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Stacey Shulman: “Stop trying to prove yourself”

While I feel that giving sight to the blind is world changing enough, I know the technology can do so much more. The prospect of giving sight to things at the speed of the human brain for both learning and inference can be applied in more areas than most of us could think up in […]

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While I feel that giving sight to the blind is world changing enough, I know the technology can do so much more. The prospect of giving sight to things at the speed of the human brain for both learning and inference can be applied in more areas than most of us could think up in a lifetime. My team is currently exploring applications around surgical process and safety, food safety, process automation, fine grained activity detection, robotics and autonomous things. We chose a variety of areas and categories geared towards testing the boundaries of what this breakthrough was best at and conversely where it wasn’t the best choice (e.g., other technologies already exist). We also were keen to understand if the approach could eliminate AI training bias. Throughout all the many usages we have tested, I remain very optimistic.


As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs I had the pleasure of interviewing Stacey Shulman.

Stacey H. Shulman is a vice president in the Internet of Things Group (IOTG) and serves as the GM of Health, Life Sciences and Emerging Technologies at Intel Corporation. She is responsible for the growth of the Health and Life Sciences business in addition to incubation of emerging technologies into those verticals.

An industry veteran with 25 years of software industry experience, Shulman joined Intel in 2017 as chief innovation officer for IOTG’s retail solutions division. In that role, she actively championed the transformative results made possible by retail-focused technology. Her approach focused on helping Intel and the larger industry solve fundamental retail problems by incubating and normalizing innovative and emerging technologies, including IoT, big data and decision-making based on real-time analytics.

Before joining Intel, Shulman was vice president of global brand, wholesale and retail technology at Levi Strauss & Co. During her two-year tenure there, she led the group to deliver innovations in consumer engagement, radio-frequency identification (RFID), business-to-business solutions and store technology across an organization with more than 45,000 points of distribution. Earlier in her retail career, Shulman spent four years at American Apparel, culminating in her role as chief information officer.

Shulman serves on the technology and innovation committee for the Retail Industry Leaders Association and on the Global Pandemic Team with XPRIZE.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

A mixture of curiosity, passion and rebelliousness are what brought me to the job I have today and have always guided me on my course. Let me tell you about what pointed me towards a career in technology though.

In college I was studying to be a psychologist but during my internships, I realized that while I enjoyed helping people, it was not something I wanted to do the rest of my life. In thinking through my options, I settled on technology. It was an area that I had been exposed to but frustrated me greatly. Instead of changing majors, I decided to continue studying psychology and took a job at a computer training school as a salesperson. One of the perks of working there was that I could take all the courses I wanted for free. I threw myself into learning everything I could. I took courses in topics like Novell networking (CCNE), programming, operating systems, and Microsoft products in every spare minute I had.

One day there was a course with a group of state and federal clients and the instructor called in sick. In hearing that the course would be canceled I convinced the CEO to let me step in and teach it instead. He was skeptical, because I had zero experience, but I sold him on the idea that the worst-case scenario was he would have bad reviews. Canceling the course so late in the day however was going to get him bad reviews plus no revenue for the day therefore, I was the safer bet. He wished me luck and sent me on my way with 30 minutes to learn the materials.

I didn’t know the materials well enough to teach it “lecture style” the way the school typically did, so I started the class off with letting everyone know that we were going to all work through the materials together. We brainstormed real world uses for what was being learned throughout the day. The class enjoyed themselves and enjoyed that I was “pretending” to learn with them to make the materials less intimidating. Some even went so far as to send a note to the CEO about how interactive the course was. I wonder to this day if they knew that it was my first-time teaching and were just being supportive. It worked though. I was offered a fulltime job as an instructor and have worked in technology ever since.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I have had the privilege of meeting with some of the most talented people in the world so narrowing interesting stories is tough. I will share a story that happened a couple of years ago that shaped how I approach work today. At an Innovation event, I sat down to check email quickly at lunch. When I finally looked up from my screen, I realized I was sitting next to, in my very biased opinion, one of the biggest talents in the music industry — Pharrell Williams! While people may know him for his music and collaborations, what you may not know about him is his devotion to improving humanity. During that lunch we discussed a number of topics around how he views the world. What hit me the hardest was how he chooses where he spends his time. He spends his time on things he is passionate about and finds ways to leverage his talents to advance those areas. We discussed how technology and story tellers could come together better to solve big problems and I listened to his views on how everyone should aspire to work on their areas of passion.

