Since she was a young girl, Denise Young Smith has had a love for music and singing. Her career, though, took her into the world of Human Resources including executive roles at Apple. Did this mean she left the arts behind? Certainly not! Music and performing have always been in her life and are taking center stage now as she becomes Chair of the Board at SFJAZZ.
In this episode, Denise shares her journey including how she developed her love for the arts, why it was important to her to attend Grambling State, an historically black college and university (HBCU), how she got into HR, and how she transitioned out of the corporate world. Her story proves there's more than one way to live a creative life.
Denise Young Smith recently closed a brilliant two-decade career with Apple and is currently serving as only the second executive-in-residence at the new Cornell Tech (Cornell Ithaca’s graduate school campus in Manhattan). At Cornell Tech, Denise is visiting scholar and a key cultural influencer at this unique institution on the imperative of true diversity, representation, inclusion, and humanity in technology, drawing on her passion to positively impact the next generation of business and tech leaders and entrepreneurs.
Denise held a variety of executive roles at Apple, including building the talent machine for the company’s retail store initiative, taking the chain to over 400 stores globally before being promoted to the Chief HR role, reporting to Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook. She served also as Apple’s first ever vice president of inclusion and diversity, leading the company’s efforts to see its full ecosystem become as inclusive as possible.
Denise has been named a “Most Powerful Woman” by Ebony Magazine and Black Enterprise, has been named one of “100 Most Influential in Silicon Valley” by Business Insider, and has been featured in Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women” issue.
Truly living at the intersection of technology, humanity and art, Denise has just been named Chair of the Board of SFJAZZ, the premiere arts organization featuring Jazz and Black American music, artists, and educational programming. Additionally, Denise is a classically trained soprano who has graced local and international recital halls, including Carnegie’s Weill Hall, Palace of Fine Arts, and SFJazz. She recently released a debut album under her own Blue Organza Productions & Studios, and continues to tell the stories that need to be told, through music.
To learn more about SFJAZZ or to hear Denise’s album, check out these links:
Dan Henkle, host: Welcome to Career Curves, where we talk to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got to where they are today. I'm Dan Henkle, standing in on this episode for our usual host, Beth Davies.
My guest on this episode, Denise Young Smith, spent over 20 years at Apple in senior leadership roles before retiring from the company in 2018 to pursue her other passions, including her love for music and singing. She released her own album in 2018 called "Denise Young, Soprano", and was recently named board chair of the nonprofit performing arts organization. SFJAZZ.
Denise is an excellent example of someone who has actively pursued her passions, both within and outside of work. I'm very interested to hear Denise's personal story about how she built her career and pursued her love for the arts at the same time.
Welcome Denise. It's really wonderful to have you.
Denise Young Smith, guest: Thank you so much. It's great to be here.
Dan: Obviously, I want to talk at length about your incredible career at Apple, but before we jump into that, I'd like to hear about what you're doing right now. I noticed that you were an Executive in Residence at Cornell Tech. Could you explain a little bit about what that was?
Denise: Sure. So Cornell Tech is the technology oriented graduate program out of Cornell Ithaca. It's a wonderful, unique program. It's in Manhattan on Roosevelt Island and they are sending out the future technology leaders into the world.
What was so compelling about it for me is this wonderful juxtaposition of being in the heart of New York City, which is one of the most diverse cities on the planet. Cornell Tech has a strong relationship with Jacobs Technion Institute in Israel, and that is known as startup nation in the world, so there's a lot of entrepreneurial thought leadership there. And then you have Wall Street. You have the financial districts. You have the incenters. So you have this fascinating juxtaposition for innovation and for these new leaders to go out into the world.
When I first started speaking with them, they were very interested in my background around inclusion and how I might be able to help them to shape up how they were approaching it because we all know that technology has some challenges there. And I said, "You know what? Let's think about being bigger than that. Let's think about what we're doing. What you guys are doing is really unique and where you're doing it, how you're doing it. What if we could build into the curriculum, the content and the lens and the type of thought leadership that helps send these leaders out to know early in their careers the value of social impact, the value of inclusive leadership." So we continued to talk and talk, and I went out and did a guest speaker studio session with them and they came back and said, "The students are just really clamoring to have you here."
