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Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms
Foreword by Ben Horowitz
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Shellye Archambeau recounts how she overcame the challenges she faced as a young black woman, wife, and mother, managing her personal and professional responsibilities while climbing the ranks at IBM and subsequently in her roles as CEO. Through the busts and booms of Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, this bold and inspiring book details the risks she took and the strategies she engaged to steer her family, her career, and her company MetricStream toward success.
Through her journey, Shellye discovered that ambition alone is not enough to achieve success. Here, she shares the practical strategies, tools, and approaches readers can employ right now, including concrete steps to most effectively:
- Dismantle impostor syndrome
- Capitalize on the power of planning
- Take risks
- Developing financial literacy
- Build your network
- Establish your reputation
- Take charge of your career
- Integrate work, marriage, parenthood, and self-care
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I first came to know Shellye Archambeau when I hired her to run marketing for my company, Loudcloud. The company was growing much faster than the current team and I could handle; I needed someone with better leadership skills than I had to help build out the organization. Shellye turned out to be just that. During her tenure, she taught me how to make hard decisions and communicate them clearly and unapologetically. In many ways, she was my mentor rather than vice versa.
Eventually, the Loudcloud business didn't work, and Shellye and I parted ways. I remember thinking at the time that wherever she went, they would be quite lucky to have her.
A few months later, Shellye told me that she was considering becoming CEO of a company called Zaplet. This surprised me, because of Zaplet's backstory. Led by Silicon Valley superstar Alan Baratz, Zaplet had once been the darling of the technology world. Baratz had raised gigantic amounts of money and garnered glowing press coverage. Everyone expected Zaplet to be the next great technology company. But as so often happens in technology, things did not go as planned. The company rapidly burned through its massive cash hoard and was on the verge of a total wipeout. In order to save itself from bankruptcy, Zaplet laid off huge numbers of employees and battened down the hatches for what looked like would be a long winter followed by a fire sale.
Companies like Zaplet almost never come back, because they become fatally tainted by their meteoric rise and even swifter fall. Every potential employee, customer, and investor would know the company was damaged goods, and it would be nearly impossible for a new CEO to fight through that. I did not want to see Shellye jump into such a polluted swamp.
I said, "Shellye, I don't think you should take that job." I could tell from her body language that she heard me but wasn't planning to listen to me.
Her reaction was so sharp I worried she thought I was telling her that she couldn't do it, when I was really trying to say that she shouldn't do it. But as the discussion went on, I realized that Shellye understood the issues and, to a large extent, those issues were the very reason she wanted to be the CEO.
Shellye wasn't optimizing for a personal financial outcome, glory, or a career boost. She was looking for the ultimate test of her leadership skills. She was like a great boxer who wanted to fight the most dangerous opponents to prove she was the best. She was attracted to, rather than repelled by, the insanely high degree of difficulty that Zaplet posed.
Shellye took the job, and Zaplet was as advertised. For every issue that I warned her about, there were another hundred that I did not anticipate. But like Muhammad Ali taking on Joe Frazier and George Foreman, Shellye scratched, clawed, and willed her way to victory. She changed everything about the company: the technology, the business they were in, and most of the employees. She merged it into MetricStream and grew the combined entity into a robust industry leader over fourteen long years.
As I watched her do it, I often wondered where that incredible determination, focus, and will to win came from. Finally, with this book, I have the answer.
Shellye's life story, and the lessons it carries, are powerful examples of focus and ambition that can shape your life for the better. If your goal is just to be famous, maybe this is not the story for you, but if your goal is to be a truly great leader of men and women, you have found your guide.
Co-Founder and General Partner, Andreessen Horowitz
I'm in my office at MetricStream Inc., hurriedly clearing a backlog of voice mails, trying to get through them before my first meeting of the day. As usual, they're all sales pitches—cold calls from vendors who don't know who else to approach in the company, so they leave a message for the CEO. Anyone who really needs me calls my cell phone or sends me an email, so I'm only half attending, listening to each message just long enough to confirm that it's a sales call before I delete it. My gaze wanders out the window of my corner office, to the view of Highway 101 in the distance, all those cars rushing who knows where. Outside my door, I hear people arriving at their desks, settling in for another busy day. What time is it? I wonder, but before I can check the clock, a distinctive voice interrupts my thoughts: "Shellye, this is Lowell McAdam," the message says.
Lowell McAdam, I think. Where have I heard that name?
"Marc Andreessen suggested I talk to you. Can you give me a call?"
Marc Andreessen? Now, that name I know well. What's this about?
I hang up the phone and turn to my computer. A Google search tells me Lowell McAdam is the relatively new CEO of Verizon, a Fortune 15 company.
Okay…He wouldn't be calling me for MetricStream business purposes, because Verizon isn't a client or a prospect. What could this be about? Why would Marc refer Lowell to me? Is this a job opportunity? Does he want me to do a speaking engagement?
Befuddled, I call Marc.
"It's all good, Shellye," Marc tells me. "Lowell's looking for a new board member with experience that matches yours, a high-profile CEO in tech who has managed operations at scale. I recommended he speak with you."
I hang up the phone. Verizon wants to talk to me about a board position? A smile takes over my face.
When I was a junior in high school, after a fateful conversation with a school guidance counselor, I set a major career goal: I wanted to become a CEO. During college, I refined that goal: I would become CEO of a tech company. On my way toward earning my CEO seat, I learned there was a governance structure one step above the CEO: the board of directors—the people who hire and fire CEOs and who ensure a company's shareholders see returns on their investments. So I added another goal: I wanted to serve on a Fortune 500 board before I was fifty-five.
Now, at fifty years old, after ten years as CEO of MetricStream, I'm getting the call from Verizon. A momentary doubt enters my mind: But am I ready for a Fortune 50 board position? I recognize that voice, and I know better than to listen to it. Am I ready? Of course I am. I've been working my whole life for this. All the strategic planning, discipline, and hard trade-offs are paying off.
After a brief conversation with Lowell, I know I want the board seat. The minute I get off the phone, as I've always done in moments like this, I call my husband, Scotty, to share the exciting news.
"Babe, guess what?" I say when he answers.
"What?" he asks, his voice bright with anticipation.
"I just talked to Lowell McAdam from Verizon." I can't shake the smile off my face when I say it: "They're interested in me as a potential board member. So, it'll be a process, but I'm going for it. We'll see what happens…"
Then Scotty, my number one cheerleader, says, "What do you mean we'll see? You know he's going to want you on the board after he meets you."
Scotty was right.
* * *
As an African American woman in my fifties, I don't exactly fit the prototype for a tech industry business leader. I can't tell you how many times people—especially women and people of color—have asked me this question: How did you get where you are?
You may be wondering the same thing.
Before I answer the question, let me tell you a bit about where I started. In 1962, I was born into a family of modest means and high ambitions. This was not long after lunch counter sit-ins called national attention to segregation, and not long before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington.
During the first five years of my life, the Civil Rights Act passed, peaceful demonstrators met brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the Voting Rights Act banned practices that limited voter rights, and racial tensions soared. In this environment, my determined parents set out to make a life for our family, following opportunity wherever it took us.
As for me, I started as a shy, gangly black girl in an all-white elementary school, and I grew into a successful high school student and a graduate of the Wharton School. I met a wonderful man to share my life with, and together we raised a family. After a fast-paced rise through the ranks at IBM, I became one of very (very) few female African American CEOs in the technology sector, all the way back in 2003, when I was forty years old. As CEO of Zaplet, I orchestrated a merger with MetricStream, guided our combined company through the choppy waters of the dot-com bust and the financial crisis of 2008, and MetricStream came out the other end an industry leader, employing over a thousand people. Along the way, I have mentored countless young professionals, and I have been involved in organizations that do a lot of good—especially for minorities and women.
How did I get here? That's what this book is all about—the values, experiences, lessons, ideas, strategies, and actions that got me where I am today. If I had to sum it up, though, I would say ambition got me here—ambition supported by the conscious choices I made every step of the way.
Success begins with figuring out what you want, then making the choices that will get you there. You'll notice I use that word a lot: choices.
