Women’s Forum Singapore 2018: STEM’s Minority Report with Yolanda Conyers
Yolanda Conyers is a trailblazer in many regards. She was the first in her family to receive an undergraduate (B.S. Computer Science) and a Master’s degree (International Business). She’s also the first African-American female engineer to be hired by Dell, as well as the first African-American Vice-President at Lenovo, where she is currently its first Chief Diversity Officer, playing an integral role in helping the Chinese firm embrace a wider, global market and workplace.
As one of the few visible female and minority executive figures in the STEM field, her outstanding example means a great deal in inspiring traditionally underrepresented groups (non-white and/or non-cisgendered male) to train, learn and work in the increasingly competitive and in-demand fields of technology and STEM culture.
Yolanda will be part of a panel discussing practices to improve STEM career opportunities for women in Asia, as well as the intrinsic benefits of having them as part of the design and development of new digital tools and technologies. We speak with her ahead of the Women’s Forum Singapore, to find out a little more about her thoughts and experience in the business of STEM and breaking down gender, racial and cultural barriers at work.
HNW: You were part of the successful effort to transform Lenovo from a Chinese heritage company into an international brand. What are your greatest learning points in navigating and corralling cross-cultural differences in the workplace?
Yolanda Conyers: Part of the process of transforming the global cultures of our workplace involved a fellow HR colleague, Gina Qiao and myself, fully immersing ourselves within each other’s culture in order to better understand Eastern and Western styles and practices. Gina came to live in the U.S. while I relocated to Beijing for three years, in order to help facilitate the merging of the people and business processes.
I think that really summarizes the biggest overall lesson in this journey, which is that you have to take the time to learn from each other’s background and history. Information provides the ‘why’ behind behaviours, and knowing and understanding the ‘why’ helps circumvent assumptions and negative impressions. This led us to co-author a book together called “The Lenovo Way” that details the steps we took and the lessons we learned along the way.
You have a degree in Computer Science. What first determined your interest in the subject?
It started in high school where I had a really great mentor in my math teacher, Mr. Lee who recognized my aptitude for math, and encouraged me to pursue further education in math & science. I followed his recommendation to take an “Intro to Computer Science” class, and I loved it. It really helped form a foundation of problem-solving and analytical thinking skills.
Why did you choose to enter HR, instead of continuing work in the active field of technology?
When Lenovo approached me with an opportunity to help facilitate the integration of Eastern and Western cultures and business processes, it really appeared to me as an opportunity to continue applying the same critical, analytical process management skillsets that I enjoyed in my technology roles, together with my background in engineering and business, as well as my passion for Diversity and Inclusion. This was especially at an incredible time when Lenovo was expanding onto the global technology stage outside of China for the first time.
As an African American woman in engineering, I was often the only female and only black person in the room, so this is a very personal subject for me. Having the responsibility as a global VP of HR to own strategy and execution for critical functions across various organizations throughout the company, has allowed me to infuse Diversity and Inclusion principles into all areas of the business.
How essential was your STEM degree in determining your success today?
The complex, analytical problem-solving skillsets that I learned through STEM education are transferrable across many disciplines, including where I’m at today in HR. My strengths are in bringing a variety of people together to solve complex business problems, and I’ve leveraged my engineering skills and ability to connect and work with diverse people to drive business results.
What is the ideal skillset the average worker should develop to do well in the next two decades?
An increase in STEM knowledge and technical skills among the generations to come is a must-have, as we become increasingly dependent on technology to maintain a way of life, especially given the rise of A.I. and 5G in our mobile and smart devices that we all use daily, in professional and private lives. Those that lack access to the latest technology will fall behind as services, commerce, education, and civic engagement increasingly move to AI and smart platforms.
It’s also important to possess skills like an increased awareness of global perspective. As technology continues to strengthen connections between individuals around the world, I believe our workforce will become increasingly more global—even more so than it is today—and having an awareness of the different contributions that will bring to the table, will be beneficial.
I would also encourage future generations to develop a strong sense of strategic agility and judgment, and demonstrate a willingness to explore different paths to achieve outcomes. With greater connections and increasingly diversified worldviews, it’s going to be imperative that we learn to accept different viewpoints and methods for achieving business goals.
Does equality necessarily mean fairness? What is your reply to those questioning having a gendered/minority perspective in hiring or policy-making?
Creating a sense of equity in our communities is important. People want to feel like they have the same opportunities to realise their hopes & dreams. Part of this is having access to the same resources, allowing them to be connected to the world around them.
The difference between equality and equity can be looked at as follows: Think about men and women’s bathrooms at an event. Does it make more sense to have an equal number of bathrooms, or an equitable number of bathrooms (one that allows people to be in the line for the same amount of time)? We all experience the world differently, so it’s important to apply a unique lens to each situation.
Gender, race, socio-economic backgrounds are some of the many factors affecting and determining existing wage gaps. What HR practices can be adopted by companies to ensure wider equity?
