Innovators @ Qualcomm: Vicki Mealer-Burke on how Qualcomm is breaking down barriers
Qualcomm is a company rooted in invention. At the heart of those breakthroughs is an incredibly diverse team: 30,000+ employees, representing 111 ethnicities who speak 65 different languages.
In a new series we’re calling Innovators @ Qualcomm, or IQ, we’ll get to know some of these talented people.
Our first profile is of Vicki Mealer-Burke whose job it is to make sure each and every one of Qualcomm’s employees has a voice. A 20-year veteran of the company, Mealer-Burke has held a variety of positions in several different divisions, from product management to business development to operational leadership and general manager of an emerging business unit. She’s relying on that business acumen — and her empathetic nature — to navigate what is perhaps her most important role to date: chief diversity officer.
We spoke with Mealer-Burke about her career, how she came to be CDO, the importance of diversity and inclusion in a company’s culture, and why, even without this new challenge, she might just be Qualcomm’s biggest champion.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
OnQ: You’ve been with the Qualcomm organization for 20 years. What was the job that got you in the door?
Mealer-Burke: At the time, Qualcomm was optimizing its business processes, and I was hired as a business process analyst. A couple of years later, I was brought in (from IT) to work in a new business unit called BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless). Our goal was to prove that there was going to be a use for wireless data — and not just voice services — on mobile phones. We saw the potential of these powerful, pocket-sized computers, and in 2002, we built what was the first mobile app store, which was used by more than 60 wireless operators globally.
OnQ: And that’s how you got involved with product management?
Mealer-Burke: Yes. That role, which was thought of as IT operations, was basically product creation. That’s how my career in product management began. I really enjoyed representing our product to customers and translating their needs and requirements back to engineering. I ended up leading product management for that division and two others.
OnQ: What came next?
Mealer-Burke: I moved into a corporate role for Qualcomm Labs. We were trying to understand the business and technology opportunities in a bunch of new verticals like healthcare, wearables, automotive, the connected home, and Internet of Things. And that’s how Qualcomm Education was born. I became vice president and general manager of the new business unit, which focused on getting more mobile technology into education. After a couple of years, the company decided to discontinue product development for the QLearn Platform and focus on other projects directly related to its chipset and licensing businesses.
OnQ: Did you think your time at Qualcomm had come to an end?
Mealer-Burke: I did. But Michelle Sterling, who is our executive vice president of HR, asked if I’d be willing to help with the development of the Executive Women’s Leadership Development program and the formation of the Women’s Leadership Council. Those projects energized me. I loved the idea that, as a company, we could be more proactive, more deliberate when it comes to certain issues.
OnQ: And that was around the time Qualcomm created the Chief Diversity Officer role, right?
Mealer-Burke: Someone told me we were getting a chief diversity officer, and my first reaction was “Great. We need someone like that.” A couple of days later, I checked out the post on LinkedIn. I looked at the qualifications and responsibilities, and I started evaluating whether I could do the job and if I was the right person. I thought about whether we’d be able to move the needle fastest with an outside voice coming in, disrupting things, or an inside voice who knows how things work and which buttons to push. I reached out to Michelle, told her I was interested, and many months later, I got the job.
OnQ: What does the title “Chief Diversity Officer” mean?
Mealer-Burke: I think it means something different every day. The role marks a pivotal moment for the company. We now have a single person — and team — fully focused on our culture, our ethos.
OnQ: How would you describe your responsibilities as CDO?
Mealer-Burke: The goal is to make sure that everyone has equal access to not only jobs here but career development, leadership opportunities, and project assignments. Part of my role is creating awareness. It’s talking to people. It’s making sure that folks are comfortable talking about what can sometimes be controversial topics.
OnQ: How do you do that?
Mealer-Burke: With my own vulnerability. I don't know how to talk about every issue correctly. I can only speak from my point of view. And I think it’s allowing people to do the same. As long as you start from a place of honesty and a little bit of humility, I think it opens up some really terrific dialogue.
OnQ: Why now? Why was this role created?
Mealer-Burke: If you looked at the organization, you could see that we could do better with regard to inclusion and diversity. But whose job is that? Some might say it’s everyone’s, but the company realized it was important to have someone who was thinking about it every single day.
OnQ: How did people react to the news about the position?
Mealer-Burke: There was fantastic excitement. It showed deliberateness and the value and importance of creating this role. I got hundreds of emails from people around the company. Some knew me, others didn’t. They offered congratulations, and more importantly, they asked how they could help. They shared their experiences. They wanted to make sure that my experience was broadened by theirs.
OnQ: Did you take them up on their offer to help?