So, I was their second Executive in Residence. So, I did a residency. I just wrapped up six semesters where it was the process of collecting information, talking to students, talking to the staff. I stayed on campus. They had faculty housing, so I stayed on campus with my backpack and hung out at the vending machines and ate ramen noodles with the students. I just worked the whole program so that I could collect enough understanding to know what their culture was and how it was evolving and then how best to infuse my learnings and my experiences and my observations into the curriculum and leave that with them. And of course, come back and guest speak and collaborate with them in their future. But a lot of that work has been accomplished in the last six semesters.
Dan: That's amazing. It's really interesting, Denise, so often what you see when someone has accumulated the experience that you have throughout your career, it's always so thrilling really, to me to see when people apply all of that learning into an experience. What you just described, you took bits and pieces of your career and your passions and your interests, and you put it into this experience. I bet that was a real gift to Cornell.
Denise: Well, it was just a really great opportunity for me to learn as much from them as they were hopefully picking up from me.
Dan: It sounds absolutely incredible.
Denise: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
Dan: I also noticed that recently you were named Chair of the Board of SFJAZZ. I'm just interested. How did you get involved in that organization?
Denise: It's a music genre that I love, and I love it for a number of reasons. I grew up listening to it in my household, but it's also socially and culturally, the chronology of Black history and African American history musically. And so I've always been a jazz appreciator on so many levels and so many ways. I would try to support those voices in whatever way that I could from as far back as I could remember. That meant attending concerts or supporting organizations or presenters that were promoting jazz artists.
And so when I moved to California, one of the first organizations that I took note of was SFJAZZ and it was because of the way that they were nurturing and showcasing and taking care of the artists' voice. I frequented the organization and shortly after that, I guess they said, "Well, she's hanging around enough. Let's invite her to be on the board," so I joined board and just became very active.
I think it was a confluence of timing. Me being on the board, having been on the board for a few years, having been a part of selecting their brand new, wonderful CEO, Greg Stern, and the fact that we're in this very, very challenging time. In many communities, we call it "two pandemics" with the pandemic of COVID and the challenges of race relations and where we are in the world right now.
So I think having a board member like myself, who was as active and engaged and as passionate about the direction of the organization, they asked me if I would take the chair role. And in this moment, that made sense to me. It made sense. And I said, "Of course."
Dan: So you released an album, you're now the board chair of SF jazz. I'm just curious. Did you ever think about turning your interest in singing and music into a career versus going into business and having kind of that happen with the music career on the side?
Denise: I think that there are multiple ways to approach what I call "living a creative life". And for some people that is a very specific track and they invest in it, and they build their skills and their expertise, and it manifests in, hopefully, wonderful career outcomes. There are many, many people who've done that to the benefit of us all.
But I tend to see nowadays that artists are doing some divesting work and they're looking at a portfolio approach to their careers. They're building skills in multiple other areas, sometimes just by interest, proactively, by design and sometimes it's by default, kind of like, "Whoa, okay, let's pivot. Let's do a little bit of this. A little bit of that." A lot of times it's because there's been some shift in a business model or technology, and they've had to add to their skills and their toolkits.
Sometimes people find that, "Okay, well, I'm actually more interested in this than that." Or, "I get as much fulfillment from this as I do performing or playing," or whatever.
So I think there are multiple paths toward career fulfillment, toward aesthetic fulfillment or artistic fulfillment, professional fulfillment. And I applaud people to explore multiple paths. I think the school of thought used to be that you were wasting time if you did that and I'm glad that that's no longer as much the traditional thinking because I don't ascribe to it personally. I think as long as you're growing and learning and evolving,
Dan: You've just kind of described Career Curves. Why do we call this podcast Career Curves? It's that careers don't follow through this straight line. They do evolve and curve and turn and you have a beautiful example of that with everything you've done.
So now I want to take you way back. One of the things we've been doing in these interviews is we're interested in finding out more about your childhood and the influences of your family and that kind of thing. So can you tell us a little bit about your childhood and your family and that kind of thing?
Denise: Sure. I grew up in Colorado – in Colorado Springs, Colorado – and my father was from the South. He was the son of a sharecropper and so I literally am ... let's see my grandmother and her mother ... so I would be four generations from enslavement. And so he was the son of a sharecropper and he joined the Navy and was docked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard when he met my mother who was raised in Brooklyn, New York. They met. Married. And my father said to her, "I'm going to move us to Colorado, to Colorado Springs."
And she said, "Okay. Well, you're gonna have to make me a promise. If we're moving to this God forsaken place that I've never heard of, then I would like to be able, when we have children, when we have a family, to bring them back to New York, to my family over the years,, so that we have that connection."
The reason (and I learned this much later in life) but the reason that my father's family relocated several members of the family – I think it was two aunts, his grandmother, a couple of cousins and uncle – they all relocated from northern Louisiana to Colorado. My grandmother, my father's mother, had passed away when he was very young from tuberculosis and so they all felt like they had been exposed to the strain and that it could ultimately affect them or affect their health. And so there was a small group of them that said, "Let's get to a place that has weather and climate that is conducive to health and to healing. And also, secondly, is far away enough from segregated Louisiana, where we can get treatment and we can get fair access to treatment," because that was why she passed away, well one of the reasons why they believe that she passed because she was unable to get to a doctor that would touch her and treat her in that time period: Jim Crow Louisiana.
And so they ended up in Colorado. My dad was the oldest of his siblings. So as he was in the Navy and trying to make his way in the world, he would send money back because they were orphaned at this time and another relative was taking care of them. He would send money back to make sure that they were educated, that they could get shoes and books and all the things that they needed. So as a result, all of my aunts and uncles are all educators. They grew up to be principals and teachers and educators. And my dad only finished high school and so he just self-employed and did what he did. But he was incredibly smart and incredibly resourceful.
As he was making his way as a small businessperson in Colorado, the community came to him and said, "We would like you to consider serving and representing us on the council."
And he said, "I don't have that background," and they said, "But you know your community and you love your community and your values are intact. And we would like to support you to do that." So he ran for City Council in the 70s.
Denise: And ultimately, I think he did two or three terms as City Councilman, was then appointed to Vice Mayor, and then ultimately the Mayor. He was the first Black mayor in that city. And the second Black mayor in the front range of Colorado.
Dan: Wow, what an incredible experience. So with that incredible story, I'm just curious, what kind of messages were you getting as a child?
Denise: You know, it was interesting because my mother, she was a daughter of a minister, so she didn't know the South. I think her parents had migrated from the Carolinas, but she did not know it. So she grew up in New York. She loved the arts, everything artistic. She loved it. She kind of lived for that. And so, therefore, you could absolutely trace back my exposure to it. And she and my father fulfilled their promises to each other. Pretty much every summer up until I was 15 years old, I spent back in New York.
I saw my first Broadway show when I was probably eight years old. I went to every museum. I went to every ballet, opera. That was where I built and develop that love of the arts.
And she also put me into artistic endeavors. I took dance and music and it was a very clear path that they nurtured, but we had my father's very, very challenged upbringing that said to me, "You must go to school and get your full-on education. As a Black woman in this world, you must be prepared. You must be prepared to be independent, take care of yourself, and to stand on your own two feet. And the only way that I know that you can do that is to get your education. And all those wonderful things that your mother's exposing you to, that's great, and that will make you a full and well-rounded person, but you do this first."
Dan: Yes. So very, very clear message that beyond high school, he wants you to get a college degree. What about messages around career? So you mentioned that you came from a family of educators for example, I'm just curious, were they...
Denise: There were a couple of things that I thought early in life. I was kind of a quiet, thoughtful, almost sometimes intense young person. I always felt like my thing was I needed to make impact. There needed to be a difference made. I couldn't do things just for the sake of doing them. I think that ethic came from my father, that there was no time to waste. You had to be doing something that was going to help someone else. Time was too short. Time was too precious. He imbued that kind of mindset in me.
So the two areas that I think I was interested in as a young person were either law or teaching, but the one thing that really drove me was I always loved to write. I loved to write. I always had a little book of anything from scripts to poems to whatever, and I'd run around to all the relatives and corner them and make them sit and listen to my latest essay or my latest writing or latest whatever. So that was always part of my fiber.
I think no one was overly prescriptive about what you do, just get it. Just do it. My parents' era, it was, "Make sure you get a good job," whatever that meant to them. It was a good job. Which I think meant reasonable pay and status and the types of things that they fought long and hard for, because it was not available for them in the same way that it was in my era. So those were the kinds of messages that were conveyed to me.
So I kind of meandered into that. I think I was in college when I did finally decide that writing and communication was a real viable career. At one point I thought, because I minored in science, I had a very strong science bent, and so I thought, "Well, maybe I'll be a tech writer." I just didn't know but I was just constantly willing to work hard and explore and get the right skills and credentials and preparation. That was what my college community taught.
