Women’s Empowerment Month: Paving The Way For True Change
Today is March 8th, 2021, International Women’s Day. Today we celebrate women’s achievement; raise awareness against bias; and take action for equality. #ChooseToChallenge #IWD2021
SRA is celebrating International Women’s Day all month long with our Women’s Empowerment Month series; featuring women, particularly BIPOC women in leadership, who are taking action for equality and paving the way for our future leaders.
First in this series, hear from Queen Denchukwu, Director, Diversity & Inclusion at Lucasfilm. Queen shares her career pathway from chemical engineering to human resource management, her experience as a BIPOC woman in leadership, gender-related challenges she’s faced throughout her career, as well as her hope for women of the next generation.
Read the full story below:
Please share a little about yourself. Where are you from? How did education shape your life?
My name is Queen Denchukwu (she/her), and I serve as the Director of Diversity & Inclusion for Lucasfilm. But more than this, I am a mother, a daughter, a wife, an immigrant, and a servant of Christ. I am a proud Nigerian from Enugu state. In addition, I am the first of four kids in my family and also the only daughter. I am a mom to three wonderful children – a daughter who is 15, and two sons, 14 and 10 – and have been happily married for 17 years. My family and I live in Oakland, California. On a personal note, I would consider myself to be naturally curious, as I love to explore other cultures through travel. I’m an avid hiker and love the outdoors.
When it comes to the question of how education shaped my life, the first thing that comes to mind is my family. I come from a very close knit family and consider my parents to be my heroes. Growing up, my parents placed a high premium on education – education was not optional. Indeed, my father always said that education is the springboard to opportunity; for him, “education was our window to the world.” I took my father’s advice quite literally and endeavored to attain a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, and then, after starting a family, I went back and enrolled in a master’s program for HR management while working full-time and raising three little kids. To me, if I wanted opportunity in life, education was the foundation. My education has opened so many doors in my career, and has also been critical to building my network.
How did you find your career path in Diversity & Inclusion?
In all honesty my career path in Diversity and Inclusion followed me. I wasn’t actively looking for it, but in every role I’ve held, I’ve always looked at my work through an inclusion lens. This, however, was partly a result of me knowing what it’s like to be excluded. Because of my previous experiences with exclusive and toxic environments, I’m very mindful of how I approach D&I work.
My formal D&I career path started at Autodesk, when I joined the university recruiting program as a recruiter. I was very curious and interested in consistently evaluating our approach to recruiting. In fact, I would always ask questions about the schools we were partnering with, which sourcing platforms we were leveraging, and who was sending referrals. In addition to my work as a recruiter, early on in my career I joined a program called TechWomen, where I mentored young women and girls in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. But even before my more formal roles in D&I at Autodesk, I was always involved in DEI efforts, including my active membership in Black employee resource groups.
Please share your experiences in leadership at leading, international companies: Lucasfilm, Autodesk, and Chase.
My most current position is at Lucasfilm, where I head up our global D&I efforts. We have global sites, including places like Sydney, Canada, the UK, and Singapore. I joined the company to drive D&I strategy, and I approach this work by adopting a global mindset, but thinking locally. In this way, I make it my business to understand what is unique about each region, and I tailor my approach and leadership style to fit the specific cultural needs.
At Autodesk, I led global D&I strategy and partnerships – for context, Autodesk has footprints in about 47 countries and over 100 office locations. In this role I learned very quickly about how to listen and understand different cultures and needs, and how to apply that to the programs and processes I developed. This work taught me a lot about how to value the various cultural lenses and approaches folks bring to the workplace. I was able to learn from an early age that though there may be one solution, you can get to that solution from many different angles.
I strive to remind folks that we have a lot more in common than we do differently. This approach has really helped when bridging gaps across international offices – identifying the commonalities we share, as opposed to the differences that can divide us. Though this can be challenging given the various nuances, I have learned the critical skills of listening and earning trust. In DEI work in particular, relationship building is paramount, and part of that means ensuring we’re looking at things from multiple vantage points.
How have you navigated a gender-related challenge in your career?
I have constantly had to navigate gender related challenges. Specifically, while endeavoring to attain my degree in chemical engineering, I uncovered a lot of obstacles as there were few young girls in my program. As I transitioned to my path in banking and climbing up the ladder, I continued to be in spaces that were male dominated.
But this isn’t new to me, as I mentioned, coming from a family where I was the only girl, I learned from an early age how to navigate these spaces. Part of what has helped me is that I know who I am and what my purpose is. Thanks to my parents and my faith, I have a lot of confidence in myself. Indeed, my confidence in my education, experience, and expertise has helped me navigate spaces that were not built with people like me in mind. I know what I bring to the table, and I constantly remind myself of it.
Who are women in leadership you look up to?
