Movers and Shakers: Valerie Grillo, Chief Diversity Officer at American Express

Valerie Grillo of American Express in New York, NY November 2010By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

When Valerie Grillo, now Chief Diversity Officer at American Express, entered the professional space fresh out of college, she wasn’t sure how to fit in. That led her to the realization that really helped her blossom at work. “It’s the importance of being true to yourself and being authentic,” she said.

“When I was coming out of university and into the corporate world, I felt I needed to dress a certain way and act a certain way,” Grillo recalled. But by cultivating a network of senior women she admired, she realized that being herself could help her advance.

“As I developed mentors and sponsors, I realized that the people I was connecting with were women who were very authentic – true to themselves, unique, and vocal in sharing their point of view that made them effective,” she continued. “I realized I did not need to fit into a box.”

Career in HR and Diversity

Grillo knew that she wanted to go into business from an early age, particularly HR. After graduating from Brown University, she entered a rotational HR training program at a large financial services organization, and then spent a year working as a generalist within the firm’s investment bank. She entered a graduate program at Columbia University, working toward a master’s degree in organizational psychology while working at the firm.

After graduating, she went into consulting, developing HR products for a small internet startup. After the dotcom bubble burst, she returned to the financial services firm where she began her career. Ten years ago, she joined American Express, working in talent management and leadership.

“The real draw for me was around understanding the business strategy,” she said. “What are the skills we need our employees to have to follow through on our business strategy? We need to make sure we hire, retain, and develop talented people, and make sure we are creating a place where people want to come to work and be themselves.”

In her ten years with the company, she has had four different roles, including her current one. Grillo was named Chief Diversity Officer in May, and before that, she headed up leadership development within the company, working with all leaders, from those newly appointed to senior level executives.

She is particularly interested in how the evolving business and consumer environment will impact diversity at American Express. “As the world is changing, how do we need our leaders to change with it? How do we articulate what we need leaders of the future to do and behave and develop programs around that?”

“I’m very early in this role – I’m in listen and learn mode right now. But what I’m most excited about is the opportunity to think about diversity and inclusion and where the business is going. Our customers are so diverse,” she continued. “We need to make sure we are building an inclusive culture where everyone can speak up. This is key to being able to drive the innovation we need.”

Grillo has always been interested in diversity, ever since she arrived at Brown. “For me, this role is about being able to think about all of my past career and college experiences. As a Puerto Rican who grew up in the Bronx, Brown University was much more diverse than the community I grew up in.”

She explained, “I explored new things, was exposed to people from all over the world who helped to think differently and appreciate the learning that comes from different perspectives. . My senior thesis was on diversity – how well people with bicultural identities acclimated to the college environment, so I think the seed was planted in college.”

“Through all of my roles in HR, I was involved in leadership programs around developing women and people of color. I’m so excited now to be able to look at it holistically, with an end to end worldview and to make the connection to our business growth.”

Advice for Professional Women

Grillo advised women to focus on building relationships with one another. “As you grow your career, the relationships you build with your colleagues and leadership are critical. One of the challenges women face is finding time. Women are so focused on results, but sponsor relationships are important.

“As I looked at my career, there were times when I had my head down and missed out on opportunities. I didn’t invest the time to network. We need to not see networking as an add-on, but rather a core part of the job,” she continued. This counts for senior women as well. “Reach out to one another. I get some of the greatest career advice and counseling from my peers whose offices are just a few steps away. Research shows that women get the most honest feedback from their peers. Make sure to leverage your peers for that feedback.”

She also encouraged women to be authentic and pursue their dreams. “Don’t be afraid to be yourself and be authentic. Be true to who you are and follow your passion,” she advised.

“Be clear on your aspirations as you start your career, but be open to new opportunities. The best opportunities that came to me were the ones that were unexpected.

“Careers aren’t really a ladder. They are about a breadth of experiences,” she added.

American Express has a variety of programs designed to help advance, retain, and develop women leaders. Grillo said, “One of the ones I would highlight is the Pathways to Sponsorship program. We take a holistic view of how we develop our women. The program includes workshops and opportunities to learn how to advance or develop your career. It provides exposure and opportunities to interact with senior leadership. We are focused on providing all of the experiences and training needed to progress.”

In Her Personal Time

“For me, being outside work means spending time with my family,” Grillo said. “My two daughters are seven and four. When I think about raising my girls, I think about having them grow up in an environment where they know they can be anything they want to be. My husband and I are teaching them from an early age to explore and find their passions. Their generation will see diversity differently than we do now. I think a lot how the focus of diversity and inclusion will evolve in the future.”