British politician and Google executive Baroness Oona King recently returned to UC Berkeley’s International House (I-House) to be honored as the 2019 International House Alumna of the Year for her 30 years of public service.
In 1997, King, at age 29, became only the second woman of color to be elected to the British Parliament, serving in the House of Commons until 2005. In 2011, she was appointed Baroness King of Bow, becoming a member of the House of Lords. King started her political career as a researcher in the European Parliament in Belgium. She has worked for Google since 2016 as YouTube’s director of diversity strategy.
King lived at I-House during the 1988-89 academic year, when the multicultural residential center — today, it has nearly 600 UC Berkeley students from 70 countries — held its first gala and gave its first alumna award. Back then, King was a member of the I-House events staff, charged with the setup and removal of tables and chairs during events.
At last week’s affair, Chancellor Carol Christ introduced her to the audience as “a woman who has truly taken the I-House mission to heart throughout her life and professional career.”
Hans Giesecke, executive director of I-House, presented King with her award and hailed her for “promoting a more peaceful and benevolent world through service and leadership.”
King is widely known for fostering cooperation and collaboration during her political career, often across party lines. One of her most far-reaching successes was a measure requiring companies with more than 250 employees to publish their gender pay gaps.
During a question-and-answer session at the event between King and Jason Patent, director of UC Berkeley’s Robertson Center for Intercultural Leadership, King spoke about her career in politics and technology. She implored students to find their spheres of influence, to make themselves useful in preparation for positions of leadership, and she emphasized the opportunities that personal setbacks often present.
“If you’re going to be successful,” she said, “can you turn that traumatic event from catastrophe and failure into some kind of silver lining?”
Google has faced criticism about the diversity of its workforce and, in an interview prior to the gala, King described efforts to get more women into the industry as “hugely challenging.” Freedom of speech on the internet is another issue she has had to contend with in her position as Google’s director of diversity strategy.
“We have to be mindful that you can’t put people’s psychological well-being and physical security at risk,” King said. “And in the tech industry, that’s what we’re struggling with at the moment.”
“The internet was built on, in theory, the principle of freedom of speech. That breaks down when extreme groups that propagate hate use it as a recruiting tool. What makes the internet great, and what makes the internet scary, is that you can reach so many people,” she said.
King’s father, Preston King, is African American, and her mother is Caucasian. Growing up as a biracial child in 1970s London, Oona King experienced moments of discomfort. She recalled being called a “mongrel” at school, but also that her mother, a teacher for students with special needs, provided her with fantastic emotional support and confidence.
“Turning people’s insecurity into a strength is a gift,” King said. “And that really did empower me to be whatever I wanted to be.”
King later referenced Oprah Winfrey’s famous quote about luck resulting from preparation meeting opportunity. She reminded I-House residents that being prepared when opportunities arise is just as important as having talent. “Never forget that you need the luck,” she said.
It was luck that brought King to I-House. “I got an amazing opportunity to come here because I was lucky enough to be offered the chance by York University to study at Berkeley,” she said, “and that was a year that has changed the course of my life.”