On Inclusion Blog Interview Series № 1 — Female Leaders in Tech

Originally published at On Inclusion

What will it take to move the needle?

Personally, I am unconvinced that there is a singular answer to this question. But one thing is clear: the onus is on us to win others to our side. As diversity advocates, we must understand the multitude of problems and roadblocks on an intimate level before we can even begin to tackle gender equity or diversity in tech. I invite you to join me in learning from the best in the industry through this interview series with amazing women leaders who have a lot of wisdom and experience to share.

This week, we present you with a Q&A with Beena Ammanath, Founder CEO of Humans for AI. We hope that reading her stories will inspire you to lead, wherever you are in your career.

A Conversation with Beena.

Good morning Beena! It’s an honor to have you as my first talk with a female tech executive. Could you tell us the story of how you got into the tech industry?

(BA): I majored in computer science for both my undergrad and postgrad. My first job was a part-time one teaching undergraduate classes on computer science. I liked teaching. Even after I got my first full-time job, I continued teaching part-time technology postgrad school students until I relocated.

I have always been in technology-focused roles and I have been lucky to work in an area, within computer science, that is my strength — data. I have worn multiple hats as I have progressed in my career — from data analyst, data developer, data team leader, data architect and now data executive. I have seen how this whole space has evolved from a technology aspect. Thirty years ago, it was all about transactional databases, then came the era of data warehouses and now, it’s all about big data. Ultimately, it’s about looking at data in different ways and the ability to look at all kinds of data to drive positive outcomes.

I have worked at large corporations, midsize companies and startups. At the end of the day, data can be a key differentiator for all organizations. In the past, we used data to see ‘what happened’ and now with predictive analytics and AI, we are able to predict ‘what will happen’. It’s an exciting time to be in the data arena. We are also finally beginning to see the vision of Artificial Intelligence coming true.

You are also the founder of a non-profit called Humans for AI. Could you comment on the mission for Humans for AI?

(BA): The promise of Artificial Intelligence has massive potential to enable today’s workforce through more productivity via automation and bring more leisure at the same time. For consumers, AI promises increased convenience with faster, better and more customized service. The world, as we know it, will be turned on its head.

Artificial Intelligence is still nascent and amidst the excitement, also looms a hesitancy to fully embrace its potential. Data, as the new currency, will annihilate those who don’t leverage its insights. AI will compound the problem and further increase the divide between those who have the resources and those who don’t. Traditional professions like lawyers, teachers, and accountants; our impressionable youth; education, government and industry which have not evolved with the times — they are all vulnerable.

Humans For AI is a newly formed non-profit organisation. We are a team of over 50 volunteers (and growing) representing data science, business, engineering across tech, retail, consulting, biotech, and education sectors. We, at Humans for AI, believe the next economy will be shaped by humanity. There is no profession, industry or country immune to its effects. However, we believe domain expertise will become more and more important for better and safer AI products in the future and we want to attract women and minorities to be able to bridge the gap between their domain and tech.

We need to start the conversation: To understand people’s fears, AI’s impact on people’s jobs, their livelihood, their kids’ futures, and ultimately, their purpose. We want honest discussion — the fears, the opportunities, the impediments and the changes that need to happen. It needs to start TODAY.

Humans for AI will bring together data scientists, engineers and traditional professions, tomorrow’s leaders, especially among women and minorities — to start a conversation from diverse perspectives. The goal is to demystify AI in all its complexity and to give access to everyone. We want to educate and to create a community from all industries and all walks of life to have a voice in how AI will be phased into their lives, and their professions. These people will be the future product managers and and product designers for the AI products in their domains. They will be essential to the future of AI and will bridge the gap between their domain and tech.

We believe, through honest conversation, education, and inclusion we can enable the workforce of the future, which will be AI-savvy and also have a unique opportunity to make the future workforce as diverse as the real world.

When did gender diversity become important for you?

(BA): Gender diversity has always been important to me — as a woman I have noticed the lack of women in tech meetings at every stage in my career. But how I got more active in trying to fix the issue is a story I’d like to share.

A few years ago, I was asked to do a keynote at a tech conference. Early in my career, I attended tech conferences regularly. However, over time, I had become more of the heads down — getting the job done kind of person, and not so much the person who went out to speak about all the interesting work my team and I were doing.

That morning, after I gave the keynote on Big Data Science and got off stage, there was a group of women waiting to speak to me. They thanked me for being the only female speaker for the day and for being such a role model. I took a closer look at the agenda for the day and sure enough, I was the only female speaker! I was embarrassed. I had agreed to do the keynote as the event organizer was a friend and knowing that I was currently leading a very interesting big data initiative he insisted that I present. Till the day of the keynote, I never had a strong sense that I could be a role model to any other woman. I felt that I was not as great or as accomplished as Sheryl Sandberg or Indra Nooyi or Angela Ahrendts or all of the amazing women out there. I wasn’t exceptional enough to inspire another woman. And that’s where I was wrong.

I think each one of us can be a role model. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career, we all need to be doing our bit to get more women into tech or helping more women into tech.

In your personal experience, how well do tech companies deal with diversity?

(BA): I have been in the tech industry for a few decades now and I do see more awareness about the diversity issues today than ever before. There is definitely a lot of diversity and inclusion programs being rolled out at several companies today than ever before. However, I believe we are still at early stages. We are trying to change a situation that has existed for many many years and it’s going to take time and several different approaches. When companies are trying to do systemic changes, it cannot be a “one-size fits all” or one approach fits all approach.

Throughout my career, I have also seen that a lot of the diversity talk doesn’t really translate to the bold actions that need to be taken by companies to address the diversity issue. Sponsoring a “coding for middle school girls” camp helps from a marketing perspective for the company but doesn’t really help address the internal problem if the company still has less than 10% women leaders in its technical executive team.

To what do you attribute your personal success? Was it a specific career path? Or Perhaps a mentor?

(BA): Success really means different things for different people. For me personally, success will be when I can drive a systemic change in any of my focus areas around diversity or AI or data. So, I don’t think I am successful yet — there is still so much more to do.

How do you think about mentorship?

(BA): I’ve had both several mentors during the course of my career. They are a collection of women and men, that I’ve met over the years whom I can turn to for advice in different parts of my life. I believe that it is unrealistic to have a single role model, so I encourage young women to find many. They should be people who believe in you and, more importantly, who can see potential in you that you can’t see yourself. Surround yourself with positive people because being a girl in this space is tough. You will need mentors to call when things get difficult — people who will tell you not to quit. I’ve been very lucky to have great mentors.

We’ve learned from D&I heroes Freada Kapor and Ellen Pao that diversity is meaningless without inclusion. In your opinion, what is an effective strategy to ensure that we will have more female leaders in tech in the next 5 years?

(BA): Here is a simple and measurable one: Every executive should sponsor at least one female employee who is promising talent! We all know that sponsorship is crucial for career growth. However unlike mentoring, you cannot ask a leader to be your sponsor — you have to be chosen, based on how well your sponsor leader knows you and trusts you. I find that is one area many women struggle with — getting sponsored. So, can every company make it part of the goals and objectives to all their executive leaders to sponsor at least one minority candidate from their company. Now, if the executive can’t find even 1 minority employee to sponsor, then thats a problem in itself.

For more information about Beena and Humans for AI, check out her video talk here.

About On Inclusion

On Inclusion blog was started to explore the real state of affairs in tech and foster conversation about how we can each contribute to a more inclusive society. This series underscores the experiences of today’s female tech executives and leader — frontierswomen breaking a path through the glass ceiling for women everywhere to follow.