DeLisa Alexander of Red Hat talks innovation and intrapreneurship

DeLisa Alexander is Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer at Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source software. Since founding in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1993, Red Hat has grown from a small technology startup into a global, $2 billion corporation. The company hasn’t forgotten its entrepreneurial roots, though, which is why leaders like DeLisa are heavily focused on maintaining a culture of innovation both internally and in Red Hat communities. So just how does a global enterprise do that? We sat down with DeLisa to find out why they sponsor a startup accelerator, how they’ve built a meritocracy, and why she doesn’t call herself the head of HR.


Innovators Program: What is your focus as Red Hat’s Chief People Officer?

DeLisa Alexander: As Chief People Officer (head of HR), I lead the organization that is responsible for being a strategic partner to our business by hiring, developing, and retaining talented people. I’m also focused on scaling and sustaining Red Hat’s culture and employment brand as we grow.

For the last 11 years, this role as given me the opportunity to help grow our company from this wild idea—that we could sell free software—into a sustainable business that earned more than two billion dollars in revenue this year.

Innovation and entrepreneurship have always been areas of interest and passion for me, and as Chief People Officer, I feel so fortunate to be able to contribute back to the same business ecosystem that helped make Red Hat a successful, global company.

IP: Why is innovation so important? How has innovation impacted Red Hat’s company culture?

DA: Innovation and entrepreneurship are critical—to our community, to our country, and to the world. Innovators and entrepreneurs are a key part of a robust business ecosystem, because they generate new ideas, challenge the status quo, and help us solve the big problems that our world is facing.

As an open source company, Red Hat’s culture not only fosters this type of innovation and collaboration — it demands it. We’re a meritocracy, where good ideas can come from anywhere, and the best ideas are what we should act on. That’s one of the things I love most about Red Hat: people are free to share their ideas and make an impact.

IP: Why do you think it’s important for a large company like Red Hat to support local startups and entrepreneurs?

DA: At Red Hat, we believe fostering innovation and supporting the growing startup ecosystem is an essential part of our role as a longtime member of the Triangle business community. Red Hat started out as a little company with a wild idea, so we understand many of the challenges these startups face.

Now that we’re a large, successful company, we’ve taken on a larger role as a corporate citizen in this community. We want to be a catalyst in the innovation ecosystem and help another business become the next Red Hat. Sponsoring the Innovators Program and providing enterprise expertise to these startups is one way we’re approaching that.

DeLisa presenting at the Women in Open Source Awards

IP: Why did Red Hat decide to have teams participate in last year’s Innovators Program in addition to your sponsorship?

DA: Knowing that the best ideas can come from anywhere, we take a community-powered approach to almost everything we do at Red Hat. Participating in the Innovators Program was an innovative way for us to redesign two internal talent programs that support our culture.

It also created a tremendous opportunity for some of our Red Hat associates to expand and develop their leadership capabilities. At the end of the twelve weeks, our teams brought their insights from the program back to Red Hat, infusing them into their roles and teams. Here’s what one of our team members said:

“The program was a unique experience because it allowed us to take an entrepreneurial approach in solving a real business challenge through rapid prototyping — all while working with a diverse cross-section of Red Hatters globally.”

– Rob Trout, Global Product Manager, Red Hat –

IP: What’s the latest with the projects your innovation teams worked on during the program?  

DA: Since Demo Day, we have continued to take a community-powered approach to both projects, with the redesign work from our Innovators Program teams as the foundation. Here’s the most exciting part to me — we’re designing these systems using Red Hat technology. Through our internal innovation labs, we’re iterating and developing the tools to bring these talent programs to life in partnership with Red Hatters from our IT, Consulting, and People teams.

By using our own technology, we’re able to create processes that are truly reflective of Red Hat’s culture. It’s an exciting place to be right now, and I look forward to seeing the final products and the impact they will have.

IP: What are some challenges of running innovation-oriented programs within a big company?

DA: For Red Hat, it’s finding the right balance between moving fast and gathering input. One of the biggest challenges we face as a growing organization is making sure that we stay true to our open culture as we innovate. Making decisions in an open and inclusive way is a large part of that. Feedback is so important to us.

When we decided to participate in the Innovators Program last year, we chose our two projects based on months of feedback from Red Hat associates around the world.

From the start of the twelve-week program, our two internal innovation teams applied the principles of the Open Decision Framework, our collection of best practices for making open business decisions.

They shared their goals, progress, and challenges during each phase of the program with the entire company to give every Red Hat associate an opportunity to contribute, offer feedback, and make their voice heard.

That isn’t a fast process, so trying to squeeze in those opportunities while making progress against the tight deadlines of the program is a real challenge. But it’s a real-world challenge that we face with all of our business decisions, and we know that it’s worth the effort. I’m proud that the teams did this work in the Red Hat way, and that we’re now taking an open approach to continuing these projects using our own technology.

IP: What advice do you have for other leaders who want to focus on innovation?  

DA: Seek out new perspectives and be open to different opinions. If you want to get the best ideas, you need diversity of thought and an inclusive environment where everyone feels welcome to participate and offer their perspectives. Research shows that organizations with more diversity—gender, racial, ethnic, and global—benefit in many ways. This is especially true in a startup economy. Leaders who seek out these perspectives will find that their companies are able to better understand customers, mitigate risk, and generate innovative ideas and products.


Thanks so much to DeLisa and our incredible partners at Red Hat for helping move innovation forward in Raleigh and beyond!

If you are executive / manager or intrapreneur that is interested to find out how you can leverage the innovators program at your company be sure to click here and let us know who you are how we can help you!

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-Magdalyn