Lesley Slaton Brown has worked in the tech industry for 20 years, working all around the world and earning a top leadership role at HP, Inc. This weekend, she’s returning to her hometown to speak at the graduation ceremony of the youngest University of California campus.
Slaton Brown, 51, was born and raised in Merced. She attended Merced schools and graduated from Merced High School in 1984. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Boise State University, where she also lettered in basketball on a NCAA scholarship.
Slaton Brown is the chief diversity officer at HP. Last year, she was named the 2016 Woman of the Year in Technology by the Silicon Valley’s Chapter of National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc. as well as the 2016 Multicultural Leadership Award by the National Diversity Council.
She’s led efforts to address the digital divide in Senegal, West Africa and has worked on projects focused on broadening representation of women and minorities in computer education and careers.
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Speaking at UC Merced’s commencement ceremony for the school of engineering is one of the highest honors in her life, she said.
In an interview with the Sun-Star, Slaton Brown spoke about Merced and how her experiences here shaped her personally, professionally and drove her passion.
Q: Describe your time living in Merced. How do you remember it?
“I was born and raised in Merced, Calif., from grade school to high school, right there in Merced. When I was attending university, I came home one summer and actually took a couple classes at Merced Community College.
“Merced was such a family-oriented community. Everybody knew everybody. Families knew each other. I couldn’t get out of line because Mrs. Stuart next door would tell my mom. ... It was a place where you grew up, and not only did you know everyone, you had generations of family there. I grew up around my maternal grandmother and paternal grandparents and all of my extended family. I went to school with my cousins all the way through high school.”
Q: What’s changed since then?
“My mother still lives in Merced, so I do get back to Merced fairly often.
“The one thing that strikes me – I still see Merced as very much a wonderful opportunity when you think about the (University of California) system being in Merced now. There’s a phenomenal opportunity for growth, academia and education.
“What’s a little different to me that’s a concern, is I don’t see – and I’m not there day to day– but I don’t see where the growth is aligning to some of these wonderful opportunities like UC Merced. I would love to see greater growth and progression, like small businesses and industry.
“I also see more crime in Merced. I personally worry about my mother as an elder and her safety. That’s a little bit different.
“When I was growing up in Merced, we had the military base here. That brought new and diverse thinking, multiculturalism. It brought new events, cultural events, and restaurants. That seems a bit stagnant.”
Q: What have been some defining moments in your career?
“First and foremost, I’ve felt very fortunate to be born into the family I was born into – not only my family, but my extended family. Merced, when I was growing up, the teachers really cared. They took a vested interest in you as a student. ...
“Merced shaped me into having that multicultural perspective, a diverse perspective, well before we used those words. ...What I found is, as I moved from Merced, I left a very multicultural, diverse area, and moved to Boise. I brought this perspective with me that was very different. I also brought with me an opportunistic attitude that ‘you can grow, you can change, you can evolve.’ But, it takes a community. That’s what Merced was.”
Q: What’s it like having a job that’s all about diversity?
“It’s my dream sequence.
“Now, who I am – who I truly, authentically am – and the things I care about personally, have evolved professionally. I’ve had the opportunity to work globally, in a company that serves 170 countries across the globe.
“It’s everything that I could have hoped for, in having those three things come together – me, personally, my profession, and my passion.”
Q: What’s your advice for UC Merced graduates?
“The messages that I want to share — there’s three things I really want to tell the students, and I would tell my younger self the same things.
“As you go through from where you are now to where you will be, begin to take steps that others will follow one day. You’re starting a course that others will watch and do, hopefully, and go beyond. When you think of the shoulders we stand on, you have to know where you come from in order to know where you’re going. Begin to take steps others will follow one day.”
“Open new doors. Look for new ways, innovative ways, to help solve problems. I’m speaking to the school of engineering. Engineers are problem solvers. Solve new problems, disrupt systems that require change.”
“And then, lead. We need more leaders, and we need more thoughtful leaders. The beauty of coming from some place like Merced, for me, where my roots are, and the beauty for someone who may have come there to the San Joaquin Valley to go to school, is that you bring a new and different perspective. And the world is anxiously awaiting for you to bring it.”
Q: How do you feel returning to Merced to speak at a University of California commencement ceremony?
“This is such an honor for me because I so believe in my community. I still consider Merced my community. It’s my community because of what it gave me. It nurtured me to become the woman I am today. ...
“When I think about coming back to UC Merced, I am in awe of what I see these administrators do, not only for students and for the university, but for the Merced community.
“I think opportunity still exists for Merced to step up, grab a hold of it and run with it. It can create something much like the Silicon Valley. Merced can evolve into a place that really impacts the globe.
“It’s probably one of greatest honors in my lifetime to come back to my community and share my story about how I came from Merced to the Silicon Valley to impact the world.”