Making A Difference: Silicon Valley HR leaders celebrate 30 years of vision, insight, and professional expertise at HR Symposium

SANTA CLARA CONVENTION CENTER—APRIL 26, 2016—Pinterest, one of the companies that routinely shows up in the lists of great companies to work for, was center stage at the HR Symposium last week as top executives shared insight into what helps its creative workforce thrive in the highly competitive tech arena.

The event drew close to 550 HR professionals from all over the San Francisco Bay area who enjoyed diverse perspectives on the changing world of HR as well as personal insights into the journeys of numerous Silicon Valley HR executives.

The annual event also celebrated its 30th anniversary of bringing topical discussions among industry leaders to their colleagues at all stages of their careers. The event, which raises scholarships funds, also awarded funds to 10 promising students for their achievements and vision.

“People got to be challenged at this event and inspired by what is possible in HR,” says Jeff Jacobs, president of the Symposium Board of Directors and co-chair of the Awards Committee. “They got to hear how they could enhance their impact in their role and grow in their career.”

Kicking off this year’s symposium with the hallmark fireside chat between a CEO and HR executive was Pinterest founder and CEO Ben Silbermann and Pinterest Head of People Michael DeAngelo, who took the stage to discuss how they manage change, inspire creative solutions in diverse collaborative teams and maintain a culture of integrity.

“We had an incredible line-up this year,” says Noelle Ritter, co-chair of the Symposium Marketing Committee. “The HR team at Pinterest is world renown for recruiting people who are passionate about what they do—promoting innovation, collaboration and working to improve diversity in the workplace. It was a great way to celebrate our 30th anniversary.”



A panel of industry leaders also shared how they navigate job challenges and changes in the industry. This year’s panel of representatives from both public and private companies included: Scott Pitasky, Starbucks executive vice president and chief partner resources officer; Rebecca Cantieri, SurveyMonkey vice president human resources; Jeff Diana, Atlassian chief people officer; and Pranesh Anthapur, Nutanix chief people officer; Tracy Edkins, Splunk senior vice president and chief human resources officer; and Susan Lovegren, Juniper senior vice president, human resources, who moderated the event.

“We embraced a slightly different direction this year and it was demonstrated by the diversity of speakers we brought in and the companies that are so dynamic and different from each other,” says Natasha Hoady, Speakers Committee chair.

The attraction of the event is its simple design and the inherent intimacy of discussions between speakers and attendees, says Jacobs, who has volunteered as a Symposium committee member for 17 years.

“It’s very much about people’s stories, their journeys and how they managed challenges along the way,” he says. “It is very much about demystifying the journey of the HR professional. We’re all very much committed to one another as practitioners, coming together to celebrate and grow our profession.”



The Symposium also focuses on the next generation of leaders by promoting networking through facilitated lunchtime discussions and funding the Lyn Boone Memorial Scholarship Program. The nonprofit organization has awarded more than $400,000 in scholarships to dozens of upper division college students aspiring to HR-related fields.

This year, 10 students shared nearly $40,000 in scholarships. This year California Strategic Human Resource Partnership, a nonprofit consortium of 45 senior HR executives from leading Bay area companies, sponsored a scholarship. The recipient was Lauren Lightbody a graduate student in organizational development at University of San Francisco. Lightbody is an HR manager of internal and executive communications at Cadence Design Systems where she leads initiatives to enhance and support corporate culture, employee volunteerism and women’s leadership in technology.

“We had some incredible applicants this year, which made the decision-making very difficult,” says Deanna Fairchild, co-chair of the Scholarship Committee. “These students are truly passionate about HR and want to make an impact on the profession.”

Elizabeth Gomez, a 2013 HR Symposium scholarship recipient who now serves on the Scholarship Committee with Fairchild, says receiving the award in 2013 was one of the highlights of her career.

“I was working full-time and going to school full-time and paying out of pocket, which literally left me with nothing,” she recalls. Now she is a senior compensation analyst at Cadence Design Systems and back at the Symposium to continue learning about the industry. “Today I leave with the goal of diversity, which I can bring back to Cadence and we can talk about it.”



Also awarded special honors at the event each year were human resources leaders who have made significant contributions in the field. The Human Resources Excellence award recipients included Joanne Taylor, senior director of human resources at NetSuite; Peggy Rolly, managing director of the Oracle Women's Leadership program; Edward Hernandez, professor of Management/HR at ‎California State University, Stanislaus; and Rich Potter, senior HR business partner at Xilinx.

Taylor represented the company’s successful global women’s initiative to address challenges in female representation and retention in technology, management and the executive ranks.

Rolly credited her team for the success of the Oracle Women’s Leadership Initiative, which develops, engages and empowers current and future generations of women leaders to foster an inclusive and innovative workforce.

