How this Black woman tech CEO learned to be ‘unapologetically ambitious’
Shellye Archambeau has spent her career breaking tech’s gender and racial barriers for Black women.
After climbing the ranks at IBM in the ’80s and ’90s and becoming president of Blockbuster.com, she took over an enterprise software company now known as MetricStream and ran it for 15 years—in the process becoming one of the first (and still very few) Black women to be CEO of a Silicon Valley tech company. After stepping down as MetricStream CEO in early 2018, Archambeau embarked on what she calls her “phase two.” She’s now serving on the boards of Verizon, Nordstrom, Okta, and Roper Technologies, where she’s involved in directing those companies’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic and the sweeping national reckoning over racism.
She’s cautiously optimistic—“for the first time”—about the country’s changing attitudes toward the latter, in part because “we are actually talking about race,” Archambeau tells Fortune. “It used to be so taboo that race wasn’t even one of the things that people always said you can’t talk about in polite company!…So the fact that we are actually talking about it everywhere—I see that as different.”
Archambeau has also written a new book, due out next month, called Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers and Create Success on Your Own Terms (HBG Grand Central). Part memoir and part guide for other women and people of color trying to navigate corporate America, Archambeau’s book is matter of fact about some of the institutional biases she faced in her ambition to become a CEO, and the career pivots and family sacrifices she made along the way to achieve that goal. It’s also a remarkable tribute to her husband, Scotty, who retired early in their marriage to take care of their two young children, and who died of cancer last year.
During a recent phone conversation from her home in Silicon Valley, where she relocated after spending the first few months of the pandemic with her daughter’s family in Florida, Archambeau discussed how the Fortune 500 companies she’s directing are responding to social injustice, her outlook on the tech industry’s diversity track record, and what it means for Black women to be unapologetically ambitious. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: When you picked the title of your book, did you know that “too ambitious” was going to be a phrase in the news around Kamala Harris?
Archambeau: Isn’t that funny? No, I had no idea. As matter of fact, I had the entire book written, and I was still working on the title. I wanted “ambition” in the title, I knew that. Because especially for women and people of color, if we’re told we’re ambitious, it’s a negative, not a positive. And then “unapologetic”— I think women are raised from birth to apologize. We apologize to smooth feathers, to bring attention, to show empathy. And we need to stop doing it. Because the other half of the population, they don’t get it—they keep hearing us apologize, and then they figure that it’s all our fault, whatever it is. Everybody should be ambitious, and you don’t have to apologize for it.
Given your lived experience, and your focus on helping other women and people of color achieve their aspirations in corporate America, what sort of impact are you seeing from the protests against systemic racism and police brutality?
There are definitely increasing opportunities for African-Americans in general, as companies look around and say, “Oh, okay, you’re right. We don’t have…or we do need more …” et cetera. I do believe that in general, it is creating opportunities, which is a good thing. The work that comes, and it’s not work that I begrudge at all, is mainly as companies and individuals are processing, frankly, a lot of new information and perspectives that they just didn’t necessarily have before.
Some Black women and men I’ve spoken with recently have raised some skepticism about whether or not we’re going to see all of this conversation and awareness around racism actually translate into action and change. Do you share that skepticism, or do you see businesses taking action to make sure that this isn’t just talk that goes nowhere?
I’m cautiously hopeful. For the first time, actually. Here’s what’s different: This time, the protests and the awareness and the people speaking out on these subjects—the people reflect the country. There is diversity. During the civil rights movement, yes, we had supporters, but it was really being led completely by African-Americans. And now you do have protests or events held to raise awareness in communities where there’s very few African-Americans engaged, because they don’t live there. So it’s wonderful to see America reflected in the outrage and the concerns, and that is different.
The second thing that’s different this time, is that we are actually talking about race. It used to be so taboo that race wasn’t even one of the things that people always said you can’t talk about in polite company! Religion or politics [or money or sex], right? We never put race in that category. That’s how below the radar it was—we didn’t even mention the fact that we couldn’t talk about it! So the fact that we are actually talking about it everywhere, I see that as different.
The third thing that’s different is during the civil rights movement, businesses sat on the sidelines. They expected the government to solve this. And this time, businesses appear to be engaging in it. They’ve at least taken the first step in terms of having conversations about this. None of that was happening back in the ’60s. So those three elements are what gives me hope.
What makes me cautious is, this is not a quick fix. It took us hundreds of years to get to this point. Hopefully it will not take us hundreds of years to get out of it, but it’s going to take years. I’m concerned that people will get tired and move on to the next topic of the day. And this is hard. Some of the institutionalized racism has been built in for so long that you don’t even realize that it’s the foundation, because we’ve built everything on top of it. So making changes that are deep is hard.
