Why I Stepped Back Into Life Outside My Comfort Zone


By Yolanda Lee Conyers - Chief Diversity Officer, Lenovo & President, Lenovo Foundation


For 15 years, I climbed the corporate ladder in technology. When I rose to the executive ranks, I stood out as one of the few African American women leaders at my company. Professionally, my coworkers thought I was at the height of my career. So when I decided to step out of the workforce, many thought I was done with work. What many didn’t know was the difficulties I had with my pregnancy before coming back to work. I knew I wasn’t done working, but I needed a change, and I wanted to spend time with my son, as I knew he would be my last child. When I went on sabbatical, I didn’t know how long it would be. Fear, directly and indirectly, would creep into my mind about whether I could return to the executive ranks, especially after how hard I worked to get there. People told me I’d be forgotten and would have to start all over. I worried about my skills getting rusty, the industry changing too rapidly for me keep up and whether I’d lose my edge to other up and coming candidates. 

Ironically, my history in living outside my comfort zone and succeeding doing it reassured me and gave me the courage to take the time. I had faced adversity before, and so had my parents. I inherited their grit from watching them firsthand live outside their comfort zones. As the youngest of seven children, I saw them make their own opportunities through perseverance and hard work. As a seaman by trade, my father didn’t receive formal education. He worked his way up from sweeping the galley to Chief Cook on his ship, and he taught himself to read. I sat next to him as a little girl while he practiced reading and writing at the kitchen table. My mother went back to school, earning her GED and then received a certificate in child care education. Often in college I was the only woman, not to mention African American woman, in my engineering classes, so early on I had my parents as role models – their history of succeeding by taking risks and stepping out of their comfort zone.

My sabbatical lasted almost 1.5 years, in which I invested in renewing spiritually, restoring myself and  spending quality time with my family. Toward the end of that time, I knew I was ready to go back to work. People ask me why move back into the uncomfortable. I then share my favorite quote:  ‘life begins at the end of your comfort zone.’ I recognize that’s how I’ve grown to the person I am today, but little did I know then that embracing the unfamiliar yet again would serve a greater purpose.

While I wasn’t working, I continued to invest in maintaining my network – I suspected it would be the key to reentry, and it was.  Through one of these connections, I found Lenovo in 2007, offering an opportunity to combine my background in engineering and business with my passion for Diversity and Inclusion in HR at an incredible time when it was expanding onto the global technology stage for the first time outside of China. At Lenovo, I have rotated multiple times in HR to the leader of Talent Management, Operations to now an HR Partner supporting all corporate functions at Lenovo. Throughout my 11 years, I maintained wearing my Chief Diversity Officer’s (CDO) hat. Lenovo brought my family and me to work and live in China for three years – an experience that reinforced to my children to seek out the unfamiliar.

Leading Lenovo’s Diversity Office goals aligns with my personal goals and passions for increasing diversity and STEM careers among underserved populations. Connecting underserved populations to technology ensures the very diversity we value and helps create a more inclusive world. A technology divide means that we will never benefit from the lost contributions of entire populations who lack access. Consequently, the communities that lack access to the latest technology will fall further behind as services, commerce, education, and civic engagement increasingly move to AI and smart platforms. Bridging this last mile connection is hard, but it’s necessary. While we’re in an industry that focuses on selling products, making sure there’s equal access to them is important to Lenovo and to me.

So what’s next?  I want to inspire others, particularly women and minorities, that we can be leaders in technology. I want to keep driving STEM and Inclusion globally. It’s why I keep telling my story and why I co-authored The Lenovo Way to show others how greater diversity and inclusion can lead to a competitive advantage in business. Integrating and personalizing D&I into our culture helped Lenovo, a Chinese heritage company, go global and grow from a $3B to the $44B company it is today. Lenovo is a case study for how when you embrace Diversity and Inclusion you can do great things.  

By stepping out and then back into the global technology industry at the executive level, I am proof that it can be done. Follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter.