Reflections Of A Minority Manager

By Jeet S. Bindra, President
Chevron Pipe Line Company

Orlando, Florida

Also see a press release regarding this speech.

My name is Jeet Bindra, and I am currently the president of Chevron Pipe Line Co.

I emphasize that for two reasons. One, to demonstrate that it's possible for a non-Caucasian to climb to the level of president in a major U.S. company. And two, because I like to remind myself occasionally of just how far I've come.

When Chevron's Dave Steele talked to this organization three years ago at your annual conference in Denver, he talked about the importance of building bridges — bridges between companies, between companies and consumers and between individuals. He also emphasized the importance of building bridges to management.

Today I would like to revisit that theme, because it fits nicely with one of your strategic goals — promoting upward mobility of Hispanics in management. And while I am obviously not Hispanic, I feel a certain kinship toward this group — and Hispanics in general — because I am often mistaken for someone of Hispanic heritage.

So if you will allow me to declare myself an honorary Hispanic for the duration of my speech, I would like to tell you the story of my own upward mobility. I hope that you'll find it interesting and possibly even helpful in charting the course of your own career into management.

My story is very simply the story of a poor Indian boy who left his country and came to America to pursue his dreams in "the land of opportunity." That may sound like a plot for a low-budget Hollywood movie, but you have to understand that, for me, America really has turned out to be "the land of opportunity." The fact that I am standing here today is proof of that. But it was not easy.

To get where I am today took a lot of hard work and perseverance — something I'm sure many Hispanics and other minorities can relate to, especially those in my age group. As I tell my story, I hope you will hear something familiar. And perhaps you'll find that we share some common experiences.

I was born in the holy city of Varanasi, which is located on the Ganges River in north central India.

My family was poor, but I never felt deprived. Like many people in India, my father worked for the government all of his life. When he retired in 1969, he was making about $90 a month. That was chicken feed even in those days. But somehow my parents were able to clothe, feed and raise a family of five children on that meager amount of money.

Our meals were simple. Lunch usually consisted of vegetables and bread. For dinner we were often treated to something special, like beans and bread.

I attended public schools because my parents couldn't afford the private schools. From the first through the sixth grade, I sat on the floor and used a thin bamboo stick as a writing instrument.

Despite that rather humble beginning, I became a good enough student to ultimately receive a government scholarship to attend college.

I graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur in 1969, the same year my father retired. He probably figured that since I now had a college education, he didn't have to support me anymore. But it soon became apparent that an undergraduate degree would not get me where I wanted to go. It was also apparent that I would have to leave India in order to get a quality postgraduate education.

Like others from around the world, I chose to come to the United States for that education. Although I applied to four or five universities, I decided to accept a research assistantship in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington. Only one obstacle stood in my way — I didn't have enough money to get there. So I had to take out a loan just to cover the cost of my airline ticket.

I landed in Seattle in September 1969 with just eight dollars in my pocket. You can't buy much in Seattle for eight bucks, even back in those days. The research assistantship paid for tuition, books and room and board.

I was able to make a little extra pocket money by working as a cook at a local Indian restaurant. I didn't consider that much of a hardship, however, because cooking remains to this day one of my true passions.

In spite of working and even getting married, I managed to complete my master's degree in chemical engineering within 15 months — I had more energy in those days.

After getting my degree, I returned to India with my new American wife and went to work. Although I rose to the level of general manager in one of the two companies I worked for there, I found the business environment in India extremely frustrating because of the stifling bureaucracy, the lack of career opportunities and the intolerable corruption that permeated all levels of business. All these things played a part in my decision to return to the United States. So I bundled up my wife and my young son and flew off once again to Seattle with just a few hundred dollars in my pocket. This was early 1977.

We lived with my in-laws while I searched for a job through the university's placement center. I was soon offered a position, thank goodness, at Chevron Research Co.

Although I had a job, it started out as kind of a good news/bad news situation. The good news was it was nice to be earning a living again. The bad news was my past work experience didn't count. So I had to start as if I were a rookie engineer with a new master's degree.