Dan: And where did you go to school?
Denise: I was fortunate enough to attend a Historically Black College. That again was my father's family and my father's family's influence because they said, "We think that it would be a great idea for you to go to an HBCU so you can really deeply, profoundly understand your history, your culture. You will make friends that will stay with you for the rest of your life, and you will have an experience that you will not regret." Well, I listened.
Dan: You listened and is that what happened?
Denise: That is absolutely what happened. Now, I didn't come from a family that was very educated around what colleges? How do we prepare her? They knew that I had to take tests and that sort of thing. And they made sure I studied, and they created that environment, but they didn't have necessarily that knowledge.
I took the SATs and actually turned out to be a National Merit Scholar, so I was getting baskets of letters from everywhere. And I really only wanted to maybe think about Juilliard or maybe a law program. I was just kind of like, "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know."
I had very wise relatives and one of my aunts said, "Why don't we invite you down just before school starts? Pre football season." Okay, do you know anything about football season at a Historically Black College? Alright, so I went down, I walked onto campus. I saw the marching band before they took out for the football field, they were just marching through the square and then they'd stop and do breakdowns and that sort of thing. And I was done. It was just like nothing I'd ever seen...
Dan: And this was at Grambling State?
Denise: Yes, my aunt was a professor there. It was all crafted. It was all planned. They knew. But I just got down there and realized that it was something that outside of my family or church, I had not experienced. And it was something that I said, "You know what? This feels different. This feels right. This feels like something that I want in my life," and I made that decision and never regretted it.
Dan: It sounds like an incredible experience. So you went to Grambling State, you majored in communications and journalism, which makes sense based on your love of writing, and so I'm just curious, when you picked that major, were you thinking career at that point?
Denise: I really was more thinking job. When we get something that is really going to be fun and exciting and gratifying, and I can use my skills and apply myself. I was 20, 21. That's what you're thinking.
Dan: Exactly. Right.
Denise: And so the first job that I had out of college was for the local newspaper. Now mind you, by then, my father was well known as a local politician. He's kind of omnipresent, he's kind of everywhere, so how can I find my own place and come to my own kind of professional career path, but I did do some work for the newspaper at that time.
Dan: And what did you do next?
Denise: I think the next thing that happened is I got connected with the nonprofit community. Just through friends of friends and that sort of thing. The nonprofit community, I think represented for me again that concept of impact. That is when I really started to shape out what I look back on now and see was the beginning of my HR or organizational development career.
Denise: The first job was kind of tangential to a United Way consortium and my role was to help new agencies and organizations become viable. So it was everything from helping them assess their mission, get funded, select their boards, select their staff. I mean, that's kind of organizational development.
Denise: Early stage organizational development. I just started doing that. I just started learning how to do that. And that, as I look back, was actually and absolutely the very beginning of my...
Dan: Kind of the transition into HR.
Denise: Yes, and the core of what attracted me to an HR career because the top line disciplines of HR didn't necessarily attract me as much. The siloed disciplines of compensation, recruiting, etc. But I was always really interested in organizational viability and making them as strong as they could be and the way that that happened was through great talent and great leaders and great support and support networks and that sort of thing.
One of my first organizations that I saw through from seed to fruition was these Southern Colorado AIDS Project. The reason that was so meaningful to me is because it was also controversial in the community at that time.
Dan: And what was the time for that?
Denise: That was probably 80s.
Dan: So yeah, so really kind of early days, for sure.
Denise: So it was somewhat controversial, so for me it meant something. As I look back, that was beginning of my understanding of standing up for and being voice for the unvoiced. For the LGBTQ communities. And I was always espousing – I learned that from my father – espousing a voice for the Black community and the Latino community and the underrepresented communities, because that's what he did. He came from that and then he stood for that for the entirety of his career in representing the community as a public servant.
Dan: I always tell people work with nonprofits. That's just another organization. It's just like a company in many ways. They have the same challenges as many other organizations and getting some ground floor experience in one of those organizations...
Denise: Your remit of service can be so incredibly grounding and it can change the lens through which you view the work. And so I agree with you. I think that everyone should do service. Volunteer. I think volunteerism is incredibly important for not just learning, but for building empathy and helping people to see things through the eyes of others. It will get you there pretty quick.
