Alumni Spotlight: Lori Nishiura Mackenzie – Leading Gender Diversity in Business

By Stephanie Stewart (Colorado 1988)

Lori Nishiura Mackenzie joined AIESEC at UC Berkley as a freshman and became LCP by her sophomore year. She was elected to AIESEC U.S. as student director the following year. She really got hooked on AIESEC when she was selected for the AIESEC U.S. International Congress delegation in Sweden in 1986 explaining, “I felt so alive. I hadn’t ever been around people from that many countries before. I remember thinking that we could really change the world.”  Following that experience, Lori was elected as AIESEC U.S. National Committee President and then travelled to six countries as the regional development officer for Asia Pacific.


While working at AIESEC U.S., Lori fundraised from Apple Computer and when she connected with them after AIESEC, they offered her a role in employee communications for Asia, Latin America and Canada. Lori explained, “It was hard to think about getting a normal job after traveling the world and having so much agency to act independently. The job with Apple was so international -- it was fantastic, but there were also some moments of terror!”


Lori enjoyed internal communications at Apple but wanted to be active in business decision making. To expand her skills, she enrolled at Wharton School of Business to study marketing and entrepreneurial management and continued to hang out with AIESECers, who were students at Wharton at the same time. She joined the Rencanti Project, a joint venture between Wharton and Tel Aviv University, and did market research projects for Israeli companies looking to enter the U.S. market.  Her project focused on a company that developed low-calorie honey.  She secured an interview for them with Weight Watchers’ jams and jellies division.


Upon receiving her MBA, she was recruited by Proctor and Gamble in Cincinnati and was soon relocated to Santa Monica, happy to be back in her home state of California. Through her work with P&G, she became interested in women as the change agents in international development and “The itch to do something more meaningful struck again.” She was curious why at-risk women in the U.S. were viewed negatively and were not a part of the change process, often being described as welfare mothers, while in the developing world women were very much involved in lifting themselves up. She wanted to move from the world of marketing into a job that advocated for women. Luckily, Lori saw a job posting at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University and was hired as one of three employees operating a $1 million-dollar budget.


Although the Clayman Institute was founded in 1974, Lori was their first MBA hire. From its inception, the Institute focused on research for impact. Lori explained, “The interesting thing about feminist scholars is that they often see impact as part of the outcome of their work. Not all academics think that way. They often believe that you should do work that has an impact on real lives and society.”  Five years ago, the Institute launched a new initiative, a Women’s Leadership Lab, focused on doing work outside of academics, in collaboration with organizations. To help drive change, Lori created a learning community of affiliate member companies and gave them access to the Lab’s research. In some cases, the Lab conducts research inside companies for a period of one to four years to help address problems, craft solutions, evaluate the outcomes and then write up the project as a research study. Lori explained, “Part of our change model is not doing the intervention but facilitating it so the organization can continue the work because the model becomes embedded in how they see change.” Today the total organization has 22 employees and a $3 million-dollar annual budget.


Stanford University’s current president is looking at how research can accelerate the rate of social change. The Lab’s work is at the center of informing Stanford’s new strategy called Social-X-Change and its work in collaborative gender research is being used as a Stanford case study on how to expand this work to create and leverage research to address more social problems. “It’s really bold to think of changing the way research works and its role in society. It is going to require a number of huge structural shifts to make it happen.” Lori added, “What you learn in AIESEC is that you don’t have to settle for the way things have always been. You can use your best energy to create the greatest good.”


The Lab has had great success in working with business partners, developing resources and research-based strategies to advance women in leadership. This year the Lab received a major gift to establish it as the  Stanford VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab with Lori as the Co-Founder.  Clayman will continue its work focused on topics of research to promote gender equality.


Sometimes the companies Lori works with describe diversity fatigue -- when you work at something for many years, see very little change, and see support wane.  Lori stays focussed. “There are things you give up on and things you don’t, and diversity seems to be one where the scope and size of the problem can cause fatigue, but it doesn’t mean we have to give up.” She adds,” We would never say that we have business innovation fatigue.” Instead of focusing on diversity as the end goal, Lori imagines how organizations can use the drive for inclusion as a process of innovation. “What if our efforts are going to guarantee that we continually innovate the way we run our talent organization? Instead of seeing it as a need to achieve an end goal, we see it as a way of fostering on-going people innovation.” Figuring out the barrier to women and people of color in an organization is one tool that a company can use to assure excellence in talent.


Lori gives the example of on-boarding people in a company. “We generally do an insufficient job of on-boarding people. When you do a poor job of onboarding, the people who suffer are women, people of color, people with disabilities—people who are not like the people in power.” Even though onboarding is only one part of the problem, innovating and improving it can lead to insights that help leaders turn to the next issues. “Figure out a few things that are broken, fix them, evaluate and then innovate based on what you learned. Motivate sustainable change, one ‘small win’ at a time.” One year the innovation may be onboarding, another year it could be promotion practices.

What else works? Holding people accountable for their decision-making. Lori encourages companies to have a diverse slate of candidates for each position, and if a traditional candidate is selected, ask managers to explain why the person with diverse experiences or background was passed over. Lori explains, “This is not a quota but an attempt to widen the aperture of talent.  If you have two women in an interview pool, the woman is more likely to get hired because she is seen more for her talent, not as a token.”


Lori is also helping companies redefine leadership. She explains, “At the heart of inequality is the way we see talented and successful people. It affects whose desk we stop by to get advice or who we invite on a client trip. The way we define success favors people who look like the stereotypical leader from the 1950s and 1960s.” Lori argues that we need people who are collaborative and bring diverse perspectives.  An organization needs people who can think outside the box by surrounding themselves with those who challenge their perspectives. These are the very skills that are needed for today’s complex knowledge economy. After observing hundreds of employee reviews, Lori notes that “The people who get promoted are loud, decisive, authoritarian, claim credit and the ones who get passed over are collaborative, put the team first and they innovate in different ways.”  We need to find a way to value good leaders and not just give the job to the person who is assertive and solely promotes their own achievements.


Lori speaks on gender diversity at conferences for organizations such as the European Central Bank and the Watermark Conference for Women and has been published widely in journals such as the Harvard Business Review, The New York Times and the BBC.  “At the heart of my work is translating research into actionable insights. By interacting with people inside of organizations, we are held accountable for thinking of ways to present research so people can create change in their organizations.” She wants to motivate small, yet meaningful and impactful changes to how people manage and work in organizations.  Sometimes she gets questions to which there is not yet a clear answer, and sharing these insights can help inform the Women's Leadership Lab’s research agenda and programs.


AIESEC engenders consideration in Lori’s work anytime she reviews cultural differences or is scaling ideas to a global level. She feels welcome when she travels internationally since AIESEC exposed her to so many diverse cultures. She cherishes her many AIESEC friends in California and around the world and she credits her entrepreneurial spirit to her AIESEC experience. “The desire, interest and belief that you can change are all things that I learned in AIESEC.”


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