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Gwen Houston, Microsoft’s General Manager of Global Diversity and Inclusion. (Photo via Microsoft.)

Diversity is on the minds of tech leaders more than ever, as companies across the industry push to make their workforces more inclusive and representative of their customers.

But this is not a new cause for Gwen Houston, Microsoft’s general manager of global diversity and inclusion, who has been working in the role for seven years at the Redmond company, part of a long career in diversity and inclusion.

Microsoft has been making strides in this area. For example, gender diversity on Microsoft’s senior leadership team, executives reporting directly to CEO Satya Nadella, reached an all-time high as of November, consisting of 27.2 percent women. But the company still has plenty of room to improve.

Leading that effort at Microsoft is Houston, a former government attorney who has worked on similar initiatives previously at companies including Aetna, Campbell Soup, Nike, and FedEx. As you’ll read below, she’s also a big fan and advocate for Microsoft’s products.

Meet our new Geek of the Week, and continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

What do you do and why do you do it? “Basically, my work involves being a problem solver, thought-leader, and a bit of a diplomat. In my role, I am primarily responsible for providing thought leadership and strategic direction for Microsoft’s global diversity and inclusion initiatives. Additionally, I lead a team that drives the implementation, execution and alignment of that strategy globally, to ensure maximum impact on Microsoft’s business growth and talent initiatives. We are committed to this work because we believe that a diverse and inclusive workforce results in better products and solutions for our customers, and a better experience for all our employees. As our workforce evolves to reflect the growing diversity of our communities and the global marketplace, our efforts to understand, value, and incorporate differences become increasingly important.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “It is challenging, multi-disciplined work, and there are unique and distinct competencies associated with being an effective D&I practitioner. I say this because of how often people from other parts of the business join my team and within a matter of weeks, comment on how intense, fast-paced and challenging the work is compared to their previous role. To some extent, the intensity of the work is related to how drastically the emphasis around diversity has changed over the years, especially within large corporations. Ten years ago, the word “inclusion” was rarely used, and only by a few organizations. Now, the phrase “diversity and inclusion” has its own acronym – D&I. The focus has progressed from valuing differences—which was largely achieved through awareness training and multicultural celebrations—to strategic global business growth. Emphasis today is on cornering new markets to delight customers, building effective and efficient global teams for greater innovation, and managing brand reputation.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “I grew up with a Dad who said, ‘doing good work is its own reward.’ So, my inspiration comes from seeing our company make real and sustainable progress in advancing the D&I agenda. In most instances, progress comes in the way of quantitative increases in our diversity demographics. But, the ones that inspire me the most are much more personal and individual.  Like having employees around the world take our Unconscious Bias e-learning course and randomly emailing to share how much they liked it and that it is having a positive impact on how they think and behavior. I am also deeply inspired by young people, who come to one of tech workshops for girls or underserved youth, and remark about how it had a huge impact on their educational direction and motivation. Those are the best!

Today, I continue to be inspired by the amazing advances we are making with accessible technologies to improve the ways in which all people can engage and contribute. This work blows me away and fills me with both gratitude and appreciation for the level of design empathy involved in making these products.” 

What is the one piece of technology you couldn’t live with, and why? “My Windows Surface Pro 3 is indispensable!  I have several around the house—one in my kitchen, office, and bedroom. I know that is a bit obsessive, but it’s true. I do emails, play games and stream music from it throughout my house, which is my favorite thing to do. Sometimes, I have different kinds of music playing in different rooms.”

(Stephen Brashear/Getty Images, via Microsoft)
Microsoft’s Visitors’ Center. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images, via Microsoft)

What is your workplace like, and why does it work for you?“My workplace is busy! My office is in the same building that houses the Visitors’ Center, the Employee Store, and is adjacent to the Microsoft Commons—which has lots of restaurants and stores. There are lots of meeting rooms around my office that draw people and energy, which is great.  I like to walk the halls and connect with my team and colleagues. I also like to bounce off ideas with them.  But, when I am doing anything that involves thoughtful reflection and business planning I like a quieter environment—which means I try to do this type of work later in the day. When I am catching up on emails and doing research, I like a little background music — mostly contemporary jazz or great vocal music like Adele. My office is very nice and has a cozy, calming feeling to it — which is intentional!” 

Houston at Seattle Pride.
Houston at Seattle Pride.

Your best trick for managing everyday work and life: “Attitude is everything!  Experience has taught me that talent, hard work and humility triumph over everything. When I stay calm and look for the positive in challenging situations, it helps me to be more constructive in my response. As a woman of color, I have learned to not let other people’s limited thinking be a barrier to my success. My philosophy is to try to be the best I can be every day. When confronted with temporary challenges, I’ve learned to simply work harder and smarter. And over the years, I’ve learned to be flexible about my personal definition of success. I also take good care of myself—meaning, I exercise regularly, eat well and laugh a lot. I’ve found this to be essential in managing the high stress and demands associated with my work life.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Windows 10 is the best Windows ever. It’s very familiar, innovative, productive and more secure than previous versions. It’s designed to be compatible with the hardware and software I already own and always-enabled updates help me stay current on features and security for the supported lifetime of my devices. I’m a big Windows fan.” 

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Spock will always be my main Trekkie man!” 

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Transporter — there were so many times when this would have come in handy at work!” 

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would: “Use it as an incubator fund for women and minorities creating cool tech products to improve society.”

I once waited in line for: “Halo games for my nephew — okay so, I said they were for my nephew.”

Your role models: “My Mom — despite her challenging life circumstances, she worked hard to overcome them through courage, intelligence and smart decisions.” 

Greatest Video Game in History: “The Atari system. I loved Pong.”

Best Gadget Ever. “My first smartphone, which was a Windows phone!”

First Computer: “IBM PC — not at all cute, but it was innovative back then!”

Current Phone: “I currently use two Windows phones.” 

Favorite App: “Because I am temporarily splitting time between two home locations these days, its Nest and Drop Cam.”

Favorite Cause: Orbis International is an international non-profit non-governmental organization dedicated to saving sight worldwide. Orbis programs focus on the prevention of blindness and the treatment of blinding eye diseases in developing countries.”

Most Important Technology of 2016: “Windows 10. Currently, there are more than 200 active million devices running Windows 10 since its launch at the end of July. In fact, Windows 10 continues to be on the fastest growth trajectory of any version of Windows – ever – outpacing Windows 7 by nearly 140% and Windows 8 by nearly 400%.” 

Most Important Technology of 2018: “You will not need a password: Your biological makeup is the key to your individual identity, and soon, it will become the key to safeguarding it.” 

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Sharing my personal philosophy, which is ‘to thine own self, be true.'”

LinkedIn: Gwen Houston

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