Dan: Absolutely, and you'll use all of those skills you're developing in really any profession you go into.
Let's fast forward just a bit. We talked a little bit about some of the jobs that you had coming out of college, and obviously you started to hone those human resources skills, and you found yourself in 1997 at Apple. I'm curious about how did that come about? What was that transition like? And obviously you ended up spending more than 20 years at the company, so curious about that.
Denise: I was in my nonprofit role, but I was also taking some graduate school courses, and I met some folks at Apple who had come to Colorado because Apple had built a brand new, state of the art operations facility south of Colorado Springs. I met them in my graduate program, my school program, my classes. We were doing some studying together and some socializing together. And I said, "well, I've always kind of admired Apple. So tell me what you guys are doing here."
And one thing led to another and they said, "You should come out and talk to us and interview with us." Needless to say, I went out, I talked to folks. It was several meetings. I talked to folks and they ended up hiring me.
They hired me in college relations and college recruiting because one of the things that they realized was that they were outside of Cupertino, they were in Colorado, and they needed to get established to understand the local talent pool, to tap into the college community. They brought many of their engineers and many of their high-level professionals with them – they relocated them out – but they had to find and source the rest of the talent from the community, so what better way to do that then pull members of the community in. So that was my first role.
Dan: How long were you in this role?
Denise: I was doing that probably two, three years. And then they made a business decision at corporate to divest some of their manufacturing facilities, so they divested that particular operation to a turnkey operation out of Huntsville, Alabama. So I said, "Well, I'll help see that through and then I'll just go do something else. That was great. That was fun."
And the folks from Cupertino called me and said, "Oh, no, we've got lots of things for you to do here in Cupertino."
And I thought, "Okay, so pick up my family and move to the most expensive place on earth. Why would I do that?"
But I did, because Northern California was intriguing. At that time, my son was at a good breaking point where I could move him, and he could finish school and have access to California higher education. He's an artist and I also wanted him to have that kind of exposure to that professional community. So it kind of all worked out.
Dan: And what happened after this move?
Denise: At that time, they were under Mr. Amelio and it was a very... I don't think it would be unusual for anybody to say based on history that it was a disconnected time for the company. Being very grateful, I stayed with it for a couple of years. And then I took a break and went and did some other things, some other things in the dot com community.
Dan: Interesting. So you actually left Apple?
Denise: I actually left, yeah. I got my first exposure to the startup community discovering what is venture capitalism all about? What is this entrepreneurship?
Dan: And you were in the heart of it?
Denise: It was right at that moment in the heart of it. So, I was able to take advantage of that in wonderful ways and was very happy doing that. Having a lot of fun. Startup life is not for the faint of heart, but I had some fun doing that. Was with two or three companies.
I met one of the Kleiner Perkins partners who tapped into me and said, "I could really use your help and your expertise in looking at my portfolio companies and helping me think about their talent, who's viable, who's not," hearkening back to my early nonprofit years of doing that same kind of work. I said, "sure," that was kind of additive.
And then one day I got a call from my colleagues at Apple and they said, "Okay, so here's the deal. Steve is back. He's dropping the "i", interim, from his name. We think there are going to be some very exciting things coming up." Of course, they already knew that there were going to be some very exciting things coming, but they couldn't say that. They said, "We think there are going to be some very exciting things coming and we need you. And we want you to think about coming back."
And so I talked to my family and my little personal board of directors, which everyone should have, and I went back.
Dan: What was the role you came back to?
Denise: My first role back was the head of employee relations. By that time, I had developed that skill between organizational development and investigation and communication. All of the things that comprise are really good employee relations function. I had really developed that and a vision for that. So I went back and developed that and built that.
I was doing that for maybe two or three months when the SVP of HR tapped me on the shoulder and said, "We've got this little project that we're building. Keep doing what you're doing, but we'd really like you to come and help us out and get some things set up." That turned out to be at the retail stores.
Denise: That was the little project.
Dan: Were you actually able to do it on the side.
Denise: I remember we'd meet in these confidential places and buildings and groups and do all this amazing work. I remember going back to do him and saying, "So, I think this is going to be a big deal and I think you should get someone to permanently be the head of people and run this," because I had this other job. Right?
And he said, "Okay." I think they talked to a few people and they did look externally, and they circled back to me and he said, "I've talked to several people and we'd like you to take that."
