Debbie Kestin Schildkraut: Facilitating People-Machine Partnership To Better Human Condition

#GirlsInICT Inspiring The Future Series | In Conversation with Debbie Kestin Schildkraut, IBM Corporation Global Business Development Executive – ISV Advocacy.
Debbie Kestin Schildkraut: Facilitating People-Machine Partnership To Better Human Condition

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

I grew up in a family of “givers” – parents and grandparents who were always actively dedicated to community service. Having family members who were immigrants and survivors of the Holocaust shaped us into valuing life and wanting all people to be treated fairly and with respect and dignity. Helping others, volunteering my time has been part of my DNA, and it’s something that I’ve taught my children since they were very young. This has led to me living a very active and full lifestyle – maximizing each day to its fullest by balancing my job, volunteer work, and family. I fuel my energy by problem-solving and helping others. This has been in a variety of ways, where I’ve taken on volunteer positions that grow into leadership roles: for youth at risk, women’s health organizations, school programs, religious institutions and more. I’ve led mentoring programs for middle school and high school students to inspire them to pursue higher education, and I led a mentoring program for early professional hires. A highlight for me was being selected for a Corporate Service Corps assignment in Arica, Chile to provide consultation for a new program to help women to build entrepreneurial skills so that they could be autonomous and self-sustaining. More recently, I began volunteering with technology associations like CompTIA and The Hyperledger Foundation to provide technology education. I’m actively serving on the Board of Directors and as past president for several non-profit organizations, and I’m a former Girl Scout Leader. We are all in this crazy world together. Let’s make it the best we can by helping one another.

We would love to know more about your work.

I started my career in the advertising world in New York City working on clients like IBM, Sony, SAP, Matchbox Toys, Foot Locker, and Eight O’Clock Coffee. Known as a change agent and problem solver, I was asked to join IBM to start “channel” marketing, which is working with channels of distribution to go-to-market together. After winning several advertising awards for a breakthough campaign, I moved on to Global Program Director roles for Business Partner Strategy, Value Added Distributor marketing, and Digital Marketing delivering educational workshops globally. I developed and led the IBM Business Partner Innovation Center program launching 100 demo centers worldwide. I served as Chief of Staff to the CMO for Industry Platform Marketing, where I was recognized for team-building initiatives and NPS impact. As IBM Blockchain Ecosystem Marketing Leader, I established the Business Partner route to market and blockchain-for-good initiatives to help amplify solutions for social good.  I recently joined the IBM Systems Group to run our ISV Relationships & Advocacy.  I am the Co-Chair of the CompTIA Blockchain Advisory Council, serves on the Women@IBM NYC BRG leadership planning squad, and just launched an LGBT+ Families community support group at IBM. I am grateful to have been recognized with the 2021 CompTIA Advancing Diversity in Technology Leadership Award, the 2020 CompTIA Woman in Technology Leadership Award, and as one of the CRN Women of the Channel for 2019 and 2020.

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

I think AI and Machine Learning provide an incredible opportunity for so many possibilities.  Like anything, it is important to have balance. As much as technology can do, it is still dependent on humans to create the input for machine learning,  and it is important to monitor it. There will still be things that humans can do cognitively that a machine can’t fully do. Ginni Rometty, former IBM CEO, has expressed it well:  “These are technologies to augment human intelligence. By and large we see a world where this is a partnership between man and machine and this is in fact going to make us better and allow us to do what the human condition is best able to do.” Partnership is the key word here.

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

I look to amplify some of the critical goals the UN has identified for the world. First and foremost is reducing inequality, including gender equality, that is still so prevalent globally. For any entity to grow and evolve, there must be the ability to enable every human being to bring their best self forward each day. We must empower and enforce the social, economic and political inclusion of all people regardless of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status. Each of these individuals should have access to quality education, decent work, and basic skills to function in this digital world with ever-changing technology innovation.

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

I’m so grateful to see several organizations that have come together with the mission to close the gender gap in technology, to help school-aged girls as well as women to learn how to code and to embrace technology. Education, opportunities, advocacy, and encouragement are paramount to close the gender gap.

How is automation evolving in your field of work?

At IBM, our core strategy is around leading and supporting our clients as we enter the era of hybrid cloud and AI. Automation and digital transformation are components of a hybrid cloud strategy and provide a competitive advantage to fundamentally transform how businesses deliver value to customers. This is becoming increasingly paramount, regardless of the industry. Automation simplifies how businesses operate. AI accelerates innovation by making every process more intelligent.

