Keeping it ‘funny, complicated, and true’ with Gabrielle Union

The actor and activist talks embracing all walks of life, three must-have skills for good leadership, and the imperative of happy hour

In her recent book, We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True, actor, producer, and activist Gabrielle Union reveals how fierce (and funny) she’s had to be in her own life—through some serious “wine, please” moments like infertility, misogyny, and racism in America.

The outspoken activist for women’s reproductive health and victims of sexual assault chatted with employee David Daniels before she addressed the hundreds of Microsoft employees who came to hear her share her powerful story of surviving rape, losing her voice, and finding the path to becoming her best self.

Watch her behind-the-scenes interview, and follow along with an abridged transcript below.

YouTube Video

David Daniels: Gabrielle Union, welcome to Microsoft! I’m really curious to hear your perspective and your experience as it relates to some of the values that we hold dear here at Microsoft.

Here, purpose-driven work is important to us; the work that engineers, sales, anyone at the company does—we want it to be aligned with their values and things that excite them. Can you talk a bit about your purpose, and what draws you to a project that excites you?

Gabrielle Union: Early on, I just wanted to be chosen. You’re auditioning. You’re getting rejected. At some point, it was just, “Just pick me. I don’t care about the project. I just want to be picked for anything.” But as I got older, and I’ve got a family, now, the work that I’m most passionate about has to be so amazing. It has to touch my soul; it has to feed my soul.

The whole process—from the writing, to who’s in front of and behind the camera, from how people are being spoken to on set—the whole process has to be worth me leaving my family for.

David Daniels: Our employees also focus on trying new things, taking risks, maybe failing but also learning from that experience. Would you be willing to share an experience where you tried something new, whether it worked out or not, and what you learned?

Gabrielle Union: I really wanted to be a part of the world of the big tent-pole movies: the big action movies, the Marvel universe, the Star Wars universe. And for a long time, I wouldn’t even be able to get in the room.

I finally got an audition. This is last year. I’m going to be 45. So, talk about inclusion and diversity. This is like, I’m just now getting an opportunity.

And so I stepped out on faith. I prepared like no other—and at this point in my career, I generally just don’t audition. I dusted off my audition skills and studied. It was off book, you had to act against a green screen for an audition, where I felt absolutely ridiculous. They only give you bits of the script so in case you don’t get it and you want to talk [to the press] about your experience and leak a spoil, none of it will make sense. They won’t tell you where the scene exists in the movie.

So it was literally like “Ghibli goop, Ghibli goop.” And I felt ridiculous.

But I also felt like, I’m in the room, and that’s what I’ve been asking for, just to be given an opportunity. And maybe that opportunity didn’t exactly look like the way I thought it was going to look, and I didn’t end up getting the job, but even in my feeling foolish, I felt like I accomplished something.

David Daniels: What are some of the attributes or qualities that you would describe in a great leader?

Gabrielle Union: Listening skills, anticipating where the bogeys are, and putting a plan of action together ahead of time.

Usually on a project, you can see where it could go wrong. It’s more rare where you’re like, “I had no idea.” No, you had an idea, you just didn’t plan for it. Plan ahead for the bogeys that you can anticipate.

Did I mention listening? A great leader humbles themselves, embraces a bit of humility, and is open to the idea that they might not have all the answers.

A great leader asks questions. A great leader puts people in positions to win, not fail. And a great leader leads even when no one’s looking.

David Daniels: We believe that we need to have an environment that is both diverse, but also allows people to feel included in the workplace. So what advice would you give to our leaders, our managers, maybe even our employees on how to cultivate an environment that is truly inclusive?

Gabrielle Union: It’s a challenge, in that a lot of us are very rooted in, you know what you know, and you do what you do, based on your very limited life experience. But you have to remember there is a global community. And for any successful company, you have to think globally.

And if everyone in your department looks like you, that doesn’t reflect the global community.

And then, once you have actually accumulated a very well-rounded, diverse group of employees, let them do their thing. There’s a lot of talented people, but if they’re thwarted because they don’t look like the boss, that’s not great leadership, and that’s not real inclusion. That’s you just collecting diverse individuals, but you’re not allowing them to win. You’re patting yourself on the back as if you’ve done something.

And then listening—I can’t say it enough. Everyone’s experience in the workplace is not going to match; everyone’s definition of inclusion is not going to be the same. So you have to listen and believe them when they are speaking and then act on it.

Because again, everyone’s journey is different. And we have to embrace all the stories and all the journeys. And that’s what real inclusion and diversity looks like: allowing each person’s journey and story to hold value, and then acting on that value.

David Daniels: Okay, so to lighten the mood, it’s a silly question. If you were to come to work at Microsoft, one, what would you want to work on, and two, what would your title be?

Gabrielle Union: I would like to create a position, if it’s not already filled, called chief marketing director for after-hour cocktails. I feel super qualified for that, where we just really focus on what the after-work cocktail will be.

Perhaps I will employ a mixologist, a crew of mixologists, from around the world to really get back to that diversity and inclusion that I was talking about.

David Daniels: I would totally join that team.