Hernandez was honored for his comprehensive college HR program that encourages participation in the greater HR community and the success of his students, two of whom were represented that day as scholarship recipients.

Potter received the commendation for demonstrating the impact HR can have on the business when acting in the capacity of a true organizational effectiveness consultant. He developed and led an intervention and change management roadmap that resulted in getting the company back on track.

“We are thrilled and a bit amazed to be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the HR Symposium,” said Sharon Winston, chair of the HR Symposium. The organization is entirely run by volunteers.

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HR Exec Panelists Share Wide-Ranging Views at HR Symposium

SANTA CLARA CONVENTION CENTER—APRIL 26, 2016—Maybe millennials aren’t that different after all, according to a few HR executives who shared the stage recently with several colleagues at the 30th HR Symposium held annually in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Half the populations coming into work are millennials and an aging workforce is staying at the job longer creating an interesting dynamic, said Susan Lovegren, senior vice president of human resources at Juniper Networks. Lovegren served as moderator of the diverse panel of HR leaders this year.

While ageism is a workforce reality, several panelist downplayed generational differences and said the saw more similarities than conflicts among the generations.

“I think every new generation that comes up, there’s some similarities that are consistent,” said panelist Michael DeAngelo, head of people for Pinterest. “With millennials we’ve seen they have a desire to matter, a desire to have as much flexibility as possible, and then, (a desire for) clarity on where they’re going in a career perspective. Honestly, I felt the same when I was in that position, so I’m not sure I buy the research on millennials versus others.”

The key in any organization, DeAngelo said, is meeting people where they are in their lives, whether they are new parents or people helping take care of aging parents. Sometimes it’s about creating employee groups for people involved in a hobby or providing some needed flexibility so people can take care of family issues.

“You have to find those sweet spots connecting with people where they are,” DeAngelo said.

Jeff Diana, chief people officer at Atlassian, agreed with DeAngelo, saying the difference between generations is overstated.

“The gift of the demographic humps we’ve got right now is it’s forcing us to think about what really matters to people,” Diana said. “The mission and the purpose have to be first. That matters regardless of generation.”

Diana suggested embracing the whole person, going beyond the individual, “because these lines between personal and work life are gone. Everything we do is to bring the person and the family into the process. Those drivers matter most.”

He went on to say that having authentic values “that people really connect with” as well as high touch multipliers is vital. “People want to be recognized more as an individual, the bigger the company is, not less,” he said.

At Nutanix, the focus is on agility and speed rather than age, said Pranesh Anthapur, chief people officer at that company. He looks to what people have done in the past.

“I don’t think it’s related to age at all,” Anthapur said. “Not every young person is really agile.”

Agility is a quality related to a “learning orientation,” according to panelist Scott Pitasky, executive vice president and chief partner resources officer at Starbucks.

“Ideally you get a leaning orientation and you get the best of all perspectives,” Pitasky said.

The HR symposium executive panel, which included leaders from private and publicly held companies in various stages of growth, contributed to a far-reaching discussion on topics such as ageism, managing change, guiding culture and creating high touch moments during rapid growth.

Joining DeAngelo, Diana, Anthapur and Pitasky on the panel were Rebecca Canteiri, vice president of human resources at SurveyMonkey; and Tracy Edkins, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Splunk.



Several panelists acknowledged a different rhythm to working in a public company versus a privately held organization that isn’t regulated by quarterly earnings announcements. They cited a need to be adaptable to rapid changes in both environments. But, in a privately owned company, one has the “luxury of thinking a little bit more long-term,” Canteiri said.

The pace is quite different in a younger, smaller organization, said Anthapur, noting how difficult it can be to turn a larger ship. “We joke all the time (at Nutanix) that everything has to happen at the same time. If you’re not ready for speed, if that’s not a value you cherish,” a small startup is probably not a place for you.

The sweet spot for Diana is the middle stage of growth, when an organization has survived its early startup challenges to venture onto a bigger field, but is still relying on scrappy creative skills to play against established companies with more resources.

“If you can nail the insanity of the growth curve, that’s the most exciting place to do our craft,” Diana said. “I’ve fallen in love with the growth cap and mid-companies.”



Innovation is a core value at most companies, and each panelist had examples of game-changers in the industry. For Edkins, it is the recent development of a tool to help hiring managers in the interview process that provides rapid feedback about candidates to make fast decisions. At Atlassian, the value is in crowdsourcing knowledge within the organization. Nutanix has had great success with recruitment at hack days and several companies said they have benefitted from blending teams of people that have different expertise.

For Pinterest it is “knitting” teams of people with diverse experience to provide fresh perspectives.

