Yolanda Conyers

Lenovo Chief Diversity Officer Yolanda Conyers Credits Her Career Start to NSBE

It’s not unusual these days to hear large companies speak of diversity and inclusion as being necessary to their growth, but Lenovo is a prime example of an organization that has walked that walk. Founded in China in 1984, the technology company acquired IBM’s personal computer business in 2005 and has since grown into a $45-million multinational powerhouse with a culturally integrated global brand.

Yolanda Conyers joined Lenovo as vice president for Culture Integration and Diversity two years after the IBM acquisition — the company’s first African-American VP — and has been rewarded with a series of promotions for her vital roles in the company’s global strategy. She is now chief diversity officer; president, Lenovo Foundation and vice president, Global Human Resources, titles she has held since 2014. An author, as well as an executive, she published her first book that same year with another Lenovo senior executive, Gina Qiao: “The Lenovo Way — Managing a Diverse Global Company for Optimal Performance.”

Conyers grew up with her parents and six siblings in an all-African-American neighborhood in Port Arthur, Texas. She attended an all-African-American elementary school and a predominantly white middle school and high school before enrolling in Lamar University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1989, the first member of her family to graduate from college. Her father, a merchant seaman, taught her to seek out and embrace new experiences: a lesson, she says, that has served her well.

Conyers joined NSBE as an undergraduate at Lamar and credits the Society with giving her valuable leadership lessons there. NSBE also opened the door to her first job post-graduation, as a software analyst for Texas Instruments, an experience that gave her data analysis and problem-solving skills that still support her career success today.

She spoke with us recently about her personal and professional experience with NSBE, and the Society’s impact on tech diversity.

Please tell us about your experience with NSBE. Did you join the Society during your freshman year at Lamar?

Yes, I was introduced to NSBE my freshman year by my calculus professor, Dr. Price, who suggested that I become a member and attend the National Conference. Dr. Price told me it would open up many doors and opportunities, that it would change my life. And he was right. NSBE really opened up a lot of opportunities for me professionally that have helped lead me to where I am today.

Did you have a leadership position during your time with NSBE as an undergraduate? If so, did you learn any leadership lessons that you’ve used in your professional career?

I did hold an officer position, and that experience was certainly eye-opening. Truth be told, I wasn’t doing a great job of balancing my commitments among school and extracurricular activities, and I stretched myself a bit too thin by taking on a leadership role within NSBE. The other officers gave me some feedback that was, honestly, not easy to hear, but I learned from it and self-corrected. It was a hard lesson learned that when you commit to an engagement, you have to be certain you have the bandwidth to prioritize and really make time for it.

You mentioned during a recent Forbes interview that NSBE had opened many doors for you in the corporate world. How so?

After attending my first NSBE National Conference, I landed an internship with Texas Instruments (TI). The contract included three alternating semesters with TI (fall, spring and summer) over the course of my four years, assuming I maintained a 3.0 or better. After the first assignment, I was truly inspired and couldn’t wait for the next one. Each rotation, TI provided me a different learning opportunity or experience. I received course credit after completing and submitting a report about the type of work I was doing, what I accomplished and what I had learned. I was always an honors student in high school, and my goal was to be an honors student in college. I was motivated even more given the requirement to maintain that 3.0 or better to keep that internship.

I see you were a member of NSBE Professionals in 2015. Please tell us about your involvement with NSBE after you received your bachelor’s degree.

I wanted to pay it forward, give back to Lamar University and NSBE, and help provide future generations with the same experience and level of opportunity that was afforded to me. So as part of my post-grad involvement, I sponsored a scholarship for a NSBE member to be sent to the Annual Convention.

How does Lenovo view NSBE in terms of its value to the company?

As a global technology leader, Lenovo values organizations like NSBE for their commitment to increasing diversity in STEM fields. We’re at the forefront of a new era in technological innovation, with the emergence of new technologies like 5G and A.I. in our mobile and smart devices. As these technologies become increasingly integrated into our daily lives, they’ll inevitably change how we live, work and play. At Lenovo, we call this Intelligent Transformation.

We serve a diverse customer base: we conduct business in more than 160 countries around the world. So for our innovations to work for a truly diverse and varied audience, we have to create with diversity in mind. For example, many mobile and smart devices, with the use of A.I., are integrating facial and vocal recognition into their functionality, so our intelligent transformation must also demand inclusivity, to be certain that we’re accounting for diverse end-users. To be able to achieve this, it’s important to have diverse employees to provide insights and inputs into the design and engineering processes. It’s imperative that organizations like NSBE continue their work to promote STEM education. 

How has the engineering diversity landscape changed since you began working in the field?

Unfortunately, we still aren’t where we need to be with diversity in STEM professions. For perspective, in 1989, my bachelor’s was one of the 40 percent of computer science degrees that were conferred to women. Today, less than 18 percent of computer science degree recipients are females. We want to change the landscape. At Lenovo, we’ve implemented several programs and put goals in place to help reach underrepresented communities with STEM education and other STEM opportunities. Our corporate philanthropic venture, The Lenovo Foundation, has committed to a goal of directly impacting more than one million individuals by 2020, by increasing access to technology for diverse populations through partnerships with groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, and the National Academy Foundation (NAF). Our Lenovo Scholar Network with NAF offers more than 5,000 students at 118 high schools across the U.S. the opportunity to learn to develop mobile applications. Female and/or minority students are 87 percent of all NAF participants.

Do you remember NSBE’s mission statement? Do you think NSBE’s mission is still important? Why?

The NSBE mission (“to increase the number of culturally responsible Black Engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community”) is very important. “Excelling academically” and “succeeding professionally” resonates with what I mentioned previously, regarding the importance of diverse STEM professionals who influence the creation of products to better serve a diverse world. But the emphasis on cultural responsibility and positively impacting the community is essential. Having the awareness, capability and initiative to give back to younger generations is the real game-changer. It’s incredibly important that we plug into our communities and help serve as positive catalysts for real change.