Melissa Sassi: Accelerating Innovation In Tech

#GirlsInICTs | Inspiring The Future Series | IBM Z’s Chief Penguin and CEO & Founder MentorNations, Melissa Sassi talks about her work at IBM Z, empowerment, also looking at the future of work and gender equality.
Melissa Sassi: Accelerating Innovation In Tech

Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey that culminated in where you are today?

I studied International Business Management and Linguistics in undergrad, got two Masters in Supply Chain and Finance and started my career in procurement. I found that this career path did not fire me up and I was not able to truly make the kind of social impact I was striving. I spent time in Consulting, Investment Banking, Asset Management, and ended up landing a role in Microsoft about seven years ago. I discovered a pathway through big tech that would enable me to bring technology together with education, youth, and the startup ecosystem. I was fortunate enough to have had an amazing thrive hive of sponsors, mentors, and guides to help me move from a job to a socially impactful career that fires me up every morning. I discovered a way to create my own job title, job description, and career that brought all my passions together under one umbrella. Yes, this is possible! You can make the world a better place and have a high paying job at the same time.

We would love to know more about your work.

I am IBM Z’s Chief Penguin. I head up Student & Entrepreneur Experience globally within the IBM Z division of IBM. I landed where I am today after discovering my unique superpowers that provide me with the secret sauce to make the world more digitally inclusive. After seeing scores of youth from around the world without access to the internet or digital skills – especially underrepresented communities – I made it my life’s work to build a world that is better able to make meaningful use of the internet. I teach youth about IBM technology and the skills necessary for the future of work, and empower them through free training options that enable them to land lucrative jobs in enterprise computing.

I also head up the IBM Hyper Protect Accelerator program. We currently have 45 startups in our portfolio and will be growing that to 100 by the end of this year. I focus on highly regulated industries such as financial services, healthcare, and insurance where I collaborate across IBM and with our accelerator partner – Village Capital – to help startups to build and scale in collaboration with IBM Cloud Hyper Protect Services, an IBM Cloud product, and other IBM Cloud solutions within the IBM portfolio.

I am also the CEO & Founder of a youth-led nonprofit based out of Tunis, Tunisia called MentorNations. We have empowered tens of thousands of youth to learn to code in upward of twelve countries. We have been nominated for a variety of United Nations awards and have received funding from the US Department of State, Google, HP, UNESCO, and SAP.

Do you think we should be wary of the shift from human power to machine power?

Technology is all around us and it’s here to stay. Everyone, regardless of field, socioeconomic status, and/or education level should have the basic skills to make meaningful use of the internet to drive outcomes in their lives, whether that includes education, economic, agricultural, healthcare, access to e-government services, and the like. This includes understanding the basic building blocks of what it means to code. Not everyone will be an engineer; however, the world needs to understand the skills to be digitally ready when it comes to safety, security, emotional intelligence, media literacy, computational thinking, and moving from being a consumer of technology into becoming a creator, maker, and doer empowered by technology.

What is crucial to do right now in ensuring the human evolves?

The human existence is now intertwined with technological innovation, which means that every individual needs to have basic digital skills and readiness. This often means applying items once seen as in-person competencies to the online world. This involves a significant amount of emotional intelligence that helps us regulate our emotions, recognize crucial conversations and emotions in others, and empathy. If the world could incorporate more design thinking into everyday life, the world would be more empathetic to one other. We need to strive less for perfection and accept when good is good enough. This means accepting failure, learning from it, and sharing our vulnerabilities loud and proud. What makes us human is showcasing that vulnerability. This also means gathering what I call your thrive hive…a group of people who help empower you, cheer you on, and inspire you to be your best self while still staying true and authentic to your strengths, superpowers, and humanity.

As technology shifts the balance of power and opportunity in society, does it impact gender equality?

With significantly less women and girls online and even more lacking digital skills, it remains crucial for women and girls to be included in the digital economy and once there collaborating with others and being elevated by allies to ensure the world consists of the haves and have nots while seeing a greater amount of inclusion of women and girls that also translates into equal opportunity for promotions, advancement, and salaries that are equivalent to their counterparts.

How is automation evolving in your field of work?

Automation is fueling a revolution that is bringing machine learning and artificial intelligence to the forefront where managers will be left behind if they do not embrace AI and ML. I do not believe all jobs will be replaced by AI; however, I do believe that the future of work is at risk for some individuals who are not focused on lifelong learning and a growth mindset that constantly looks for new ways to advance their skills into new and unique areas that involve problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration, innovation and creativity, and adapting accordingly.

What are the most important skills that are essential for our future and the future of work?

Basic digital skills, computational thinking, cloud computing, creativity and innovation, teamwork and collaboration, adaptability, persuasion, critical thinking, problem solving, design thinking, and emotional intelligence + being able to translate these into the virtual world.

As the future of work is rapidly changing, how is digitalization empowering our society and especially those who were being left behind before?

We have seen the world open up due to internet connectivity and digital skills, and it is empowering those with greater access to education, access to healthcare and healthcare information, e-government services, agricultural innovation, and economic opportunity (remote work, for example). The world is still divided between the haves and the have nots…perhaps there is another tier that might be the super have nots. We must each individually do our part to bring greater access to digital skills so people are able to make meaningful use of the technology in front of them to drive outcomes in education, healthcare, jobs, etc.

Why is an inclusive dialogue about gender equality important especially in this fourth industrial revolution of technology?

If 50% of the world includes women and girls, which it does, then it’s essential for technology and the fourth industrial revolution to include the gender identify making up half of the world. Without women and girls having a seat at the table, it’s impossible to truly have an inclusive society that takes in to consideration the wants, pain points, frustrations, joys, and needs of women and girls. Without empathy for all genders equally, it’s impossible to have a truly inclusive society.

Gender bias is a huge topic as far as tech and machine learning is concerned. What needs to be done to address this?

Developers creating ML models need to incorporate methodologies such as trust and transparency and the wider view of ethics in AI that involve diversity and inclusion action at the core of product ideation, development, testing, and the like. When a model has been created by one group without representation across different genders, ethnicities, languages, etc., we are at risk of creating solutions that are inherently biased.

How can we realize an inclusive future?

An inclusive future is possible when we are truly empathizing with those around us, acting and behaving and thinking with emotional intelligence, incorporating design thinking wherever and whenever, and creating teams that are reflective of those around us.

Any last words?

Find your secret sauce and discover how you can use your superpowers to solve the world’s challenges & bring those ingredients into your family, neighborhood, friend group, and/or community. If we all were to take this upon ourselves, we will make the world a better place for ourselves, those around us, and those to come after us.

This interview was organized and conducted by interns participating in Ananke’s Empower – Digital Capacity Building Program (Anam Javed, Mwajuma Faridah Abdallah, Tooba Arshad Khan)

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