S5 #3 Empowering change in the digital age: Unleashing innovation and building belief

S5 #3 Empowering change in the digital age: Unleashing innovation and building belief

S5 #3 Empowering change in the digital age: Unleashing innovation and building belief

Saira Jesani

Saira Jesani

Saira Jesani is the Deputy Executive Director of the Data & Trust Alliance, a coalition of 25 leading organizations including American Express, CVS Health, Humana, IBM, Nike, UPS, and Walmart. For the past two years, Saira has shepherded the design of new tools to increase the responsible use of data and AI—from Algorithmic Bias Safeguards to Responsible Data and AI Diligence.In addition to the Alliance, Saira is a Partner at SYPartners, a transformation consultancy. For 10 years, she has worked with CEOs and their teams to envision and design new futures. For example, she worked alongside the Pfizer CEO to envision a new purpose, strategy, and values-oriented cultural transformation that buoyed them through the pandemic.Saira has a background in science journalism. She received her B.S. in Microbiology and Immunology from McGill University and has since lectured at the Yale School of Management and Parsons School of Design. Born in Kenya, she’s spent much of her life in Africa and the Middle East before moving to New York City.

In this podcast episode, Kristina talks with Saira Jesani, the Deputy Executive Director of the Data & Trust Alliance, and delves into the collaborative efforts of leading organizations such as American Express, CVS Health, and Walmart in championing the responsible use of data and artificial intelligence (AI). The Data & Trust Alliance serves as a beacon for these corporations, guiding them toward ethical AI and data practices that not only comply with regulatory standards but also align with societal values.

Saira elaborates on the Alliance's proactive initiatives like the implementation of Algorithmic Bias Safeguards. This endeavor underscores the Alliance's commitment to mitigating biases inherent in AI systems, thereby ensuring fair and equitable outcomes across all user demographics. The discussion further illuminates the critical role of fostering a culture of shared purpose and understanding among diverse stakeholders within these organizations. It's this cultural alignment that Saira identifies as pivotal in overcoming the inherent challenges associated with integrating responsible AI practices into the core operational frameworks of large corporations.

The conversation also touches upon the strategic approaches employed by the Alliance to navigate the complex web of corporate cultures, priorities, and objectives. Saira underscores the necessity of building consensus around the ethical implications of data and AI usage, which often involves reconciling varying perspectives and interests to achieve a common goal. Through real-world examples and experiences shared in the podcast, you’ll gain a comprehensive understanding of the intricate processes involved in steering influential corporations towards a future where technology is leveraged responsibly and ethically, reflecting a commitment to societal well-being and sustainable progress.

Data & Trust Alliance, DTA, responsible AI, ethical data use, AI, Algorithmic Bias Safeguards, corporate collaboration, AI ethics, data privacy, artificial Intelligence, regulatory compliance, stakeholder engagement, cultural alignment in organizations, innovation and responsibility, technology governance, AI fairness, ethical decision-making in AI
Episode number:
Date Published:
February 27, 2024

[00:00:00] KRISTINA: At the heart of successful change lies not just adoption of new technologies, but in cultivating a collection and a collective mindset that embraces innovation, encourages resilience, and empowers every individual to contribute to a future where possibilities are boundless. Belief building, as articulated by our next guest, serves as a cornerstone for organizations seeking to navigate the complexities of the digital age, ensuring that technological advancements are matched by profound and shared commitment to progress and excellence.

[00:00:31] INTRO: Welcome to the Power of Digital Policy, a show that helps digital marketers, online communications directors, and others throughout the organization balance out risks and opportunities created by using digital channels. Here's your host, Kristina Podnar.

[00:00:49] KRISTINA: Welcome back to the Power of Digital Policy. It's great to have you here today. With us is Saira Jesani, the Deputy Executive Director of the Data and Trust Alliance, a coalition of 25 leading organizations that includes American Express, CVS Health, Humana, IBM, Nike, UPS, and Walmart. Maybe you're actually sitting inside of one of those organizations today. For the past two years, Saira has shepherded the design of new tools to increase the responsible use of data and AI, from algorithmic bias safeguards to responsible data and AI diligence. In addition to the alliance, Saira is a partner at SYPartners, a transformation consultancy. For 10 years, she's worked with CEOs and their teams to envision and design new futures. For example, she worked alongside the Pfizer CEO to envision a new purpose, strategy, and values-oriented cultural transformation that buoyed them through the pandemic. Saira, we get to hang out every day at the Data Trust Alliance. Now, I'm grateful to be part of the data prominent standards initiative you're leading up to, but in this context, it's extra special to talk to you in the context of this podcast. So thanks for coming by today.