Early on, my parents set me on the right track by teaching me the foundational life skills and lessons that would help me survive in a world hostile to young black girls like me. I'll share those with you in Part One, "Early Lessons." (Spoiler alert: Some of those early lessons I still put to good use today.)
In my college years, I developed a life plan that would ultimately serve me through the next three decades. You'll read about that in Part 2, "Strategize for Success." I mean, I planned everything out: my marriage, kids, career path, even my future lifestyle. I will tell you how I set myself up to accomplish everything on that list (give or take a detail or two), and how you can do that, too.
In Part 3, "Living the Plan," I'll recount the challenges I faced and the wisdom I gained while executing my life plan, stepping into my roles as career woman, wife, and mother. It's not easy, let me tell you, managing all that, but you can do it if you make smart choices in accordance with your plan.
Of course, life never goes exactly as planned. But you don't have to tumble out of your boat just because the river bends. In Part 4, "Swerve," I'll talk about how I made necessary changes while holding tight to my goals.
Finally, in Part 5, "Improving Your Odds," I'll share my top five, tried-and-true tips for advancing in your career and achieving your life goals.
Now, in addition to choices, you may have noticed I use another word a lot: plan.
That's right. I'm a planner. Big-time. In fact, some might say I'm a little over the top when it comes to strategizing my life. But honestly, as a business leader and mentor, I'm surprised how many people—smart, talented, creative people—don't have a plan in place to help them reach their goals.
I know people who have taken the opportunities they found right in front of them, instead of strategizing to create their own options. I've watched people make easy choices that don't truly serve their long-term goals. I've met people who once had an idea—a far-fetched dream—of what they wanted, but they never formalized that dream into a goal or figured out a plan to get there. These are the folks who wake up in midlife, wondering how they ended up so far away from where they'd hoped they would be.
All too often, I meet people who don't think about the long term at all. If you don't have goals, how will you reach them? If you have goals but no plan, how will you know if you're on track?
The good news is: It's never too early to plan. And the better news is: It's never too late. At any point in your life or career, you can set an objective, research the skills, experiences, or resources you need to go after it, and then map out a plan to achieve it.
I'm not the only person who has custom-built a happy, successful life. You can do it, too. This doesn't mean you won't face challenges, disappointments, and tragedies along the way. (Most of us do.) It means that you can make life—and everything that comes with it—work for you.
Wait—are you wondering if this actually applies to you? If you can find success and happiness? Why is this a question so many of us ask ourselves—not "How can I get what I want?" but "Is this even possible for someone like me?"
Let me say, unequivocally, yes. Yes, it is.
Let me explain.
If you haven't figured this out already, I'm an ambitious woman. Unapologetically so. When people ask me where my ambition comes from, well, it's sort of like asking me where my legs came from. It grew with me; it's part of my genetic code. Just as you can trace certain physical traits back through the generations of my family, so can you trace ambition.
My aunt Dee, keeper of the family papers on my mother's side, has a document that reminds me how far my family has come over the years. Yellowed parchment, faded brown ink—it's called a deed of manumission, a handwritten letter penned by a slave owner, verifying the release of one of my ancestors from slavery. To read it, you would have no idea it referred to a human being. It could be a description of livestock—male, five feet five inches, high forehead, long scar on his neck. Just a couple generations later, my great-grandfather, a proud and accomplished man whom everyone called Papa, was bringing my mother and her sister to lunch counter sit-ins, teaching them to take a stand for what's right, and writing weekly letters to the editor of the local paper, speaking out against injustice.
On my father's side, we have a family Bible, a heavy tome bound in blue cloth embossed with intricate gold lettering. Inside, it's inscribed with the names and birthdates of ancestors, beginning with Dominique D'Archambau (a different spelling of my last name), a sea captain from France, who married a Jamaican woman named Maria Chaddenne who gave birth to Thomas Nicholas, in 1806, in Jamaica. That list of names leads right to my own grandchildren. Tracing my finger down the page, I imagine what life was like for each generation. I see how each name is like a rung on a ladder climbing toward greater and greater freedoms.
Yes, I see the challenges my ancestors faced. I also see their strength—the work ethic, pride, faith, and ambition that propelled them forward. That's in my DNA.