When I look at industries like agriculture, an article from indicates that with a global population projection of 9.7 billion people by 2050, agricultural production will need to increase by at least 70% from current levels to serve nutritional trends. There is increased pressure on farmers to produce nutritious products at scale. Having worked on the IBM Blockchain team for the past few years, IBM Food Trust has built the capability to track and trace food products. A significant number of farmers do not have automated businesses, so it’s important to help to get their business processes automated. If there is a food recall, data becomes the world’s most essential ingredient to quickly track and trace the source of the risk.

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

We are learning so much from coming out of the pandemic regarding what overall skills businesses need. Aside from specific tech skills, I think there are three main areas of important skills in order to have the ideal, most healthy and inclusive culture:

First we must create a climate of flexibility and agility and run our teams this way. Flexibility for team members is important to allow room for people to care for the needs of their family and community and to have work/life balance. Agility is a natural evolution of flexibility; it is key for teams to have the tools they need to pivot and to reshape actions to achieve the outcomes needed while adapting to environment change. Therefore, agile skills and tools will be important skills to have.

Next, Effective teaming and collaboration skills are important working on cross-functional teams for problem-solving and solution building.

Third, the ability to simplify and communicate. Having the ability to break down technical concepts into everyday terms are extremely helpful for clients who will appreciate understanding the technology you are helping to deliver, even if they are not an expert. Talking above people’s heads can make them uncomfortable and not necessarily supportive.

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

If we can find ways to give more and more people access to technology and the internet, the pandemic showed us how digitalization can help us to have increased reach to more people. For those who were unable to travel due to cost, illness, or other restrictions, digital content delivery provided access to more people. Use of digital tokens are increasing while providing underserved communities a way to safely earn and utilize funds from work they may be doing to purchase essentials for their families.

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

Gender equality is a human right. Societies that value women and men equally are safer, healthier, and more productive. Goal 5 of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals is focused on gender equality and set the ambitious target of achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls everywhere by 2030. McKinsey & Company confirms that currently large gender gaps remain across the world, and the early evidence suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a regressive effect on gender equality. According to the UN’s World Food Program, gender inequality is a major cause and effect of hunger and poverty: it is estimated that 60 percent of chronically hungry people are women and girls. Since customers of most products are multi-gender, having diverse teams will enable the best possibilities for more effective customer insights and creative and enhanced solutions. When we discuss gender inequality, it is critical that the conversations include women, men, trans and gender diverse people, while also including people of all ages and backgrounds.

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

AI learns inherent gender bias from humans. Sentiment analysis is used to detect favorable and unfavorable sentiment in natural language. Input data may introduce discrimination into its results. As AI adoption grows, we all play a role in minimizing bias. I’m excited that IBM Watson Natural Language Understanding (NLU) is working toward better solutions and is utilizing female IBM researchers to help overcome bias.

How can we realize an inclusive future?

It is very important that companies, no matter how big or small, need to establish an environment of mutual respect and inclusivity from the top down. It needs to be engrained and reinforced in a company’s culture. When people feel happy and comfortable and appreciated, they can bring their best selves to work and be most productive. We must all be respectful and act as upstanders, directly addressing any behavior where the importance of things like personal pronouns are dismissed, degraded or even ignored completely.

I recommend that every individual do the following:

    • First, educating ourselves is very important for understanding where people are coming from, and what challenges they face so we can empathize.
    • Secondly, we need to role-model by being inclusive and doing things like listing preferred pronouns. If everyone does it, it becomes commonplace, understood, and expected.
    • Thirdly, show up as an ally. Being an upstander if we see others not respecting someone or making uncomfortable comments, we must take personal responsibility to ensure we make every individual feel welcomed and respected – creating that kind of environment is most important – so everyone can bring their best selves to work or family gatherings or anywhere!

Any last words?

It takes courage to be an upstander and advocate for what is fair and what is right. While we may find ourselves in an uncomfortable space at times, I can say that it has been important to stay true to yourself. Stick to what you believe. Give yourself pep talks. Find people who will support you, whether in or outside of your organization, and don’t be afraid to reach out to people who will boost your confidence and be your cheerleader. Lastly, remember to express things in a way that states what is best for the business and how what you can do and are doing supports those goals.

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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