In his first shareholder meeting as chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Satya Nadella emphasized one message: Diversity matters.
At the 90-minute Dec. 3 event in a corporate conference center in Bellevue, Washington, the CEO discussed and responded to questions about how Microsoft is working to hire, retain and promote a more varied workforce, including having all employees take training that alerts them to their unconscious biases. The senior leadership team of the Redmond, Washington-based software maker had just taken such a course, Nadella said.
“We will make progress every year towards building a more diverse workforce and creating opportunities at every level of the company for all of Microsoft’s employees,” Nadella said at the meeting, which was attended by several hundred shareholders and featured a cameo appearance from former CEO Steve Ballmer.
Nadella’s message on diversity follows a gaffe by the CEO in October at a conference on women and technology, when he said women shouldn’t agitate for raises and should instead rely on good karma. He later apologized for the remark.
The topic of the technology industry’s homogeneity has also been in the spotlight this year, with companies including Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. revealing that women make up about 30 percent of their workforces. Microsoft has said 29 percent of its total employees are women, a percentage that falls to 17 percent in technology positions.
At the Dec. 3 Microsoft meeting, which was attended primarily by individual shareholders, Microsoft quickly got through the regular business of re-electing 10 board members and announcing that an advisory vote approving executive compensation had received the majority of votes cast. Proxy adviser Institutional Shareholder Services had recommended investors vote against Nadella’s $84 million pay package, citing concerns about a large stock grant.
There were few financial questions from attendees as Microsoft’s performance has improved this year. Nadella has moved to spread the company’s software to multiple devices and operating systems, as well as to emphasize the cloud business.
As a result, the stock is up about 29 percent so far this year -- and has climbed 33 percent since Nadella was named as CEO on Feb. 4. That prompted a query from an audience member about whether the stock is getting too high for Microsoft to continue repurchasing shares.
Nadella also heard from a blind woman and an elderly one asking what Microsoft is doing to make its products more accessible to them. The CEO, who has two special-needs children, spoke of viewing accessibility for the disabled as a core part of software design rather than a feature bolted on afterward.
Then the diversity topic took center stage, helped by a lengthy question from diversity advocate Rev. Jesse Jackson about how to improve hiring, retention and spending on women and minorities.
Another audience member asked Nadella to make the business case for diversity in the workforce and to share the data with other companies to prove its importance. Nadella agreed to look into data to support the idea, but wasn’t going to wait for it to inform behavior at the company.
“The sensibility that is required in order to build products that are loved by people who are by definition diverse is not going to be possible if we don’t have diversity in the workforce,” he said.
Afterward, as the meeting wrapped up, Ballmer and Jackson posed for photos with each other on the sidelines.
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