December 15, 2020

Author, serial entrepreneur and Silicon Valley CEO Promise Phelon ’93 talks about opportunity, bias and why institutions must change to thrive.

Phelon describes her younger self as somewhat “naive about bias.” Growing up outside Dallas, she was often one of the few nonwhite students in classrooms and clubs. At SMU, that naivete was an asset, Phelon says, giving her the courage to lead in settings where she was often in the minority. The successful CEO and author lives in the San Francisco Bay Area today, and has a new book, The Way of the Growth Warrior, written for underdogs of all sorts.

“We have to start talking about the fact that most people are underrepresented,” she says. “Most of us didn’t go to Stanford, we’re over 40, maybe we’re divorced. It’s beyond gender and race. All these things are biased. As an underdog, you often don’t know you are one.”

Phelon says that while she did face bias in college, she also encountered opportunity. She recalls sharing a sorority house with people from massively privileged families, and being stunned to learn how they handled finances and mortgages, borrowed money and invested in the stock market. “I feel privileged that, as someone who considers herself an underdog, early in life I got access to people who were crushing it economically,” she says.

“If you’re an institution of any kind – an organization, government, university, corporation – you can no longer give lip service to change. You have to actually do it.”

While writing her book, Phelon reflected on her time at SMU and how it shaped her. “I found that one of my superpowers is that I am a divergent thinker,” she says. It’s a quality she traces directly to specific classroom experiences and professors. Phelon, who studied world religion at SMU, says she benefited from a liberal arts degree that taught her to think comparatively and empathetically.

“What I learned in religion was culture, anthropology, language, critical thinking,” she says, tools that helped her thrive as a leader in Silicon Valley. As positively as she remembers her time at SMU, Phelon is honest about the prejudice, and how that needs to change.

“SMU was a hostile environment for people of color when I was there,” she says. “As I progressed in SMU’s culture, I saw there was a certain fraternity that was extremely racist. I realized how hard it was to get into a ‘top sorority’ if you were a person of color or if you weren’t pretty or if you weren’t wealthy.”

Phelon is inspired by the people taking to the streets to march for equality and protest injustice. “Youth culture and Black culture have merged,” she explains. “It’s moved from being ‘those people’ to ‘it’s us.’ Youth today feel a deep sense of kinship with people of color … our cultures are no longer bifurcated. We’re one.” Phelon says this movement, fueled by young people, is one the world can no longer ignore. “If you’re an institution of any kind – an organization, government, university, corporation – you can no longer give lip service to change. You have to actually do it.”

When she advises CEOs and other leaders, Phelon asks them to consider the “why” behind their actions to increase diversity and inclusion. She says it’s important for leaders to see, articulate and believe in the benefit of these actions.

“So I applaud President Turner for starting the conversation,” she says. “And I also implore him to effect real change.”

Visit Promise Phelan’s The Growth Warrior website.