[00:01:54] SAIRA: Thank you for having me, Kristina.

[00:01:56] KRISTINA: So let's talk about the Data & Trust Alliance and the impact it's making. With your leadership, the Data & Trust Alliance has introduced tools like Algorithmic Bias Safeguards for the Workforce, Responsible Data, and AI Diligence for Mergers and Acquisitions. Lots of cool things happening. Can you elaborate on the tools you're creating and maybe share a success story of where it's made a significant impact?

[00:02:18] SAIRA: So first, a little bit of context, the data and trust alliance, as you mentioned, is a consortium of companies where we're relatively small, only 25 companies and the companies that are in this alliance, as you mentioned, UPS, Walmart, Humana, et cetera, have a lot of market power and that is on purpose. So when we look across this alliance, it's cross-industry, retail, healthcare, et cetera. We are asking their CEOs and our Leadership Council, which are the folks that CEOs have appointed, so a cross-section, chief privacy officers, chief information officers, chief legal officers, chief data officers, and a couple of business unit owners. We're asking them, as you enter into this era of AI as you transform to become digital-first, what are the issues that you're facing? And together, we land on something that will have an impact across all of their industries. And then we go and chase it. So, as you mentioned, the first one was during the pandemic. We found out that, of course, every HR organization was using AI, and they plan to use more of it. But bias was becoming a huge issue, but they weren't building these models in-house. They were, buying it from vendors, but they didn't actually know how to choose the right vendor when it came to bias. So, we built a vendor evaluation to help HR teams and procurement teams assess vendors on their ability to detect, mitigate, and monitor bias. And, that took about 10 months, and fast forward to today, Walmart has built it across all of their vendors. They use this to assess not just the HR vendors, but any vendor that could be bringing AI to the fold. And so for them, it was a huge impact because they wanted to tell their vendor community, look, we take bias seriously. And their vendor community is obviously paying attention. I mean, it is Walmart after all.

[00:04:26] KRISTINA: I'm thinking about the scale of collaboration. We're talking about collaboration amongst giants. Some people find it hard to navigate collaboration on their own teams. Working with major organizations like American Express, like IBM, like Nike, how do you navigate the diverse corporate cultures and the priorities to really build consensus around responsible data and AI use?

[00:04:49] SAIRA: Yeah, that's a great question. I can imagine having been a consultant, working inside some of these organizations in the past. It is hard. It's hard at the team level. It's hard at the C-suite level. It's hard across all these companies, but this is why the Alliance is focused on business value. When we can find a sweet spot where everyone across the alliance is saying this, it will help me. Whether it's increasing opportunity or minimizing risk, they are going to put time into it. If there is a common agenda across all of them, if we find the right people who are passionate about that particular problem, that is half the game. And so we spend a lot of time scoping an actual project, making sure that it's something that everybody wants. We spend even more time than finding the right people to bring together. And then when we bring those people together, we spend enough time making sure that they feel like they have a voice in this and that they're not just being led. It is their problem that we're trying to solve. We're not trying to impose something on them. When they feel that when they understand that, they bring the best of their own corporate cultures to bear. And they actually find it exciting to be able to work with other companies because, as you can imagine, every company is wondering what is the other company doing. Am I doing good? Well, is what I'm doing well? So this way they actually start to realize I like working with the other company. Oh, we're on the same wavelengths. I'm not as behind as I thought. These are some of the comments. Frankly, we get every day, and then it becomes quite lovely actually working across these organizations. The one thing that is difficult at times is it, what we do is not part of their strategy. So we have to face competing business priorities, but once they find a way to make this part of their strategy, then we have their full attention and it's not as hard as you think.

[00:06:58] KRISTINA: For folks who are listening and maybe they're part of a digital operations team, or maybe they're in marketing, this probably sounds pretty cool, but if their company isn't an Alliance member, can they still get involved? It sounds like a neat community.