I began working in Chevron's Environmental Engineering and Research division on April 1, 1977. And, yes, I really did get the job. Chevron wasn't playing an April Fool's joke on me. Maybe the joke was on Chevron — I'm not sure.

Although I was grateful to be gainfully employed, I quickly determined that research and development wasn't my cup of tea. I discovered that project management was what really intrigued me. But I had no expertise or experience in that field. So what did I do? I took advantage of that uniquely American opportunity to reinvent myself.

I enrolled in an evening MBA program at St. Mary's College near San Francisco and graduated with honors in 1979. Shortly thereafter, armed with masters degrees in chemical engineering and business, I requested a transfer to Chevron's Project Management group. Lo and behold, my request was granted.

At that point in my career at Chevron, my talents had been recognized and they were still propelling me up the career ladder. It was after I had received a couple of quick promotions that I hit a barrier — a barrier that all of a sudden prevented me from climbing higher on the ladder to a possible position in upper management.

The Chevron of 20 years ago was a very conservative company. "Conservative" in this instance means that Chevron wasn't exactly on the cutting edge when it came to promoting women and minorities into management positions. You didn't have to be clairvoyant to see it.

Just a quick look around showed you that the halls of management were decked with white, Anglo-Saxon males dressed in three-piece, pin-striped suits and shiny, wing-tipped shoes. One of them took me aside one day and offered me some friendly advice.

He told me that because I looked different, dressed different and spoke with an accent, I would be lucky if I made it into middle management before I retired. By the way, I am a Sikh, so I was wearing a turban at the time.

Looking back, I'm sure this gentleman thought he was doing me a big favor so I wouldn't harbor any unrealistic career expectations. I remember thinking: Don't judge me by the color of my skin or my accent or the kind of food I eat or whether my name is Bindra or Wong or Gonzales, for that matter. What I told him was, "Please judge me on my performance and what I bring to the table." I left his office muttering a few well-chosen expletives under my breath.

He probably thought I was terribly naïve. Perhaps I was, because I decided to take his unsolicited advice as a challenge rather than an insult. I was determined to prove him wrong.

He and other members of Chevron's management at the time expressed several reservations that might have an impact on their decision to promote me to a senior management position. How effective would I be in leading a group of white male subordinates? How well would I relate to the public in the various areas where Chevron had operations — San Francisco, for instance, or Pascagoula, Miss., or Midland, Texas, for that matter? Would the public accept me, or would they hesitate to work with me? Would promoting Jeet Bindra help or hurt Chevron's business?

I would like to tell you that the members of Chevron's management at the time were struck by a sudden epiphany. But the reality was that it took a combination of personal initiative and a gradual change in the culture of the corporation for me to be elevated into the ranks of upper management.

Along the way, I took every opportunity to shatter the myths about minorities and women that people in the company held at that time. You've heard them all before. Minorities are lazy. They can't seem to finish a task on time. They can't communicate properly or sell their ideas. And perhaps most insulting, they can't make decisions.

Nirvana is the Hindu word for the place where we are free from life's trials and tribulations. And although I take a great deal of satisfaction from my personal success at Chevron, we obviously haven't achieved nirvana yet when it comes to achieving true diversity in corporate America — and that includes Chevron. Management reservations, such as those I experienced in the 1980s, won't magically disappear from the day-to-day realities of American business any time soon.

But I want to make something absolutely clear here. The Chevron of 20 years ago is not the Chevron of today. Chevron has made and is continuing to make huge strides in creating an all-inclusive business organization. We are making a concerted effort to hire and maintain a truly diverse work force — one that accurately reflects the diverse customers we serve worldwide.

One of our core values states, "We value the uniqueness of individuals and the valuable perspectives they provide. We promote diversity within our work force and have an inclusive environment that enables each of us to fully participate and contribute." These are not just words on paper.

