Miriam Rivera's mother had only a third-grade education. Her father left home when she was just 9 years old, and Rivera didn't see him again for almost a decade. So, some had low expectations for what Rivera would be able to accomplish in life.
"I had the experience of being told that I'd amount to nothing, I'd be on welfare, I'd basically never make anything of myself," she recalled. After turning to books and to faith, Rivera said, she proved those bleak predictions wrong. Instead, they "gave me the kind of heart you have to have, the kind of hunger that you want to succeed."
In March, the successful businesswoman who holds four degrees from Stanford — including an MBA — was elected to the Stanford University Board of Trustees. Her 5-year term expires in 2013.
Including Rivera, 13 Stanford MBAs now sit on the 33-member board.
Rivera's election to Stanford's board came a week after she received the 2008 Jerry I. Porras Latino Leadership Award from the Hispanic Business Students Association of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. It was during her acceptance speech there that she discussed her modest beginnings, her rise through the business world to become vice president and deputy general counsel of search engine giant Google, and how humility as well as drive have contributed to her success.
Rivera credited her mother with instilling her with compassion, an essential trait for a good leader. She recalled the time when a young runaway who had fallen into prostitution showed up on the family's doorstep, pleading to use their telephone to call the police. Her mother let the young woman in, and they all waited together until the authorities came. "That's what character meant to me, in terms of how you help people," Rivera said.
She said those striving for their own success also should lift others to better circumstances along the way. As an example, she looked to the military world and Carl Brashear, who in 1970 became the first African American U.S. Navy Master Diver. "People who hunger to be successful for more than just themselves are almost always in a better spot than somebody who is just thinking of Number One," Rivera said. "I totally believe this is what true leadership is about."
Then, she described how many people have contributed to her success, including her supportive husband and the nanny who helped the couple raise their two daughters as Rivera climbed the corporate ranks.
Rivera urged her listeners to keep their egos in check as they build their careers, not to be hypnotized by heftyt salaries and the fancy cars and big homes they can buy. "Have, or be, a supporter" of someone else trying to get ahead, she urged. Rivera gave as an example her experience at On Your Mind, a venture-backed enterprise software company she cofounded. Once she had to lay off a close friend there. But that friend later recommended Rivera for her first job at Google. "Most likely it's you and many other people who were responsible for the success that you have," she said. "So, treat people well. Meaningful relationships count for a lot."
Rivera is a former vice president and deputy general counsel of Google. In that post, she led the legal teams for several of the company's operations worldwide. Before that, she served as associate general counsel, managing Google's revenue and commercial partnership practice. She continues to serve as a secretary to the board of the Google Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm.
Prior to Google, Rivera worked as in-house counsel for Sunnyvale-based software maker Ariba. Earlier, she cofounded On Your Mind, a software firm later known as Outcome Software. Rivera also worked as a strategy consultant for Andersen Consulting, now Accenture.
Currently, Rivera said she is "taking a hiatus from the work world" to concentrate on her philanthropic ventures, family, and friends.
She earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Stanford University in 1986, followed by a master's degree in Spanish (Caribbean literature) from the University in 1989. Rivera received her JD/MBA in 1995.
Currently, she serves on the board of visitors of the Stanford Law School and has volunteered with several campus projects, including the Business School's Alumni Consulting Team, which provides pro bono management consulting services to the nonprofit community. She has established a scholarship fund at Stanford for low-income African American and Latino students. She also serves on the board of advisers of Hispanic-Net, a group dedicated to the needs of Hispanic technology entrepreneurs and executives.
Rivera is an active supporter of A Better Chance, which helps minority students attend prestigious prep schools, and La Casa de las Madres, a shelter for battered women in San Francisco.
By Michele Chandler