Thursday, Nov. 10, 2005
Minority Women Who Make a Difference in the Workplace
Nine who take on stereotypes to better the corporate world
NAME: Noni Allwood
TITLE: Director of gender diversity
Dealing With "Microinequities"
Allwood had an unusual role model in her own mother, who she says was the first woman
doctor in El Salvador (her surname comes from an English grandfather). Allwood, too, would
blaze a trail by becoming among the few women to major in engineering at the national
university. When she raised her hand in class, a professor would tell her to go home and wash
dishes. Newly divorced and toting a toddler, Allwood took an IT job in the U.S., where she says
her accent, ethnicity and gender—even her complexion—proved major roadblocks.
"Customers would say, 'I don't understand your English—let me talk to Eric,'" she says. "None
of my competence counted because of who I was. If I were a blonde-haired, blue-eyed
Hispanic, though, I wonder how things would have been different."
Minority women in male-saturated professions like technology report frequent instances of
subtle discrimination. "Microinequities" is what Allwood calls the small slights and blithe biases
that alienate women like her: the inside jokes, the averted eyes, the overlooked suggestions.
"They're the very small things that can make a person feel included or excluded in the work
environment," she says. She retaliated by overcompensating, taking on ever bigger tasks,
traveling, working day and night, until she ran the company's worldwide systems programs.
Today she tries to change the equation by working on a program to introduce underprivileged
girls to IT as Cisco's director of global gender diversity.
"We don't have a lot of role models in the workplace," says Allwood, "people we can point to
when we're 20 and say, hey, I can be like that. It's a challenge."
—Lisa Takeuchi Cullen
NAME: Sheryl Battles
COMPANY: Pitney Bowes
TITLE: Vice president of corporate communications
African-American Women Executives Stay Deeply Involved In Sororities
Like many minority women who have fought their way to the upper ranks of corporate
management, Battles is the product of a fiercely education-minded mother. But her mother,
who worked as a teacher and a librarian, was just as passionate about community service. As
a member of the sorority Delta Sigma Theta, she gave back all her life—and counseled her
daughter from an early age to do so, too.
Black sororities differ from their white counterparts by emphasizing community service above
all, says members, and by expecting participation to continue, if not grow, after leaving
college. As a communications officer for mail and document company Pitney Bowes, Battles
often pulls long hours. Still she spends up to 30 more hours a month on Delta activities.
"Delta Sigma Theta is a part of the way that I give back to the community," she says. "But I
have found ways to serve the community through other organizations as well. For me, its all
about trying to keep the doors of opportunity open that so many before me, made it possible
for me to walk through, and to open new doors of opportunity for my daughter's generation
and those to follow."
Minority women feel uncomfortable bringing up their community service to employers, sensing
tacit disapproval and persisting stereotypes. But Battles says Pitney Bowes not only knows
about her sorority participation but lauds it. The company even sponsored a college
scholarship fund of a local Delta chapter. "We are raising our profile in the diverse
community," says Battles.
—Lisa Takeuchi Cullen
NAME: Irish Brown
COMPANY: Lehman Brothers
TITLE: Senior vice president of diversity lateral recruiting
Bringing Diversity to Wall Street
Irish Brown has had a charmed career. Propelled by education-focused parents and an MBA
from Columbia University, she moved smoothly from Wall Street to Washington to corporate
finance. Though she succeeded as an investment banker specializing in high-yield capital
markets, Irish Brown, whose four grandparents emigrated from the Caribbean, noticed few
faces like hers in the workplace. On Wall Street, "diversity has been an issue for a long time
not just for people of color but women as well," she says. "Being a woman of color, you notice
it from both angles."
It was when she took a job heading up business development at a minority-owned media
company that she realized diversity in the workplace made a difference. Irish Brown, who was
parenting her fiance's son, felt comfortable sharing her family situation with coworkers—
comfortable enough even to ask to place the boy on her health plan. Extended families are a
fact of life for more minority women than any other group, and "I felt it was something that was
Earlier this year, Irish Brown accepted a job at Lehman Brothers, heading up the recruitment
of experienced minority professionals. Her newly created position shows Wall Street is serious
about beginning to tackle its lack of diversity, she says. "It's my opportunity to really implement
change in an organization."
