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Julie Vargas of Avery Dennison: “There is power in owning consensus”

…Someone once told me that many men have a tendency to lead from the top while women are more apt to lead from the center. While I think this will change with time, I would advise that there is power in owning consensus. I would also advise women to make and keep great allies — those that share your vision and passion and will be your advocates.

As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Vargas.

Julie Vargas leads the Global RFID Market Development team for the food sector, where RFID is building new capabilities for supply chain traceability, food inventory management and convenience retail. Her global team drives accelerated market adoption of the core use cases for digital identity adoption in restaurants, grocery and food supply chains worldwide.

Julie joined Avery Dennison in 2011 and has spent the last decade at the intersection of digital and physical retail. As Director of Digital Solutions and Brand Protection, she led brand and retail partnerships in on-product innovation and helped shape the vision for the “Internet of Clothing” through the launch of Janela™. During her tenure at Avery Dennison, Julie also played a key role in global market development for technology solutions and partnered with retailers and brands to implement innovative RFID strategies. Prior to joining Avery Dennison, Julie led product and business development for interactive RFID fixtures in Latin America and was a senior analyst at Coach where she helped launch the buy-online, pickup-in-store program.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?

I was “that” kid who didn’t know what they wanted to be when they grew up. My father was an 8th-generation career military officer and my mother was a career educator. They always knew exactly what they wanted to do and be. My story is not as- linear. While I always loved technology and had a passion for new places and new ideas, my early career focused on using my language skills. Employers found it easier to teach me financial terms like “margin” and “options” than it teaching a finance guru Spanish and Portuguese. It was only when I entered the retail fashion industry that I became interested in how technology could improve efficiency and eliminate boring manual tasks. I distinctly remember having to pitch in on one cycle count in the Distribution Center when I had to manually scan 300 scarves in individual plastic bags (that all seemed to stick together!). I knew there had to be a better way to count inventory, and that is when I first took an interest in RFID technology. That was a little over 10 years ago, and I was lucky to have had a great advocate who sponsored me for a role leading the company’s Latin American business development for an interactive RFID fixture startup implementation. I have been passionate about the transformative impact of RFID and other technology ever since.

What lessons can others learn from your story?

It’s ok if you don’t know what career path to pursue. Some people know and plan and follow one path, and that is fantastic. For me and for others, it is more about focusing on what energizes you and defining your path in terms of your passion and your strengths. This can leave your path open to become a pioneer in things that might not even exist yet.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

I lead an incredible global team that is working to digitize the food industry. In particular, they are working with carton-level intelligent sensor labels that can automate data about the product and its location as it flows through the supply chain. These sensors allow us to save manual labor on taking inventory, provide full supply chain visibility and traceability, and drive new consumer experiences.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The most influential person in my life was my grandma. She was fearless. She was one of the first women to join the Marines during WWII. She received her college degree at 50 years old and went on to have a laboratory career. She taught me to be curious, to ask questions and to remember to have fun along the way. I would not be who I am without her influence on my drive, determination and spirit.

I also had a crucial advocate who fought for me in my goal of joining the RFID industry. When I came aboard 10 years ago, there were very few “outsiders.” Kris Barton made my case on my competencies and put his own reputation on the line to back my candidacy. If he had not been such a strong advocate for me and my capabilities, I would not have been considered. If he had not mentored me and showed me the ropes of the industry, I would not have thrived.

What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?

There is so much inefficiency and waste in many industries, but none more than the food industry. One-third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted. Much of this waste is due to the fact that there is no data or automation to drive a more efficient supply chain. There is a perception that it is cheaper and easier to have an overabundance end in the landfill while some people go hungry than it is to change the entire industry. Based on this, my top 5 things are:

  1. Sensors are driving large, new data sets. AI will be critical to organizing and interpreting the data.
  2. AI can turn those data sets into immediate intuitive business decisions, improving efficiency
  3. AI can translate the data to adjacent industries and can drive trusted consumer education
  4. AI can optimize new supply chains for donation
  5. Long term, AI can also drive predictive analytics that could change patterns in how we produce food based on actual, optimized consumption patterns

What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?

On the flip side, AI must be trained and will need good, reliable data to drive major change. My concerns are:

  1. Lack of data or use of bad data
  2. Ability to automate data capture
  3. The ability of human instinct to trust AI and machine decisioning
  4. The time it will take to see the benefits
  5. Ability to tie learnings across projects and verticals which translates to interoperability

As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent technologists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg), about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?

While I still don’t believe superintelligence will autonomously pose a danger, AI is built and trained by humans, with human biases and human intentions. I have greater fear of how AI can and will be used with malintent (military, biased decisioning, capitalization) long before superintelligence and advanced AI would act independently of human objectives.

What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?

Global collaboration on the ethics decisioning, particularly for weaponization and human decisioning, will be critical. It will also be critical to make sure there is bias awareness by those training AI and regression testing to make sure AI does not evolve bias. For the public, there will always be concerns about new technology. Education and exposure will be key.

As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would you advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?

I won’t sugarcoat it, the way we must lead will look inherently different than our male counterparts. That said, you can find great success in finding your authentic voice, influence and passion. Someone once told me that many men have a tendency to lead from the top while women are more apt to lead from the center. While I think this will change with time, I would advise that there is power in owning consensus. I would also advise women to make and keep great allies — those that share your vision and passion and will be your advocates. I would also recommend that you find your center; what are you best at, what are you known for, what impact do you want to make? Stay true to that core and even if you don’t have success in title or still have to fight for your opportunities, you will be authentic, balanced and make your mark. If you aren’t being appreciated, don’t be afraid to find a different space to lead. There are advocates out there who will lift you up.

Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?

AI is still a new industry with a limited number of true experts. Women are hardest on themselves when it comes to qualifications, so recruiting competencies and capabilities that will benefit AI will be important.

It is also important to create an environment where everyone thrives. A culture of unknown, less-than- perfect and experimentation is not one that is comfortable for everyone. How can we start acceptance of this culture among young girls and drive more acceptance by women everywhere.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you will land among the stars.”

I am a recovering perfectionist. I want it all to go right and be the best and I want everyone to be happy. This is clearly a recipe for disaster and, in some cases, can be paralyzing. Aim high, but never forget that failure is not fatal. In fact, if you are aiming as high as possible, you will still be achieving great things even when they are not perfect. I have tried and failed with many ideas, but they were often the lessons I needed in order to build something bigger and better.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Right now, I am convinced we have created a food system that is wasteful and unfair. We need to drive a better way to get food to where it needs to be with less waste. We make enough food to feed the world 1.5 times, but folks still go hungry. There has to be a better way!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Linked In: Julie Rodgers Vargas

Twitter: @julievargasad



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