Shaz started working in the ‘80s, developed as a consultant in the ‘90s…and has been smashing glass ceilings as CEO and Boardmember at major corporate brands for the better part of the 21st Century. She says she’s faced all kinds of difficulties throughout her career – but thinks the world has, finally, changed, and acknowledges that her own achievement is indeed evidence, in and of itself, of greater opportunity for corporate advancement – if not equality – for women.
Shaz majored in Chemistry and Food Science and graduated with honors from Cornell. Her first job was with Kraft, working in their prestigious food lab in Tarrytown. In 1985, the Kraft lab was still an all-male environment, with the exception of one other woman who was Shaz’ boss. A male lab technician actually greeted Shaz on her first day of work with, ‘Women don’t belong in the lab’. And there was still an all-male corporate culture and Kraft C-suite. When Kraft held a contest for new food-related inventions, Shaz submitted 15…and her boss’s boss blatantly appropriated the ideas, submitting them up the hierarchy in his own name and without credit to Shaz. The bandit brushed Shaz off…and then another male superior propositioned Shaz in exchange for help!
Moving forward without further protest, and in order to succeed in what was really a male-only business environment, Shaz found a mentor – obviously male – in a VP of Marketing, who Shaz credits with, “clearing the path for me when I came up with an innovative business solution to a problem in the labs – so I could actually develop and implement it.”
But, Shaz says, “Still… I know that even just one of the 15 inventions I’d submitted saved Kraft $1.3M in the first six months of utilization….I never received recognition or compensation for any of the work…and several patents were issued based on my work, and I think they still exist with the name of my superior on them.”
Shaz realized brand and product marketing was the direction she wanted to go, so her next step was to earn an MBA from Wharton. “I knew I wanted to run a brand, and be the CEO of a business, and I knew I wasn’t getting there through the lab at Kraft. When I expressed my intent to become a CEO to a male classmate at Wharton, he told me ‘I was the most focused woman he’d ever met’ – intending a complete compliment. I always tell the people I mentor – ‘know what you want to do’.”
Shaz recaps, “Starting my career as a consultant in the early 1990s, I focused first on business strategy and operations, then on all aspects of retail and ecommerce, then branding and marketing. I was a Senior Consultant at Gemini Consulting, then became a Partner at Kurt Salmon Associates, then a Managing Director, Retail & Consumer Products at Scient, and then Head of Brand Strategy at Wolff Olins.”
And ever since 2004, when Shaz joined Nike and rose to become the first female to hold a global business P&L, she’s made a steady diet of smashing glass ceilings. She’s earned a reputation as an insightful and effective CEO and Board Member. At Nike, she led a turnaround of the Nike Cycling business that made it profitable for the first time in history. As CEO of Lucy Activewear, Shaz and her team reinvented the company and achieved profitability in 13 months, nearly two years ahead of corporate expectations. She’s served on the Boards of Gymboree and OMSignal, and currently serves on the Board and as a member of the Audit Committee of GoPro. In addition, since January 2020, Shaz has been an Investment Committee Member of the venture capital firm Alumni Ventures Group.
“Throughout my career, I’ve worked in male-dominated industries, and I’ve experienced sexism, discrimination, and difficulties by virtue of simply being female. But I’m heartened that today’s business environment is more enlightened and open to diverse talented individuals. And maybe being Asian has, at times, been even more significant than being a woman. But I feel that I would have gotten more career opportunities – and earlier – if I was a man.” Shaz considers. “Maybe working through tough challenges helps you to succeed eventually. I’m resilient and proactive and have always felt that if you give me a chance I’ll show what I can do. My father is from Korea, by way of Kobe, Japan, and came to America on a Fulbright Scholarship to study law at Tulane. He continued with LLMs at Yale and NYU, in order to work in labor law, fighting discrimination. He met my mom, who was also Korean, when she was studying Early Childhood Education at Columbia. My mother passed away from a heart attack at age 49 when I was in college, and my dad remarried a wonderful woman who became my stepmother. She was a PhD and neurochemical researcher at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, and was a powerful example of being an accomplished woman. My dad, mom and stepmom made me believe anything is possible!”
