Intel Executive Genevieve Bell Tells Us How She Got to the Top
Photo courtesy of Intel
As Genevieve Bell was getting settled into teaching anthropology at Stanford University, a chance meeting with Intel more than a decade ago took her into the world of technology.
"The first year or so was really hard, not only because there was a lot of language about technology that I didn't understand, [but] it was also a company full of acronyms," Bell, 43, told MyDaily. "So I spent the first year at Intel asking stupid questions. But sometimes, the nice thing about being an anthropologist is you can ask stupid questions. So it felt like I was in a foreign country, and I liked that."
Bell also spoke to us about how she was able apply her knowledge of anthropology to one of the world's largest tech companies. Regarded as Intel's "secret weapon," she told us what it was like making up her own job description and shared the best advice her mother ever gave her.
Name: Genevieve Bell
Title: Director of Interaction and Experience Research for Intel Labs
MyDaily: What does your job entail?
Genevieve Bell: My job is two things. One of them is to reinvent computing. The second one is more of a challenge since there has been a range of technology that has been coming out in the past five years, whether it's televisions, phones, signage and even our PCs getting smarter and smarter. So, this other part of the job is how to we ensure that we make technology that people will love.
What's a typical day on the job?
I think I have two different kinds of days. There's a typical travel day, which means I wake up in a different city. I log on and check my email and read the gossip magazines and newspapers and check Flickr and Twitter and a few other things. And then I go and sometimes give a talk and meet with people and do some field work. I go and hang out and observe people. And then there is usually a plane where I would have to put half my clothes through the scanner and end up in another city. [Laughs] And I'm searching and analyzing technologies too. The other kinds of days I have are when I have to be at the office at Intel, and those are the days when I have meetings and coffee. And again, there's a constant search for places to plug things in and lots and lots of conversations about technology and strategy and things like that.
How'd you find out about this job?
I joined Intel in 1998 is because I met a man at a bar in Palo Alto, Calif. And he asked what I do, and I said I was an anthropologist. And he asked, "What's that?" And I told him. Then at the end of that conversation, he said, "You seem interesting." And I said, "You seem crazy." And he said he started something that Intel had invested in, and introduced me to the people at Intel. They interviewed me and found me interesting, too. They hired me and didn't know exactly what I should do, but they thought someone who knew how to think about people and was passionate about it would be useful to a team they were building. So when I first started the job, they didn't even know what to call me. And I said no the first seven times they offered me the job.
Photo courtesy of Intel
I had been in the university system because my mom is an academic. She didn't finish high school till she was 30 but she went on to get her PhD. So I spent all of my childhood inside universities. When I finished my PhD, I was teaching at Stanford. And I thought I was just going to be a professor because that's what I was groomed to be in many ways. It was a very clear path. Intel couldn't tell me what I would be doing on my second day on the job -- let alone five years later. And that was initially really intimidating. But then I thought there was something really, really liberating when a company couldn't tell you exactly what your job would be. Instead it would let me create the job I wanted if I could work out what that should be. I think I'm pretty lucky, and I've created three different jobs for myself. And I love every single one of them.
What was your major?
I majored in anthropology at Bryn Mawr and got my PhD in it at Stanford. But my background was in Native American studies.
What did your mom say when she heard you got a job at a tech company as opposed to academia?
The really great thing about my mom is that between getting her Ph.D. and becoming a professor, she ran her own company as an anthropologist. She was always committed to making anthropology relevant in lots of different places. She was actually really supportive of it. I mean she was actually the only person who was really supportive of it. And she was also really good at reminding me that, yes, it felt like this enormous risk but it was an incredibly stupid thing for me to walk away from a tenure-track position at a well-known university in an area I was good at. And I remember her saying to me, "This is not a big risk in the grand scheme of things. You're not going to end up dead or arrested. You're not going to lose your livelihood. And if you don't take risks like this, then what's the point?" And she was absolutely right.
Before this, would consider yourself a big techie?
Well, my mother is an anthropologist too, so that was really academic, and I followed her footpath in that regard. But my father was an engineer. So were both of my grandfathers. My mom would say that I got kicked out of my first anthropology class when I was 4-and-a-half. My father would say I was taught to dismantle my first engine when I was 5. So I was always around engineering ... but technology? I wasn't particularly fascinated and still [am] not. But the stuff that fascinates me is people.
What's the best part about your job? What's the worst?
The best part of my job is I get to have these glimpses into people's lives all over the world. And people generously open up their lives and their houses to me. That's an extraordinary way of seeing the world. The worst thing about my job is there aren't enough hours in the day.
Have you ever felt you had to work harder to get ahead in the tech sector as a woman?
When I joined Intel, I didn't realize how few women there were in the tech industry. That's a bit naïve, right? But anthropology is 70 percent female. I don't think I anticipated how few women there would be. I should have totally worked it out because on my second day on the job, my boss sat me down and said, "We need your help on understanding women." And I said, "Which women?" And she said, " All women." And I remember thinking to myself, "Hmm that's a big task." So there was a point where it became clearer and clearer to me that there was a gap in knowledge, But being harder for me? I don't think so. I think one of the challenges is I still go to meetings where I'm the only woman in the room.
Both men and women can make more room for more diversity in the workplace, and that's one of the challenges when you're trying to make things and drive change. You need to have as many points of view as you can get.
And what's your best advice for a woman who wants to be where you are?
You just need to take the risks. I always hear my mother's voice in my head saying, "If you're not going to end up dead or arrested, it's not really a risk."
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