“Sometimes our best ideas come from a designer who has little bit of technical expertise and the backend folks make it work,” DeAngelo said.

At Starbucks it is empowering individuals to feel responsible for changes within the organization.

“At the center of that is this mindset,” Pitasky said. “It’s the notion that innovation isn’t confined to the big shiny thing. Sometimes it’s the little ideas. The more you can reinforce that everyone has the opportunity to look for those things, and have an environment where you can share it and talk about it—that’s where we’ve found a lot of the power comes from.”



Complimenting those efforts is supporting a culture that rewards risk by valuing challenges.

“We try to do more post mortems after and then have leaders’ first question be not, ‘Why did this happen?’ but, ‘What did we learn?’ and ‘How do we fix it?’”

At Starbucks, executives ask, What are people concerned about? rather than a traditional achievement-oriented focus.

“If you really want to make it stick, you have to make it real every day,” Pitasky said. “There’s sort of a tendency to lead with all the good stuff you and your team are doing, but’s it’s actually so much more useful to say, ‘Tell me what you’re worrying about.’ There’s this feeling that we’re in it together and there is this power in that. It starts with the environment and the tone that you set.”

Similarly at Splunk, discussions about challenges are welcomed at monthly product update meetings. The CEO has said, I want to know what’s not going well.

“And, the feedback from the teams is really phenomenal,” Edkins said. “It’s created a bit of a groundswell. People just say it and it’s really a healthy environment.”



Few companies can imagine the pain of change that surfaces with the sudden loss of a CEO, which happened at SurveyMonkey when 47-year-old Dave Goldberg died last year from an accident

“I’m not sure if we managed through the change or the change managed us,” said Canteiri who confronted the tragedy on her first day back from maternity leave. “It’s not something we expected or really prepared for.”

There simply wasn’t a playbook for helping 700 employees walk through their sudden grief and the challenges of change, Canteiri said. The HR team worked to provide employees needed support and be as transparent as possible. “Grief is an ongoing continuum.”



Perhaps the most concentrated panel focus was on the HR role in supporting a greater purpose for the organization, an effort, panelists said, that is driven in part by leaders and in part by younger workers who expect philanthropy as a corporate responsibility.

“They will be more loyal to the purpose than to the company,” Edkins said.

It is a core value for Starbucks leadership, Pitasky said, acknowledging that although his CEO warned him, he really didn’t understand at first how difficult it was going to be to integrate a socially conscious vision into the day-to-day operations of a global company. The challenge, he said, has been to integrate public good into the design of the business, to shift it from being what happens after a business is a success to actually contributing to the overall business model.

“We are trying to figure out how to create economic and social value at exactly the same,” Pitasky said. HR is uniquely positioned to innovate in these areas, Pitasky said. Starbucks is focusing more on hiring youth, veterans and military spouses. “There is incredible value to unlock, but it’s very challenging.”

Philanthropy is built into the business model at SurveyMonkey and is a primary legacy of Dave Goldberg who exemplified giving in his personal and professional life, Canteiri said. The company has donated more than $5 million to charities through one of its products.

“Dave always challenged us by saying ‘When the moment is right for you, you will see a cause you feel is important and you will get involved,’” Canteiri said. For her, it is the issue of parental leave, an area where the U.S. is still “at the bottom of the barrel and it’s just not good enough.”

HR is uniquely positioned, there’s a call to action, Anthapur said, noting that 1 billion starving people and huge global deficits in access to education can’t be ignored.

“We should all go back to our offices and try to do our best to do whatever it takes, to work in schools, give time, get mentorship done. I think that’s the only way we can actually bring everyone else in and create a level playing field.”



In a “lightning round” of questions at the end, panelists spoke to the best most overrated HR trend, the best career advice, and personal mentors.


  • WorldatWork
  • One’s own network
  • Other business people
  • The HR Symposium


  • Generational differences
  • “Cultural differences around the world are overrated. Culture within a company can be seen wherever you are in the world.”
  • The idea that there are three or four things that are THE thing in HR.
  • That HR is the morale cop; it's a shared responsibility.


  • Don’t be the HR speak guy. Road test your pitches first.
  • Hire people who you can take out to dinner and have fun with. Don’t hire people with whom you feel you have to walk on eggshells.
  • Keep it simple.
  • It’s really hard and you better stay humble.
  • Trust your gut. As much as we try to make it a science, it’s an art.
  • Focus on the business first.
  • Your opinion is not only valued, but it’s expected.


  • A working mother
  • My grandmother
  • My 6-year-old daughter
  • JFK or Jack Welch
  • Today’s youth. They’re going to teach us everything.
  • The 10 new HR Symposium scholarship recipients
  • My mother
  • My last CEO for his humility, his wisdom and caring for people

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