Evelyn attributes her success to being a perpetual student of business. Her early years in advertising, beginning at the African-American advertising agency Carol H. Williams in Oakland, CA, trained Evelyn to quickly adjust to new industries. And fundamentally, the foundation she received at Berkeley made her a fearless, interested learner.
“Cal students have that in their DNA, constantly wanting to learn new things,” Lee says. She then turned that personal approach into critical criteria, now asking one very important question when making her hiring decisions — do the candidates want to evolve?
“You have to have a voice. You have to stand up for yourself and not be afraid.”
Moving through the ranks of business, Evelyn often finds herself the lone minority and the lone woman in the room, especially in the C-suite. She’s heard more than her fair share of ignorant comments and witnessed biased behavior. Earlier in her career, she tried to go with the flow, eventually realizing that she did a disservice to herself and the company by not speaking up.
“As a leader you have to wear many hats. You have to speak up as an individual … The second hat you have to wear is as a leader. I started to realize that, in the last 15 years, I have to stand up for diversity, for diverse groups; I have to stand up for Asian Americans.”
“The network is really critical.”
Standing up for her belief in a diverse community and demanding respect for all employees requires a solid support system. Evelyn found a mentor in her boss Jinny Ming, the former CEO at Old Navy, who was a strong Asian American female. “Similar to me, she was an immigrant. I immigrated here when I was three years old. She was my CEO for about six months.” Her boss helped her learn to navigate a boardroom when you’re the only person of color. Ming included Evelyn in important networking events, particularly with the global Asian community.
Under the tutelage of her strong mentor, Evelyn learned to navigate and manage challenging situations. Again, she used her Cal experience as a touchstone.
Cal is a different world.
“I came from Cal, we had political opinions and diverse opinions. People of color were very much embraced and very much a part of the demographic. It (the corporate environment) was such a contrast … I struggled a lot with that,” said Lee.
As a young employee at a very conservative utility company, she quickly discerned that the focus was on the bottom line and not necessarily on the people. She initially went along to get along, conforming as she’d been taught to do early in her emergent career. Her experience at Cal, where people of all cultures mixed and mingled and were encouraged to speak up, were critical as she formed her own work persona. Making good trouble, she said, was what she learned here. Now, she focuses on building the next generation. “They’re the ones who will shape this world.”