the right things, go to school, get into debt, and you’ll have a good job and retirement and healthcare and family security taken care of was just out of reach. Now there is a sense that you have to be better than and more competitive than everybody else. I was an ambitious kid, and I was young for my grade. I went to boarding school when I was young, left the south side of Chicago for rural Massachusetts. I went to Yale for undergrad. But I always felt that, no matter what I did, it would be in the field of social justice. It felt very clear to me that so much work was needed in order to keep the world turning in the right direction, and what other thing could you do with these hands that you were given but be a part of that push?
At the same time, the question of how is a very intense, personal one. What do you do that gives you joy, that makes you feel connected, that makes you feel that you are walking through the world with purpose? That can be a very specific lane. That could be managing human resources and getting the best out of your colleagues. That could be communicating on a broad scale. That could be researching and writing. I knew what the general goal was for me—I want to see more democracy, and more justice, and more equality—but how do I do that?
I tried on a lot of different hats. I went to law school, I worked on a political campaign, and I’ve done a lot of media. I’ve done research where I’ve sat at my desk all day and night. I started working at Demos when I was 22, and now I’m the president.
I really loved how you said focus on the questions. I think if we take one thing away from this panel, it should be that. The question I’ve continued to ask is, what is my highest, best use at this time? The answer can be very different as you grow as a person.
AC: In your joy day to day, right now, what are some of the ways in which you feel like the fact that you are a woman makes a difference?
HM: I took over as president from a middle-aged white man when I was 33. The rest of our executive team was women, and we still are. In some ways, we take it for granted. We’ve done less soul searching about what makes our leadership different because we’ve had that echo chamber—of very different women, but still women.
The experience of moving from a very thick black working and middle-class community on the south side of Chicago to a very white rural Massachusetts school when I was 11 years old was probably the most significant experience in shaping my identity. When you grow up in a community that’s very much like you, you don’t think about your identity. It’s just who you are. Having that distance did so much. I got to see myself through the eyes of white families that had never had a black kid in their home, and I got to observe up close what it was like to be a white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
One thing I observed at a time when I was a little too young to have any emotion about it was how my classmates walked through the world with a certain confidence, just assuming that what they said and did would be received well by all the people in authority. It was this sense of entitlement that I didn’t think was bad. I think I adopted that at that early age. I just sort of decided that, as you do when you come into a friend group and you adopt their style, “Oh, well, I’ll just do that. I’ll just raise my hand. I’ll just assume. If I get an A-, I will litigate with the teacher about the fact that it should’ve been an A.” Of course, I am absolutely a woman. Of course, I am absolutely African American, and I’m young in many of the spaces where I am, but I just think it’s important both to think about the things you were born with and the things you adopt along the way.
AC: President Tiedens, what has it been like to be a woman in academia, especially going from a place like Stanford to a place like Scripps?
LT: I went from being on an executive team of eight people at Stanford, where I was either the only woman or one of two, to a team of eight at Scripps where there are two men and the rest of us are women. It was exciting to come here, to be in a setting where what was obvious and natural and normal was the valuing of women’s voices and women’s participation.
There was a moment, though, that really sunk in. I had been at Scripps for two months and was really enjoying being here. I have this majority female team. Also, our board is majority female, and very intentionally so, so this was becoming my new normal. Then a friend of mine from Stanford shared an article that had appeared in the Washington Post. It was by a woman who had worked in the Obama administration talking about how, in the early days of the administration, there weren’t very many women, and at a certain point they realized their voices were not being heard. They had to collectively decide that they were going to support each other and hold up each other’s voices in a particular way. This friend of mine sent this, saying, “We really need to do this at the business school at Stanford. We need to hold each other’s voices up better.” And I had a moment of thinking, “That is absolutely right, but it does not impact my life here one bit because here our voices are already held. Our voices are loud. Our voices are here.” I just had this relief about not having to fight for that.
AC: Salle, I’m curious to hear about your experiences as a woman who is general counsel at Uber. When you wake up in the morning, what’s your mission? What’s your goal?
SY: One of the reasons I hold Scripps so close to my heart is that it helped me set a framework for how I was going to approach my life. I didn’t really understand that back then, but in my 20s, in my 30s, and now in my 40s, the two words that always ring in my head, and that I think are critical to success whether you’re a woman or a man, are the words on Honnold Gate about courage and hope. Courage, because any inflection point where you’re going to grow is going to take a little courage. Hope, because if you don’t have that optimism that something will get better or that you’re working on something that will eventually push through and other people will see it, then you’re going to stop yourself. Those words have really stayed with me, and I hope that they have stayed with each of you and the women who are graduating and will be moving on, because I think that they are really critical to success in corporate America.
I approached my career as a series of small decisions to speak up. The first time you speak up in a meeting, wherever you are, it’s hard. I’m a litigator, and my heart would race in my own firm as I spoke up in a meeting, but the next time I spoke up it got easier. I encourage women to take those small steps.
One of the things I’ve observed is men chew off way more than they’re actually qualified for; women wait until they feel like they’re qualified. What I’ve tried to do in my own life is take off a little bit more.
I knew what my fundamental skills were, but I’ll be honest, there was nothing in my résumé that said I should be the general counsel of a tech company, other than the fact that I was a fairly decent lawyer. You leap, and you’ll grow into it. Then, the next time, you’re ready to leap a little further, and you grow into it. I didn’t start at 21 where I am today. I got there by the small choices that were based on courage and on optimism.
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