“Beautiful intersections” helped her along the way
As Verizon’s Chief Talent and Diversity Officer, Magda Yrizarry’s job is to convince the most talented people in their fields that Verizon is the place they want to work. A big part of that role is to make sure that the company culture is one where talent is nurtured, where all ideas are welcome and where employees from all kinds of backgrounds feel valued and supported. Yrizarry knows a lot about support, because she had so many people—teachers, family members, youth group counselors, ASPIRA advisors, Girl Scout leaders, professors—helping her along her own journey.
Born the youngest of three children and raised by a single mother, Yrizarry grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in a close-knit community surrounded by a network of aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors who all lived within a few blocks of each other. “In the '60s, in an inner-city neighborhood, there were challenges,” she says. “As we grew up, we learned very quickly how to stay safe and how to keep each other safe, and I think a lot of wisdom and maturity came from that.”
Yrizarry says it was her mother who showed her there were no limits to what she could accomplish if she persevered and took advantage of every opportunity. “She was an amazingly resourceful woman who knew how to keep us engaged in positive ways, whether it was Scouting, church youth groups, or simply surrounding us with adults who encouraged us and other young people who also had big dreams.”
Yrizarry also credits her mother for teaching her “the important dualities” that she continues to use in her life and work. “I think about dualities like: being fearless, yet cautious. Being humble, yet bold. Being peaceful, yet being a fighter. Being anchored, yet free. Being a leader, yet a servant. These dualities that I was expected to have within myself helped me to understand how diverse people are, just within our own selves. Which gave me an appreciation at a very young age about finding what was special, not only in me, but what was special in every single individual.”
Yrizarry worked hard and earned a full scholarship to Cornell, where she earned a bachelor's degree and finished the coursework for a master's in City and Regional Planning. All she had left to do was write her thesis. But by this time, she says, she wanted to get married and “get on with real life,” and write her thesis later. A professor named Stu Stein, who had been a mentor to her throughout school, warned her not to. “He said, 'Magda, do not leave this campus. Stay here this summer and finish this, because life is going to have a pace of its own,'" she remembers, laughing. “He tried so hard, but I was stubborn. I thought I could multitask and get it done, but it ended up taking me over a decade. Stu checked in on me [over the years], and gave me so much encouragement.”
Yrizarry remembers one powerful conversation with Stein that impacted not just her thesis, but became a theme throughout her career. She recounts that just when her life became most demanding, Stein asked “How can you do life and school? How can you find an intersection where you can bring the two together and do both at the same time?” After that conversation, Yrizarry, who was working at Verizon by that time, chose a topic. She wrote her thesis on the digital divide, a pressing issue that directly applied to her work. By finding that intersection, she finished her thesis and earned her master's degree while raising a family and contributing to her work at the same time.
Yrizarry arrived at Verizon through another one of what she calls “beautiful intersections.” She was a social welfare planner for the New York City Mission Society, extending services through churches primarily around early childhood education, hunger and services to the homeless. She was doing a lot of her work in her hometown of Brooklyn through the First Spanish Presbyterian Church, the church she grew up in. An executive named Ted Federici at New York Telephone, a legacy Verizon company, who happened to be on the board of the NYC Mission Society, saw the work she was doing. He recruited her to work on partnerships with the first Governor Cuomo and his wife, Matilda Cuomo, creating education initiatives.
“I came into New York Telephone with a plan,” Yrizarry says. “I said to Ted that I really wasn't a corporate person. I was a public servant. I had been trained to be a person who was going to drive public policy, and probably be a senator someday.” But Federici convinced her to try it out, and Yrizarry found yet another way to bring two of her passions together into one mission. "Twenty-six years later I'm still at Verizon, because I've been afforded opportunities to be that public servant, while at the same time being a corporate servant,” she says, noting the duality of her role. “It was, again, one of those beautiful intersections where you think these roads are totally separate, but then you pull them together and it makes magic.”
As Verizon's Chief Talent and Diversity Officer, Yrizarry actually performs two roles that intersected into one. “We decided a few years ago that we would pull diversity and talent into the same organization,” she says. “Before that, they were parallel organizations, working well side by side, but we had a unique opportunity to put them together and integrate a powerful conversation.”
Yrizarry says she’s always trying to answer the question “How do we become the kind of company that people want to join?” Creating a company culture that fosters diversity starts with what Yrizarry calls “the war for talent.” She's quick to point out that “The best talent is choosing us as much as we're choosing them.” Whether Verizon is recruiting online, on campus, or at a trade association, she says it's important that all types of people can see where they fit into the company. “Time and time again we've been able to recruit people with many options because they tell us that diversity and inclusion matter to them, and that's why they chose us.”
Yrizarry points out that Verizon's commitment to diversity comes directly from being present in the communities it serves. “We have a real advantage,” she says. “Our technicians are out in neighborhoods. We have stores, people call us, we interact with our customers every day, and it's important that they sense that we get them.”
Yrizarry credits Verizon's employee resource groups for helping identify areas where innovations in diversity and inclusion can happen. One internal group called DIAL, the resource group for employees with disabilities, helps Verizon understand how to better serve the disability community. Verizon’s development of the FiOS Descriptive Video Services (DVS) for the blind community, for example, was an innovation that came directly from leveraging the insights of Verizon employees in the DIAL group.
When it comes to what Verizon is doing to help solve the “pipeline problem”—the shortage of STEM graduates from diverse backgrounds in the hiring pool—Yrizarry points to the partnerships Verizon has made with organizations that help nurture kids' interest in STEM fields and funnel talented students into the pipeline that leads to tech careers down the line. “That pipeline for us starts as early as middle school,” she says, citing Verizon's Innovative Learning app challenges and Minority Male Makers programs, as well as partnerships with institutions like CUNY and Cornell Tech, where Verizon sponsors a Women in Tech Initiative. “It takes supporters and partners from inside the business, including the Chairman, to truly create impact with external partners,” Yrizarry says. But she acknowledges that the pipeline issue is bigger than just the tech industry. “I think as a society we have to strengthen our schools for all children. We need to demand that of ourselves as a country,” she says.
You’re seeing tech companies reach out and try to answer the question ‘How can we do better?’
As for the greater issue of diversity and inclusion in the tech industry as a whole, Yrizarry praises the outreach her peers have been doing. “I think we've all established great partnerships with organizations like the National Society of Hispanic MBAs, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society for Women Engineers, Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic Serving Institutions. You're seeing tech companies reach out and try to answer the question 'How can we do better?', and you do that by aligning yourself with organizations that are naturally trusted by diverse communities, instead of trying to do it alone.”
When it comes to staying committed to diversity, Yrizarry says it helps that Verizon has a credo. “We have a credo that gives us a common language,” she says. “Our credo says diversity is important because it's the right thing to do and it's smart business. It's not some slogan on the website, it's not a poster on the wall. It's about customers, suppliers and partners. It's about an encouraging environment for people of all different backgrounds to find themselves in,” she says. “Diversity is a thread that pulls all the way through.”
When Yrizarry looks back at her life and career so far, and all the people who have encouraged her along the way, she thinks of her personal motto, paraphrased from the Biblical chapter of Luke: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” “I have great awareness of the fact that I have been given amazing opportunities,” she says. “And as a result, I have a responsibility to create amazing opportunities for other people.”