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Connect, December 2010 - Sue James in Silicon Valley - EY - United States

Sue JamesThe high-tech team player in Silicon Valley

Sue James
and friend

Silicon Valley is known for creativity and hard work. So in 1975, when Sue James arrived as a new hire in San Jose with her customary energy and enthusiasm, she found an environment where she could thrive.

At the time, Ernst & Young was just revving up its high-tech practice, and there were far fewer women in the firm and in clients’ executive ranks. Yet the business world moved forward.

During her tenure with Ernst & Young, James was the lead partner or partner-in-charge of audit work for a number of major high-tech companies, including, Autodesk, Hewlett-Packard, Intel Corporation and Sun Microsystems.

James retired from Ernst & Young in 2006 but continues to play a leadership role in the high-tech industry, serving as a director on the boards of Yahoo; Applied Materials, Inc., a supplier of nanotechnology materials; and Coherent, Inc., a laser and optical-component manufacturer.

Even with these responsibilities, James finds time to make a positive impact in a decidedly low-tech venture, Tri-Valley Animal Rescue (TVAR), a non-profit near her home in Contra Costa County, California.

A rebel with a cause

James is convinced that had she not begun her career with the firm in Silicon Valley, she would have sought a position elsewhere within a couple of years. She did not see herself serving clients in historically conservative and traditional industries.

“I have a rebellious side,” she says with a mischievous grin, “and I always wanted to do things my way.”

In addition to giving her the opportunity to serve clients in a young and vibrant industry, she says that the firm allowed her to simply be herself. For James, that meant working with fellow retired partner and mentor Janice Vincent to develop some of the firm’s early professional development programs tailored exclusively to women.

The sessions were designed to help women balance work and family, and respect their own distinctive communication and working styles. James and Vincent still stay in touch.

The value of respect looms large when a worldwide team has to pull together quickly to meet a fast-approaching deadline. As the audit partner on a then-new, prestigious global client, James remembers launching the international engagement one September with the first signoff due 55 days later.

“In this setting, you have to accelerate team dynamics,” she explains. “Since everyone relies on one another, trust and respect really come to the forefront.”

She feels fortunate to have been in a position to lead large global teams because the experience underscored the importance of respecting the viewpoints of every individual — regardless of seniority: “When you are able to listen to and learn from everyone, you end up with a better answer.”

James misses the team spirit she experienced at Ernst & Young: “this focus on collaboration — over the contribution of the individual — is rare.”

A special place for pets

Teamwork is also essential to James’ work at TVAR. Her first career ambition was to be a veterinarian, but her parents considered the field unsuitable for a woman.

Retired partner Sue James feels fortunate to have been in a position to lead large global teams because the experience underscored the importance of respecting the viewpoints of every individual — regardless of seniority.

She had grown up with a variety of pets: cats, dogs, rabbits — even a monkey. Now, she not only works with animals but jump-starts new initiatives, such as TVAR’s Shelter Dog Program.

The shelter program is meant to counter the typical difficulties of finding foster homes for rescue dogs. Many are untrained, and worse, abused. Instead of waiting to find fosters, TVAR shelter volunteers work to make the animals more adoptable by training them, socializing them and giving them the love they need and deserve.

The program’s success depends on significant collaboration among volunteers, many of whom have never worked together before. Now, TVAR not only has more volunteers, but there is a real sense of teamwork.

“We wanted to create something new and different. That meant people had to work closely with one another,” James observes.

In addition, TVAR holds adoption events at the shelter and offers free, in-home private training for every adopted dog. Since the program began, adoptions have increased and returns have decreased significantly. According to James, the shelter program “really makes a difference.”

An accomplished professional, James does not hesitate to acknowledge that the support of her husband, Michael, and his encouragement through her “moments of doubt” as she advanced through her career have been critical to her success. (They’ve been married for 25 years.)

She encourages everyone to take a lesson to heart — a lesson about respect: “Respect everyone’s individual differences, including your own,” she counsels.

To young people, she offers this advice, “If you have gone through a hard time or have made a mistake, learn from it but don’t dwell on it. Know that this too will pass, and it will get better.”

Retired partner Sue James feels fortunate to have been in a position to lead large global teams because the experience underscored the importance of respecting the viewpoints of every individual — regardless of seniority.

More about Sue James

  • During her tenure with Ernst & Young, served as the lead partner or partner-in-charge for the audit work for a number of significant technology companies, including Intel Corporation, Sun Microsystems,, Autodesk and HP
  • Served on the Ernst & Young Americas Executive Board of Directors from January 2002 through June 2006
  • Played a foundational role in the development of women at Ernst & Young, including serving on the firm’s Diversity Task Force and overseeing the production of a video that humorously highlights the challenges women face in traditionally male-dominated work environments
  • Recipient of the 1999 Rosemarie Meschi award, the firm’s most prestigious and visible recognition for those who foster a work environment supportive of women at Ernst & Young
  • Led the firm’s North America Global Account Partner Network from 2005 until her retirement

December 2010

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