Thank you for joining us for this interview series, we’ve been talking to experts in aging, mobility, technology, policy to uncover the business and social opportunities that inclusive and accessible products, services and experiences deliver.
Q: Can you tell us your own story and about the great work that you’ve been doing? How did you end up doing Amazing Community?
After a 20+ year-long traditional career, in early 2017 I decided to live into the future of work that I was so passionately talking about and working on while leading HR strategy and people analytics functions at some Fortune 100 organizations. I am a geek by training (math and computer science), consultant at heart (Price Waterhouse, PwC, IBM), entrepreneur in character (loved working on “white space” type projects), on a mission to humanize the workplace (having worked in HR for a while and noticing how much more “human” would be welcome in “Human Resources”). I am accomplishing this mission through three major streams of work:
At the macro/industry level I work with the Conference Board where I am facilitating conversations with the members of Strategic Workforce Planning and HR Business Partner Councils, as well as shaping the research agenda as a Human Capital Analytics Center leader. I’m also running a meet-up group with over 1100 members to influence how the People Analytics space is evolving. I also consult for HR and business leaders on the workforce/workplace of the future and how organizations can future-proof themselves by integrating digital technologies, analytics, and inclusive work and workplace design. My most important and rewarding space is working with 50+ year-old women through the non-profit organization I’ve founded — amazing.community. Our mission is to expand the work horizon for women and we are empowering and equipping amazing (not aging) women with the hybrid skills (both technical and social) needed in the future of work and with confidence so they can return or stay in the workforce.
I’ve been talking for almost a decade about the future of work and the need for independence but it was only an academic exploration; I didn’t look at it from a personal standpoint. That was the case until two years ago, when I decided to leave the corporate world and dive into independent work, just so I could experience this future, understand what it’ll be like and what opportunities it will create. Leaving the security of a corporate job was a scary decision to make, but I abandoned a regular paycheck and dove into the unknown. As I immersed myself in research and had conversations and periods of quiet introspection, a few themes become very clear and I realized why I was so determined to dedicate myself to this work: First: Pivots are common – most of us get to points in our lives when we realize we outgrew what we had before, and want to focus on something that will have an impact on more than just the next quarterly report. Second: Women tend to reinvent themselves more frequently because of the nature of their lives; we tend to have kids, and we usually step in to take care of our ailing parents, transitions which may drive different lifestyle and career changes. Third: When re-entering the workforce, women have more difficulty sustaining their income level, let alone growing it. The most shocking statistic for me was that half of the long-term unemployment in the US is found in women between 55 and 65. These are our moms, our sisters, our girlfriends, us. We made all the right choices but in the long term we will face financial insecurity because we will most likely outlive our spouses, marriages, and savings. If nothing changes, a huge part of the population will be pushed into poverty. On one side, I hear about the tight labor market and how the war for talent has been won by the talent. On the other side a sizeable segment of our population – women 50+ — goes un-tapped, underutilized, underpaid, or unemployed.
At the time when I discovered that fact, I was 45 and it felt very personal. I vividly remember thinking “I only have 10 years left to do something about it before I become a statistic!” And the lightbulb went off. It became clear that the solution is somewhere between organizations and women and that’s where the energy flowed.
Q: You’re working on how to integrate these women but also on the companies, teaching them how to better take advantage of their talent. When you think of inclusion in this sense, what do you think about?
We have to empower women so they can regain the confidence that might have faltered along the way through job rejections, lay-offs, body changes, and isolation. Their confidence will return through small but meaningful changes – by building the arsenal of skills necessary for the modern workplace (digital fluency, analytics, coding, design thinking etc.), by connecting them to a local network of like-minded individuals who support each other, by helping them navigate the digital world that is overwhelmingly intimidating yet full of resources, training, services, events, and work opportunities.
It is even more critical to work with organizations to create an environment where these 50+ women can come and stay. This requires rethinking how work gets defined and carving out specific activities that can be done by women who need flexibility in their schedule. Or designing the office space to enable physical accommodations. Or auditing the hiring algorithms to ensure there is no inadvertent bias introduced into the selection and decision-making. Or raising awareness about unconscious biases we all have and ensuring teams are holding each other accountable. Or bringing aging women into the design conversations so products are designed for mainstream users, not only for “digital natives.” Some of those technologies might have the ability to extend the employment span for many with physical limitations, visual or hearing impairments, etc. or even open up new consumer markets – all in all, a great example of good and responsible business. In short – it can all be summarized into a (seemingly) simple notion: an inclusive workplace.
Q: Have you ever gotten an unexpected result while working around inclusion? For example, trying to fix something and realizing that the benefits were even greater or different than what was initially thought.
It’s been the story of my life. I’ve traveled and moved a lot, and being a social person who had to start over every couple of years in a new place, a new company, a new country, I had to become inclusive. You have to tap into the collective intelligence that exists in your network, in the people around you. Not only does your integration process speed up, and you become comfortable and productive much more quickly, but the results and outcomes are also much better and more sustainable in the long term. My life and my career are where they are now because of that mindset of inclusion; because I kept in touch with different individuals who then had a disproportionate impact on my career. I had access to different types of technologies that I otherwise wouldn’t have known, and I had conversations with individuals completely outside the field that shifted the focus of projects by making me understand non-traditional solutions.
Q: Who do you think are the biggest critics of inclusion, or the biggest obstacles in creating inclusive communities?
I see two major themes here. Not necessarily critics or obstacles but certainly influencing factors hampering the ability of organizations to become truly inclusive. The first one is more of an interpretation or utilization – it’s the focus on diversity. This focus can make organizations less inclusive, because they create solutions that are by definition serving just one group and excluding the rest. Of course, it is very important work and sorely needed, but there has to be a balance between what you include and what you exclude. For example, we all want women to have a great work environment and equity in their pay — but if you don’t include men in the decision-making process, it will become a point of resentment and tension in the workplace. If you don’t include younger generations in the conversations about the needs of aging workers, you will continue to design “young technology for digital natives.” There has to be a conversation, and all parties have to engage in it. Furthermore, organizations must ensure their policies on diversity and inclusion are nuanced and address the unique needs of groups existing at the intersection of identities. What unique challenges are faced by 50+ women who are black? What unique challenges are faced by women who are 50+ and non-native English speakers? The second theme is tied more to my professional world, the world of analytics. People analytics is being used more and more in the workplace. Algorithms are built to look at what has made people successful in the past, creating models that enable us to rapidly sift through thousands of résumés to find the optimal individuals, and bring more of them into the organization. Maybe that success was what helped companies get to where they are, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll help companies go forward into the future; and you may be inadvertently introducing biases into the organization’s hiring processes, or perpetuating the old ones that have been there all along. It’s important for analytics practitioners to keep in mind that behind every insight they extract from the data, behind every decision they help others make, behind every number included in their analysis there is a life, a career, a family, a human being with aspirations and dreams. These professionals have to make sure they’ve considered every aspect, that they’re doing it ethically, and that they have algorithmic responsibility for their work.
Q: What do you see as exciting innovations that can make a difference and an impact in inclusion?
From the future of work perspective, I think there’s so much exciting stuff coming. Just think about the different bionic enhancements starting to become available, for example. You can now augment your physical abilities with exoskeletons (imagine lifting significantly heavier objects, or even regaining the ability to walk if you are paralyzed or immobilized). 3D printing is used to print organs and implants, or in other words “spare parts” for the body, allowing people to gain or extend their physical ability. Brain implants reduce seizures or stimulate certain brain areas. Mental capacity can also be extended through a well-orchestrated set of reminders, nudges, nags, alerts, and conversations with digital assistants who continue to improve, understand our written and spoken language better, and even give you feedback on the level of empathy you express in a conversation (yup, there is a startup that uses virtual reality to do exactly that)! While the long-term impact of some of these technologies is yet to be understood, in the short term it’s giving life back to somebody who otherwise would’ve had a very limited field to play in. This wave of innovation is also bringing a new set of interesting questions. How is the notion of inclusion changing in a world where digital machines are working side by side with humans? Do we need to monitor the number of chatbots and ensure an equal number of male and female names? Will the engineer who designed the “personality” of the bot be responsible for any bias or “misconduct” of the bots? Should organizations that employ bots pay employment taxes on them? There are a lot of issues that the field of HR will have to deal with as this work evolves, and as digital labor becomes more prevalent. They have to figure out how to plan a workforce that spans multiple types of workers – digital chatbots, younger employees, independent workers, freelancers, and everybody else who chooses to engage with enterprises in a non-traditional way.
Q: What are the biggest disruptions in the workplace we should all pay attention to?
I would characterize them into the 4Ds framework and specifically: Demographic shifts that include a multi-generational workforce; growth in global/local/social/job mobility; more women entering the workforce, diversity in gender, sexual orientation/identity, backgrounds, and thoughts. This requires a rethinking of how work gets orchestrated to ensure an inclusive, productive, and innovative workplace that embraces the diversity of thoughts and backgrounds, and creates products and offerings that are accessible to everyone. More importantly, organizations are forced to rethink the sources of talent in light of shortages of qualified talent and the changing preferences of the modern workforce.
Digitization including intelligent automation, virtual/augmented/mixed reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc. “Digital” forces organizations to rethink their business model, decision making, and communications flows. It requires a very different mindset on how work gets designed such that it is more fluid and less constrained by the traditional (manufacturing) style of producing work-units. Datafication of the interaction between and across humans, devices, sensors, bots, tools, etc. The massive amounts of data allow us to see patterns, glean insights, and find the optimal solution. It also requires different skillsets and degrees of sophistication in designing analytics-driven organizations. Disintermediation, capturing the rise of independents, the gig economy, collaborative consumption, networked work, 3D printing, blockchain, cross-value chain companies, etc. Many technology-first organizations are rapidly disrupting the neatly organized adjacent industries. This doesn’t only change your product strategy but also the competitive landscape that must be considered.
