By Julia Love
San Jose Mercury News.
Lisa Lee wound up in Silicon Valley almost by accident.
Although she had envisioned a career in the arts, Lee applied to work at Facebook after stumbling upon a job opening. There, she found her calling by helping the social networking site diversify its ranks. She’s now leading that charge at Pandora, where she is the company’s first diversity program manager.
Last year, Pandora joined a wave of Silicon Valley companies that revealed the makeup of their workforces. The music streaming site said that about 70 percent of its U.S. employees are white, standing in stark contrast to its Oakland surroundings. Its gender statistics, however, are something of a bright spot: Nearly half of U.S. employees are female, though their numbers are smaller in technical roles and leadership.
In a recent chat with this newspaper, Lee discussed how Pandora has managed to attract and retain women and the importance of transparency. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What has been your experience like working in Silicon Valley as an Asian-American woman?
A: For the first couple of years when I was working at Facebook, I was very, very involved with community work outside of work. For me, Facebook was really less of a network and more of a job. I would get in, work my 10-to-6, clock out and go and conduct my nonprofit meetings. Looking back on that time, I think there was probably a lot of relationship-building that I missed out on. I think that went on to serve some of my colleagues really well from a networking standpoint and their career trajectories. It was a pretty tight-knit place. I never really felt like I was a core part of that, but I think that was by choice. What I was really invested in was doing the community work.
Q: Pandora was among a series of companies that released statistics on diversity last year. Have those disclosures made it any easier to change the status quo?
A: I had been an advocate for data transparency for quite a while before I even ended up at Pandora. I knew a lot of companies didn’t want to disclose that information, but I just never really agreed with that, especially since these were the exact companies that promoted transparency and data awareness. I thought that if the public just knew how much attention was needed, we would get more support and more resources. When I was interviewing at Pandora, it was something I brought up. I wanted to know the company’s view on that before I agreed to come and do diversity work here. For us to release our data, it was our stake in the ground to say, “Here is where we’re at, and we want to be a lot better.”
Q: Nearly half of Pandora employees are women, a far better gender balance than most tech companies have achieved. How has Pandora pulled that off?
A: I have some theories. Since I’ve only been here for a little less than a year, I’m not taking any credit for that. The company itself was founded by musicians, so these ideas of having to be flexible and also knowing that we all play different roles outside of work are very embedded into the culture. Whether you’re leaving work to play in a band or to take care of your kids or your parents, people respect that. I have colleagues, including our founder, who will talk about their children and their family in a way that is absolutely unapologetic. It’s not, “I’m so sorry, I have to reschedule this meeting because my son broke his foot.” It’s very much, “Hey, my son broke his foot so I’m going to move my meeting.”
Q: How do you divvy up your time? What kinds of programs have you found to have a real impact?
A: I spend about 60 percent of my time working directly with our recruiting team because we are in the midst of heavy hiring. We’ve identified that as a place that could really help to move the needle. We’ve formed relationships with historically black colleges and universities. We’ve also partnered with a number of organizations that are specifically developing students for the job market and also ensuring that they are getting into really great schools.
Q: You worked with a budget of $75,000 last year. This year, you’re working with triple that. How will you deploy these added resources?
A: To be completely honest, I had a little bit more than $75,000 because once my budget was up, I had gone to different leaders and was like, ‘Hey, can you find the money in your budget to help us do this one thing?’ That speaks a lot to how invested our leaders are in this. But for next year, the expanded budget means a lot. It means that we are able to go a lot deeper with some of the partnerships we have. It means that we are able to hire extra interns to help us manage some of the workload. It means we can go out to more conferences and more schools. One of the main things I’ve been trying to get across is that diversity is not just going to happen on its own with good intentions. Companies that say they care about it and tell their employees to work on it need to be able to commit from a monetary standpoint as well and give their employees the resources to do that kind of work.
Five things about Lisa lee
1. She spent seven years of her childhood and adolescence in Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa, where she witnessed the election of Nelson Mandela.
2. She is one of four children in an immigrant family.
3. She was profiled in Marie Claire in 2013 as one of the “new change agents.”
4. She reads Junot Diaz, Kiese Laymon and other writers who articulate the voices of immigrants and people of color.
5. Her favorite Pandora stations are Maxwell, Robert Glasper and SZA.
Birth place: Taipei, Taiwan
Position: Diversity program manager at Pandora
Previous jobs: Worked at Facebook from 2007 to 2014; served as publisher of Hyphen magazine from 2007 to 2011
Education: B.A. in theater and performance studies and mass communications at UC Berkeley
Community involvement: Co-founder of ThickDumplingSkin.com, a community forum for Asian-Americans to discuss body image issues and eating disorders; board member of Asian Americans for Civil Rights and Equality; member of National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum; volunteer at Year Up
Residence: San Francisco