Duy-Loan Le - Boards Have a Responsibility to Ask the Right Questions

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Oct 25, 2018
by Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu
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Duy-Loan Le - Boards Have a Responsibility to Ask the Right Questions

Senior fellow at Texas Instruments reflects on her career, skills required to move ahead, and how to improve gender equality in the workplace Duy-Loan Le at Salzburg Global Seminar

Duy-Loan Le’s life story is fit for the silver screen. Before retiring, Le worked at Texas Instruments (TI), one of the three oldest technology hardware companies in the United States, along with Intel and IBM. She rose through the ranks to become a senior fellow at TI, the highest position attained through a rigorous election process by peers. When Le clinched this position, she also made history as the first woman and first Asian to get to the top at the company.

Rising to the top, however, was not new to her. She graduated from high school as valedictorian and went on to graduate magna cum laude at the University of Texas - Austin with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering aged just 19. While working full time at TI and traveling internationally for her job, she attended night school at the University of Houston where she graduated with an MBA aged 27. What’s even more impressive about Le’s achievement is that she did not speak a word of English when she and her family fled war in Vietnam for the United States aged 12.
 
At TI, she helped grow the company’s key products, generating over $5 billion in revenue and oversaw the development of the world’s fastest digital signal processor, a feat that was recognized in 2004 by the Guinness Book of Records. She also holds 24 patents.
 
Le now serves on the boards of public and private companies, the universities she attended and has founded a range of non-profit organizations focusing on children’s education worldwide. Le was one of about 40 business executives and corporate leaders who participated in the latest program of the Salzburg Global Corporate Governance Forum. During her time at Brave New World: How Can Corporate Governance Adapt?, Salzburg Global spoke to Le about her experience as a “glass ceiling breaker” and how directors like herself can improve gender and ethnic diversity in companies.
 
This Q&A with Le has been edited for length and clarity.
 
Salzburg Global: You are the only woman to be elected as a senior fellow at TI. How does it feel to be in that position?
 
Duy-Loan Le: Well, it is always an honor to be the first. Breaking the glass ceiling in a technology company is always very, very challenging for women. At TI, there are two paths to advance in your career. There is the management path, and there is the technology track. At TI, the technology track is an election process, not a promotion. You are elected by your peers, and all your peers at a certain level are males - all white males as a matter of fact. And so to be the only woman in history is a source of pride, but it is also a responsibility. I don’t want to, and it is definitely not cool, to be the only woman to hold that title.
 
SG: How can corporate governance improve so that more women have access and opportunities in senior positions like the one you held?
 
DL: As far as the board is concerned, we have a responsibility to ask the right questions when it comes to promotion, when it comes to recruiting of talent, and when it comes to having a portfolio of diverse candidates for any critical positions. We have to ask that question, and we have to make sure that we continue to give women and minority groups opportunities to enhance their leadership skills and become more visible in companies.
 
For example, when I was elected TI senior fellow, I established programs within TI to build a pipeline not only for women but also minorities. And building that pipeline required me to understand what stops them and required me to go outside my comfort zone to seek answers and talk about the issues with my colleagues and ask for their support to provide opportunities so that they can develop the necessary skills in order to be promoted. At a broader view, making sure that kids from diverse backgrounds are exposed to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is also a critical aspect of building this pipeline from a very young age. STEM provides a great platform to inspire a sense of confidence in girls. A sense of “can do,” a sense of “without fear” are among the best gifts we can give our girls. 

One last thing, I think that a lot of times when tech companies talk about long-term sustainability, it should not be only about the financial metrics, it also should be about talent. And talent takes a long time to develop.  As leaders, we must have the courage, and the vision to think about it today and not measure sustainability only in terms of dollars and cents.

By the way, although no woman has followed me yet to the top at TI thanks to the pipeline it shouldn’t take much longer for that to happen. 

SG: What particular set of skills does one need to rise through this pipeline?

DL: Academic degrees are important, technical knowledge is necessary but not sufficient. Soft skills, people skills, the ability to understand business, the ability to understand the interdependence of science and business is actually what differentiated me. All I have is a bachelor's and master's degree. But at the end of the day, the ability to influence - to articulate an idea so that people will believe in it, to get people to march on the same path so that together you can execute a vision that is hard to understand at the time - is absolutely critical. Technical leadership and technical competency are not the same: the latter is about technical knowledge while the former combines technical knowledge and people leadership.

SG: What tips would you like to share with someone who wants to also sit on boards?

DL: The odd thing is that I first became a member of a public company board of directors when I was quite young. Today we continue to talk about how hard it is for women to get on boards. So you can imagine how difficult it was 16 years ago and on top of that, I was barely 40. I think the skill set that I had back then that allowed me to be invited is the people skills, my reputation in the industry as an influencer, and visibility that often minorities don’t have. There is an old saying: “it is not what you know, it is about who you know.” And I agree with that, but I will add that what is even more important is “who knows you?” This is essential, and one of the best ways to build that visibility is to have the confidence to speak in public, let your voice be heard and to do something for the good of society such as non-profits. I co-founded several non-profits, I serve on university boards, and I give keynote speeches not because I am using it for something or I was seeking something in return. I did all of that simply because giving back is the right thing to do, and somehow that helps with visibility. I guess doing the right thing can never be wrong!


The Salzburg Global program Brave New World: How Can Corporate Governance Adapt? is part of the multi-year series, the Salzburg Global Corporate Governance Forum. The session is being held in partnership with Shearman & Sterling LLP and CLP Group. It is being sponsored by Bank of America, Barclays, BNY Mellon, Elliott, Goldman Sachs, and Microsoft. More information on the program can be found here.