Denise: I said, "no" at first, because I was a little intimidated, to be candid. I said, "Look I've grown up in a certain type of industry and I really feel like I know that. I don't know anything... I'm a really good shoe shopper, but I don't know anything about retail. I just don't get it."
And he, in his wisdom, said, "But you know people and you know culture and you know it better than anyone else that we've met or that we know inside of the company," which means that they were watching. You really have no idea when people are paying attention. When you're just trudging along or discouraged or not thinking that you're on a direct path to your goals or to your objectives, you never know who's paying attention to how you're approaching your work and what things you pay attention to and what things you value.
Denise: And then someone could tap you on the shoulder one day and say, "Hey, have you ever thought about helping us out with this?" And so I say to people jump at those opportunities,
Dan: But it sounds like this opportunity is one that you had identified the need for that opportunity for Apple. And then they circled back to you're the person that should take that position.
Dan: So one thing that you said that I think is just worth calling out is, I always tell people who are super ambitious and they want to get to the next, next, next, next, next, and I always say, "Do the job that you're in extremely well and you will get noticed. If you're doing that job well, people will see what you bring to the table and it'll open up some additional opportunities."
Denise: Yeah. I'm glad you raised that because I ascribed to that for much of my career, much of my life. Again, that was the kind of work ethic that was imbued in me. Asking me that now, in 2020, as a Black woman, and as someone who's been an executive and been at the top of arguably one of the most important companies on the planet, I would say that it takes that and more. You have to be courageous, and you have to be willing to explore, and you have to develop a level of comfort with your voice and be willing to speak up and willing to own your own story.
And I've had some, some tough lessons around not owning my own story. As I look back, I would say that is one of the things that I would probably encourage people differently because I think that people of color have a slightly different track to follow. And sometimes it's not slightly different; sometimes it's dramatically different. But I think that there's some things that you must do in addition to what you said in terms of building your own competence and being comfortable with that that you have to be willing to develop. That comes with the territory.
Dan: For sure.
And so, I'm just curious, you said that they were watching and they were noticing these things about you. What were those things, just looking back? Why did they tap you on the shoulder and say you're the right person for this job?
Denise: I was always very comfortable with concept. Everything was new. You're within a very established company and you're building something brand new. And so there weren't a lot of bright lines. There weren't a lot of roles, there was no playbook. And so for me, I was not afraid to conceptualize.
We had a leader who was very visionary and very conceptual. So it was not too terribly difficult to do, but as I was trying to build out HR functionality and capability for this brand-new business, I would sometimes have to establish collaborative lines with other parts of the company. Sometimes that was not very easy. So you had to have the vision and the conviction, and the ability to see, and to persevere, to see your idea through and to take that through. So that was one thing that I just didn't have much of a problem with that.
And the other is I tended to lead with people and what their experience was going to be. From early stages, the head of retail, Ron Johnson at that time, wanted to build something that led with the people experience and the human experience and the customer experience. I did that naturally. And so I think that was something that they thought, "Okay, that's a match."
Dan: Sure. So you really were on the ground floor of the retail operation and ended up serving, I believe on the leadership team for more than 10 years, the retail leadership team.
Denise: 12 years. I took it to about 416 stores globally in 15 countries.
Dan: And I'm sure all of our listeners have experience with these beautiful stores and what a special experience that really is.
So you do that. That's amazing and you got that incredible experience. And then you did pivot out of that and into a new position at Apple.
Denise: Yeah, well, what happened is Steve passed away. There was a lot of adjusting that the company had to do. I think he prepared his leadership team very well. Tim took the helm. Tim hadn't spent a lot of time with retail. Peter Oppenheimer, who was the CFO at that time, was spending time with the retail team and I spent a lot of time with Peter. I think between the two of them, they made a decision to ask me to help Tim in his new role and take the broader, all of HR worldwide.
One thing that Tim always said is he said, "I love the feeling and the experience in the retail stores. If we can have a little bit more of that in the overarching community, that would be great."
I said, "I'll do my best to help with that."
Dan: Wow. Did this role leave you with time to do anything else in your life?