[00:07:13] SAIRA: Absolutely. So, the reason that we're small is not because we're exclusive. The reason that we're small is that in order to do the kind of work we do, we work hand in hand with practitioners across all of these companies to do this work. So we can only manage to do it with 20, 25 companies at a time. That's why we're so small, but we value talking to people outside the Alliance. So whether you are a small company or medium-sized company, whether you are a sole practitioner and you're interested in this, the whole point is that we are creating tools for the entire ecosystem. If we don't actually hear from you and hear your use case and your need, we don't feel like we're building for the entire system. So my suggestion is if you're interested in learning more about the data trust alliance, go to our website, data trust alliance. org, email us, get in touch with us. And we want to hear from you. We want to hear what the needs are. Even if we're not working on something that is of high concern to you, we're actually interested in what the problems are that you're facing. Is it a problem that you believe a cross industry alliance of giants, if you will, should actually be looking at? I kind of want to know.

[00:08:33] KRISTINA: Outside of the data and trust alliance, you have this life at SYPartners and have even been instrumental in guiding companies through transformation on a number of occasions. What are the common challenges that companies face when trying to redefine their purpose and culture, especially in times of crisis like the pandemic? Because it sounds like, yes, there's also transformation happening at the Alliance level, but you have this other level, sort of superhuman level, I think, that you take it to at SYPartners.

[00:09:02] SAIRA: Yeah, oftentimes people ask me, what's the difference between an SYPartners and let's say a McKinsey or an Accenture or a Bain and, for the longest time, 20 plus years, actually nearly 30 years, SYPartners has been focusing on purpose and it is a very Qualitative approach to business. Essentially, what we do is we walk hand in hand with a CEO, either somebody who has lost their way and wants to return their company to where it should be or a new CEO. And for that, they need a vision for where they're going. It's either the vision for the company. Sometimes they want to create their own legacy. And so we do a lot of the upfront envisioning, qualitative, where should we be going in this particular market? You know, we call that design. And then after that's been determined, then you have the Accentures and the McKinsey's come in to say, okay, how does this, how do the numbers actually work? How are we going to do this? And, when you're in a moment such as a pandemic. Frankly, companies are always transforming. They're always sometimes in crisis, to be honest, what I'm finding is that so much of what we do is culture work. So you might invite us in to help us determine your purpose and your five year vision, but in order to make that something that can resonate and something that a team can feel great about and inspired by. It's all rooted in culture and behavior change. As an example, when we worked with the new Pfizer CEO, Albert Bourla, he wanted a sort of a new leadership narrative to be able to tell the company who he was. And we said, well, instead of a leadership narrative, why don't you actually start with purpose? So he did, but along with that purpose was a series of strategic moves to show the world. This is how, what our purpose looks like in action. And so much of the work we did was actually helping their C suite become a much tighter team. Because when they started to realize that they could rely on each other, much, much more, their metrics become a lot more bold and they were excited to then take it to their teams and say, look, this is how I think we could do it. Let's go for it. And together, then they figured out the paths forward and they actually did deliver on everything they put on their paper. I know that so much of that was not just putting purpose on a paper, it was rallying a team around that purpose and building belief that the people around that room could actually do it.

[00:11:55] KRISTINA: I like that you're bringing up belief building because I've heard you say that several times. And a lot of your work at SYPartners is rooted in the idea of belief building. What is it, and why should digital operations teams care about it?

[00:12:10] SAIRA: At a very sort of high level, maybe philosophical level, whether you consider a company or a team, it's simply a group of people. Even if you put, a vision on paper, as you all know, it's all about how you get there. And if that group of people doesn't understand the vision. If they don't believe in the vision and if they don't believe in each other to be able to get there, you really are never going to be able to make it happen. And so belief building really is a method to help people on a team believe in each other and believe in the path that they've chosen.

[00:13:01] KRISTINA: That seems really hard when you have different backgrounds, maybe different cultures. You've lived in Africa, the Middle East. Now you're in New York. How does all of that experience really in your background and your experiences with diverse cultures influence your approach to leadership, to things like transformation and working with teams that can be very, very diverse?

