Leadership Stories4 min read

Abe Ankumah: Lifelong Learner

VMware Staff
Abe Ankumah
  • Title: Vice President, Product Management, VMware SASE
  • Base of operations: Palo Alto
  • Time at VMware: 2 years

You are executive sponsor for the Black@VMware Power of Difference (POD) community. What does that mean, and why is it important?   

People don’t join companies; they join communities. We all want to be part of a workplace that is inspiring and supportive, where we can bring our most authentic selves to work. When we embrace a variety of styles and voices, both common and different, we become a wiser and more inclusive community. Within this context, I view the role of an executive sponsor as critical to strengthening diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at VMware.

As an executive sponsor, I lend my perspectives, experience, voice and passion to Black employee representation at every level of VMware. My goal is to support the work of our POD leaders and serve as a sounding board to them. I see an opportunity in working with allies both internal and external. I’m also committed to educating and being a key voice among my executive peers on issues affecting our community and POD members.

I am grateful for the opportunity to pay it forward, whether it’s by mentorship or using the platform I have been given to motivate and inspire others in any way that I’m able.

VMware celebrates Black Heritage Month and this year's theme, "Living Heritage."

VMware has been celebrating national Black History Month, which we refer to as Black Heritage Month, and our own theme this year is “Living Heritage.” What does that mean to you?

Black heritage has a deep and personal meaning to me — something I have evolved my thinking on since I didn’t grow up in the U.S. For me, it starts with the rich history and cultural diversity on the African continent and my educational and professional life in the U.S.  

Being born in Ghana and then having the opportunity to move to the U.S. for college, a key part of Black heritage is the recognition, appreciation and indebtedness for all Black people and allies who came before me. Their struggles and sacrifices through the civil rights movement opened up possibilities for me to secure a world-class education and benefit from the career opportunities that I’ve had.

I also think about celebrating the success of Black people who have accomplished remarkable things and made an impact in many areas in the U.S. and the diaspora, whether it is in business, education, sports and public service: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rosa Parks; Kwame Nkrumah; Daniel Hale Williams; W.E.B. Du Bois; Thurgood Marshall; Kofi Annan; President Barack Obama; Colin Kaepernick; and many others. This is particularly important for my wife and me to share and educate our two young children about what they can achieve as human beings.

Finally, I also see it as an opportunity for dialogue with people in other groups. It's about learning the representation gaps and adversities we go through, whether at work or outside, irrespective of what you might have accomplished. 

Where does Black health and wellness — this year’s national theme — fit into Black heritage?

This reminds me of the well documented, long-standing health disparities that exist in the Black community, and the lack of trust some of these challenges have created within parts of the Black community. These disparities range from the lack of establishing a trusted relationship with healthcare professionals who treat their patients with respect, to under representation in clinical trials, which ultimately gets amplified with precision medicine.

Wellness is more than physical well-being. It’s also our mental, spiritual, emotional, social and financial well-being. Coupled with the pandemic, wellness was a significant point of emphasis during the social justice movement and demonstrations against police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks. I’d also say that the recent trials and convictions have reopened old wounds.

How do employee communities, like Black@VMware, support employee health and wellness?

Communities like Black@VMware can create an intentional engagement and dialogue. Members of the community can share their experiences, celebrate accomplishments and be each other's advocates. It also helps enable and encourage people within the community to bring their whole self to work — something that is critical for individual wellness!

"Diversity is a good crucible for great ideas," Ankumah said.

Switching gears, you’re at Mobile World Congress this week to talk about VMware SASE. What drives your work in the Secure Access Service Edge (SASE)? 

Solving customer problems in ways that they didn’t think was possible and that make their business successful. If my customers are able to realize their goals, then I’m successful.   

What is your biggest takeaway from the leap into remote work and cloud networking?

The last two years at VMware have been about learning and adapting in the face of change for all of us. Remote work can be extremely productive, but we have to invest in building and strengthening our social capital and personal bonds with our teams.

Remote work, in so many ways, allows and enables people to bring a bit more of their whole self to work. It emphasizes a dimension of people’s personal lives, which hasn’t easily come through in the office — a window into their homework space, their video background, a family member Zoom-bombing a meeting.

Remote work also highlights, for me, two extremes: Many of us in white-collar jobs can simply log on to our computers and do our work, but there is a whole segment of people for whom this isn’t an option. 

For those of us who can work remotely, we see the massive impact of cloud technology and networking. It enables our customers to provide virtual healthcare, facilitate collaboration among teams and run retail and logistics facilities 24/7.

How would you describe your leadership style? 

Having run a startup, I can tell you firsthand how it can put you in unique situations. It gets competitive, and everyone is constantly reacting or responding to market demands and opportunities. It’s easy, in those moments, to take yourself too seriously or get consumed by the stress.

Humor and radical candor, in equal measure, have worked for me, kept me grounded and shaped the way that I show up as a leader to my team. I think it has helped us build a community and a culture that values transparency. One that allows our people to be vulnerable and to learn from each other. 

What is the best career advice you’ve received?

To never stop learning. It’s my mantra. The world is changing, constantly. I’m a consummate student, and I find it is a useful trait.

Being curious allows you to open up to people. You want to collaborate to learn, so that attitude brings many opportunities with it.