by Ian King
Former Intel Corp. Chief Executive Officer Brian Krzanich used to say his push to make the chipmaker’s workforce less male-dominated was motivated by a desire to build a better technology industry for his daughters to work in someday.
His power to directly expand opportunities for women at Intel ended when he was forced to resign in June over an extramarital workplace relationship. But as Intel’s board looks for his replacement, the company has a chance to kick the effort into a higher gear. The world’s second-largest semiconductor maker is seeking a new leader at a time when there are at least three female candidates whose resumes would likely put them on the list, regardless of their gender.
Former Intel executives Renee James and Diane Bryant and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. CEO Lisa Su are the three most successful women in the history of the 50-year-old chip industry.
“On their own merits, those three people are amazing candidates,” said Deborah Conrad, former chief marketing officer at Intel who worked with James and Bryant during her 27-year career there. “They actually stand out.”
Krzanich, who often spoke publicly about the need to hire more women and underrepresented groups, also put Intel’s money where his mouth was. He created a $300 million diversity fund and began tying executive pay to greater progress in this area. But one of the ironies of Krzanich’s tenure was that the company’s two most senior female executives, James and Bryant, left during his time at the helm. The two had spent all their professional lives at Intel after joining out of school in the mid-1980s.
James, 54, was Krzanich’s rival candidate for the top job at the chipmaker in 2013. When he ascended to the CEO role, James was made president, typically the role given to the company’s heir apparent. Their partnership didn’t last long, and in 2016 she left. She’s currently running Ampere Computing, a startup funded by Carlyle Group aimed at breaking Intel’s stranglehold on the lucrative market for processors used in data-center computers.
The division at Intel that makes those server chips is one of the most profitable and fastest-growing in the semiconductor industry. Bryant, 56, ran that unit from 2013 to 2017, a period when it grew more than 55%. The business generates less than a third of company revenue, but contributes almost half of Intel’s operating profit. After taking a leave from Intel for family reasons, Bryant joined Google’s Cloud business as chief operating officer in December last year. She then left Google earlier this month and hasn’t publicly said what she plans to do next.
Su, meantime, became the first CEO at a major chip company -- AMD -- a year after Krzanich rose to the top job at Intel. She was given a job most of her male predecessors had failed in, inheriting a company that hadn’t posed a threat to Intel’s dominance for a decade and had almost run out of money. Prior to Su’s tenure, AMD hadn’t fielded products capable of stealing sales from Intel since 2006. It had launched a series of new chips that either came too late or didn’t live up to their billing and racked up losses as personal-computer makers turned away from AMD chips.
Under Su, 48, the smaller processor maker’s fortunes have turned around enough that Krzanich’s departure prompted at least two analysts to downgrade Intel -- on the argument that a leadership vacuum could add to AMD’s momentum. The company’s revenue surged 25% last year, and the market likes Su’s progress -- AMD stock has gained 57% this year, the best performance on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange Semiconductor Index.
Bryant, James and Su all declined to comment on their interest in the CEO position at Intel, and the Santa Clara, California-based company had no comment on the search process.
Though there may be more women to consider for the job than ever before, analysts and recruiters say it’s unlikely that Silicon Valley’s most iconic chip company will choose a CEO following the example of the automotive and aerospace industries -- where, respectively, Mary Barra became the first female leader of General Motors Co. and Marillyn Hewson heads up Lockheed Martin Corp.
"They’ll probably say that they’ll look at women and people of color,” said Neil Sims, a managing partner at corporate-recruitment firm Boyden. “At the end of the day it’s hard for me to imagine someone who isn’t a white male in the role.”
Sims’s cynicism, echoed by others in the industry, is based on the numbers. Intel, which has been publishing details about its employee demographics for more than a decade, said it’s making progress toward creating a workforce that’s more representative of the general population. That progress has been slow.
More than 80% of the senior managers at Intel are male and 61% of them are white. The proportion of females in Intel’s overall workforce has risen to 26.5% last year from 24.7% in 2015. While that seems like scant progress, it compares with an average of only 19% across the U.S. semiconductor industry, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Even if Intel were to appoint a woman as its leader, it wouldn’t solve the broader lack of female representation in the chip industry and technology overnight, according to Sims. Intel, the company whose products gave Silicon Valley its name, doesn’t have a raft of female candidates to choose from for the same reason that other industry companies don’t, he said.
“It starts with parents," he said. "It goes to academic opportunities. It goes to collegiate opportunities. It goes to the early career and mid-career opportunities.”
Though it remains unlikely, choosing a woman as CEO of Intel could further an upheaval that appears to be shaking the industry. Krzanich’s departure was followed by the ouster of the chief executives at Rambus Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc. Both men were found to have violated company policy. The companies didn’t provide details about the behavior, but the departures came just as the #metoo movement has shone a brighter light on gender-based discrimination, harassment and abuse.
“When you have women at the top, women come forward quicker,” said Patricia Lenkov, president of Agility Executive Search. “Things are absolutely getting better. It’s a slow trickle, but it’s starting.”