As for you? No matter where you are starting, no matter where you or your family have been, you too have the strength to propel yourself forward. If you're skeptical, that's okay. Stick with me. I'll walk you through it.
So, are you ready? Let's start with some questions:
What do you want from life?
What values do you live by?
What sort of lifestyle do you seek?
What fulfills you?
These are the questions I want you to ask yourself. Now, no two individuals want the same things out of life. We all know this in theory, but when it comes time to design our lives, sometimes we overlook that essential question: What do I want? Forget about achieving success as someone else defines it. What do you want?
By the end of this book, I hope you will both define what you want and feel empowered to go after it, unapologetically.
Create Your Own Luck
I. Am. CEO.
Snapping my eyes open in the predawn darkness of my bedroom, my husband sleeping quietly beside me, I hear this thought reverberating through my mind as loud as Fourth of July fireworks, ricocheting off every corner of my brain: I. Am. CEO. It is way too early to be awake, but I can no longer pretend sleep is an option for me on this Monday, my first day in my new role.
I take a deep breath and exhale, trying to calm myself. Not wanting to let this extraordinary moment slip past, I close my eyes and assess my feelings. A single question filters into my consciousness: How did I get here?
I chuckle softly into the quiet. It's a silly question. It's not as if I dropped down into this moment out of the blue. I walked every single painstaking step it took to get here. I spent decades learning, growing, planning, overcoming, strategizing, making intentional choices, taking calculated risks, and working hard—really, really hard—to get to this exact place.
But somehow, I am amazed to have arrived.
So amazed that I want to go back to the beginning and watch it all happen again.
How, exactly, did I get here?
* * *
When I was six years old, my family spent Christmas in a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles. Mom, Dad, my two sisters, my baby brother, and me, all bursting with holiday excitement as we ripped open presents and ate Christmas cookies before breakfast. For us kids, that Christmas morning was as wonderful as any other, though I wouldn't find out for years just how much grit had made that holiday happen.
My dad, Lester Archambeau, worked for IBM, a company known for transferring employees all over the country. In my short life, my family had already moved four times—from Washington, DC, to Boston; to Lexington, Kentucky, to Philadelphia—and now we were headed to Granada Hills, a nice suburb of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley. Moving all the time like that could have felt dramatic to another family, but my parents didn't deal in drama; they dealt in reality. They just figured out how to make things work. They also held tight to their core values while making these moves. For example, my parents believed in a good education, so when my dad was transferred to California, my mom, Mera Archambeau, refused to let me miss a single day of first grade. Instead, my father moved ahead of us, I stayed in school through December 23, and on Christmas Eve 1968, we up and flew across the country, on IBM's dime.
I should mention here that Mom had decided to have all her kids as fast as she could. She said she wanted to be done with diapers in one stretch. So I was born in July of 1962, Lindy in May of 1964, Niki in August of 1965, and Arch was born in June of 1967, before my fifth birthday. When I think of my mom, flying cross-country with four children age six and under—how she handled that I will never know, but that's my point: She handled it. That's what my mom does, and by example, that's what she has taught me to do.
Our house wouldn't be ready for us when we arrived in California, which is how we ended up in a hotel. This arrangement had been a matter of serious concern for Lindy and Niki: not moving, not staying in a hotel, but the logistics of Christmas.
"Mommy," Lindy had whined, a few days before our move, "Santa can't find us if we move! We won't get any presents this year!"
Before Mom could answer, I chimed in. Because at six years old, I clearly knew everything already. "Don't worry!" I assured Lindy. "Santa Claus knows everything, remember? That's how he knows if we are good or not. He sees the people who are flying, too. He will know we're in California, and he'll bring Christmas to us there. You'll see!"
My proclamation may have put my sisters at ease, but meanwhile, my mother was panicking. Christmas is Mom's favorite holiday. She and Dad had a tradition of doing everything—baking cookies, putting up the tree, wrapping presents—late on Christmas Eve, after we had gone to bed. Just imagine this: Each year, we would go to bed on Christmas Eve in a normal house. It could have been July, given the lack of any sign of the winter holiday. On Christmas morning, we would wake up to find stockings hanging from our bedroom doorknobs, filled with little toys and candy canes. That's how we knew Santa had come. After going through our stockings, we would rush downstairs to witness magic.