It’s important to ensure equal opportunities for growth and advancement within the company. For example, at Lenovo we sponsor two programmes: our Women’s Leadership Development Programme (WLDP), and the Mosaic Leadership Development Programme (MLDP), which offer opportunities for high-potential employees just below executive-level to cultivate their leadership skills and enhance their personal brand.
The programs are open to individuals from historically underrepresented groups, with WLDP representing females, and MLDP, or ‘Mosaic’, representing men and women of African-American and Hispanic heritage, as well as military veterans, individuals with disability, and employees who identify as LGBTQ.
Another principal mechanism we utilize for fostering a more inclusive culture is the Employee Resource Group (ERG), which plays an instrumental role in advancing our goal where all employees recognise that Lenovo is a welcoming place where all can belong. These groups provide career development workshops, networking opportunities and an overall share of best practices and business insights for our women in business, working moms, and Hispanic and African-American employees.
Are family and career necessarily a dichotomous choice for a modern, urban individual? Where lies the balance for you, personally?
I think many can relate to feeling the pressure to make a choice between family and career—I know I’ve felt it myself, personally.
After 15 years of climbing the corporate ladder, I took a sabbatical after a difficult pregnancy with my youngest son, as I knew he would be my last child and I wanted to spend more time with family. I didn’t know how long I would be away, and being one of the few female African-American leaders who achieved executive ranks at my company, fear crept into my mind about whether I would ever be able to return, or if I would get left behind. I was able to continue to maintain and invest in my network during my leave, and that eventually led me to the offer at Lenovo.
I believe that technology really enables us to bridge the divide between personal and professional more than we’ve ever been able to previously, and enabling companies to adopt practices and policies that provide a better work-life.
It’s important to note that this isn’t just a women’s issue: men and women alike want more flexibility to support personal interests like family. Enabling this kind of autonomy for employees is a competitive advantage too as flexibility in their work life is attractive for future talent.
In the course of your career, do you recall moments when you most felt the negative impacts of a gender divide? How did you navigate the situation, if so?
Early in my career, I applied for financial sponsorship from my company to enrol in an MBA program, and while my direct manager approved the application, the next-level decision-making executive denied my request. I met with him to discuss and understand his reasons, but other than the fact that it was final, he couldn’t explain his decision.
I was young and early on in my career, so rather than fight the decision, I waited. Eventually, management changed and my second application was accepted and approved. There wasn’t much I could do about the defeat that I faced, in my position then. But I learned to persevere in what I wanted to achieve.
Have you personally ever felt pressure to alter your behaviour or appearance as a woman or minority, in order to be perceived as a more credible candidate, professionally? What do you understand of such an experience?
At times in my career, I’ve felt like a “Hidden Figure”. Navigating high tech corporations as an African-American female hasn’t always been easy, and at times it was very isolating to be the only person of my kind in the room, speaking up but not really being heard, and being left out of key discussions.
But I was taught from a young age by my father to embrace unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable situations to grow. I never gave up despite these challenges, and learned that resilience and tenacity can break through even the toughest of barriers.
I also learned the importance of finding and connecting with supportive leadership and sponsors, who recognize your potential. I’ve pushed through many barriers in the work place over the years, and today as a senior executive, I don’t have to force my way into conversations; in fact, I’m sought out for my opinions or perspectives. It feels great to be valued and to have a sense of belonging. This is what employees who are “hidden figures” long for, and so I work with others to ensure a strong culture of inclusion that enables our employees to bring their entire selves, ideas, experiences and talents to Lenovo.
As someone who transcends potential barriers in gender, race and nationality in the workplace and more, what are your thoughts and advice on challenging the status quo?
In order to change the status quo, you have to continually and actively challenge it, even though it’s certainly not a comfortable process. Growth and change are often uncomfortable.
Personally, I think there’s a lot you can do as an individual to start the wave of change. You can be more vocal and transparent about your experiences and shed light on behaviors and processes that need to change. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Plug in to resources that support and advance the discussion on tearing down the barriers that still exist for genders, races and nationalities. And if there aren’t any committees or organizations within your company, reach out to others who support the cause and band together to advocate for change.
I’m also a big proponent of giving back. Having supportive leaders and mentors in my life was integral to my success, and I make sure I do my part to pay it forward and offer my time and support to mentor others.
What is the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?
I think one of my greatest risks was taken early on, when I accepted my internship with Texas Instruments and dared to put myself in an unfamiliar situation. Accepting that internship meant moving alone, from my small town of Port Arthur to Austin, Texas, a city of nearly a half-million citizens, and five hours from my family.
Taking that risk set off a ripple effect of being open and willing to take risks in other situations, like moving my family to Beijing when I joined Lenovo. These risks have opened opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and taught me that sometimes in order to grow, we have to take chances and step outside of our comfort zone.