Shaz recently did a Google Talk called “The Super Powers of Ceiling Smashers”, which is really more about empowerment than the traditional women-as-ceiling-smashers view. “Business is a competitive playing arena, and while things have definitely evolved over the last thirty years to get to this point, I believe now it’s more about skills, capability, ideas and innovation than anything else – being a woman in corporate America can even be an advantage. When I was on the Board of Gymboree, I was the only woman with young kids – so I had a different perspective. Women bring a different intuition to problem solving.”
And, remarkably, Shaz is also authoring a series of novels about the first female CEO of a sports company, named Vivien Lee, and the secret society of professional women, called the Ceiling Smashers, who help her succeed. The first novel in the series was titled The Closer, and the recently released second novel is titled Smashers Synched.
Shaz and her husband, Bill Diotte, moved to New Canaan in July 2020, just after the start of the pandemic, with their now 11 year old twins, Gemma and Zoe. Bill had just finished a term as CEO of a cybersecurity company in San Francisco, so the timing was right. Shaz says, “We share pretty equally in all the household stuff and in being there for sports events and carpools and the like for the girls. We’re both CEOs and our rhythm with the family seems entirely normal – I don’t like the idea that business and family are a trade-off. Though there may still be aspects of our culture that make the work experience different for women than for men, I’m happy to say that my girls do not consider that they are in any way limited in what they can or should do based on their gender. Gemma wants to be an astrophysicist and Zoe an architect.” Perhaps that’s because they will enter corporate America in a no-limits, ‘post-Shaz’ era.
B&NC MAG asked Shaz for some insight into what it’s been like to be a woman in business…and Shaz came back with the following inspirational message:
Though it is still hotly debated today, the legend persists of Babe Ruth pointing to centerfield to call his shot – and then proceeding to hit a home run. That action required three C’s: conviction, capability, and courage. Much like the baseball great, for a woman to triumph in the business world she has to develop and take advantage of those same three C’s.
So how does one cultivate the three C’s? In my experience as a woman striving to succeed in business the process of encountering tough challenges, figuring out creative solutions, and applying the lessons learned, helped me hone the traits of conviction, capability, and courage. Three specific moments in my career crystallized the importance of owning and utilizing the three C’s. Each of these three harrowing experiences was set off by a contentious statement.
“You’re Not Allowed To Be Here”
After earning an MBA from Wharton, I joined a strategy consulting firm and worked on my first project with the partner in charge of the office- our team was just the two of us. After a few months we were to present our findings and recommended strategy at a client offsite at a private country club in rural Pennsylvania. The attendees from the client side were the board of directors and senior executives.
After the first day of meetings, while all the men headed up to the bar, I stayed behind to finish setting up the room for the next day. When I walked into the bar and ordered a drink, the bartender gave me a startled look and told me he couldn’t serve me. Confused, I laughed and assured him that I was of legal drinking age. He pointed to a sign above the door that read “Gentlemen Only.” I said, “That sign is not an antique?” The bartender shook his head and said, “You’re not allowed to be here.”
I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. Out of all the people attending the offsite I was the only woman – and the only person getting kicked out of the bar! By then all conversation had ceased and everyone was watching me. I said to the bartender, “Okay, here’s what we’ll do. Please make me a drink, which I will take outside.” Then I turned to the others and said, “We’ve been cooped up inside all day, so I’m going outside to enjoy the sunset if anyone would like to join me.” I looked over at the partner I was working with but he kept his gaze fixed on the floor. I grabbed my drink and made my way out to the terrace, shaking with indignation.
Outside on the terrace, I’d never felt so alone. I took a few deep breaths and summoned all the resilience I could and after a while I started to relax. A voice behind me said, “Is this a private sunset or may I join you?” It was the CEO of the client company and I will be forever grateful for his kindness. I replied, “This is an equal opportunity sunset, pull up a chair.” He chuckled and we started to chat. I soon realized that I had a golden opportunity- the chance to speak one-on-one with the CEO. I took full advantage, and asked all the critical questions I’d been saving up.