Before we could see it, we would hear it. Mom had the Christmas music playing. The staircase was wrapped in garland with sparkling ornaments hanging at each loop. We saw the reflection of blinking lights before the tree came into view. The dining room table featured a huge centerpiece made up of pinecones, evergreen branches, and fruit. As we entered the living room, it seemed alive with Christmas spirit—every surface laden with decorations. Personalized, homemade, decorative knitted stockings for each of us hung from the mantel, on top of which perched a sled filled with presents and pulled by reindeer. A winter wonderland scene, complete with fake snow. Tiered trays of Christmas cookies sat on the end tables, surrounded by decorative snowmen, Santa Clauses, and elves. The lampshades were draped in Christmas fabric, and the curtains were accented with silver garland and twinkling lights. Finally, the tree: as tall as the ceiling, loaded with ornaments from homemade to porcelain, circled by piles of presents. Mom and Dad had told us Santa was responsible for delivering this miracle, and we eagerly believed. Santa could do anything; we had proof.
The year we moved to California, Mom had been planning to downsize the production—until my confident assessment of Santa's abilities set the expectations for everyone: full production, on location, in California. Not only was Mom now on the hook for presents, she also had to turn a two-bedroom hotel room into a Christmas wonderland—after a cross-country flight, in a strange town, overnight, while her children slept.
At this point, you might be thinking Mom would choose to compromise, or even to end the fairy tale. But you don't know my mother. No, instead she created a plan and enlisted help to execute it. She shared her dilemma with the moving van driver, who stepped up to help her. Our gifts and the boxes of decorations would be loaded on the truck last, so they could come off first. He would bring the truck to the hotel late on Christmas Eve to drop off the goods, plus some homemade cookies his wife would bake. Meanwhile, our family members helped mail the rest of the gifts to the hotel, so they'd be waiting at the desk when we arrived. Just like that, Mom had everything taken care of, except the tree.
On Christmas Eve, after a flight that must have felt a lot longer to Mom than it did to my siblings and me, we met Dad at the airport. He loaded us up in a rented station wagon and drove us to the hotel. After a hurried dinner, we kids dutifully went to bed, imagining Santa Claus and his reindeer on their way.
Meanwhile, the real Santa went to work retrieving presents and decorations, while Dad drove through downtown Los Angeles in search of a Christmas tree. With no cell phone, no Google Maps, no Amazon or TaskRabbit to help, he drove for a long time, scanning the streets for anything that might work. As far as he could tell, every last store was closed for the holiday. It was getting late, and Dad was getting desperate, when he spotted a hardware store with its lights on. In the window: a fully decorated Christmas tree, and a sign that said CLOSED.
Dad knew this was his one chance. He parked, walked up to the door, and started pounding on it. A man came out of the back and waved at him: Go away. But nobody tells Lester Archambeau where to go, especially when he's trying to get something done for his family. He kept pounding.
Finally, the man came to the door and opened it a crack. "Can't you read?" he said. "Sign says we're closed."
My dad quickly wedged his foot in the door. "Mister, I want to buy your Christmas tree in the window there."
"It's not for sale," the man said, and tried to close the door. Of course, Dad's foot was blocking it.
"Please," Dad said. "I've got four little kids in a hotel room, and they're expecting Santa Claus to bring them a tree. Can't you let me buy it from you? I'll even bring it right back after Christmas."
I don't know of many real-life Christmas miracles, but for my dad, this was one. The man relented, and somehow Dad returned to the hotel with a fully decorated tree.
The next morning, we woke to find stockings on our doorknob. Santa had found us! I threw open the bedroom door and there they were: the blinking lights on the Christmas tree, Santas and elves on the end tables, garland around the windows, trays of cookies, and gifts around the tree.
"See?" I said to my sisters and brother. "I told you Santa would know where we were."
