A brunette woman in a grey cardigan with arms crossed smiling at the camera. She is Susan Cooney.
Susan Cooney. Image: Chloe Jackman Photography

‘I thought early on in my career I needed to fit in to be accepted’

13 May 2019

Susan Cooney leads global diversity, equity and inclusion at Symantec. She will be speaking at Inspirefest 2019.

As a founding team member of nine start-ups, a former growth strategist for both start-ups and Fortune 500 companies, and a former adviser and consultant for Tech Inclusion and Breaking Glass Forums, it’s safe to say that Inspirefest 2019 speaker Susan Cooney is a tech veteran.

Her background has bedded her firmly in the start-up scene, not just as a founder but as a coach and angel investor. However, she now leads global diversity, equity and inclusion at Symantec.

In this role, she sets corporate inclusion strategy and drives organisational change, policy and inclusive leadership development across the Symantec family of brands, including Norton and LifeLock Digital Safety Platform.

“My current role is a direct result of often being the only woman leader at a company full of men. I knew there was a problem with diversity. I lived it. I saw amazing talent have limited access to opportunity and frustrated colleagues being underutilised. I knew I could make a difference and dove into D&I work with a passion in 2014,” said Cooney.

While she doesn’t have the more traditional HR or talent acquisition background, Cooney said it’s her ability to sit at the table with business leaders across a spectrum, speak the same language and understand business outcomes that allows her to present a framework for inclusion.

“I provide thought leadership on policy decisions, talent acquisition, messaging and how to identify areas where bias creeps in. I partner across the business to build awareness and language, and guide teams on how to have courageous conversations,” she said.

A greater impact

While Cooney had worked as a growth strategist for Fortune 500 companies before, a lot of her background was set in the world of start-ups. She said moving from that world to a major company such as Symantec was an amazing shift, because she found her impact was much greater.

“I was more familiar with driving outcomes and moving fast with smaller teams. Agility and perseverance ruled the day. At Symantec, I’ve been given a lot of autonomy and support to drive change, but with significantly more resources,” she said.

“When I accepted the role at Symantec, I recall my immediate manager telling me Symantec is just like a start-up. I likely showed disbelief considering it’s a 12,000-person company. She then shared that the company was focused on innovation, growth and purpose – all important factors when growing a start-up. She was right and I was hooked.”

As a woman in tech, Cooney said she has always been a minority. “I recall several experiences where I was the only woman in an investor pitch or the only women at a start-up competition. I’ve been overlooked, ignored, and exposed to cruel and inappropriate ‘humour’ from male colleagues. I knew younger women, people of colour and anyone who didn’t fit into the ‘bro culture’ was at a disadvantage.”

However, she said this experience motivated her to find start-up founders who were ‘not the norm’ and equip them with the confidence, access, networking and thought partnership they needed. Cooney added that it’s important not to play the game. “I thought early on in my career I needed to ‘fit in’ to be accepted. Be yourself. It’s easier and drives better outcomes for you,” she said.

“If you’re good at networking and make an effort to connect with other people in your space, you’ll have access to a lot more opportunities. Asking more questions when meeting other people is underrated. Most people spend more time telling others about themselves instead of learning about others and their stories through a few good enquiries.”

Less talk, more action

While there has been a lot of talk around diversity and inclusion, Cooney worries that it’s a case of all talk and no action, with many companies focusing too much on data and not enough on driving real change. “One of the biggest elements in the D&I space being overlooked is the real work of behaviour change,” she said. “If we’re going to create more inclusive workplaces where people feel like they belong, we need to shift our mindsets and build a capacity, a new muscle, to ensure all team members are included and leveraged.”

Cooney also said that leaders need to realise that diversity and inclusion are directly tied to business outcomes. “There is significant research that shows more diverse leadership teams drive better business and financial outcomes. If this is true, why aren’t we looking at diversity data with as much diligence as financial data?”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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