Reflections on the Women’s Symposium 2019 at Microsoft

How the Leadership Team at Microsoft is creating an inclusive culture to women

Anh Thu Nguyen
Sep 9, 2019 · 6 min read
Photos of the panels at the event
Photos of the panels at the event
Panelists at the Women’s Symposium event 2019

[This article is also featured on LinkedIn]

Every year, the Women’s Symposium is a highly anticipated event for Microsoft interns. When I received my invite for this year’s event, I marked it boldly on my calendar and blocked meetings 30 minutes prior to the start time. Rumor had it, Amy Hood and other Microsoft A-lists were going to be there.

When the day came, I arrived 15 minutes before doors opened; despite arriving at what I thought was early, hundreds of interns had already lined up by the entrance ready to grab the front seats. The excitement from the crowd was a sweet reminder of why we, the women, were here together and the goals we wanted to achieve in this industry. This, I witnessed, was the spirit of “the Future is Female.”

The guests were greeted with a buffet of grilled skewers, hummus-dipped vegetables, and an array of tarts. When everyone was seated in the neon-purple conference room, Dona Sarkar took the mic and welcomed our first keynote speaker: best-selling author and artist Amber Rae.

Wonder over worry

Photo of Amber Rae speaking
Photo of Amber Rae speaking
Amber Rae

Amber Rae’s opening talk was a synopsis of her book “Choose Wonder Over Worry” with the tagline: “move beyond fear and doubt to unlock your full potential.” She opened her speech with the story of losing her father in a car crash to “peace, love, and rock & roll,” and moving to San Francisco in her early tech career.

Without doubt, her talk addressed imposter syndrome in women entering the workforce. Women’s fear of “not being qualified enough” is stemmed from the culture of recognizing masculine values. However, when we face fear as a wake-up call to growth, and accept that our mental health is part of being human, we can then embody effective leadership to others.

The audience left with her book and a self-reflection worksheet.

Worksheet from Amber Rae. Title: Self-limiting beliefs. Column 1: Evidence that is true. Column 2: Evidence that is false
Worksheet from Amber Rae. Title: Self-limiting beliefs. Column 1: Evidence that is true. Column 2: Evidence that is false
Self-limiting beliefs worksheet

The second part of the Symposium was the Q&A panel joined by Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Amy Hood, Corporate Vice President (CVP) Bonnie Ross, Senior Director Rokeya Jones, CVP Shilpa Ranganathan and former intern Akosua Boadi-Agyemang who went viral after a LinkedIn post. In a casual setting, they talked about empowering others through vulnerability, nurturing growth mindset, and honoring Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) efforts in all aspects of the company, especially for women.

Nevertheless, she persisted

The panel started with Akosua Boadi-Agyemang who recounted the time when she was looking for internships during her junior year at Miami University. As an international student from Botswana, she faced numerous rejections due to her visa status. I instantly connected with her through this experience and can confirm that many companies don’t take a second look at the applicant’s qualifications when they see “international student” on resumes.

During months of despair, Akosua remembered what her mother told her: “Nana, be bold” (Nana is the name that her parents called her). Hearing the echoes of this message, Akosua made a LinkedIn post talking about her experience facing rejections. The post was commented by Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, which then led to millions of viewers on the professional social media.

“Sometimes we forget that we are all different, and that the mainstream ways of doing things may not work for us.” Akosua said in a LinkedIn article. As of today, she is the BSO Program Manager at Microsoft and a gold-plated LinkedIn influencer claiming #theBOLDjourney as her one of her original hashtags.

Having the courage to push beyond your comfort zone was a theme across all the panelist’s journeys. Sometimes, we’re put in situations where our hard work seems to be “failing” us. The odds, like a dense fog inside our minds, blur away our vision of the future. Although it is difficult to persist in the face of despair, we can at least embrace failure as feedback and redesign our efforts to a new path of success. This is the motto of growth mindset and is a Microsoft work ethic that encourages employees to learn from failure and recognize their intelligence as evolution.

Empower others

The Microsoft mission statement — to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more — is at the back of every employee card to remind employees why they’re here. Dona Sarkar, Chief #NinjaCat and fashion enthusiast, did just that.

Dona recounted a time when she made an entrepreneurial decision that she thought she was fired for. In late 2016, Dona and her team flew to Lagos, Nigeria, to study how people were building businesses in the emerging market. Seeing a need to support local start-ups, Dona decided to launch a Microsoft entrepreneurial program in Lagos, an investment that was considered “risky” for a U.S-centric multinational.

The Insiders Program eventually grew from 7 million to 16.5 million users, opening doors for Microsoft to work in emerging markets. However, it’s not only the numbers that stood out to Dona but also the “lasting impact in the world” that the software created. Businesses build communities and communities join people together. Dona’s story reminded the audience to bring conviction to bold ideas — an attitude that makes growth mindset possible.

On a side note, did you know that “entrepreneur” is the most popular occupation in the world?

Impact all women

The panel ended with a powerful question to the panelists: How can we make the tech workplace inclusive to all women, especially women of color who may be excluded from the narrative? Amy Hood responded that the company is taking action to have equal representation across the board. Not having a diverse employment, especially in leadership roles, creates business issues because “the company is not hiring people who are representing the customers.” For a corporate that impacts billions of people, this not only hinders its ability to grow but also society’s effort to strive for equality.

She also pointed out that diversity in employment is rooted in the recruitment process where managers were habituated to hire applicants who were “like them,” who grew up “like them” and received the same education “like them.” This however only benefited a class of privileged people.

“You can make progress but not enough,” Amy said.

As bold telling her story as she is in her job, Amy owned her narrative by becoming vulnerable to her Microsoft journey. She opened up about having the privilege to attend Duke University without college debts, thrive at Goldman Sachs through “knowing friends who had parents who worked there,” and successfully attend Harvard Business School because she had insider tips on how to apply.

Amy never realized her advantage of being the “second most privileged group in America” (a white woman) until the age of 30. Knowing this encouraged Amy even more to use her position to advocate for diverse employment at Microsoft. In the past 5 years, the number of female employment grew from 18% to 37%. 2018 statistics here.

Overall, I’m grateful to be in a time when people of all genders and backgrounds are in positions of leadership. However, there’s so much more growth to be done to bring employment equally across the org.

Having events like this really help interns be hopeful of the future and learn from others’ journey. Even within my office, there are weekly “D&I stories” where speakers share professional or personal experiences on how they foster inclusion. Stories are moving, and I’ve heard some that made me feel less lonely, learn a new culture, and even shed a tear.

During my last week as an intern, I wanted to fully embrace the whole “Microsoft experience” by powering myself to do a stand-up at the intern Treehouse Talk. It was located at the Microsoft Treehouse, but the stage where I presented was more like a Roman Theater. Mind you, I’ve always been an introvert, so public speaking doesn’t come naturally to me.

The result? Rewarding! I’m grateful that this company is using storytelling as a strength to live up to its mission statement. As for me, I’ve used this opportunity to put Amber Rae’s quote into action: “move beyond fear and doubt to unlock your full potential.”

Anh Thu Nguyen

Written by

Contributing writer at The Daily of UW | Former Microsoft intern | Views are my mom’s

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