Q: And amazing.community is considering all those things? It’s taking care of underserved groups that have a lot to offer, and then taking advantage of the changes in the workplace?
Yes. There are two fundamental problems we want to address by employing the advancements of the modern workplace for the benefit of amazing.community:
- Digital technologies are changing how work gets done and many jobs are at risk of automation. Oftentimes, such technologies are not inclusive (not designed with input from and consideration of the impact they will have on different segments of the population, especially the aging population.)
- Women over 50 need to future-proof their professional lives by learning new skills (both technical and social) so they can stay in the workforce and build long-term financial security. Equipped with technical and design skills, women can also influence the development of more inclusive technologies.
The statistics show that this segment of the population is growing and women age 55 and older represent the single fastest growing age-gender segment of the American population participating in the labor force. Their share is projected to grow and will account for more than a third of all additional workers entering the labor force over the next decade, representing an increase of nearly 3.6 million workers (2016-2026). Unfortunately, women don’t get their fair share. Unseen challenges and responsibilities affect older women’s access to opportunities to receive equal pay. Literature demonstrates that along with pay inequity, there are personal, social, and health repercussions as well. For example, recent research from ISTAT (The Italian Institute of Statistics) highlighted that, overall, Italian women work 50,694,000,000 of unpaid hours each year on caring for others, home care and volunteering. This number far exceeds the total annual paid work hours for both men and women combined: 41,794,000,000 hours. Similar statistics can be found anywhere in the world, supporting similar conclusions. In order for women to be competitive and have access to meaningful and fairly compensated jobs, they need to build skills that will be in demand over the next 3-5 years. amazing.community is focused on maximizing opportunities for women over 50 by building a scalable model for growing hybrid skills, which combine both technical and social skills. We want to provide a supportive environment for women to build these hybrid skills by providing design thinking combined with chatbot development training. They will then apply both skills to co-create a chatbot responsive to the needs of women 50+ (amazing.bot)
Q: Why did you choose design thinking and chatbots?
Great question! Let me start with some context and definitions. Design thinking methods are iterative processes that provide a solutions-based approach to problem solving. It is both a mindset/way of thinking and a hands-on method of co-creating solutions. The design thinking methodology can influence mindset shifts that build creative confidence. In other words, it will lead people to see themselves as creative. By providing design thinking training, amazing.community will equip our target audience with formal methodology and skills that are in demand, may subtly change mindsets, and will build their confidence in their creative skills. Chatbots are computer programs designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the Internet, and they are becoming a permanent fixture in the modern workplace. By 2020, 85% of all customer interactions will be handled using artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques, without a human agent. The workplace will need skilled workers to help design, implement, and manage these programs. We believe that by engaging older women to co-create a chatbot, they will both learn how this technology works (skills building) and become comfortable using it (applying and practicing). Why the combination of design thinking and chatbots? We have a very limited understanding of the social implications of chatbots and how we can ensure they are designed such that they promote social good. The combination of chatbot and design skills will enable us to understand how interacting with a chatbot can help improve or change human feelings and behaviors and bring more empathy and inclusion into the workplaces where such technology can be used. Even more compelling is the proposition of building the chatbot into a digital companion that is attuned to the lexicon and conversational needs of women over 50 and supports queries that can connect them to different resources and services curated by amazing.community. Furthermore, the chatbot can be trained to act as a “friendly nudge,” ensuring women stay on track with their professional and personal development goals.
Technology can empower women over 50 by expanding their access to financial services, healthcare, education, and different resources to support their transitions to new jobs. This will provide women earning low incomes or those who live in remote communities with access to education and better work opportunities. We believe that this technology is replicable and customizable globally. The most exciting part is that we can make our own share of contribution towards the synergistic Sustainable Development Goals identified by the United Nations, particularly three specific SDGs: #5: Gender Equality, #8: Decent Work & Economic Growth and #10: Reduced Inequalities.
Q: What else do you have in progress?
Oh, much more! We are organizing a conference in New York in the fall to build awareness and commitment around the issue of lack of inclusion as well as the impact on different segments of amazing.community’s population. We also plan to compile a database of services, resources, and opportunities that can be tapped into by the chatbot for recommendations. Subsequently, we will enable women over 50 to offer their own services, resources, and opportunities back to the entire community. This will enable them to build a new stream of income. It will also use technology and analytics to match the needs of women with the most suitable available offerings. Meanwhile, we will continue with our meetup group amazing.community through which we offer up networking, support, and education on a variety of topics and skills such as coding, analytics, social influencing, body image, confidence building, AI, design thinking and anything that can help women gain the confidence to re-enter and stay in the workforce, in whatever capacity they choose, because they have so much to offer. They need to be included, because they are amazing!