Role Models in AI: Melissa Sutor

Meet Melissa Sutor, the co-founder and Executive VP of Diversity, Inclusion, and Accessibility at WIRD PBC. Melissa works at the intersection of technology, mindfulness, and social impact. Her experiences range from creating human-computer interfaces for physically disabled students to co-creating an inclusive social network to leading mindfulness retreats. We interviewed Melissa as part of AI4ALL’s Role Models in AI series, where we feature the perspectives of people working in AI. Check back here on Wednesdays this winter for new interviews.

As told to Nicole Halmi of AI4ALL by Melissa Sutor

NH: Can you describe what you do as the co-founder and Executive VP of Diversity, Inclusion, and Accessibility at WIRD PBC? What does a typical day look like for you?

MS: WIRD PBC [pronounced weird] is a public benefit corporation and a startup, so we’re in the very beginning phases of building the organization. As such, there is no exact typical day! We’re working on building a social network that prioritizes inclusion and accessibility from the very beginning, called WEIRDWORLD. In my role, I reach out to a lot of people, connect folks, and help to curate this community.

There are so many voices that go unheard and so many people who aren’t seen, especially in technology. One of our main goals is to change that.

Through WEIRDWORLD, we’ll be providing a community where people can be safe and free from bullying, where their voices can be heard, and where they’re actually co-creating the community.

Earlier in your career, you worked in tech as a programmer and a project manager. How did you get interested in tech and computer science? And how did you end up deciding to leave it for a time?

I did my undergraduate studies in computer science and I went on to get a master’s degree in computer science and engineering in the 90s. My focus was on AI at a time when AI wasn’t very popular or well known. After graduating, I worked for a while in Silicon Valley as a computer programmer and project manager. What I really love about programming is that it thrives on creativity and innovation. Having ideas and actually being able to distill those ideas into an application or a product — that was really exciting for me.

There were other sides of the technology industry that did not resonate with me so much, though. Like the lack of diversity in the field. Even though I was moving forward and also bringing people forward with me, I was usually the only woman of color in any of my work projects. It was a bit isolating.

In addition to that, I also found myself in very stressful situations when I worked in tech. It wasn’t an environment that promoted life balance and self-care. So I ended up moving away from being a full-time tech professional. That was bittersweet. I’m really happy I’ve been able to reintegrate tech into my work through WIRD PBC.

How did you decide to major in CS, and go on to get a graduate degree in CS and AI?

I grew up in Alabama in a very small rural town. Growing up, when I thought about potential careers, tech started to come up more and more for me — I thought, you know, I’m good in math and science and there aren’t a lot of women going into technology. The idea of being a trailblazer really resonated with me.

When I was doing my graduate degree in computer science and engineering, focusing on AI, there just wasn’t a lot of opportunity that felt accessible. I was working on human-computer interaction, specifically for physically disabled students in higher education, in collaboration with one of my colleagues in the program who had cerebral palsy and was unable to use a keyboard and a mouse. She and I developed an application for voice recognition and a way to move the cursor on the screen without needing to physically manipulate a mouse. Projects like that are rewarding to me because they are making a real impact and a real change in society.

I believe if there had been more opportunity or I had been able to find more opportunity in that space then I would have continued on with projects like that, however at the time, the field was more about figuring out how to increase processing speed and make more money. My focus was more about figuring out how to use this technology for good.

You’ve described yourself as currently working at the intersection of technology, mindfulness, and social impact. How do these three threads intersect for you? What does this multidisciplinary approach make possible? How did you come to focus on this kind of work?

I’m so excited that I’ve figured out ways to bring together these different disciplines and merge them in a way that really gives a lot of meaning and purpose to my life.

After I left the tech world, I decided to go back to graduate school and study counseling and psychology, with a focus on mindfulness. That really came about as part of the stress and burnout that I experienced in Silicon Valley. In learning about the mind-body connection and about how stress affects every aspect of our lives, I became passionate about becoming a mindfulness practitioner and teacher.

Combining tech, mindfulness, and my drive to create social impact by putting diversity and inclusion at the forefront of my work has resulted in some really beautiful projects. I run retreats where we teach coding to underrepresented people in environments that promote self care. We weave in mindfulness, they have an option to do yoga classes, and it’s in a natural setting with walking trails.

Who were your role models growing up? Do you have any role models now?

When I was growing up, I didn’t have a lot of actual role models who were around and accessible, so my role models became people in history — particularly the inventors and technical types. I learned so much about prominent African American people by doing research for a Black History Month gathering that my best friend and I put on at our high school. I learned about people like Mary Bethune, who started a school and worked in the White House, and Garrett Morgan, who invented a bunch of things including the traffic signal. Those were the type of people who were my role models. They were pioneers and trailblazers, and they kind of showed me that I could pave the way for others.

Today, I love Oprah! She’s someone I very much look up to and admire, and I so appreciate how she named meditation, stillness, and being in the present moment as being important in her life. That really resonates with me.

What advice do you have for young people who are interested in AI who might just be starting their education and career journeys?

Really connect with what is meaningful in your life. What do you value? What brings you joy? Be very clear and honest about those things, and then pursue that. If tech and science make your heart sing, then go for it. But do so in a way that is healthy and that involves a supportive community.

I think community is so important to help young people not only venture into the field but stay in the field. Community is going to make all the difference.

About Melissa

Melissa Sutor is a business consultant and lifestyle coach creating innovation solutions at the intersection of mindfulness, technology, and positive social impact, with focus on diversity, inclusion, and accessibility. Helping individuals and organizations make the most of their life while making the world a better place is her passion and purpose. She offers wellness retreats, teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at Kaiser, and has led mindfulness workshops at several organizations including Google as well as retreat centers including Esalen Institute. Melissa has earned master’s degrees in Computer Science and Engineering as well as Counseling Psychology. She studied AI and was a pioneer in human-computer interaction applications then an engineer and IT project manager in Silicon Valley before traveling to over 50 countries on a backpacking journey around the world interacting with people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. Melissa is the Founder of Dragonfly Healing Center, Co-Founder of WIRD PBC, and Co-Founder of the All-In inclusion initiative at Digital Raign.

Follow along with AI4ALL’s Role Models in AI series on Twitter and Facebook at #rolemodelsinAI. We’ll be publishing a new interview with an AI expert on Wednesdays this winter. The experts we feature are working in AI in a variety of roles and have taken a variety of paths to get there. They bring to life the importance of including a diversity of voices in the development and use of AI.