Apart from my mom, two women in leadership that I look up to are Melody Hobson and Michelle Obama. These women are ground-breaking trailblazers who not only do amazing work but also empower others to do the same. I admire their character, what they’ve done for themselves, and what they’ve done to give back and inspire women and Black folks all around the world. What’s truly inspirational about these women is that they didn’t just stop at ascending to the height of their careers, but they sent the elevator down to empower and equip more women to ascend with them.
I often listen to their interviews, panels, or podcasts to gain insights on how I can do better and progress in my career. For Melody Hobson in particular, I love listening to her interviews. The way that she carries herself and speaks her truth with a sense of humility and confidence is so inspiring. I really admire that about her and try to mirror that in my leadership style, by being authentic and showing up as my best self. Similarly, Michelle Obama’s grace and brilliance really motivates me to continue advancing my knowledge and expertise, and to always give back.
Please share your experiences as a BIPOC woman in leadership.
To quote Lewis Hamilton, “Being the first black ‘anything’ is a proud and lonely walk.” Though I’m not the first Black woman in leadership, there still aren’t enough of us, and to be honest, it still feels quite lonely. Although I’ve been able to build my own personal network over time, and lean on trusted advisors for advice, we still have a long way to go in terms of greater representation in leadership. My experience as a Black woman in leadership, however, is not unique to me, as we know from research and anecdotal evidence that Black women are less likely to be seen and heard in corporate spaces. Because of this, I try to show up everyday as my best self, and work hard to mentor, coach and send the elevator down to the women who come after me. Part of why I am so adamant about giving back is because I know that I stand on the shoulders of people who came before me. And I also know that our plight and our fight is not over. It is 2021 and we are still advocating for racial equity.
This very real and imperfect reality inspires me to dream, to dream of a world and a society in which Black women will be recognized, treated equitably, and valued for their contributions. My hope for the future is that we as a society will grow to change, and that we will grow to understand and recognize that the mere fact that Black women show up everyday, despite the obstacles, is a miracle. I am an eternal optimist, and so I know that change is coming.
What do equity and equitable opportunities mean to you?
To me, these concepts center around fairness and access to opportunities. Though I believe talent is evenly distributed to everyone, I acknowledge that opportunities are not; therefore, providing equitable opportunity is about giving folks’ access to opportunities so that everyone can compete and have the resources necessary to be successful. Equity and equitable opportunities are also about understanding that we face different barriers and challenges to success, and it’s about creating policies and practices that can break down societal inequalities. In essence, equity and equitable opportunities are about providing access and resources that allow folks to thrive.
What does SRA mean to you in terms of closing equity gaps?
SRA never ceases to amaze me. The profound work the organization is doing to champion first-generation students is truly unparalleled. The focus and support you provide to first-generation students through mentorship and scholarship is both remarkable and impactful. I have been a huge fan ever since I started partnering with the organization, as I really believe in the mission. Providing access to education, career advice, and advocating for students to get access to job opportunities is the perfect approach to closing the equity gap. I am honored to be a partner in this work, and hope to see more organizations support SRA.
What does leadership mean to you?
To me, leadership is all about being a servant; to lead is to serve. Leadership also means that I have to constantly adopt alternative vantage points and perspectives, as it’s critical to put myself in another person’s shoes in order to better understand how I can support them.
One of the greatest lessons I learned about leadership is that it requires humility, active listening, empathy, and compassion. Across the leadership positions I’ve held, I’ve noticed a prevalent theme in my success was to always lead with a service mindset. Why? Because when we adopt a service mindset we don’t center ourselves, but others, and that is critical to impactful and transformational change. In my role as a leader I truly want to develop others, and I aim to inspire and support those that I work with to do their best work.
What is your greatest hope for women of the future / next generation?
Women have been, and continue to be, the backbone of our society. Women raise families, take care of children, are problem solvers at work, and do it all with grace and love. My greatest hope for the future is that women will continue to be recognized and valued for all of the contributions they have made, and that they will seize the opportunity to be recognized.
I also hope that women of the future will demand to be in spaces where decisions are being made. I want us to go boldly into any and every space, fully aware that we belong. My hope is that women of the next generation will hold true to this, will continue to push boundaries, shatter ceilings, and pave the way for true change. But more than this, I want women of the future to share with one another, and to send the elevator down for those who come next.
Any advice for future leaders?
My advice for future leaders would be to lead with your truth, surround yourself with people who have your best interest at heart, and recognize when you’re in a space where you’re being tolerated instead of celebrated. Being true to yourself is of utmost importance – it makes you unique and it ensures that you are being authentic to who you are and what you believe. Also, for the sake of your mental, health and overall wellbeing, it’s important to surround yourself with those who genuinely support you, and who want to celebrate with you – finding those key people is critical to sustainable success.
Some additional advice is to seek out mentors and be a mentor. There is power in giving back, and it’s important to remember that we rise by lifting up others. The only opportunity you will miss is the one you never tried – the worst that can result is that you failed, but you learned something through the process.