On your boards, what is that conversation like in terms of concrete internal steps that your companies are taking to be in this for the long haul?
The first step is, they have an overall view and statement on what they believe and how they want to act. They’re in engaging with their community—and not just the Black [employees], because everybody needs to be in the conversation. Right now everyone’s at the phase of building out the actions they’re taking, and are going to take. With a few of my companies, we’ve actually rolled it in with ESG. So we’re getting regular reports on what we are doing and [figuring out] how are we going to measure progress. I do believe it’s important that the tone starts at the top. Boards should absolutely be asking their companies, What are they doing? What are their plans going forward? How are they going to measure and evaluate whether what we’re doing is effective or not effective? Just like you would for any other significant initiative or program within the business.
Has the tone of the conversation changed? Has everyone always agreed that racial diversity, and gender diversity for that matter, is this important? Or do you feel like some of your fellow directors are more open to the conversation now?
It’s absolutely changed, frankly because we didn’t talk about racism. Very few people outside of the Black community actually had any real understanding of what it was like to live being Black, or to work being Black. And I don’t fault them for that. Companies and most individuals, they didn’t tolerate [more] overt racism. But this notion of all the different microaggressions that can occur, or just the lived experience [of being Black]—that they didn’t understand.
And now we’re talking about it. Awareness is absolutely the first step, and it’s hard to fault people for not fixing things they weren’t really aware of. But now companies and people are seeing it. So now if we don’t make changes, what that actually means is that we know there’s a problem. We know there’s a class of our population that are being treated as less than citizens, and less than people. And we’re okay with it. And, you know, God help us if that’s where we end up.
You spent 15 years running a company in the tech industry, which has very few CEOs who are women, especially women of color. Tech companies also have been criticized for hiring very few Black and Latinx employees. What’s your view of the tech industry these days and do you see it making needed changes?
I definitely see a number of tech companies that are proactively now trying to focus on this. This is one of those areas where it’s hard to say that anyone’s doing enough until you actually start to see the results. And I think it’s important to realize that we also need to be encouraging people. One of the things that frustrated me is that several years back, a number of companies in tech started publishing their diversity numbers, which I thought was a good step: “Hold us accountable, here are our numbers. This is our baseline.” And they got totally beat up for their numbers.
Now, they didn’t publish the numbers saying, “We’ve been working for 10 years on this, here’s our results.” What they said is, “This is now important. We’re going to start working on this.” So if we keep beating people up for actually being vulnerable, and working to get better, we’re encouraging people not to be transparent. We should definitely hold them accountable for progress now they’ve done it. But give them time. We also want to make sure that we are supporting the work that needs to be done to get to the outcomes.
In your book, I was so impressed with the early, pre-marriage conversation you had with your husband about, “This is what I want to do with my life and, in order to accomplish that, I don’t want to be the person at home taking care of the kids.” And then he eventually took early retirement to take care of your children and support your career, which still feels relatively unusual.
I’m a firm believer in being intentional. It just helps you improve the odds that you can actually make happen what you want. And don’t keep it a secret. Let the people around you, who live with you and who support you, know what you want. If you don’t tell them what you need, the universe can’t help you. We do that at work, right? We have to be doing that in our whole lives. It’s all about getting buy-in and support, making sure you have a common vision for what you’re trying to do together and achieve.
As you write in your book, as a teenager you set a goal of becoming a CEO—and achieved it by age 40. When did you decide it was time to step down as CEO and focus on your boards?
I had always planned for a phase two. I didn’t know when I would want to pull the cord, but I wanted to make sure I had the right skills and experience to be able to serve on boards, advise companies, do some writing and speaking, have more flexibility. But the reason I did it when I did, at the end of 2017, was because my husband had been fighting a terminal cancer.
We had agreed about seven or eight years prior, when we found out he had the cancer, that we were going to live life first and fight cancer second. There were times before 2017, one in particular where I didn’t know if he was going to make it. I mean, he was just on death’s door—he’d lost weight, he couldn’t walk, it was just awful. I said, “I think I need to step out.” And I’ll never forget him looking at me and just telling me, “If you step out, then what am I fighting for? We agreed that we’re living life first. And if you step out, it’s all about the cancer and I’m done.” … We had some really hard times. But we did live through it, and we built great memories.
We found out in 2017 that he was now in his final stage, and it was the right time for me to pass the baton and have more flexibility, so that we would have no regrets. My husband passed away last year. We had a terrific, terrific marriage. And as I told him all the way to the end, knowing everything I knew, I’d marry him all over again.