When she was just 16, Shellye Archambeau knew she wanted to be a CEO. She also knew that, as an African American woman, realizing that dream would be anything but easy and that she’d have to be highly strategic. “I had researched the CEOs of the world, and I did not find many who looked like me, so I knew I needed to give myself the best head start I could get,” she writes in her new memoir, Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms. When she’d decided that Wharton would be her best bet for undergraduate, she went all in. “It was the only college I applied to, and I applied early decision.”
That gamble paid off, as did a series of strategic career moves. Archambeau spent 15 years learning the tech ropes at IBM, followed by a short stint as president of Blockbuster’s e-commerce division. She left after Blockbuster’s senior leadership turned down an offer from Reed Hastings to combine a fledgling Netflix with Blockbuster.com to form a separate spinoff. “‘Netflix is nothing,'” [my boss] said. “‘They’ll never get off the ground, and if they ever turn into anything, we’ll just buy them.’ Discussion closed…I knew this was not the company for me.”
She landed in Silicon Valley at the height of the dot-com bubble, taking a job as CMO of web site service provider Loudcloud. But when the bubble burst, she found herself one of many looking for a top-level gig. Ultimately, she found it in a Kleiner Perkins-backed software startup called Zaplet, where she became one of Silicon Valley’s first female African American CEOs. She led the company through a merger with MetricStream and served as CEO of the combined entity for 15 years, building it into a global leader in governance, risk and compliance software with more 1,200 employees. In 2018, Archambeau stepped down from that role and now serves on the boards of Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies and Okta, as well as on two nonprofits, Catalyst and Braven.
In the following interview, Archambeau talks about why she wrote her memoir and why she chose to focus on corporate governance rather than take another CEO position.
So what made you write this book?
I have tried throughout my entire career to be accessible. I respond to emails, phone calls, Twitter, Instagram, whatever. It takes time, but the reason I do it is I want people to realize that, hey, I’m a real person. I’m down to earth, you can reach me. And if you can touch me, then you can be me because I’m real.
As I took on more and more responsibility from a career standpoint, I didn’t have time to meet with everyone one-on-one so they could hear my story, pick my brain, you know. And it was killing me because I really wanted to be helpful. So I said, all right, I’m just going to write it all down. I’m going to share all the strategies and approaches and how I was able to improve my odds and get what I wanted out of life so that more people can, because it really frustrates me how many people aren’t able to achieve their aspirations.
How did the experience of writing it compare with your expectations?
It was harder. I coauthored a business book over a decade ago and that was much easier. A business book is pretty straightforward, and it’s not emotional. When it came to writing this book, because it is so personal, it was so much harder. I didn’t want to just say, do this, do this, do this, do this, do this. I wanted to try to help people see that life is hard for everybody and be more candid than I feel some books are. So many times people tell their story and it sounds like, ‘Okay, step one, step two, I hit a little rocky patch and then back to three and then four.’ I mean, that’s how most of them go.
But you’re sitting there working through your own career and it’s hard and it’s tough and you’re tired and you’re frustrated and you’re all these things. And you’re thinking, man, I am just not cut out for this obviously because it’s so hard for me and it’s so easy for everybody else. But the bottom line is it’s hard for everybody. I wanted people to know that. So don’t stop just because it gets hard—just get more help. I had problems too, you’re in good company, you know? I just don’t want people to stop pushing because it gets hard.
Not everyone has the determination to realize childhood ambitions. What do you think enabled you to get there, in spite of all the roadblocks?
The power lies in being intentional. When I made a plan, I assumed the plan was going to happen, so every decision I made just assumed that the plan was happening. By doing that I was able to improve my odds of reaching my goals—like saving for a wedding when I didn’t have a fiancé yet. I knew when I wanted to get married, so I assumed I would and then, sure enough, I got married early and was able to pay for it without a loan. It’s all about being intentional. People said to me, oh, you were so lucky you married a man who was willing to stay home with the kids. I’m like, no, that wasn’t luck—it was part of the process. I talked to him about that before we were even engaged. But all of these things, by being intentional and assuming your plan is going to happen and then making decisions consistent with that, there is so much power that gets unlocked from that.
So is it kind of like, set the stage, make the effort and the universe will deliver?
Yes. Because a couple of things—one, if it’s in your mind that this is what’s going to happen, and then the more you focus on it, the more you see it, the more you plan for it, so the things that you do are all in line with that. Two, I tell people all the time, decide what you’re going to do and then tell people. Why? Because then people can help you. If they don’t know what you want to do, they can’t help you. So I’m a big believer in that—tell the universe what you want and what you need so the universe can help you.
You could have gone on to many more senior positions, but you decided to focus on directorships. Why?
A couple of reasons. I had always planned for phase two, once I’d passed the baton on the CEO role, to spend more times on the corporate governance side, in the boardroom. This phase of my life is all about impact and inspiration and I believe I can make a big impact in the boardroom and the other things that I do around it—I advise companies, nonprofits, I have my passion projects, all those things. If it’s not about impact and inspiration, then I don’t do it. So could I go be a CEO again and have a full-time 24-by-seven, always-on job? Sure, I could, but my goal has never been, frankly, amassing wealth. That’s never been the measure of the success that I’ve defined for myself. The success I’ve defined for myself is, I wanted to be able to be a CEO, to be a public board member, to make an impact on the world and I wanted to be comfortable. And I am.
Is the title of your book, Unapologetically Ambitious, a reference to the fact that we expect men to be ambitious, but not women?
Yes—the purpose for that title was the fact that everyone deserves to be ambitious and nobody should have to apologize for it. Today that’s not the case.
You were one of the first African-American female CEOs in high-tech, and that was almost 20 years ago. Why are there still so few female CEOs and so few CEOs of color?
Oh goodness—so many things. But the bottom line is human beings are pattern matchers. Mother Nature built us to recognize patterns as a way of protecting our species. So that we recognize poisonous foods versus foods that are safe. So we recognize people that are part of our clan versus people who are not. So because we are pattern matchers, it’s hard for anybody to envision people who don’t match the pattern of what you believe is successful to break through, without intention. So I believe that we have to be more intentional to help break the pattern because once we have enough, then we’ll have a new pattern.
And by the way, every culture is different. In the U.S. we are abysmal when it comes to women and people of color in STEM fields. Just abysmal. That’s not a worldwide issue. That’s a U.S. issue. It’s true in some other countries too, but there are a lot of countries where there are just as many women as there are men engineers, if not more, so if we want to change these patterns, we have to be intentional about it.
For those readers who have played with the idea of writing a memoir, who want to help others by sharing their experiences, what advice would you give them?
I would say it is a lot more work than you realize. And don’t do it if you’re doing it to try to make money because very few authors make money through their books—I knew that going in. So just know what you’re signing up for right before you get into it. Because it’s not just the writing—the marketing and promotion of the book take an enormous amount of time and resources.
The timing of the book release was not exactly ideal, was it?
Absolutely insane. But you know, at first, when the book tour was canceled [because of Covid] I thought, oh, after all that, there’s no book tour. And then I thought, thank God I’m not getting on a plane, on top of everything else. I’ve done a ton of virtual events and that’s been great. So in the end, that was a positive.