Intel’s executive vice president Diane Bryant runs the company’s fastest-growing, most profitable business unit, Data Center, which brought in more than $18 billion last year.
Her rise in the company was a long road. She landed at Intel straight from college, and has spent her whole 31-year career with the chipmaker.
When she started at Intel, in 1985, she was a young woman in a man’s world, and they weren’t thrilled to have her.
“I was truly a minority as a woman inside the tech industry and it was a very rough and tumble era,” Bryant said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Wednesday.
“I had to play like the boys,” she says. “It doesn’t help to be in the outer circle. You are never going to have impact from the outside. Somehow you have to get to the inside. And as a minority, you need to be willing to admit: I’m a minority. I need to change the way I act and operate, if I’m going to get to the inside and I’m going to have an impact.”
She adds, “To those who say that’s being a sell-out, or you are not being who you are, I say, it’s better to be in the game than sitting on the bench.”
She needed to un-clean-up her language.
“The first thing I did was I started swearing a lot. A lot,” she told the audience, who roared with laughter.
“And I’m not kidding. The worst experience, I’m a junior engineer, sitting in a conference with all older men, all white men, and this one guy throws out the f-word and then stops and turns to me, so all eyes are on me, 23 years old, and says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘No, f*&ing problem.'” The audience laughed again.
“And then I would throw out the f-word every now and then, just randomly. And it was hard. I actually had to concentrate, like, ‘Swear now! Now! Swear now!”
I actually had to concentrate, like, ‘Swear now! Now! Swear now!
She said she also learned to drink Scotch, neat, and she bought a stick-shift BMW, “Because engineers like BMWs and no one drives and automatic.”
She only drew the line in one area: “I wouldn’t do the bad haircut, the $10 engineering haircut, I wouldn’t go that far.”
An inspiring rags-to-riches story
Learning to swear was hardly the toughest thing she had to endure by age 23.
As we previously reported, Bryant has one of the most amazing rags to riches stories we’ve ever heard, and she told her personal story again on stage.
Born in Sacramento, she found herself kicked out of her home and homeless on her 18th birthday with four months left to graduate high school. She described her dad, in her usual cheerful tone, as a “convicted felon” who made it clear to his children that his “legal obligation was done the day they turned 18,” and promptly kicked her and her sister out on their birthdays.
She couch-surfed, stayed in high school, graduated then went to community college, which was free in California in those days.
She was sitting in a maths class, when a guy asked her what her major was. She hadn’t declared one, and he told her, “You should become an engineer. It’s the highest starting salary you can get with a four-year degree.”
She immediately went to the school counselor and declared her major as engineering. When asked her if she would study software engineering or hardware, she chose software, since she thought “soft” sounded easier than “hard.” She later changed it to hardware to qualify for scholarships.
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