Michigan Ross Alum Shares Her Strategies for Driving Cultural Change At Uber
Bo Young Lee, BBA ‘97, usually tells people that even though she’s a native New Yorker, growing up in the heart of one of America’s most ethnically diverse cities, her first true cross-cultural experience was when she arrived on Michigan’s campus at the age of 17.
“New York has a diversity I was familiar with — it was very much my comfort zone,” She said. “I remember my first few weeks in Ann Arbor, I didn’t understand why everyone smiled at each other so much or why strangers were saying ‘Hello’ to me. I was still in America, but it was a culture I was so unfamiliar with.”
“Even at 17 years old, I knew I wanted to understand it; I wanted to appreciate the significance of our differences.”
Lee, who now serves as the first-ever chief diversity and inclusion officer for Uber, the global rideshare company, has since made a career in helping others appreciate the value of diverse experiences. But it all started in business school.
“During my MBA (at NYU Stern), all of the strategy I was being taught was designed presuming the person standing in front of the team is a straight, cis, white, male in their 40s or 50s. That was the model of good leadership being presented,” Lee said. “I remember thinking, ‘There’s no way in hell I can ever use any of these strategies in the real world — I’ll get laughed out of the room.’”
“It just wasn’t part of the business leadership curriculum to presume that people can and do behave differently or that people like myself are treated differently based on our gender or gender identity, age, race and ethnicity, or disability.”
Struggling to see herself and others reflected in the teachings at the time, Lee set out on a mission, devoting her career to fostering diversity in organizations.
We went through quite a bit of trauma as an organization, and the journey Uber’s been on has been very public. But that transparency has been one of the best assets for our cultural transformation.”
-Bo Young Lee, BBA '97
Chief Diversity Officer, Uber
That mission led Lee to Uber during a challenging time in the company’s history.
“We went through quite a bit of trauma as an organization, and the journey Uber’s been on has been very public,” Lee said. “But that transparency has been one of the best assets for our cultural transformation. Diversity and inclusion issues are on their way to being ingrained into every part of our company now.”
Uber’s not alone in its push for making diversity a priority. She’s serving as CDIO at a time when organizations large and small are making room in their org charts for similar executive-level roles, placing a new emphasis on creating a diverse workforce and an inclusive office environment.
“I love the attention diversity roles are getting across companies,” Lee said. “It’s much needed, but there are also some common pitfalls these organizations run into along the way.”
Specifically, Lee said that more than half of chief diversity officers feel like they’re not set up for success — being under-resourced on small teams and asked to fix large, systemic challenges leaves them unequipped to really have an impact.
Lee and Uber are building systems and processes into every part of the organization that help all employees feel welcome and supported, including:
- Adopting initiatives to increase diversity in the talent pipeline;
- Publicly committing to pay equity and setting clear goals tied to executive accountability;
- Taking intersectional representation views into account when designing more inclusive HR practices;
- Building policies, benefits, and a culture to support all caregivers including parents and those with eldercare needs;
- Designing for diverse partners and customers including those with disabilities, older riders, and the LGBTQ+ community;
- Offering full-coverage mental health care to employees; and,
- Much more.
It’s a depth and breadth of thinking about D&I issues that Lee says other companies can learn from.
“The instincts many organizations have when they start exploring diversity issues is to ask, ‘How do we bring in more diverse populations?’” Lee said. “But really ask yourself: If you had a huge influx of women or underrepresented people join your organization, how sure are you that they’d have a positive enough experience that they would want to stay for a long time and contribute their best work?”
She argues that if you don’t fundamentally change your culture to make everyone feel welcome and to help everyone thrive, you’re just creating another problem.
“A revolving door of diversity breeds cynicism,” she said. “And that’s the enemy of any real, meaningful progress.”