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Fearless at the frontier: Cheryl Shavers, class of 1976, 1981

December 03, 2012

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the December 2012 edition of ASU Magazine

Cheryl Shavers says she believes that each person has one word that describes them. Her word, she says, is “fearless.”

In 1999 she was director of emerging technologies at Intel in Silicon Valley, her dream job. She got a call asking her if she might be interested in going to Washington, D.C., to become an undersecretary for technology within the U.S. Department of Commerce. During that conversation she heard her “comfortable self” thinking “I am not going to leave,” but what she said at the end of the call was: “It sounds like a great opportunity.”

She added, “Going to Washington was a life changer. The job was to set policies that impact everyone.” She worked on encryption standards and digital signatures that have enabled web commerce and electronic contracts.

Shavers’ successes serve to highlight how far she has come in her life. She grew up with her sister and mother in a south Phoenix duplex. Her mother was a maid who hoped Cheryl would go to high school and graduate without becoming pregnant. When Cheryl was 13, she peeked out their window to see the body of the young prostitute who lived next door being carted away.

She decided then she wanted a good life. She was a star in science and chemistry at South Mountain High School and received a scholarship to Mesa Community College, then made the jump to ASU. She worked nights at a data processing center to pay for her tuition.

By 1981, she was a graduate student in solid-state chemistry at ASU. She attended a chemistry conference in Wickenburg and found herself assigned to assist an attending chemistry superstar, Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel Laureate often called the father of molecular biology.

“It was a ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ sort of deal, to cart him around,” she says. But he wanted to know what she was up to. “He went over some of my work and it all became real. I was this poor black kid and I was thinking, man, what are the odds I’d be talking to a Nobel Laureate about my work? Without ASU, that just wouldn’t have happened. I have met kings and presidents since, but nothing stands out like that moment.“

Shavers is now CEO of Global Smarts, a consulting firm that helps companies around the world create technology roadmaps and strategies. She lives in Santa Clara, Calif., with her husband, daughter and twin sons. Her mother, Erna Mae Caldwell, decided her daughter was a success when she saw her featured in Ebony magazine. For Shavers, that moment came when she was inducted into ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 1997. In her rare spare time, she’s penning her story. “We all start out as penny stock,” she says. The rest is up to us.

Written by Maureen West, a freelance writer based in Phoenix