—Lisa Takeuchi Cullen
NAME: Laura Castro de Cortes
COMPANY: Commercial Federal Bank, Omaha
TITLE: Vice president and director of Latino banking
Latina Executive Uses Numbers To Prove Her Worth
Laura Castro de Cortes doesn't deny that her ethnicity and background—she is a Mexican-
American who was born in the U.S. but raised in a Mexican border town—helped her to segue
from years of working in non-profits and education to a career as a consultant on Latino
But when she was hired by a regional bank to help develop its Latino clientele, she felt the
need to prove that her ethnicity alone did not win her the job. "You kind of feel the need to let
people know I got here on my own, not out of any quota," she says. "I knew how to sell that
loan to Latinos and no one else knew that and I felt comfort in that. I knew my area."
She also felt the need to prove that Latino marketing was a worthwhile pursuit. "It was hard to
prove my case and point. There was no past history" at the bank of targeting Hispanic
customers, she says. Castro de Cortes made her case by talking about potential profits to be
made from the growing Latino market. "All of a sudden, things changed," she says. "They saw
what my area of expertise could do for them. I had the numbers and the potential money to be
made. That always, always did the trick."
Castro de Cortes' department was eliminated after the bank was acquired by another bank.
She is leaving her job in December, and hoping to land a similar job at another bank soon.
NAME: Shernaz Daver
TITLE: Technology Marketing Consultant
CLIENTS: Motorola, Netflix, Openwave, Baidu
"You Look Different. You Act Different...You Can't Change That"
Being a minority woman and a foreigner in corporate America is a "double whammy," says
Shernaz Daver. Raised in Bombay and educated at Stanford and Harvard, the 41-year-old
high-tech marketing consultant struggled against stereotypes to gain access to boardrooms
and executive offices at some of Silicon Valley's most prominent companies, including Sun
Microsystems and Motorola.
In the late 1980s, Daver was one of the first Indian women to enter technology marketing.
Neither black nor white, she grew accustomed to being stared at and judged differently,
despite wearing Western clothes and speaking flawless English. Today, the mother of two is
still in a rarefied position as just one of a handful of Indian female executives nationwide.
"Physically, you just look different," she says. "You act different. You have a different kind of
presence. You can't change that. There's no way you can automatically become a white
woman or a white man, so you acknowledge the double whammy: that's what it is." That
realistic approach combined with tenacity, flexibility and good humor helped advance her
career. Becoming well versed in technical jargon like "floating-point processors," "DRAM," and
"chip throughput," helped, too.
At Motorola, she was the only woman handling PR for the company's microprocessor unit.
Later, at Sun Microsystems, Daver worked closely with Sun's COO Ed Zander and helped
position and brand the Solaris product line. Next, she became vice president of corporate
communications and investor relations at gamemaker 3DO.After that, she served as vice
president of marketing and investor relations at search pioneer Inktomi, acquired by Yahoo. At
Inktomi, Daver helped build the company's marketing group, brand identity, and guided the
company's public offering and buyout.
As a foreigner who grew up without a television, one of Daver's biggest challenges was
becoming fluent in U.S. culture and customs. So, to better relate to Americans, she spent
countless hours watching re-runs of home-grown TV classics like "Leave It To Beaver,"
"Dallas," "Starsky and Hutch," "The Brady Bunch," and "Mash." From those shows, she
learned about American language, slang, humor, and other pop-cultural references that she
herself made use of to help break the ice and shoot the breeze with others in the dorms, and
later, in corporate cafeterias.
"My goal has always been, if you can make everybody comfortable around you, with you, then
you can kind of get a whole lot done," says Daver. Still, she knows she must always try harder.
Perhaps that's why, despite achieving the so-called traditional trappings of success in
American society, Daver says, "I haven't ever believed I've made it."
NAME: Vicki Ho
COMPANY: General Electric
TITLE: Chief operating officer for equipment services in China
Working Against Stereotypes of Asian Women
Born in Taiwan, Ho was raised by a mother who shamed her family by taking a job as an
insurance agent while Ho's father attended school. Hauling Ho and her brother on a moped to
make sales calls, Ho's mother became the top agent—but quit her career to join her husband
in Chicago. She encouraged her gifted daughter but chided her never to boast of her
accomplishments. Ho entered the corporate world an unwitting embodiment of stereotypical
Asian female behavior—"diminutive, submissive, that whole geisha thing you get tagged with."
