Women in Tech Series: Lesley Slaton Brown
How her multi-dimensional family, Oprah and even a bank robbery (!) have inspired her.
When Oprah Winfrey wowed the world at the Golden Globes with her rousing call for greater opportunities for “little brown girls,” it signaled a turning point for HP®’s Chief Diversity Officer, Lesley Slaton Brown. “I watched it over and over and over,” she says. “I cried. I laughed. I rejoiced. I cried some more. I got inspired. I have goosebumps now, just talking about it. Literally, arms-to-legs goosebumps.”
Slaton Brown has been attuned to diversity issues since her freshman year in college, when she arrived in homogenous Boise, Idaho, from her diverse Merced, California, hometown in 1984 to attend Boise State University on a basketball scholarship. At first, she wanted out. For months she called home and pleaded with her dad to come get her. No dice, he said. She’d made a commitment - she had to stick it out. It was good advice: Slaton Brown came to love Boise and went on to start a career and a family there.
If not for that early change of heart, chances are Slaton Brown wouldn’t be in tech at all, let alone driving HP®’s diversity agenda at such a pivotal time in the industry and the nation. While she was chairing an Idaho state-wide organization in the early ‘90s, Slaton Brown’s co-chair convinced her into joining HP®’s network server business. She soon rose through the ranks on the marketing side before switching to the company’s sustainable-business practice.
In 2012, fed up that the shortfall of women and other under-represented groups in tech had only widened since she entered the industry, Slaton Brown left Hewlett-Packard Company to research and strategize on practical ways to move the needle. Two years later, the newly split-off HP® Inc. wooed her back to apply that expertise to its aggressive diversity and inclusion strategy.
Under Slaton Brown’s watch, HP® is moving more women into executive offices and diversifying its workforce to truly reflect its customers. It’s also using its clout to push key partners, including ad agencies and law firms, to hire more women and under-represented groups and put them in positions of responsibility. And with its Reinvent Mindsets campaign, HP® is establishing a new way of training and tracking its own progress.
Slaton Brown spoke with the Garage from her offices in Palo Alto, California.
How would you describe your job?
My focus is on how to create an equal and equitable place for all people to work, to thrive, to belong, to innovate and to grow.
I started in HP®’s network server division in Boise. I’ve worked in disc memory, printing, supplies and graphic arts. I’ve worked to help entrepreneurs in third world counties build sustainable business to help grow their economies. Then, for many years, I worked in global marketing, so most of my focus was on emerging markets, growth markets and how we impact particular audiences. Those were diverse audiences, multicultural audiences we were trying to reach.
So, my current role gives me the opportunity to take what I’ve spent 20-plus years doing professionally, what I’m passionate about and what I believe is my life’s purpose, and bring them all together.
Where does your drive to create more equitable workplaces come from?
It’s in the DNA of my family - I come from a very diverse background. My grandmother was one of 14 children in a multiracial family, with my grandmother in the middle of the siblings’ color spectrum. There were blue-eyed, blond-haired kids on one end and those with darker skin and hair on the other. Colorism was alive and well in her family. My grandmother, who had hazel eyes and fairer skin, witnessed the discrimination both sides suffered.
And that came out in the stories she told. I was one of the children who sat at her feet and listened to her stories, which were often about not being silenced and speaking up, the power of getting an education and the responsibility to help others.
How did you choose tech as a career?
The short and kind of funny story is that I was in a bank robbery at a local branch.
As a bank management trainee, I was doing a rotation and working with the tellers at the drive-through. The minute the guy walked into the branch, I caught his eye and had a feeling in my gut. So, I watched him to capture and remember every physical feature possible. That’s how I helped identify and prosecute the robber.
That was a life lesson:
Were you excited when HP® Inc. approached you about leading its Diversity & Inclusion group?
Actually, my first inclination was “No thank you.” All the research I had done on how you begin to solve this problem - in tech in particular - had said that the No. 1 thing was to start with the company’s leadership. Then Tracy Keogh, the head of HR at HP® Inc., said to me, “Lesley, we're starting at the top, with our Board of Directors.”
That got my attention. The time for talk is over - the time for action is now.
What Oprah communicated so articulately at the Golden Globes is exactly how I feel about the work we do here in Diversity & Inclusion. Whether it's Time's Up, #MeToo or Reinvent Mindsets - as Oprah said, a new day is dawning. You can be an ally. You can be an advocate. You can be an evangelist for change. That’s what we’re doing at HP®.
What’s on your desk as we speak?
A lot of data, some great resumes, a few good plans to productively disrupt much of the bias we see happening in the industry and some inspiring quotes. Sheryl Sandberg's book “Option B.” Last year, I dealt with extreme tragedy and loss in my family, and Sheryl's book is really insightful. It’s about facing adversity, building resilience and finding joy after the death of her husband.
Oh, and an HP fidget spinner. The funny thing is, I remember saying, “I don't know what the fascination is with these things,” but the first time I put one between my two fingers, I was like, “Wow, I like this!”
Best career advice for a recent college grad?
Be authentic. Be true to who you are. Align yourself with a company that embraces your values. I tell my daughter this:
Originally published in The Garage. Republished with permission.