The next day during the big meeting, the CEO asked to take a break to confer with ‘his consultant’. The partner I was working with jumped up and ran over – only to be dismissed by the CEO, who said, ‘No, I want to ask Shaz for her ideas on this’. From our conversation on the terrace, the CEO felt I really understood the company and the culture, and wanted my thoughts on how best to modify and implement the business strategy.
“We’re Replacing You with a Man”
Years later, I was a manager with a retail and apparel consulting firm working with a retail client in Atlanta. I had just sold the biggest project in our firm’s history and our president called me into his office- I imagined that he wanted to congratulate me. He was thrilled with the sale and congratulated me, but then dropped a bombshell. The president said, “We need to make a change. The client CFO wants to replace you or he won’t sign the contract.” I was baffled. I responded, “But my team and I delivered the first project ahead of schedule and under budget with three times the projected revenue benefits. What’s the problem?” He responded, “At the client’s request, we’re replacing you with a man.” Apparently the client CFO wanted a male manager who was more like himself. I asked the president if he was actually going to honor the client’s unreasonable request. He shrugged and said, “What else can I do? It’s too much money to walk away from.” I was devastated – but defiant – and said, “You can do the right thing, which is not what the client is asking. I’m really disappointed in your decision. Over the dinner table tonight I hope you tell your wife and daughter about the choice you made and see what they think.”
The firm did replace me, but after a month or two the new manager was struggling. The president asked me to “lead from behind” and silently listen to client conference calls and then advise the new manager on what to do. Eventually the client CEO called and asked me to come back and lead the work…but I was already heading out of the country to lead another project.
Shortly after that, I earned my partner promotion and became the youngest and first female partner of color in the firm’s 70 year history. But I never forgot the experience of being replaced on the project, and I knew that ultimately the values of the firm were not aligned with my own… so I left the firm – as a partner.
“I Don’t Think You Can Do This Job”
As one of the few female senior executives at Nike, I was given the chance to run the global Nike Cycling business. The CEO told me I was the first woman to hold a global business P&L at Nike so the pressure was on to do a great job.
The Cycling business was a mess: it had some of the highest product returns in the company; it had gotten kicked-out of some key retail accounts, and; it had not made a cent since the inception of the business seven years prior. The CEO told me, “Just fix it.”
Most of the mostly male team were avid cyclists who had worked on the business for years. When I went around to meet each team member, a few of the guys told me, “I don’t think you can do this job.” Imagine someone saying that to their new boss.
So I had inherited a business in terrible shape with a team that didn’t think I was qualified. I have to admit, their skepticism was a blow to my confidence and I briefly wondered if they were right. But then I took a step back and thought, “Wait a second. This business has been tanking for years and losing money and these are the folks who’ve been working on it. How can I possibly do any worse?”
At our first team meeting I said, “Look, I do know how to turn around a business and a brand. I’ll learn the cycling sport and business from you, and I hope you’ll learn some things from me. Let’s work together to make it a success.” I also laid out about thirty pairs of cycling shorts across the conference room table and held up an iPod as a prize for whoever could correctly guess the sizes of the shorts without looking at the tags. While the shorts ranged from huge to tiny, in fact they were all medium size and the variability was because the team wasn’t using standardized sizing specs or fit blocks. In that first meeting, as we methodically dissected the cycling business, the team began to learn exactly why the business had been failing for years.
By a little over a year later we had grown revenues by 300% and made the cycling business profitable for the first time. But probably more rewarding was the positive, collaborative, and respectful team culture in which we conducted ourselves. With an innovative new approach to the business that same team of people was able to achieve results no one imagined possible.
I note that I’ve been fortunate to have worked with many amazing men – who’ve been great mentors, colleagues, and friends. I’m also grateful to have a network of incredible female executives – who help each other, and serve as positive role models for others – and who’ve inspired many of the characters in my novels.
The three formative experiences I’ve described demonstrate how crucial the three C’s are to having a fulfilling career. Conviction- believe that you deserve the opportunity to show what you can do and that you can, in fact, achieve exceptional results. Capability- develop superior skills so your expertise helps open people’s minds to what is possible. Courage- when faced with adversity, don’t be afraid to speak up, and always maintain your belief in yourself.