disruptive innovation | interview with frances west

Founder, FrancesWestCo, Former IBM Chief Accessibility Officer

You were IBM’s first chief accessibility officer and you have worked to set IT accessibility standards, shape government policies, develop humanized centric enterprise technology solutions so that all people can reach their highest potential regardless of age, inability, etc. And now you have your own firm, Frances West Co., and you give strategic advice for the public, the private and the non-profit sectors.

Q. What brought you to the inclusion and accessibility area? Tell us a little bit about yourself and your path.

My whole life and journey have been related to inclusion and diversity. I was born in Taiwan, then lived in Hong Kong. At 19 years old I came to the US as an exchange student, knowing very little English, and three years later I married a white American. From that point on I’ve been on this journey in which I’ve not only grown as a person, but I also blended with the new United States culture. Later on, I lived in Virginia, then Kentucky and Michigan; I moved to Beijing, China and then back here. All through my personal and professional life I’ve been trying to balance my own perspective, knowledge and skills to make a difference both in the personal and in the professional world. In the in the early 2000s I had the opportunity to go into IBM Research to lead the IBM Accessibility Center, and it was a life changing post — I did not understand the impact that particular job had until a few years later. The IBM Accessibility Center is an organization that makes sure technology does not create barriers for people who are either disabled or aging, so it was a perfect kind of combination of my personal experience and a professional challenge. Q. What are you doing with Frances West Co.? The role as IBM chief accessibility officer was very transformative. It gave me extreme satisfaction and a sense of responsibility, because having spent my life in technology, I’ve watched and experienced firsthand the impact knowledge can make. As I started walking deeper and deeper into this field, I found certain narratives, a certain message and perspective that could be shared with the broader audience. I wanted to dedicate all my time to this — there’s a lot of work to be done — so I formed Frances West Co. with two purposes: changing the narrative and perspective about digital inclusion, and offering knowledge, experience and insight to help organizations operationalize inclusion, as we call it.

Q. What does digital inclusion mean?

Digital inclusion speaks to anything that you use or touch on a daily basis, whether it’s at work, at school, etc. Technology today is pervasive: everything from smartphones, to computers, to the temperature sensor at home, is technology based: we are in a technology driven world. Developers, designers, and all the people who make the solutions for the public and their employees, need to have a mindset that doesn’t allow them to accidentally create barriers for certain segments of the population. Digital inclusion is about barrier-free information and technology, so we can have parity in both participation and access.

Q. You often talk about “authentic inclusion”, which is a term very unique to you. Tell us more about it.

Authentic inclusion came to be both out of observation and a little frustration. Right now the inclusion topic is very talked about, especially in the tech industry and in Silicon Valley, given what’s been going on in the past few years. Authentic inclusion, however, takes a slightly different angle: it’s about making sure that inclusion isn’t just a human topic, but a human plus technology topic. Authentic inclusion puts technology as an equal part, and I like to call that Technology and Talent. Technology is here to stay, and it’s going to keep making an impact in all of our lives. Given that, we must talk, think about and invest in it, in addition or in parallel to our investment in diversity and talent — they both have come together to deliver the products and services everybody uses. Talking about inclusion, hiring a more diverse staff is good, but it’s not enough. The technology side must be paid attention too, and equally.

Q. You’re saying it’s important to pay attention to the products and services that go to the public, but also to the tools that are used inside organizations for their employees.

Tools for the employees, or the outreach website made for customers, for example. Any technology infrastructure has to be made accessible, and this needs as much attention as the security and privacy issues. That’s the main point of authentic inclusion.

Q. How have you seen technology change in terms of inclusion, from back when you started at IBM, until now? Have you seen an evolution?

When I first started, back in the late 70s, early 80s, technology and computers were about system optimization: how fast systems could process something. They were also designed to be binary — yes and no, on and off –, to do the input-output processing. With the arrival of PCs — Personal Computers –, we begin to see the consumerization of technology — systems were moving from the big mainframe to the consumer market, to be used by average citizens. The iPhone certainly led that revolution, although the PC set the stage for this movement. Now we’re at the “human days”, where everybody owns and uses technology, so technology’s evolving towards becoming more individualized, personalized. One would think that, because we’re getting more consumers, and technology is getting humanized, there’s more attention paid to the design and the experience. On the consumer technologies side there’s certainly a lot more awareness, but in the enterprise, institutional and workplace setting, there’s still a lack of attention around making sure that people with all kinds of different abilities or different perspectives can participate, and technology can be leveraged. That’s the future, technology will start to be made personalized for each user.