Denise: One of the things that I, again, learned from my family is to be planful, and to understand that you probably can't do something forever, and to have a plan. So back in 2012, I started a production company, just a little LLC, and it was a place where I could park my creative ideas, songs I've written, scripts I've thought about, ideas, concepts, that I could just kind of put them there. I named it Blue Organza. Organza is kind of a chiffon material. My mother would put me in a Blue Organza dress when I was like four or five years old and that's when she would encourage me to sing.
I established Blue Organza productions. Then I just thought, "It's just a great little legal place to park everything." I produced a couple of small what I call Jewel Box performances. I mentored a couple of artists. This was all kind of on the side while I was still doing my Apple thing.
But when I transitioned from Apple and I had started working on my music project, I didn't want to go to a big record company or do a big label kind of thing, because I thought I'm moving out of a corporate environment. I don't want to go from one to another. And so I ended up producing and releasing my debut album under Blue Organza, which I had started in 2012 and had no foresight that that was what I would do with it.
Dan: And did you release that album after you had left Apple?
Dan: Oh, you did. Okay, but it was shortly after...
Denise: I recorded a lot of it while I was still there. In fact, my father became very ill, mid-2000s, and I was going back and forth to attend to him. I wrote a song that talked about that experience that ended up on this album. So I had been working toward it for some time. I did the finishing touches – the mixing, the mastering, the marketing, all of that – after.
Dan: You know, Denise, when I looked at your profile, I think your transition is one of the most elegant transitions I've seen. You had this brilliant career. But what you're saying is it wasn't you did this hard stop in 2018, you left Apple, and then you did all these other things. You were building into this transition for years.
Denise: Yeah, I was building, yeah. I always feel, and I would always coach, to stay connected to the things that fuel you and feed your soul because they will make you a better whatever. You need to be a full, complete person. And if in the process of building your career, you get so over-indexed and focusing on that, and putting all of your energy toward that, you're shortchanging your whole person. Let alone probably your family or your relationships or other things, right? But you're tending to shortchange and not feed and fuel your whole person. Your whole person is what's going to serve you the duration of your life.
Dan: Of course. And, I think the people that have maybe some of the most difficult transitions into a post executive role are the people that were fully into that role and doing the one thing. They didn't have this broad range of experiences. So, I think its really really good advice.
Denise: And, there's the old saying, know thyself. I also know myself and I know that I would not have been good with a hard stop. That's just not how I'm wired.
Dan: So let me ask you, we didn't really talk too much about family and you mentioned that you had a son that you relocated from Colorado. Obviously, you have all these competing pressures and then you're trying to raise a family, raise a son. Could you talk a little bit about what that was like to balance all of that?
Denise: It's tough. Family in and of itself is bigger than just your primary partnership relationship, and it can be very, very complex. And the modern family is very, very complex. And, even for me, I was doing elder care from three states away. I had extended family and my son that I was raising, and he was not easy to raise because he was an artist. He was this kid who I could readily tell was so incredibly bright but was like checked out of classroom and just not paying attention. And I said, "Well, wait. We did this homework. Why didn't you complete your math paper?"
And he said, "I don't know. I just wasn't that interested," but the borders of the math paper were absolutely stunning. So, I paid attention. I mean, I have that right brain inclination. So I understood it and I paid attention. So I was able to nurture that and see that. He went kind of a nontraditional track to become the artist that he is today.
My father came to the second graduation that he had and – I still get very emotional when I think about this – but he said, "I'm so proud of you for supporting that part of him." And then he said, "We should have done that with you, with that voice you have."
Dan: Wow. And that is a great segue into my last personal question, which I wanted to talk about. Your voice and your album and the album that you released. I have a question for you, and I'm probably going to say this wrong, but you're considered a Lirico soprano. Did I get that right?
Denise: Lirico spinto.
Dan: Okay. So, could you explain to our audience...
Denise: Sure. Let me give you a little background on that because we touched on it earlier, but growing up in my community and my family, we were active members of the local Baptist church and I was active in church choirs, in school choirs, and that sort of thing. I always loved music, always loved to sing. Knew from four years old that I could carry a tune and that it would have impact on people.
I couldn't quite find my voice because the voices I heard outside of myself weren't necessarily my voice and I wanted to sing soulfully and I wanted to sing with grit, and be able to wail, and do all those things. And I could not do that, but I had a four-octave range.
I had the great fortune of having a music teacher who said, "Don't try to do that because you're sounding kind of tragic but let me introduce you to Leotyne Price. Let me introduce you to Kathleen Battle. And he brought me music and he brought me albums and he brought me records.
