Bay Area leaders discuss women’s empowerment at the sixth annual Better Together Summit

Cara Renfroe, Siroui Mushegian, Bethany Bongiorno, Teuila Hanson, and Katy Brown on stage at the Better Together Leadership Summit.

Lori Wright says her whole life trajectory changed because of a conversation with her 10th grade English teacher.

Up till then, Lori said she was drifting along, lost in a large, public high school, not anchored to anything.

Then, Mrs. Humston, the English teacher, took Lori aside and told her that she had the energy and drive to do more with her life.

“She helped me be able to realize that I was at the wheel of my life,” Lori said. “I had to take personal agency. Nobody was going to do it for me.”

Lori Wright
Lori Wright, Corporate Vice President of Xbox at Microsoft, gave the keynote at this year’s summit.

Lori is now Corporate Vice President of Xbox at Microsoft, an executive who played a key role managing Microsoft’s purchase of Activision Blizzard, the company’s largest acquisition ever. Lori shared the story in a keynote speech for the sixth annual Better Together event, hosted by Bay Area Women at Microsoft on December 5 at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley Campus. The event included partners and customers across the region.

Lori shared that powerful lesson, and other hard-earned insights, as part of what she called an “advice-filled love letter” to the more than 200 women leaders and their male allies in the audience.

“That is my message for today. You are at the wheel,” she said. “People view the world as very fixed. But the reality is that the world is incredibly fungible. If you can recognize how malleable the world is, then you can go and do amazing things.”

This year’s theme: EmpowerHer 

Her message of encouragement to other women in tech meshed well with this year’s event theme: “EmpowerHer.” Katy Brown, Microsoft Corporate Vice President and executive sponsor of the Bay Area Women at Microsoft employee resource group, said events like this one are important for paving the way for more women to go into tech and rise to leadership positions.

“I am truly passionate about events like these because they bring us together to build a community and drive meaningful change for women,” Katy said. “There’s a shared purpose among our partners, customers, and within Microsoft to facilitate a space where women not only find their seat at the table but also feel empowered to lead.”

In the panel discussion moderated by Katy, women leaders shared their own stories of finding opportunity and not being scared to change course.

Teuila Hanson, Chief People Officer at LinkedIn, shared how she ditched a career in the legal profession after realizing that it was fulfilling her dad’s ambition, not her own. She pivoted to a more rewarding career path.

“I found my way to this new profession of being a diversity professional, and then working in HR, and found happiness and joy,” she said. “I’m so thrilled to be at LinkedIn and having an impact on people’s lives.”

Bethany Bongiorno, CEO and co-founder of Humane, said she was crushed at age 23 when she did not get accepted into Stanford Graduate School of Business. But she did not let the disappointment sap her ambition. She landed a job at Apple, where she worked on the iPhone team and was asked to lead the iPad project.

“I treated Apple like my PhD program. I said I’m going to be here and absorb and be a sponge,” she said. “That absolutely was the best thing to happen to me.”

Stephanie Mosticchio, Cara Renfroe, Siroui Mushegian, Katy Brown, Bethany Bongiorno, and Teuila Hanson.
(From left): Stephanie Mosticchio, Cara Renfroe, Siroui Mushegian, Katy Brown, Bethany Bongiorno, and Teuila Hanson.


The conversation also focused on how to develop as a leader.

Cara Renfroe, Senior Vice President of Operations for Blackhawk Network, said she recommends cultivating mentors and sponsors, especially people who think differently from you.

“That’s a great way to broaden your perspective and learn something new,” she said.

Cara said it’s important to be able to delegate to your team and trust them. And when it comes to bouncing back from low moments, Cara suggests leaning on mentors, friends, and family. She and several other panelists recommended giving yourself grace when you stumble.

“We’re all human. We all make mistakes,” she said. “We learn the most when we go through those low times.”

Siroui Mushegian, Chief Information Officer of Barracuda Networks, discussed two things she does to accomplish as much as she does without losing her sense of balance.

“I try to be as organized as possible. I have to write everything down,” she said. “But you also have to take time for yourself.”

Siroui said her husband recently bought her a piano and she loves to cook. Whether it’s yoga, art, or riding horses, the panelists all recommended making time for the things you love.

Spiral up 

The women on stage all emphasized the importance of breaking negative thought patterns. One of the lessons Lori Wright shared was the power of “spiraling up” instead of “spiraling down.” She described how her brain sometimes looks like “a squirrel running around.” She said she sometimes fixates on a thought and can “spiral down really fast.”

“When your brain starts going down that negative path, just catch yourself. Observe it. Instead of going down that path, think about it differently,” Lori said. “Pause and spiral up. What you’ll find is that your life will be so much happier and fulfilled.”

Several of the women who attended the event said they appreciated that concept of spiraling up and plan to incorporate it in their lives.

“That very much resonated with me,” said Elizabeth Reynolds, a product marketing leader. “It’s nice to see women who are helping other women, being honest and open in their own journeys and maintaining a positive outlook.”

Sonya Weaver-Johnson is a Microsoft Account Team Unit Director based in Southern California who came to the Bay Area for the Better Together event.  She said events such as this one are important forums for women leaders to do the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion together.

“We know that women are underrepresented in technology, and even in those industries where women have parity to men in the workforce, the higher you go up the corporate ladder, the fewer there are of us,” she said. “So women need to share our stories so that we can continue to inspire each other.”

PwC generously sponsored this year’s Better Together event. Stephanie Mosticchio of PwC said both companies are committed to fostering dialogue and building an ecosystem that makes it possible for more women to succeed.

“PwC is so proud to be partnered here with Microsoft,” Stephanie said. “We believe that continuing to share our stories and support each other will help create the change that we need for the younger generation.”

Shaili Desai
Shaili Desai co-founded the Annual Better Together Leadership Summit with Cheri Devlin six years ago.

Shaili Desai, Account Executive at Microsoft, co-founded the annual Better Together Leadership Summit six years ago with Cheri Devlin, GM for Business Applications in Microsoft’s Software and Digital Platforms Operating Unit. They say the goal was to come together with customers and partners to talk about how to elevate more women to leadership roles in the technology industry.

“Our goal has always been to create a platform for women to help women—because we are better together when we are helping to forge a path and paying it forward so that others can follow,” said Cheri.

“Success is not about climbing the ladder,” Shaili said, quoting her favorite leader, Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo. “It’s about how many women you bring along with you.”