This CHRO wants to change the face of HR in the tech industry
A few months ago, Lorraine Vargas Townsend woke up around 3 a.m., worried and anxious. She was expecting a job offer as chief people officer from A Cloud Guru, a company based in Austin, Texas, that helps people move into technology careers by developing cloud capabilities and earning cloud certifications.
Vargas Townsend is a queer Latinx, who has a 4-year-old biological daughter and wife. Just the thought of moving back to her home state produced high anxiety. She had to drop out of high school at age 15 because of bullying and discrimination from fellow students involving her sexual orientation. (She later received her GED and then graduated from the University of Texas.) She now feared that if she moved back home with her family, the Texas courts would challenge her wife’s parentage, even though she was named on their daughter’s birth certificate and had formally adopted her.
So early that morning, she called the company’s CEO and co-founder—Sam Kroonenburg—in Australia to express her concerns. His reaction was a big reason why she accepted the job. He told her that she was not alone in this fight, that her and her family’s psychological and physical safety mattered to him. If her worst fears were ever realized, they would find a way to work it out.
For most of her life, Vargas Townsend has battled bigotry. She has made it her life’s passion and mission to fight back. HRE spoke with her about her new role and how she plans on promoting diversity and acceptance of people’s differences—especially in an industry historically dominated by white, 20-something men.
HRE: You’ve only been in this position for several weeks. Before then, you headed HR at Mendix, a software platform firm. What were your key accomplishments?
Vargas Townsend: We had just been purchased by Siemens, a global industrial manufacturer. I helped the company scale and grow with the expected new revenue opportunities because of the acquisition. We entered in brand new markets where we didn’t play before. When I joined, there were about 500 people. When I left, it was getting close to 950.
HRE: How are you acclimating to your new employer?
Vargas Townsend: I’m learning the business, setting up time to spend on the sales cycle and working on my own cloud practitioner certification through our platforms. After that, it’s really setting us up for scale and growth. We’re a high-growth company and a have a lot of people to hire. I’m looking at our employment brand, recruiting practices and trying to set us up to grow faster.
HRE: You’re passionate about promoting diversity, especially across your industry. How are you communicating its importance or necessity?
Vargas Townsend: I do as many talks as possible, challenge things and try to do some writing. I want HR to start remembering it roots—the different roles it played in protecting people during the Industrial Revolution involving workplace safety violations or child labor during World War II. If I can help influence the way HR changes for the better, make it more people-centric and more inclusive, that’s what I’m apt to do.
HRE: What HR changes do you plan on making in your current role?
Vargas Townsend: We have this opportunity to really turn this industry on its head. We’re an entry point for those careers. We have the opportunity to put our values as HR professionals and practitioners into a business that’s so fully aligned. I’ve never been more excited about the impact we can make. I’ll audit every HR process that we hold dear and tear it up to root out oppression and complicity in our profession. I really want this company to be known as the most inclusive company in technology and that we’re making a broader impact in technology all over the world.
HRE: What career advice would you offer individuals entering the HR profession?
Vargas Townsend: I started my career at companies that had incredible HR practices that gave me a really strong foundation on the different areas of HR. Learning and soaking in good practices at good companies matters a lot. Once you have that foundation, the knowledge and build your own brand or style of practicing HR, know what you’re worth in the market. After that, never stop interviewing [for HR positions].
HRE: Is there anything special about yourself you want to share with your new co-workers?
Vargas Townsend: There’s probably something they should know that may be annoying: If there’s a stage, I will probably get on it. I always thought I would be a rock star when I was young. I love to sing gospel music, love to see live music. There was a time when I was a backup singer in a band as a hobby. I really do love to get on stage to talk or sing. Whatever you need, I’m your girl.