One powerful narrative of Silicon Valley success goes like this: you create a site to rank girls’ appearances and drop out of Harvard to launch a startup with friends. You wear t-shirts and sports sandals to meetings, sleep well into the usual workday, and quickly build one of the most powerful businesses of our age.
That is not Shellye Archambeau’s story. Archambeau became CEO of a Silicon Valley company by age 40, and today serves on the boards of Verizon and Nordstrom. Her path to success is less well known—and given that she’s one of a very few Black, female tech company chief executives, it is perhaps as uncommon as Mark Zuckerberg’s unique trajectory.
But, as recounted by Archambeau in the recently published Unapologetically Ambitious, it’s a compelling, unflinching story of the career of someone with unusual self assurance, organization, and drive looking to share the key factors behind her success.
Her core recommendation is to decide what you want to achieve in life, and then plan very specifically how you get there. “Do airline pilots take off without a clear destination and flight plan?” Archambeau writes. “No, but that’s exactly what too many people do—jump headlong into life without a strategy or even a clear set of goals.” (p. 45)
Archambeau decided by junior year in high school that she wanted to run a business, and by her early 20s that she aimed to be the CEO of IBM. She observed that top IBM executives started in sales, and did stints abroad—so she began as a salesperson and eventually got herself posted to Japan. She noticed they were good public speakers, so she spent two evenings a week at Toastmasters club meetings even though she had a young baby at home. Archambeau left IBM without becoming CEO, but she became chief executive of MetricStream, and now serves on top corporate boards—it’s notable that Sheryl Sandberg, Eric Schmidt, Lowell McAdam, Mellody Hobson, Reid Hoffman, and Ben Horowitz are among the tech and finance luminaries quoted praising the book.
As one of the only Black children in the various places her family lived during her childhood, Archambeau always started as an outsider and faced overt racial discrimination. Her philosophy, imbued by her mother, is that life is unfair, but that’s not a reason to limit your goals. “By not allowing us to use racism as an excuse, my parents hoped to empower us to overcome it,” she writes. (p. 16)
Archambeau has lots of advice—the final chapter, titled “Life Planning 101,” presents it in distilled, almost-worksheet fashion.
Here are some noteworthy examples:
- Go into a growing industry, because there are more opportunities there. (p. 50)
- Don’t ask people to formally mentor you. “Adopt mentors” by asking them for simple advice, then follow up to tell them how things turned out. (p. 199)
- Build your network all of the time, not just when you need something. (p. 208)
- If you’re not being given fair compensation or opportunities, take the risk and leave the job. (p. 222)
- Let everyone know what your goals are. You’re less likely to miss opportunities this way. (p. 236)
- When she was in primary school in Granada Hills, California, two male classmates ambushed her and punched and kicked her, while cars drove by without stopping to help. (p. 17)
- Despite their modest finances, Archambeau’s mother quietly saved money to be able to buy herself a horse, surprising the whole family. (p. 38)
- Before taking the CEO job, Archambeau met with a key company investor, Vinod Khosla, and challenged him: “You have a great reputation for supporting your companies, but you also have a reputation for being strong willed and sometimes dominating. I need to know before I answer, are you hiring me to implement your strategy for the company, or are you hiring me to be the CEO?” Khosla said it was the latter. (p. 178)
To be sure…
- Unapologetically Ambitious is possibly most useful for people early in their careers, who are looking to set goals for lives ahead of them.
- Archambeau acknowledges that her professional drive took a toll on herself—she briefly discusses a period of depression—and on her family, especially her relationship with her daughter during high school years when Archambeau was commuting between home in Texas and work in California. She prefers to talk about “choices” rather than “sacrifices” and work-life “integration” rather than work-life “balance”—but it’s hard not to wonder about the price paid at times.
- “Success begins with figuring out what you want, then making the choices that will get you there.” (p. xviii)
- “This is how success begins: by setting a clear goal and committing to go after it, ambitiously, unapologetically, strategically.” (p. 42)
- “If you have timelines, and you stick to them unwaveringly, then you get things done.” (p. 109)
- “I’ve known many women who have gotten stuck in their careers because they were unable to master a skill they could have delegated, unwilling to delegate a task someone else could do, or unwilling to seek guidance when you need it.” (p. 118)
- “If you ‘have it all’ but sacrifice yourself, what do you really have in the end?” (p. 124)
- “I don’t care what you want to do in life, the best first job is in sales. Best job. Why? In sales you learn to ask for what you want and need. You learn to be resilient. You learn that a no is not the end of the world; it just means ‘not now.’ You learn how to negotiate. You learn how to listen. You learn how to develop relationships.” (p. 211)
The bottom line is that Unapologetically Ambitious is a rare recounting of professional success achieved through unrelenting planning and drive. Archambeau’s story is as much or more about her family, including the compelling figure of her late husband who agreed to prioritize her career. She’s not selling a dream of fast, or easy success—but she is suggesting with planning, hard work, and sacrifice you can achieve it.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.