Dan: That is amazing.
Denise: And I went and listened to them and I was like, "Ah, that's my voice. That's what I sound like. There I am," and I was sold on that aspect of classical music. And the wonderful thing about that is those performers and those artists were also people that I could look up to and they were forging their own path historically and as women. So they were a wonderful role model for me.
So I worked on and adopted and migrated toward classical music and music that really enhanced and fit my voice. It was actually as an adult when I went and got a private coach and worked really, really hard on the repertoire, on the technique to perform this type of music and this repertoire.
I'm now a proponent of mixing many of the genres and introducing people to new experiences. On the album, I put together two pieces, kind of weave them together. It was a Duke Ellington and Giuseppe Verdi and thematically, they were aligned. I put those together and sang about those, because that meant something to me that I could convey and introduce to people as a new thought.
Dan: Well, I have to tell you that I listened to your album. Again, it's Denise Young Soprano, and I listened to it with my daughter and she got chills. She said, "Look, look, look at the goosebumps." Really, really beautiful.
I loved getting to know that part of you. I knew Denise Young, the superstar, HR professional, but I didn't know all of these other amazing aspects about you.
Denise: Oh, thank you so much.
Dan: I have four lightning round questions for you, and these will be relatively quick.
So first question, what would you say is the smartest career move that you made, whether intentionally or accidentally?
Denise: Being willing to take a risk and jump into an area that I didn't necessarily believe that I had skill or competence in, but I had enough evidence either from people I trusted or my own council of people around me that I've always tried to keep, to say give it a shot.
Dan: If you had one do-over in your life and career, what would it be and why?
Denise: Hmm, I'm not sure it's a do-over, but I would have studied an instrument.
Denise: Yeah, I took a little bit of piano when I was younger, and I have a piano and I play at it and I've recently started going back to structured piano lessons. Making my brain talk to my hands is really, really hard. And so I think that whether it was a violin or piano or even brass, I think I would have studied that because I think that that connection between your cognitive and your creative, and your right and left, I think that that helps you in any number of ways.
Dan: What's one piece of career advice that you would have given to your younger self?
Denise: My younger self? I actually say this to many, particularly young women and particularly women of color, but not necessarily, be very critical of your own self-talk. Somebody gave me a t-shirt that says, "Don't believe everything you think."
We can be our own worst enemy based upon anything from childhood patterns to messaging that we get from whatever. And I think that we have to be very, very mindful and aware and careful. I'm a novice student of neuroscience, but what I do know is that your brain is listening and the messages and the messaging that you are thinking and telling yourself can darken your path and your plans quicker than anyone else can sabotage it.
Dan: It is incredible advice. Great advice.
So last question. How do you define success?
Denise: I believe that we are successful when we are aligned with our core values and whatever the work is that we're doing, that it is aligned. When we're separated from that, I just believe that that missed connection fuels a lot of doubt. Basically it means that you have to do some work to try to understand what that is. We have to do some work around self-awareness. We have to do some work around what we really value. What's really meaningful to us. I think if you're aligned with that at whatever stage or era you're at in your career or life, that kind of fundamental core alignment is where you have to start.
The second thing that I would add, again I go back to my novice studies of neuroscience, the brain constantly wants to learn and process information and store it and bring it back and reconfigure it. And we should feed that. It keeps us vibrant. It keeps us engaged.
There's an ability to connect with whatever it is you're doing when you are curious about it, when you want to learn about it. So I think the desire to learn with that comes, "I'm going to grow from this. I'm going to learn from this. I'm going to make some new decisions around this. I'm going to maybe be a better person. I'm going to be able to see something differently. I'm going to be able to help someone. I'm going to be able to make some type of impact." I think that's just core to being human.
I think we're just happier human beings when we're, one, aligned – we've done some of the work to understand what matters to us – and secondly, we want to get after it and then learn about it and know about it.
Dan: Absolutely. I can't think of a better way actually to end this episode. I just am so appreciative and thank you for being part of this.
Denise: And I am, too. Thank you.
Dan: I know our listeners are going to love it. So thank you so much.
Denise: Thank you, Dan.
Dan: A quick epilogue. We've posted a link to Denise's album on our website, careercurves.com. While there you can find a full transcript of this episode, past episodes and resources to help you in your career.
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That's it for this episode. As always, thanks for listening.