Q. I’ve heard say that digital inclusion means giving users the highest form of personalization, so that they can use that technology in the best way possible for them.

Yes. Everybody now knows that, for example, artificial intelligence and machine learning are about gaining knowledge, and adapting to that knowledge gained. The ultimate objective is technology really understanding and augmenting the individual person’s needs and wants. Then it won’t be about making technology available to people with disabilities, it will be just adjusting to each person’s preferences. That’s the ultimate potential of technologies: taking away the misperception of disability, and changing it to just personal preferences, desire or personal intention.

Q. What are the biggest challenges in making digital inclusion a priority for organizations, whether they are for profit or non-profit?

The prevailing feeling about inclusion is that it’s definitely about the organization culture, and the ones responsible for that are the senior executives and leaders, because they set the tone for the company. Leaders should provide inspiration for their company to be as diverse and inclusive as possible. Certainly, there are lot of successful cases: for example, the current CEO at Microsoft is very into this topic, so we can see a positive impact that Microsoft has on the industry. However, inclusion is a human issue, so each one of us obviously has a part to play in it. Inclusion is not only necessary but a must-have, and when each individual believes this, in whatever capacity or role they’re in — whether they’re a developer, a designer or a programmer or a business executive — then they should live by that creed and deliver, execute and operate in that mode. There are a lot of challenges for inclusion right now, but as we ask others how they can help, at the same time it’s very important that we ask ourselves what can we do individually to address this. When I was 23 years old, working in Kentucky and Michigan with an all white-male customer base, I had to do a few things to bridge the gap with my customers, and they too had to make a few changes to be able to engage me. It’s a two way street. There’s a tactical perspective on the side of the organization and the senior leaders, but in the long term, if each individual owns this, then not only the workplace, but society as a whole, will be better off.

Q. Are there any technological innovations, or anything that you’ve seen out there that’s exciting?

There’s a lot of very exciting technology. We used to talk about assistive technology when addressing disability: by definition, a system is helping the person do something and it works in an augmenting way. The San Diego based start-up AIRA, which I advise, has been developing wearable technology with artificial intelligence to help blind and low vision people navigate the world. They’re not just assisting, they’re changing lives by combining wearable artificial intelligence and augmented technology. The possibility of a multiple state-of-the-art, life changing technology coming is just showing itself. Another technology that has a lot of potential is virtual reality (VR). There’s an app that brought the VR experience to a retirement facility, to senior citizens who hadn’t been home in many years because they couldn’t travel. The person who was managing the app went to their house, took a view of it, and when the old lady put on the VR goggles on, she had a real three dimensional experience of going back to her home. That was a great example of using VR to help an elderly person, and the emotional impact was tremendous. This shows that new technologies can impact on issues like aging, not just on the quantitative, but also in a qualitative way.

Q. Tell us about your book. When is it coming out?

The book is a combination of all we discussed above. It goes through my personal journey and shows how my last job as chief accessibility officer made me see clearly how important technology will be for the future of being. By being I mean living, working, playing, everything. My hope is that through this book I’ll be able to demonstrate that human difference is the base for driving disruptive innovation, and that organizations will begin to absorb authentic inclusion, not just as an idea, but as a global operation. That way we can truly deliver a barrier-free digital promise to everybody. The book will be coming out at the end of the year, it will be launched at CES — It’s a very exciting time, personally and professionally. I hope that it will give people ideas as to how inclusion can make a strategic difference in the business world, and how innovation always needs diversity, in our society and in our workplaces.

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about frances

Frances West is an internationally recognized thought leader, keynote speaker, women-in-technology executive, and IBM’s first Chief Accessibility Officer.  Frances founded FrancesWestCo, a global strategy advisory company and works with clients to operationalize inclusion as a strategic business imperative to drive disruptive innovation.  Frances’ thought leadership and expertise in digital inclusion strategy are highly respected and sought after around the world and she has keynoted at the UN and often speaks at client events and at global conferences. Frances is a board advisor to multiple startups and nonprofits and the Chair of the Strategy and Development Committee of the G3ict, a UN-affiliated nonprofit focusing on digital inclusion and a member of the International Women’s Forum. 

Frances West Co.


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