Beth Parker’s knack for telling people’s stories initiated a career that has spanned nearly two decades, won her numerous industry awards as a TV news journalist, and triggered a huge job transition that took her from her longtime home of Washington, D.C., to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Today, as chief communications officer for the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation — better known as LeanIn.org — she’s doing what she says is her most important work yet: highlighting the stories of all types of women in the workplace in an effort to bring diversity to businesses around the world.
Making sure that everyone has a seat at the corporate table is an idea that was solidified by her time at Stanford GSB’s LGBTQ Executive Leadership Program, which Parker attended in 2016.
You had a long tenure in journalism — 17 years. What did you love about it?
I love people. Telling people’s stories has always been compelling to me. They joke at work that I like talking to strangers. I came up doing general assignments and eventually lots of investigative reporting. I covered three presidential inaugurations, I covered 9/11 first from D.C. and then from New York for our D.C. station. I had a front-row seat to a lot of the huge current events that shaped our nation in my adult lifetime, and I feel very fortunate for that.
Toward the end of my journalism career, though, I was doing more and more feature reporting because not only was that interesting to me, but I found that people weren’t getting enough of that. These weren’t stories about famous people; they were stories about regular people and seemed to resonate so much more with viewers.
You won one of your nine Emmy Awards for your 2015 depiction of one such person.
Yes, a year or so before I left journalism I produced a story about a blind runner in Maryland. An adult who competed in the Special Olympics, he would hold onto a rope and his coach had the other end. The runner used the rope to guide himself to stay in his lane on the track. It was really powerful how positive he was and how he dealt with all the things that most of us take for granted. He quite literally found a way to plow forward and thrive. So much of what’s profound is just regular people living their lives.
How did you know you were ready to leave journalism?
I loved being a journalist, but it had changed in ways that I thought weren’t for the best. We were doing fewer of the stories that mattered to me, and it’s no secret that there had been extraordinary budget cuts in journalism. I wasn’t directly affected by those — I had a job and, of course, I was always grateful for that — but I could see how the content and quality had changed and how much harder it was to carry out the type of stories that I loved to do. That said, I still have incredible respect for journalists and for how strong and powerful their work can be. I think real investigative journalism is alive and well and that’s good for all of us.
Did you know what you wanted to do next?
No, but I wanted to make sure I was thoughtful about how to make the leap to something else. There are a ton of skills that transfer from journalism to other fields. There’s huge value in someone who can write and write quickly, who can think strategically, who can take complex things and distill them down into something simple. It’s about how you sell yourself and how you tell the story of who you are and what you do in a way that’s relatable to a business or whomever you’re trying to convince to hire you.
How did you eventually figure that out?
I started building up my network. I went to a bunch of friends and said, “I’m thinking of leaving journalism. Can you introduce me to people who are smart and interesting?” I had coffee with 42 strangers, some of whom connected me to other people, some who became sources of encouragement. I was heartened to see how many people wanted to help me. I’d be having coffee with someone new and they’d say, “You know who you should meet?” I had a lot of conversations about how these folks would see a journalist if one walked through their door for a job interview — what advice could they give me about selling myself or about making my résumé better?
How long did it take you to zoom in on your next calling?
Those 42 coffees took more than two years. I was thinking I wanted to do something in the international development space and was looking for communications jobs. I eventually got hired by a woman I knew from my son’s preschool. She was the head of communications at PwC and understood what a journalist could do in a way that not everyone did. She was building a new team there and I kept running into her around town. It was at a pizza place that she said, “How serious are you about leaving news?” That’s how I ended up at PwC. I walked out of the newsroom on a Thursday — leaving the only profession I had known other than a stint at Dairy Queen when I was young — and walked into PwC the following Monday.
Caroline Nolan, the woman who hired you at PwC, sent you to the first cohort of Stanford’s LGBTQ Executive Leadership Program. What was so appealing about it?
I was shocked that such a program existed. It was the first of its type and I didn’t know what to expect — I hadn’t gone to business school. But I was excited to see the environment that codirectors Tom Wurster, with his corporate background, and Sarah Soule, with her experience around design thinking, were creating. The design thinking class really opened my eyes to the idea of looking at things from different angles and having a broader point of view when you’re working on a project or thinking through a challenge.
A direct outgrowth of this class was a weekly brainstorming call I started for my team at PwC. People would jump on the call when they were working on something that they needed help brainstorming with — a social media post, a problem, a project, whatever. We just set aside time for people to be creative, and it ended up being one of the favorite things we did each week. People felt energized by it. We hit a point where people on other parts of the team, who were not originally on the call, started asking if they could join. It was a way for people to open their minds — a lot of great ideas emerged from that.
How was the LGBTQ program different from a more mainstream executive leadership class?
It’s about the shared experience of being LGBTQ and the connection my classmates and I felt to each other. We had a day where we went around and told coming out stories. It wasn’t part of the curriculum; it happened organically. Having that opportunity to share those experiences and realizing that you’re not alone is incredibly powerful if you are deemed an “other” by society.
Another thing that stood out is hearing stories of how many of the men in the class had these experiences of having been passed over for a promotion or not gotten a job because they were told they didn’t have executive presence. I’ve always had an interest in diversity and inclusion, and this made me think: What is executive presence? Are you deemed to have less of it if you’re different based upon what’s essentially a bias? It made me very aware and appreciative of differences of all kinds and the value of having a roomful of diverse people. This goes beyond being LGBTQ or having a different race or ethnicity; it’s also about different personalities. The idea that the loudest person in the room isn’t necessarily the one with the best ideas — and nudging the quieter people on a team — is something I’ve really paid attention to and brought to my work.
After four years at PwC, you uprooted your wife and son from D.C. and moved cross-country to take an executive position at Lean In. Were you looking to make another big work change?
No! I was perfectly happy at PwC. Wasn’t looking for a job. But that same Caroline from PwC — who’s now working at Facebook — mentioned that there was an opening at Lean In and I thought, “That’s silly, we’re very invested in Washington, D.C., from the perspective of friendships and being near my family; we’re not moving to California.” I woke up the next morning thinking about it, and I’m a big believer in if you wake up thinking about something, you should be paying attention to it. I did a few video interviews, flew out to Palo Alto twice, and got the job offer. We ended up renting a house sight unseen — one of the nuttier things I’ve done. We’ve been here about four months and we are not missing the East Coast cold weather.
You mentioned that this new job builds on some of the core ideas about diversity that stuck with you from your time at Stanford. How?
The leadership program showed how important it is for LGBTQ people to have a seat at the table. It can only help businesses thrive as they build out more diverse, inclusive workforces. The job at Lean In offers me a rare opportunity to work on issues around gender bias and resilience at a place that’s putting out well-respected research about women in the workplace, and that’s showing how companies can improve their pipeline of diverse employees. Making the workplace better for women and making it fairer for everyone? That’s incredibly meaningful to me.