I thought a lot about that conversation, which was certainly just another discussion for him, but for me it was the catalyst I needed to expand my thinking on how to merge work with purpose. It was also a big reminder to be present in the moment instead of keeping my nose buried in my phone. When I got back into the office, I immediately implemented those learnings. I encouraged my team to set aside 10–20% of their working time to dedicate themselves to their areas of passion. The only condition on what they chose for their “passion project” was that it must be something they are truly passionate about and they need to have a plan for how to make an impact in that area. It took about 1 quarter before the passion projects were projecting more long-term revenue than the chartered projects we had as a team. I have since been working hard to expand this thinking to a larger group.

Can you tell us about the Cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? Tell us the story on what that led you to this breakthrough?

My group is working on nearly a dozen technological breakthroughs at varying levels of maturity. Some examples of these are OpenFL an Open Federated Learning solution, AI based digital pathology, using AI to improve process control in BioPharma or building technology to power the Operating Room of the Future. In all of these initiatives, a foundational element is artificial intelligence. One specific breakthrough technology in AI is a project with a truly brilliant Neuroscientist from Weill Cornell Medicine, Dr. Sheila Nirenberg.

My introduction to Dr Nirenberg is related to my personal area of passion which is around finding solutions for those with lesser abilities. My family volunteers for organizations like Special Olympics and programs for the blind. My children grew up with 3 blind grandparents, so this is a topic that is very close to home for me. I received a call a couple years back from a friend of mine who knows that I am passionate about these areas. He told me that he was sitting next to a brilliant neuroscientist on a train who had cracked the code for how the retina sends signals to the brain and was in the process of creating a device that would allow a blind person to see without requiring surgery. He encouraged Dr Nirenberg and me to “just talk”, insisting we would find something interesting to work on together. He was right. After our first conversation, we agreed to finding projects to explore. I admittedly didn’t understand some of the words she used so the next day I also signed up for computational neuroscience courses so that I could better understand the concepts Sheila was telling me about.

Being reminded about the basics of how evolution built us to solve problems in vision and in other senses should be required for anyone in the artificial intelligence space. It is a stark reminder that as technologists, we tend to overcomplicate the solution. You can think of the eye as having an input mechanism (photoreceptors), a real-time processing mechanism (retinal circuits) and an output mechanism (optic nerve). When a person is suffering from a retinal degenerative disease, such as macular degeneration, the damage is in the input mechanism. The output mechanism still works. Therefore, if you understand the code the retina uses to communicate to the brain, then you can jump over the damaged input mechanism and send that code directly to the output mechanism, so it can send normal signals to the brain — signals the brain can understand. This is exactly what Dr. Nirenberg’s company Bionic Sight has accomplished. Her system takes video feed, converts it into the retina’s code and sends the coded signals to the optic nerve cells. The optic nerve cells transmit the signals to the brain so a person can start having visual perceptions again.

She then took it to the next level, asking questions such as, “If you can in real-time, process video feeds to give a person sight, can you do the same for robots or computer vision algorithms in general? She and her team have tested this now in an array of applications, including autonomous driving, gesture recognition, emotion recognition, and aggression detection. Her approach uses both the retina’s neural code and other strategies from neuroscience, like parsing up information the way we, as animals, do. For example, we know that any being with eyes can innately understand how to avoid colliding with objects. We do not need to know what the object is to know when it must be avoided. Birds do not need to understand “that is a blue car moving at 20mph” in order to avoid hitting the car, yet in many applications of AI, we collect and train on this type of categorization data. When you understand how the brain expects and uses information, a different approach to AI emerges. It is an approach that requires orders of magnitude less training data for model training, eliminates certain types of categorizations that can lead to training in bias and can naturally obfuscate sensitive information. This approach, we are now naming “Nirenberg Learning”. The Nirenberg Learning approach is a breakthrough in not just artificial intelligence but also in the medical industry. It has the potential to give sight to people and things in ways we hadn’t imagined before. Bionic Sight is able to give sight to the blind without a surgical procedure. That same technology can potentially change how we give “sight” to autonomous things as well.

How do you think this might change the world?