Mealer-Burke: I wrote every single one back because no one person can take on this issue. It reminded me a lot of being head volleyball coach at my alma mater, Iowa State. My job was to get a bunch of very different people together and try to understand how to best utilize their skills and talents. The same is true now. It’s just a much bigger team.
OnQ: How are you approaching the role? What’s your strategy?
Mealer-Burke: I approached the role much like a product manager. I’ve got customers. I need to figure out what our minimal viable product is and execute on a first set of features, a version 1.0, to earn credibility and appease the customers. Then I’ll move on to 2.0 and 3.0.
OnQ: What’s the goal?
Mealer-Burke: It may sound simple, but I’m focusing on growth, retention, and acquisition. We need to find, attract, and hire diverse talent. And we need to keep the talent we have.
OnQ: Let’s talk about some of the ways you’re doing this.
We have a terrific program for hiring more diverse interns. In four years, we’ve more than doubled the amount of women to 29 percent, increased the number of African-American interns from 1 to 6 percent, and tripled our Hispanic interns, which I think is now at almost 10 percent. That’s an existing program I was able to shine a spotlight on and then say, “Okay, next. After interns, what about our college recruiting?” So we’re expanding our recruiting efforts.
And then there’s retention. We have nine employee networks that are creating community. I’m trying to bolster them, keep them focused, and then figure out how to expand them globally.
OnQ: Why nine? Does that fly in the face of inclusivity?
Mealer-Burke: It’s really a good question. There’s a lot of talk right now about breaking down those nine walls and trying to have more intersectionality. We sponsor the Grace Hopper event, and both of our women’s networks are highly engaged and responsible for what happens there. But there’s really no employee network that doesn't have a stake in Grace Hopper, right? So why do we say that it’s just a women’s event? It’s actually much broader.
OnQ: Prior to becoming CDO, did you participate in any of the networks?
Mealer-Burke: I never really participated in any of them, but as I became more senior, I started working with the women’s network. As a lifelong LGBTQ person, I never really associated with the eQuality group. I felt like my personal network was strong and Qualcomm was hugely supportive. In hindsight, that may have been a bit selfish. When an eQuality board member approached me and said, “We need you,” I became the executive sponsor.
OnQ: Let’s talk about one of the new GID programs.
Mealer-Burke: This month, we’re kicking off a pilot program called LeadHERship. It’s a program run by the Anita Borg Institute that helps companies engage and retain rising technical women. We’ve identified a level of engineer that is probably within a couple of years of getting into management. Our plan is to roll that out cross-gender, so we can make sure that we’re doing a good job of preparing the entire next level of leaders at Qualcomm, not just women leaders.
OnQ: Did the recent settlement of Qualcomm’s gender discrimination lawsuit in any way influence your decision to pursue this role?
Mealer-Burke: Actually, the settlement was reached before they advertised for the role. The company identified some areas that could use improvement and the establishment of those programs became part of the settlement. I consider myself fortunate because this set of programs provided me with a starting point.
OnQ: What does success look like in five years?
Mealer-Burke: Measurable progress is really just higher numbers. But an increase in numbers doesn't necessarily mean I’ve done a good job. I think it’s more holistic than that. Right now it’s really about creating awareness.
This company has been terrific for me and my career. I never could have imagined when I walked in the door in 1997 that I’d be sitting here in this role with all the experiences and accomplishments I’ve had. I want that for others. I want to make sure there are policies and practices in place and that we’ve raised awareness. I want to ensure the best and brightest rise to the top, and establish escalation paths for top performers and those with high potential. I want to attract the brightest minds and the most innovative people to carry on our legacy of terrific innovation for the next 30 years. And I want to make sure that, if she chose to, my daughter could get a job here and have a wonderfully fulfilling career.
OnQ: What role, if any, did mentors play in your career?
Mealer-Burke: There were multiple people that either nudged me in the right direction or set an example for me. Some were more purposeful. Others may not have even known. One example for me, here, was Peggy Johnson. She started as an engineer and became an executive vice president. She was honest, even a little humble. She started every all-hands meeting with a story about her family or her childhood. Those stories made her real, vulnerable, and inspirational. They helped her make real connections with people.
What’s your favorite thing about working at Qualcomm? The people here are amazing. The technology we’ve created is amazing. You never know where we’ll be in two years. Two years ago, I would never have guessed that I’d be a chief diversity officer. There are amazing opportunities here.
What one word best describes you? Competitive. I like to win. I want my programs to succeed. I want the numbers to grow.
What book is on your nightstand? The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord
Describe it in one sentence. It’s about success from an almost catastrophic failure.
Favorite place? Kauai
What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Coffee
When you’re not working, where can we find you? Paddleboarding
Authored by The OnQ Team