[00:13:26] SAIRA: Yeah, I'll answer that in two ways. I think that The first is, how do we actually do this? And the second is, how do I bring my own background to bear? So in the first case, oftentimes at S.YP.Patners, we don't actually travel to our clients. We encourage them to come to us in New York. And the reason for that is we're actively taking them outside of their daily grind and coming into a new place that we transform, so we take it, let's say, just a white box, if you will, of a room and we completely transform it. And so using the power of visual design and emotional design and experience design, we literally transport them to a place where they can say, oh, oh, this is the future of retail. Or pharmaceuticals or whatever it is that I want to be a part of. And then they get really excited. And that very act of transporting them into a new space and a new mindset allows them to let go of any of the stresses that they feel day to day and actually dream. And then when you're dreaming with the person next to you, and you're not thinking about how they annoyed you last week, you can actually find some sort of common allegiance, if you will, that you two or you five are responsible because we primarily deal with leaders. You are responsible and accountable for building a completely new future and vision for your company, and that is really exciting and that's the power of design. So it is very helpful and belief building and bringing people together. In terms of how my background comes to bear, yes, I've lived in a lot of places. I've lived in East Africa, West Africa, the Middle East, Canada, US, UK. I think it's quite simple. If you live in a lot of different cultures, you sort of realize that you don't know a lot and the best way forward is to ask questions. and to not assume that the other person on the other side of the conversation understands where you come from. And so if you can find a way to open them up, get them talking, and everybody loves to talk, and understand what it is that they're really passionate about, then you have a hook to be able to find some sort of common ground with them or some sort of common ground with their colleague or whatever it may be. And you realize what are all the different entry points to be able to have a deep conversation with this person and really understand them, not just on a professional standpoint, but actually a personal standpoint as well.

[00:16:21] KRISTINA: There are a lot of really great tips in there. I think for all of us, regardless of where we're working or living in terms of really making our way onto really good and highly functional teams and also maybe even transforming some of our teams for what awaits next. I'm curious, what advice can you give, if any, to people who should be building belief in their own teams that can't transport themselves to New York? Are there things that you advise day to day teams to do when they're in place?

[00:16:50] SAIRA: It's a great question. I think that there needs to be a little bit of recognition. Let's say you're bringing your team into a room wherever you are, wherever you live. Same old room that you always bring them into. I think there needs to be a recognition. That everybody is coming into that room with their own agenda, their own problem that they need to fix. And that's what's top of mind for them. And if you can take a moment to just either ask them to put it to the side. Or if it's particularly stressful, take a moment for them to release whatever it is that they're feeling and then launch into a very overt calling of the moment, which is hi, we're all here to solve this one problem. So I'd like you to take your other hat off and put this collective hat on. We're all here as part of your, X company to solve Y problem. That is a method that I've actually seen work. So you might be listening to this and saying like, Oh, I, I've tried that in one way or form. It doesn't work. But actually, if you do it intentionally and you're able to read the room, meaning you're able to understand if who's stressed right now, who's not stressed. Can I relieve that stress in any way? Everyone calms down and then you just put it out there. Everyone gets what you're trying to achieve in that moment. I think that it actually can be a lot more powerful than you think.

[00:18:35] KRISTINA: I heard somebody else that I admire say, sometimes you have to chop wood and carry water, meaning that change isn't possible in the moment. Is that true, do you think? Are there moments that just change is impossible and you do have to chop wood and carry water or is change always possible?

[00:18:59] SAIRA: I mean, you're talking to the ultimate optimist. I think that change is always possible, and I think so much of change relies on your attitude and mindset toward it. Similar to what I just said, I think about being able to take your hat off and put another one on. I think that what people I think don't fully realize is that change sometimes needs to be inspired. And whether that's you inspiring yourself somebody else inspiring you, or an event that's happened around you inspiring you, it is necessary for change. So if you find that you're at a particular moment where change doesn't feel possible right now, that's only because that particular moment, you're either stressed or tired. Or you're resisting it for whatever reason and getting underneath all of those things and finding out why are you resisting it? Why are you stressed? Why are you tired? Can actually then unleash you to be in a more neutral mindset where you can then be inspired, um, to change. So I think people just need to be unleashed to find themselves in a position where they can change.

[00:20:22] KRISTINA: I feel like we should have a course. I don't know if you're teaching courses on unleashing, but I think the power of unleashing is really important.