Chevron has increased the overall number of its minority employees by 7 percent since 1990, even though we've reduced our overall work force by more than 25 percent over that same period. Twenty-eight percent of all professionals hired by Chevron over the last four years have been minorities. That exceeds both the percentage of minorities in American society today as well as the average employed in American business. However, you might say, "What about management positions?" Well, things are improving there as well.

Only a few years ago, for instance, we had no women or minorities on Chevron's Corporate Management Team. Today, this team of 42 individuals includes eight of us. And while eight out of 42 is not ideal, we hope that the number will grow significantly over the next five years.

It's important to note here that Chevron's chairman, Ken Derr, has instructed all of his senior managers — including me — to prepare and execute personal diversity action plans. And mine is very aggressive, I can assure you. Mr. Derr has also tied a portion of our pay to the successful implementation of these plans.

Why is Chevron trying to attract top-notch minority employees? One big reason is we now realize that a diverse team of professionals helps contribute to the debate. A diverse team actually enhances solutions to business problems rather than being a detriment.

A second reason is Chevron is fast becoming a truly international company with operations in more than 20 countries around the world.

The background of people like you and me, which used to be overlooked or even considered a liability 15 or 20 years ago, is truly an asset today.

As the pool of potential employees becomes more and more diverse, we are beginning to realize that a larger percentage of top talent is female or minority or sometimes both. So what does all this mean to minorities who want to move up? It means that the brass ring is closer than ever before. You just need to position yourself to grab it.

Some people believe that if you are a woman or a minority, you have to work harder than your white male colleagues if you want to make it into management. My view is go ahead and assume that if that's what it takes to make you more competitive. But none of us can afford to believe that we deserve to get ahead just because we are a minority or female.

You need to demonstrate that you can add value to the business. Then no one will be able to ignore your contribution. You need to seize every opportunity and make the best use of your talents and the resources available to you.

Early in your career, you will probably interact with a wide variety of professionals wherever you work. Take every opportunity to communicate your professionalism. Treat all people as though someday they will be in decision-making positions that could impact your future. A good first impression can go a long way toward being selected for that next important position. And don't socialize only with those who are like you. Join the mainstream. I happen to believe you can do that without losing your cultural identity. You can join the mainstream and keep your individuality, your background and your culture. I don't feel any less Indian because most of my colleagues are white.

If you want to succeed in this society you must contribute your fair share as a part of the mainstream. So broaden your network.

Also, don't think that you've learned all there is to learn. You need to dedicate yourself to a process of continuous learning to position yourself at the cutting edge and remain competitive throughout your career. For me, going back to school and continually looking for other ways to expand my knowledge has made all the difference.

When I started work, almost all employees figured they would complete their careers with the company they started with. That certainly is proving to be the case for me. But it's not going to be the case for many of you. Most of you will change jobs several times during your working life. But whether you start and stay with the same company or move around, your reputation will follow you. You need to make a conscious effort to create a positive legacy of professionalism the instant you start working. Such a legacy will give you a solid base on which to build your reputation in any new organization.

Also, as you embark upon your career, look for a mentor — someone who can help you with the nuances of the organization. As you grow with the company, you should also become a mentor for those who are coming behind you.

Set yourself tough but achievable goals. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't achieve this or that. Learn from your failures, and don't make the same mistake twice. And last, but not least, make sure that you stop occasionally to celebrate your successes. That will help to keep you motivated and energized to continue working at your full potential and — perhaps someday — to make it to the top.

I am 50 years old now, so I'll probably be retiring in 10 to 15 years. By that time, I expect to see many of you serving as senior executives in companies like Chevron.

And when I pick up The Wall Street Journal, I'll read more and more articles about men and women with names like Gonzales, Martinez, Rodriguez — and possibly a Patel or a Bindra as well. So accept the challenge, shoot for the moon and enjoy the ride.

I'll close with a comment a friend of mine made after I became the president of Chevron Pipe Line. "Jeet," he said, "If you can make it to the top, just imagine what someone with some real talent could do!" Thank you.

Updated: February 1998