Shellye Archambeau sits on four boards including Verizon’s and Nordstrom’s, and was one of Silicon Valley’s first African American female CEOs. She spoke with the Review about her new book, the Business Roundtable’s effects inside the boardroom, and why she “detests” work-life balance.
Perhaps the most memorable line from the recent US vice presidential debate—or certainly the only one to since appear on t-shirts, mugs, and hoodies—was delivered by Senator Kamala Harris, the first woman of color from either party to appear on a presidential ticket. As she was being interrupted, Sen. Harris turned to her opponent and said, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” That moment was watched by 58 million people; that experience—being talked over by a man—was familiar to possibly a much larger audience: women in workplaces worldwide.
The day before the debate, Shellye Archambeau published Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms, which recounts her journey as a woman of color through the notoriously male-dominated tech industry: From a secretary at IBM during college to a CEO in Silicon Valley by forty. In a recent virtual discussion organized by Stanford University, Ms. Archambeau remembered how as a young professional, one of her male colleagues had called her “sweetpea.” When it came her turn to speak, Ms. Archambeau paused, looked her colleague in the eye, then said, “My name is Shellye.”
Ms. Archambeau’s book marries life experiences with life lessons, many of which speak directly to those still being marginalized and discriminated against. “It is not your fault that things are harder for you, but you must not let it harden you,” Ms. Archambeau writes. “Don’t blame yourself, and don’t waste your energy blaming others. If you allow life’s injustices to define you, they will. But if you choose to define yourself, to believe in yourself and align yourself with others who believe in you, you will find a way to live the life you want.”
Among the book’s remarkable features is that Ms. Archambeau found time to write it. She sits on the boards of Verizon, Nordstrom, Okta, and Roper Technologies, and serves as an advisor to the Royal Bank of Canada and Capital Markets Group. She spoke with the Review the day after Unapologetically Ambitious’ official publication.
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said Unapologetically Ambitious was “the book he wished he’d read in his twenties.” Was that the reader you wrote this for: young professionals?
Yes, I was trying to reach the young professional who is trying to figure out all of it, you know, typically in their 20s and 30s. That’s when you make so many decisions that have an outsized influence on the rest of your life, not just your career. Just look at what happens between 25 and 35: In that one decade most people choose where they’re going to live, who their life partner will be, the industry they’re in, whether they’re having children …
And I wanted to share my experiences, and my belief, that you can impact how life happens if you’re intentional about what you do. Because I’ve just seen so many people wake up in their late 30s, in their mid-40s, in their early 50s, and they’re like, “This isn’t where I thought I would be. What happened?” And what happened was life happened.
That message comes through so powerfully in the book: Be intentional. Plan. Make choices. And yet in a pandemic, thinking of the future leaves a lot of people anxious or worried, hence the calls to cultivate some form of surrender, acceptance—to let go of our plans.
I totally don’t agree.
The pandemic hasn’t shifted your stance?
Not at all. If anything, I think when chaos is happening around you, which let’s just put everything that’s happening as chaos, it’s even more important to figure out your focus. If you’re a dancer, one of the things that you learn is when you do turns and spins, you have to have a focal point.
You can’t let your eyes go with you as you go all the way around. You need to have a focal point, and that keeps you steady every time you spin. Well, the world is spinning right now. And if we just take our eye off the focal point and we just follow it … oh, my God. I get dizzy thinking about it.
It’s so important to focus on: “What can you actually control?” And you know what? There are a lot of things that you can control. I don’t care if what you can control is so simple as, “What am I going to eat tonight? How am I going to exercise?”
I find focusing on what I can control—even if it’s not major things in life—to be much more calming than letting the world figure out what the heck happens next. To me that’s much more scary. So this notion of, “Let it all go and just see what happens,” I don’t understand that at all. I mean, the dancers end up on the floor if you drop that focal point. If anything, in times of chaos, when things are just spinning, it’s really important to remember: “Okay, what are my priorities, what am I focused on, what can I control?”
Now, there’s going to be some things that you can’t control now that you could have prior to the pandemic. Okay, let them go. Worrying is just going to take extra brain power. So let those things go and focus on: “Now, what can I control? And let me make sure that those things are going as well as they can.”