[00:20:33] SAIRA: Yeah. I just, I think as a human, no matter what age you are, I think you've kind of been through this before where you feel a little bit stuck and there are so many courses out there. I'm sure there are people that are far better at this than I, but, who did this on a personal level and a professional level. And I think that, people often separate these too much. We're all individual. We are humans and we all go to work and, for the most part. And I think if we leave our personal needs behind us in the workplace, we're kind of doing ourselves a disservice and so being able to determine how you unleash yourself as an individual is important. And then to add on top of that, how do you unleash a team member or a team? Either one that you'll part of a one that you leave then becomes just an added element. And I will say that as somebody who's personally led teams, I found it's a little less now, but I found that I was spending 50 percent of my time thinking about and responding to the emotional dynamics of my team members then, and the other 50 percent on the work. And the reason for that is if I can nurture, cultivate, pay attention to other team members. It's a smart move because ultimately they will end up being able to do the work, learn the work, lead the work on their own. But if I spend so much time actually leading the work or envisioning the work and it's 90 percent on me, they're never going to feel like they can do it themselves. So I think that's one element of unleashing.

[00:22:24] KRISTINA: How do you see unleashing helping as we look at the future of technology? Because there's so much coming at us. Suppose we take a look at where we were ten months ago, even with some of the AI capabilities, for example. We were talking about Midjourney, maybe some ability to go ahead and do some type of imagery. Fast forward to yesterday, when we had the announcement coming through, and I think everybody's still in an uproar around Sora; that's like ten months. That's sort of an incredible transformation timeframe. What can we do in terms of unleashing, in terms of freeing people up to lead the right type of work, do the right type of work, enable those around them to do what needs to be done, and build a future of sound AI and sound technology? What does that look like? What do we need to be doing right now to prepare for that, in your opinion?

[00:23:18] SAIRA: From a pure cultural standpoint, when I look at what was released yesterday by OpenAI, the sort of text to video capabilities, they look amazing. Obviously we don't know enough about them, but, I would venture to guess that a lot of people in organizations feel a little bit on their back foot right now. They feel a little bit scared. And that's maybe because they don't really fully understand what's happening here, or maybe you're an artist and you think that, you know, look, this is just the rip off of what I've done or what I would be able to do in the future. And so, we will figure that out as a society, I think, but in terms of individuals and organizations, I think that if you are a leader you owe it to yourself and the members on your team to pick one or two people to try this out and share it with other members of the team. So this goes back to the concept of inspiration. If you're a little bit scared, you're not going to touch it. You're not going to want to talk about it, or maybe you'll, you know, diss it. But if you see a team member who's actually used it and use it for the kind of work that you do and is encouraging you to do it and has the backing of a leader that all of a sudden says, Oh, I can do this. If somebody else did it and my team, I, I should be able to do it. I can do it. Let me try it. And so that's an encouragement of experimentation there, but we're also in a world where we don't really understand the risks fully. And I think that that will come over time and organizations will create their own methods and processes. to help you as a leader determine, well, how do you come up with something new while minimizing risk to yourself and to your company and to others around the world that's coming. But I think you owe it to yourselves to learn more about what's coming out.

[00:25:31] KRISTINA: Saira, thanks so much for coming by to inspire us today. There's just so many nuggets of insights that you've shared. I really appreciate that. I'm curious as we wrap up the episode, is there one thing that you want people to keep in mind or do differently because it's maybe part of your mantra or something that you are seeing in the industry that you think would help, whether it's on a personal level or it's some aspect of technology, AI, other types of technologies, what is like the one thing you hope people will hold space for?

[00:26:04] SAIRA: I find that a lot of people, no matter who we are, we're in the trenches. We're only looking at the project in front of us for the most part, or the sort of the five people around us and my hope is that more and more people can actually step back and look at what's going on in the world, whether that's, what's happening now with AI. And think pretty critically about how will this change your life? How will it help you grow? How will it help your family? How will it help the communities in your neighborhood? I think that the more and more people do that kind of critical thinking. The better off we will be. And that's not just listening to pundits and experts on the radio shows or on TV or whatever podcasts, but really being able to look at the people who are in your orbit and in your neighborhood in your town and understand how will these people be affected. And I just don't I don't mean in a negative way. I mean, in both positive and negative ways, opportunities and risks. If you can apply that lens to your thinking about technology. And a lot of people do that, I think, as a society will be much, much better off.

[00:27:30] KRISTINA: Thank you for that. And thanks for coming to hang out with us today. It was lovely having you here and, with that in mind, let's all go forward and prosper and do good digital policy work.

[00:27:41] INTRO: Thank you for joining the Power of Digital Policy. To get access to policy checklists, detailed information on policies and other helpful resources. Head over to the power of digital policy.com. If you get a moment, please leave a review on iTunes to help your digital colleagues find out about the podcast.

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