- "In a world that too often tells women, especially Black women, to stay small, keep quiet, and know their limits, this book says otherwise. It's a celebration of women knowing their power."—Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Meta and founder of LeanIn.Org and OptionB.Org
- "Shellye has achieved amazing success through a clear strategy of setting goals, making plans, and intelligent risk-taking. In this book, she's now sharing these strategies with us: why to set an ambitious plan and how to achieve it. Highly recommended."—Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Start-Up of You
- "Readers will be drawn into her narrative style and find her advice practical and easy to follow. The book of concrete career and life advice from an accomplished Black woman will appeal to women of all ages."—Booklist, starred review
- "Shellye's life story, and the lessons it carries, are powerful examples of focus and ambition that can shape your life for the better. If your goal is just to be famous, maybe this is not the story for you, but if your goal is to be a truly great leader of men and women, you have found your guide."—Ben Horowitz, New York Times bestselling author of The Hard Thing about Hard Things
- "Unapologetically Ambitious is a treasure trove of strategic wisdom and practical tips, brought to life through amazing storytelling that will leave the reader inspired, empowered and appreciative. The book deals with the realities of setbacks, trade-offs and societal norms in an authentic way, while illustrating that strength and success often lie in mindset and the team you choose in life. The closing chapter serves as a master guide to navigating life, providing a penultimate takeaway for any reader early in their journey to put the wisdom and experience of the Archambeau's lessons learned into immediate action!"—Brad D.Smith, president of Marshall University and executive chairman of Intuit and Nordstrom
- "Through a compelling story about her own journey, Shellye offers powerful tips for how to live life courageously and go after what you want. From investing in your financial health to integrating work, marriage, parenthood and self-care--each chapter lays out actionable strategies to help you achieve your goals. A must read for anyone looking for ways to grow and live their best life."—Thasunda Brown Duckett, CEO of TIAA and former CEO of Chase Consumer Banking
"A successful career in any industry is always underpinned by a few important elements: focus, risk-awareness and drive. Shellye's book Unapologetically Ambitious underscores the importance these elements can play in your career and showcases brilliant strategies and approaches through her own career pursuits. "
—John Thompson, chairman of Microsoft
- "Shellye Archambeau is one of the most intelligent, hard-working and focused women I have met in my 40+ years of business. I was very pleased to have her join the Verizon board in 2013 and have watched her rise within the board to now head the Corporate Governance Committee. Her experience as an African American women rising through the ranks of both large global businesses and technology startups gives her a unique perspective to share with those entering the business world especially those people of color. Grab a pen a paper as you read this book. It is full of the guidance that will put you on a path to career success."—Lowell McAdam,Former CEO of Verizon
- "There are lots of people who have the raw talent and ambition to be great successes, but lack a strategy and plan. That's what Unapologetically Ambitious is about! It reveals Shellye Archambeau's formula for developing your own talent and getting what you want out of life both professionally and personally. It's the book I wish I had read when I was in my 20s."—Eric Schmidt, Google CEO and chairman from 2001 until2011, Google executive chairman from 2011 to 2015 and Alphabetexecutive chairman from 2015 to 2018
- "Archambeau's winning voice and refusal to countenance failure make for an appealing account of one woman's path to success."—Publishers Weekly
- "Archambeau's book is essential reading for anyone seeking guidance on taking a strategic approach to increasing their odds for success in business and life. I especially recommend it to entrepreneurs and innovators who are early in their careers and focused on drawing down risk and achieving targeted milestones."—Clare Leinweber, Executive Director of TsaiCenter for Innovative Thinking at Yale
- "Shellye Archambeau's remarkable journey is one of tremendous grit and perseverance. Through honest storytelling, Unapologetically Ambitious reveals a clear message-create your own luck."—Mellody Hobson, Presidentand co-CEO of Ariel Investments
- "Shellye Archambeau is an extraordinary leader whose insight is only rivaled by her foresight. She takes us through her fascinating life's journey, which is marked by dogged persistence, bucking of norms, and repeated excellence. This deeply personal and engaging book is a must-read!"—Tsedal Neeley,Harvard Business School Professor and Author of the Language of GlobalSuccess
- On Sale
- Sep 27, 2022
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing