Betty Yee is the second woman in California’s history to serve as state controller. (Photo by Terence Duffy)

Women in Leadership: Betty Yee

Our annual salute to extraordinary women who are shaping our future

Back Article Mar 12, 2021 By Eva Roethler

This story is part of our March 2021 Women in Leadership issue. To subscribe, click here.

Betty Yee

State controller, State of California

Betty Yee is the second woman in California’s history to serve as state controller. Earlier in her career, Yee never imagined she’d run for office.

“It’s a well-known fact that for women, they need to be asked to run for office. In my case, I was not asked. I actually made the decision on my own,” says Yee. The notion didn’t come until Yee was serving as chief deputy to Board of Equalization member Carole Migden — who left halfway through her term in 2004 when she was elected to the state Senate — and Yee assumed the duties until the next election. 

In 2006, Yee realized the other candidates hoping to fill the seat were all men who were less qualified than her, so she decided to run. She was elected to the Board of Equalization in 2006, then reelected in 2010. She was elected as California State Controller in 2014 and reelected in 2018. Her second term will end in January 2023. 

Yee heads an agency of 1,400 employees that is responsible for California’s fiscal accountability and paying the state’s bills. Her team issues around 54 million payments per year, including state employee payroll, retirement benefits and payments to vendors doing business with the state. Yee has more than 35 years of professional experience in public finance and tax policy.

Yee became familiar with taxes in fifth grade when her father handed her a cigar box full of papers and asked her to help file tax forms for the Board of Equalization for the family’s laundry and drycleaning business on the west side of San Francisco. Yee and her siblings each had some aspect of the business they were responsible for helping with, and Yee took on the books because she excelled in math. In addition to minding the family’s books, Yee also found herself acting as an ambassador.

“When I get really frustrated, and it seems like the world’s coming down on you, it’s better to be pissed off than pissed on. It’s OK to get mad, because things are gonna get us all frustrated and all worked up, but nobody should ever be trampling on us or taking advantage of us.”

She was the child of Chinese immigrants and is a first-generation U.S. citizen. She was 13 years old when a group of close-knit Chinese-American families who couldn’t speak English sent her to the local school board to speak on their behalf regarding a busing program. “The whole experience left an impression on me that I was an advocate for someone,” says Yee. Yee went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in public administration from Golden Gate University.

Yee’s leadership is focused on elevating the talent in her agency. She strives to have her team describe her as “decisive, clear, collaborative, visible and ethical.” Yee views leadership as collaboration, cultivating a culture where her employees can excel.

Navigating the pandemic has been challenging, but Yee feels her team hasn’t missed a beat. She describes the agency’s work as “often invisible” but believes they’ve been able to make an impact. In the summer of 2020, her team launched Cal Employee Connect, a web-based portal that allows the state’s 298,000 employees to access payroll records online. It received the Best Application Serving an Agency’s Business Needs award by the The Best of California Awards program. 

The deployment of Cal Employee Connect came when the pandemic was creating pressure to convert to virtual solutions to decrease in-person contact. “I’m just so proud of them, because this is exactly the kind of productivity that I think people expect the government to be able to deliver. The timing could not be more appropriate,” Yee says. 

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