Diane Bryant was homeless at the age of 18 and seemingly destined for a career in hairdressing. She’s now one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful figures
Diane Bryant is the executive vice president and general manager of Intel’s Data Center Group, one of the most powerful people at the Silicon Valley tech behemoth and, according to Fortune’s 2016 list, one of the 50 most powerful women in business. Yet, at the age of 18, she was homeless and seemingly destined for a career in hairdressing.
“My dad kicked us out of the house because he said that at 18 you’re legally an adult, and he didn’t want any more financial responsibility for us.”
The same applied to Ms Bryant’s older sister. Unfortunately, Diane’s February birthday meant she was was out on her ear four months before her high school graduation. After couch-surfing at friends’ and relatives’ houses, she enrolled at a community college, which were free to attend at the time.
“At community college, I was sat next to a guy in my Calculus II class, who told me I should be an engineer because it was the highest starting salary you could make with just a Bachelor’s four-year degree. The one thing I knew in life was that I was not going to be poor, I was never going to be reliant upon anyone for money. So I thought that sounded like a fabulous career, even though I had no idea what an engineer was.”
From there, she converted her major to engineering, transferred to UC Davis, graduated with an engineering degree and joined Intel. Not bad for someone who had been expected to get married and have kids right out of high school.
“Silicon Valley in the mid-80s was very rough-and-tumble. We call it the Wild Wild West of Silicon Valley. Lots of cursing and slamming your fist on the table in order to get your way and having that real bravado. The first thing I learned to do was swear, to get really angry, even if I’m not angry – just act angry and swear to make sure the people hear you and recognise that you’re serious.
“I’m a ‘girly’ girl, so being surrounded by men all day at work, you certainly have those lows. I think you always wish you had more people like yourself around you. You think, ‘Oh, I wish there was someone like me I could really talk to’. It can be sort of isolating or lonely in that regard, but I ended up becoming one of the guys, so that was the solution.
“I always get people who say ‘You’re not being yourself, you sold out’, but it’s like, you’re the minority. You either sense your environment and figure out how to adapt to the norm or you resign yourself to being pushed to the outskirts of the conversation.”
Susan Fowler’s account of her time spent working as an Uber engineer suggests that the culture hasn’t change too much.
In the early days, Ms Bryant would typically be the only woman engineer in meetings, and says that trying to adapt and fit in was a very uncomfortable experience. She was never going to back away from the challenge though, as that would have meant changing occupation.
“As a minority in any industry, there’s always those moments when you think ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing? Is this really for me? Should I try something else? Should I move on?’ No, let’s figure it out and make it happen. I guess I’m gritty.”
She recommends watching Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED Talk on grit, which she believes is severely lacking in the younger generations. However, she’s not sure how to fix it.
What Ms Bryant does know is that engineering is suffering from a lack of diversity.
“When I graduated from college, the proportion of women in engineering was 18%. Today, the latest stat we heard is that figure’s down to 14%. I am mystified that the number of women getting into engineering remains so low, because I can’t think of a more rewarding occupation.
“It is an occupation that continues to suffer from a lack of diversity on two fronts. It’s a rewarding career and you would want others to join in, and diversity of thought and diversity of opinion is incredibly important for innovation.
“You can’t innovate and have an impact on the world’s population if your organisation isn’t reflective of the world’s population. You can’t have singular opinions, singular backgrounds, singular race, gender, ethnicity, religion. You can’t have this homogeneous environment and expect to innovate for the world at large. Diversity is extremely critical.”
Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich made a commitment at CES 2015 to invest $300 million to bring the company’s population on par with the world’s population when it comes to tech by 2020. Ms Bryant is driving the change.
“When I became a vice president at Intel it was 2004, and at that time women were 4% of the VP population. We would fit very nicely in a 5×7 photo. There were only 13 of us! I still have that photo on my desk – the 13 women who made it to VP!
“Our head of HR, who was also a VP, said ‘This is ridiculous. We have to change this. We’ve got to get to parity so the VP population matches the population at large’. So we sat down and we vowed to become advocates for the next tier of women inside of Intel.
“We’re going to advocate for that next tier until they become VPs, and then they’ll grab the next tier, and we’re going to literally invest in getting them into the position they need to be in, in order to get promoted and excel at Intel.”
So Intel’s Network of Executive Women (INEW) was formed.
“Fast-forward 13 years and today, the women population of VPs matches the overall population. 21% of all VPs are women, consistent with the overall population. We’ve closed that gap strictly through advocacy.
“Strictly through reaching down to that next high-performer and saying, ‘I’m going to know you, I’m going to know what you’re good at and I’m going to make sure your next job at Intel is a job that fully takes advantage of whatever your strength is and gets you to that next opportunity. And I’m going to put my credibility and my reputation and my job on the line. I’m going to stand stand up there and fight for you, for that next opportunity’.
“Because it is a pyramid. There are fewer next opportunities as you move up the ranks. Getting to the next ranks, you need to have someone up there advocating for you. Without an advocate, it’s just easy to swim around and never find your roots, never find that opportunity.”
Ms Bryant points me towards a particular passage in Decoding Diversity, an Intel-sponsored study exploring why, after so many years, the technology industry still suffers from a lack of diversity.
“The key differences between a mentor and a sponsor? A sponsor advocates for someone to be more visible, more recognized, and engaged in a way that suits their unique skills. A mentor provides guidance, advice, and wisdom, but does not necessarily advocate on one’s behalf.”
Ms Bryant believes that men naturally advocate for other men like them in the tech industry, while women tend to be mentored.
“They say a woman on average will have 23 mentors in their career, but never an advocate. There’s just a very different approach in many businesses where the legacy of the profession is traditionally male or traditionally white male. You see it too with underrepresented minorities.”
However, Ms Bryant believes there are reasons to be positive.
“I do think there is change afoot. I do think it is driven by recognition that technology can have a true impact on people’s lives. Women want to change the world, men want to rule the world. So if you can show women and girls how they can actually change the world for the better, we can pull them into the world of technology.
“My hope is, as it becomes more apparent that the way to have a positive impact is through technology, that will invite more women in. I think women do want to feel that they’re contributing to a greater cause. That’s my hope.”