Then she attended a workshop at GE organized by Deborah Elam, GE's newly appointed chief
diversity officer. Elam, who is African-American, felt the lack of organized support for women of
color in the upper ranks at GE, and put together what she called the Multicultural Women's
Initiative—one aspect of which targets high-potential women like Ho for a weekend-long
bootcamp. Ho networked with other GE executives who urged her to be more aggressive. It
recently helped her win a tough, new assignment as chief operating officer for equipment
services in China.
"I can't tell you how appreciative I am that she brought us on the radar screen," says Ho of
Elam. "Companies don't look beyond minorities and women to look at minority women. Asians,
for instance, may have kind of positive stereotypes that we work hard and we're smart. But
Asian women are considered submissive and weak.
"As companies make inroads into being more inclusive, they need to go one step deeper.
There's this wonderful labor pool that's untapped."
—Lisa Takeuchi Cullen
NAME: Donna James
TITLE: president of Nationwide Strategic Investments
Even Successful Executives Confront Biases At Work
James has risen steadily during her 25 years at Nationwide, an insurance and financial
services company based in Columbus, Ohio. But along the way, she's encountered biases in
the form of offhand comments that are unintentionally insulting. "I know it's out there. I choose
to believe it's borne out of ignorance and innocence rather than hatred," she says.
Instead of ignoring the comments, James tries to educate the colleague by explaining why she
found it hurtful or insulting. "I may be someone's window into a culture or a world that they
have no knowledge or understanding of," she says. "As wearying as it may become, I have to
be ready to teach as much as I have to be ready to absorb and learn. You have to be ready to
deal with it if you're going to be a pioneer."
She also was reluctant, especially early in her career, to let colleagues know that she gave
birth to her son when she was 17 and unwed. "People are fascinated by this," she says, of her
teen pregnancy. "The whole conversation changes overnight. I didn't want it to get in the way
of my career. I didn't need that and my son didn't." Later, she became more comfortable
sharing this personal detail at work. "It's an important part of who I am and the story I have to
tell," she says. "I never saw it as a liability; it never stopped me from being the person I wanted
NAME: Melanie Robinson
TITLE: Senior Manager of Advertising
Pulled in Different Directions
Like a lot of African-American females in today's corporate world, Melanie Robinson finds
herself trying to walk a precarious line between her commitments to her job and those outside
the workplace involving family and community.
Robinson is single with a younger sister who is married and expecting her first child and an
ailing mother. As a result, she is often pulled in a number of different directions, while still
keeping up with her own work and personal commitments.
Juggling it all is a considerable challenge for African-American women, Robinson says. All the
more so given the pressures she and other black women feel to dress and act "an appropriate
way" in a corporate world mostly dominated by white males.
"You always have to be very careful as an African-American woman not to do what comes
naturally, which is to speak your mind," she said. "You have to always watch your words, which
is hard to do."
NAME: Jacqui Welch
TITLE: Vice president of employee and organizational effectiveness
Minority Executives Keep Corporations "Plugged In" To The Community
Welch has what some might call a full plate. She oversees hiring, training and performance
management for the Norcross, Ga.-based packaging and recycled paperboard manufacturer's
10,000 employees. Add responsibility for employee and union relations, corporate
communications and corporate citizenship and diversity for the $2.2 billion company.
But the job has its perks: it enables Welch to be "plugged into the community" by steering the
company's philanthropy. Since Rock-Tenn is located in the Atlanta area, 58% of its giving
goes to art-related non-profits, she says. Her challenge: guiding some dollars to minority arts
groups. Getting minority employees to give to organizations they care about is one step, as
the company can match the donation. Encouraging groups that don't traditionally appeal to
minorities to make an effort is another; the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra recently asked Welch
to help it devise a marketing plan to engage the minority community.
It's far from her only role, but it's one she treasures. "When I got the responsibility of the
company's giving, it gave me the opportunity to put my own fingerprint on it," she says.