While I feel that giving sight to the blind is world changing enough, I know the technology can do so much more. The prospect of giving sight to things at the speed of the human brain for both learning and inference can be applied in more areas than most of us could think up in a lifetime. My team is currently exploring applications around surgical process and safety, food safety, process automation, fine grained activity detection, robotics and autonomous things. We chose a variety of areas and categories geared towards testing the boundaries of what this breakthrough was best at and conversely where it wasn’t the best choice (e.g., other technologies already exist). We also were keen to understand if the approach could eliminate AI training bias. Throughout all the many usages we have tested, I remain very optimistic.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

This is a really important question for me. With anything in the AI space, we all must have ethics conversations at the very beginning of a project and keep these questions top of mind throughout. My team asks questions about whether or not a technology, in the wrong hands, can be used for human rights violations and thinks through ways to build in safeguards where possible to keep that from happening. We discuss ways to preserve and obfuscate sensitive information yet still keep the data’s integrity where needed for health or safety reasons. I believe strongly that all technology teams should do the same.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

To get this technology to scale to widespread adoption, we must first make it easier for developers to adopt and work with. Because this technology is so different from traditional computer vision and AI technologies, we need to create developer tools that will allow any type of developer to get quick results and will remove the need for specialized AI knowledge (which is currently in short supply). We still have a long road to getting a break through like this to the masses but scaling technology to the masses and enabling vast ecosystems of partners is something that we are very capable of at Intel.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

One of the people who has had the biggest impact on me professionally is Roland Paanakker. Roland spent most of his career at Nike and retired as their CIO. In his post retirement job, he worked for Levi Strauss as the CIO. I worked for him at a pivotal moment in my professional development and I am grateful that he is a really great coach. Roland is a nearly 7ft tall Dutch man who is respectful, quiet and very direct (as most Dutch are). He hired me after I had spent nearly 5 years working for someone who was the exact opposite of him in nearly every way. Under Roland’s guidance, I learned different ways to bring out the best in the people around me by first building trust with them. He instilled in me the strong belief that trust allows speed without the carnage. Sure, prior to that I was good at innovating quickly, but he showed me that fast innovation means nothing if I am unable to bring others along with me. I had to learn how to orchestrate and choreograph innovation vs bulldoze my way through it. In hindsight it is very obvious now, and has brought more joy to driving innovation. At the time though, it was a novel approach that I had no role models for until Roland.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I took the job with Intel about 4 years ago with a singular goal in mind, connecting smart engineers and problem solvers to bigger and better real-world problems. I am still at the early stages of making a meaningful impact on the world but overall my approach to is to bring out the potential in the people around me and encourage them to make a bigger impact through aligning their passions with their work. I love watching others thrive and succeed. I suppose this is my small way of bringing goodness where I can.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why

  1. If you want to make a real impact on the world, stop caring about who gets credit. The result is your reward. Get enough credibility in what you do to keep getting funded/enabled. It is simply amazing how much faster things can move when all involved focus more on the result than on the personal rewards.
  2. Most experts suffer from imposter syndrome. I really thought through my career that once I got to a specific level, that I would stop feeling like an imposter. I have since met some of the top people in their respective industries and they all have admitted to me that they too still feel this way. Imposter syndrome is real. You are not alone.
  3. Help and Collaborate with others in your network expecting nothing in return. Goodness always comes from this. I budget a part of my weekly time to work with and learn from others around me. My expectation in return are my learnings. By doing this, I have learned from the best and have an amazing network.
  4. Stop trying to prove yourself. I spent too much time in my early career trying to prove my value to others. It is a complete waste of energy with zero returns and instead of proving anything it just comes across as weird and insecure.
  5. Become an expert at leading and influencing without authority. This is the single biggest unlock to driving results.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I participate every year in XPRIZE Visioneering where a group of cross disciplined people come together and ask this exact question. This is the group that inspired carbon recapture, commercial space flight, and education for all. For me, the movement that I believe can have the biggest impact on society is to get the 50% of the world that has no access to quality connectivity and education enabled and participating in innovation. If you think about it, we are leveraging so little of our collective intelligence in the world. Imagine what innovations could be unlocked if we found all the hidden geniuses around the world and gave them access to information.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” C.S. Lewis

I try to live my life by looking forward. While I want to learn from my past, those learnings should be done quickly and should not take my extended focus off of the future. Continuing to look back and dwell on mistakes robs a person of momentum and changes nothing.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Only one thing to say: Hire diverse talent because you value diversity of thought. You are missing out on pools of brilliance that are right under your nose.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

On LinkedIn I am at: www.linkedin.com/in/staceyshulman

Twitter at: @shulmaniam

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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