Like many 18-year-olds, Diane Bryant had no clue how she wanted to spend her life. It wasn't until one of her classmates complimented Bryant on her number-crunching skills that she even considered a career in engineering.
"I was sitting in Calculus II my freshman year of college and the guy next to me was chatting me up and asked me what my major was," she recalls. "I didn't declare a major yet, and he said, 'Well, you really should be an engineer, because it's obvious you've got some math acumen.'"
He also told her that engineering offered one of the highest starting salaries for people with bachelor's degrees, which caught Bryant's attention. "I was so tired of being poor, and I knew I was not going to live a future in poverty," she says. She went straight to her counselor after class, declared her major in hardware engineering and never looked back.
That impulsive decision set Bryant on a whirlwind career path that would take her from the executive offices at Intel and Google to NovaSignal, a Los Angeles-based medical tech start-up where she is now CEO.
Get New England news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NECN newsletters.
But Bryant had to fight tooth and nail to get there, from experiencing homelessness in high school to confronting sexism at work. CNBC Make It spoke with Bryant, now 60, about her career journey and the skills that helped her get from couch-surfing in Sacramento to the C-suite.
Homeless at 18
Four months before she graduated high school, Bryant's father told her she had to move out. He had a strict rule that the moment she and her sister turned 18, they were on their own.
"All of my belongings were on the front lawn," she recalls. "I had to pack everything into my Volkswagen Beetle and hit the road."
She spent the rest of her senior year bouncing between her sister's apartment, friends' houses and sometimes sleeping in her backseat. After high school, she enrolled at American River College, a local, free community college and found an apartment close to campus.
"It was incredibly disruptive, but I was committed to survive," Bryant says of the transition. She had no relatives to rely on for financial support – just her own grit and determination.
Her first big career break
Reflecting on her life, however, Bryant sees that at each stage of her career, there was someone who was rooting for her and investing in her success.
Bryant worked three jobs as a waitress at two different restaurants and a hostess at another while she was in college. At one of the restaurants, the same couple would come every Sunday after church for brunch. They repeatedly requested Bryant as their waitress, sometimes waiting 20 minutes for a table to clear in her section, because they thought she was kind and well-mannered.
When the husband, Bill Baker, learned that she was studying to be an engineer, he offered to help get her an internship at Aerojet, a rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer and one of Sacramento's largest employers at the time.
"The recruiter called me and said, 'If Bill Baker is advocating for you, you're in the program,'" she says. "That job helped me become a more competitive applicant for Intel – it was at that moment I realized the true power of what an advocate can do for you, when someone is willing to use their reputation and position to help someone less fortunate."
'You either adapt or you die'
When Bryant first joined Intel in 1985, Silicon Valley was in the thick of its "rough and tumble era," she says – a time when women also made up a mere 5.8% of engineers in the U.S.
Often, Bryant was the only woman in the room and quickly realized that to fit in, she had to become "one of the guys." During her second week on the job, she was in a meeting with all men when one of them cursed – then turned to Bryant and immediately apologized for using foul language in front of a woman.
"All of the focus was on me, I turned bright red," she recalls. "So I said, 'No f—ing problem, and everyone looked so at ease, like, 'Phew, we don't have to change our behavior because there's a woman here."
It was then, Bryant realized, that "the only way I'm going to get them to collaborate with me and be successful in this team is if I make these men more comfortable by embracing their direct, aggressive style," she says. "I thought, 'You either adapt or you die.'"
That meant swearing more, ordering scotch at outings with her co-workers and buying a BMW with manual transmission ("engineers would never drive an automatic").
Before Bryant left Intel in 2017, she had served in numerous roles including product line manager and the group president of Intel's Data Center Group.
But throughout her career there, she would often have the same debate with herself as she drove home: stay or quit? She loved her job but felt her progress often stalled because of managers who she thought gave her fewer opportunities – and smaller raises – than her male colleagues.
Intel did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC Make It.
But she had two young kids and was the main breadwinner for her family. Once again, Bryant dug into her grit – and when she was miserable in one of her roles, a mentor identified a different job within the company for her, put her in the job and "off my career went again," she says.
Her secrets to success
After leaving Intel, Bryant spent a year as Google Cloud's chief operations officer and served as an advisor and board member to several smaller start-ups before joining NovaSignal as chairman and CEO in 2020.
Her switch from Fortune 500 companies to leading a start-up was fueled by restlessness and a small existential crisis about the legacy she was building. "I'm not getting any younger, so I was looking for a big, final contribution I could make in the world," she says. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a job where you're not just driving the top and bottom line, but also having a strong societal impact?'"
Andy Bryant, the former chairman of Intel and one of her mentors, advised Bryant to do something she'd never done before: Lead a start-up and help it flourish.
NovaSignal uses artificial intelligence (AI), ultrasound and robotics to measure blood flow to the brain, which can help identify blood clots and other neurological abnormalities like strokes or dementia. According to Crunchbase, NovaSignal has raised more than $120 million in funding.
"I couldn't imagine another job that demands greater empathy," Bryant says. "We have to empathize with the patients we serve, our customers, physicians, what their standard of care is and how we fit into the bigger picture."
She also stresses the importance of being an empathetic leader for retention. "I can name each of our 125 employees, what motivates them and what they need to succeed," she says. "When you have a startup, we usually only have one or two people in each job title – so if we lose one person, we've lost an entire organizational function."
But the most critical skill she's brought from her past experiences to the C-suite is confidence – even when she has to fake it some days. "Earlier in my career, I definitely lacked confidence, as most women do," she says. "But you need to pull yourself together despite the self-doubt you might be harboring, and tell yourself, 'I'm going to win, I'm going to be successful,'" she says.
She continues: "It goes back to grit – no matter how many roadblocks are in your way, nobody wants to work for the person who says, 'I'm doomed' … you need to be the one to say, 'I can do it.'"
Feeding America's CEO shares the 'transformative' advice that changed her career
Nearly 50% of women consider themselves 'very ambitious' as they regain jobs lost during the pandemic
These are the industries where women are making the most C-suite progress
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter