Annalisa Nash Fernandez: “Walk the talk”

We need to ensure there are diverse voices in our decision-making because without them, the processes are biased, whether we see that or not. And that bias is not just about color or surface-level diversity — it’s about the culture rooted in our mental programming. As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a […]

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We need to ensure there are diverse voices in our decision-making because without them, the processes are biased, whether we see that or not. And that bias is not just about color or surface-level diversity — it’s about the culture rooted in our mental programming.

As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Annalisa Nash Fernandez, an intercultural strategist and global speaker.

Annalisa Nash Fernandez is an intercultural strategist, author, and global speaker focusing on the cultural elements in technology and digital communication. An experienced corporate strategic planning director, she bridges her dual background as a sociolinguist to navigate the use of technology across global societies. Annalisa holds an MA in translation from the University of Wisconsin, and a BS in international finance from Georgetown University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I spent most of my career working abroad, as an investment banker at BankersTrust, and a financial executive at Kraft Foods and Philip Morris International. Through it all, I lived, worked, and studied in nine countries. When I took a break to raise three children, I earned a master’s, focusing on cultural elements in translation. Now I bridge the cross-cultural elements of the business world with the challenges in language and digital communication.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Lessons come from the disruption of assumptions. So here’s my story.

I worked for a multinational in Brazil as an expatriate employee, so my salary was dollarized. I was eyeing real estate during the five years I lived there, but waiting for a favorable exchange rate to invest. That’s how finance people think — it wasn’t an emotional decision.

When a currency devaluation hit, I pounced on a beachfront lot my husband and I had visited on a weekend trip. It’s on a coconut plantation overlooking two unspoiled tropical beach coves in the cultural heart of northeastern Brazil. I thought I had nailed it, buying at the currency’s low for a great price.

But it wasn’t that simple. This house — now my Airbnb gig — remains in a precarious context of isolation from reliable services, harsh tropical weather, and labor lawsuits. I was immersed in Brazilian context at the time and comfortable with those risks. But I didn’t realize that my price point would become the least relevant variable.

Lesson: A deal is a point in time. The context outlives it. You can’t extricate the deal from its context.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Cultural consultants’ expertise is rooted in language and the humanities. After all, language is how we map and navigate the world. My consultancy is unique in that I focus on the tech side, bridging it to language and sociocultural behavior.

I feel like I’m in the right space at the right time, as technology proliferation hits a wall that is human. Throughout globalization, technology was levelling national borders. Now cultural concerns are reinstating those borders, through internet shutdowns, firewalls, and data localization requirements. We’ve seen social media topple governments and apps like TikTok define geopolitical battlelines.

We’re realizing that technology is not neutral. AI is generating biased output that is a mirror on our human biases. Data is shaped by the ideology of those who it maps, those who create it, and those who pay for it. I advise my clients on the risks and opportunities in the transfer of data between nation-state contexts, and on their digital presence in different social, cultural and political frameworks.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

When the pandemic shut down travel, I hunkered down and spent time writing. Before there was much discussion about the cross-cultural ideology in medicine, I wrote a few articles about how Covid-19 is shaped and controlled by our cultural borders, and joined The Geopolitics as a contributing editor. I continue to participate in the data privacy debate about how it’s ultimately a cultural construct.

Normally I would now be gearing up for the fall conference season, which is an energizing start to what I look at as my fiscal year. I’m always the one making the case that anything can go digital, but there is nothing like a live conference with people flying in from all over the world.

My most exciting day was getting up at 4am in the middle of quarantine to speak virtually at a developers’ conference in Porto. Everyone was so excited to be connected to something of global importance from home. Their event team did a magical job on the tech side (and they even mailed me a hoodie!), but much was sacrificed.

I’ll still be speaking virtually at the marketing colossus that is Content Marketing World, and the Hacker Halted cybersecurity convention, which allows me to live anywhere for a few months this fall (and with schools closed, I’m working on an exciting plan).

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

That people thrive differently. Humans don’t cooperate mindlessly, we group together under norms, beliefs, and practices — it’s that shared culture that helps the group survive, and thrive, as you asked, in its environment.

Our culture is also the lens through which we frame and understand those outside our group. And our increasingly multicultural workforce values and responds differently to leadership qualities like resilience, confidence, and humility.

The leadership skills that made a founder successful in their home market may not resonate in another cultural context. For global leaders, successfully leading a multicultural team is tomorrow’s superpower. For their employees, cultural intelligence training is just as important as sales training.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders about how to manage a large team?

Even if you have built an ideally diverse team, you may have to change your organization’s established processes to reap the benefits.

As an example, I coach multicultural teams on the dangers of anchoring bias, which can be illustrated by the tendency of decision-making to focus around an initial or established data point or idea. Once that “anchor” is set, information is more narrowly interpreted around it. Combine that with the traditional “groupthink,” and the benefits of a diverse group can easily disappear.

My advice: for leaders to reap the benefits of their already diverse teams, don’t throw everyone in a room to brainstorm. That should be the last step, not the first. When I work with clients’ global innovation teams, we divide the team into smaller groups, and then repeat, like shuffling a deck of cards. We gather multimodal input that cuts across cultural tendencies differently. Then bring everybody back together to listen. Only when that is complete do we start the group brainstorming and evaluation sessions.

Ok. Thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. This may be obvious to you, but it is not intuitive to many people. Can you articulate to our readers five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I think the misconception still exists that diversity initiatives are worthwhile but come with an organizational cost. The reality is that they are an investment in the unbiased and inclusive decision-making that is necessary for processes that resonate and work in practice. So diversity absolutely helps the bottom line.

We need to ensure there are diverse voices in our decision-making because without them, the processes are biased, whether we see that or not. And that bias is not just about color or surface-level diversity — it’s about the culture rooted in our mental programming.

When I partner with an enterprise on a diversity initiative, I walk in assuming everyone has had training on diversity in the workplace and unconscious bias from the diversity experts. I’m not a diversity expert, I’m a cultural specialist. So I offer my clients a way to get to that root of bias. If you start with this fundamental layer, the diversity initiatives that are ultimately adopted in the organization are also more deeply rooted and effective.

Biases start out with good intentions as a kind of shorthand to navigate the world. We approach situations with preexisting knowledge based on our prior experiences. What we then interpret as responsible, intelligent, or compelling depends on our cultural framework. In practice, the bias can derail into racial, gender, and other harmful biases that lead to poor decisions, hampering growth and performance. I help my clients tackle this bigger picture of biases to reframe their thinking about diversity.

If we go back to the groupthink example I just gave for leaders, diverse participants will think differently, and may raise different issues, but sometimes they will hold back if it derails a meeting or appears uncooperative.

Remember the 737 Max scandal? I do because I held my breath of one of its last flights — the fleet was grounded one hour after I arrived at MIA last March. Anyways, many different teams signed off on originally putting that aircraft into service. There was global buy-in. But when Brazil’s FAA equivalent got the pilot training materials, they identified an issue that required special attention, and they created their own supplemental training module. You can guess what that issue was…but the point it makes is that we question things differently in different contexts. We learn, question, and process information through a cultural lens.

In hierarchies of institutionally constructed groups, ingroup bias affects judgment, evaluation, and even distribution of resources. The status hierarchy that brought down the 737 Max’s inspection and approval process was dismantled in another country context, and also benefitted from diversity of thought in general.

We also need diverse teams to scale our business ideas to a diverse world. As we look outside our organizations to expand globally, our customer base is increasingly diverse. This is especially true for global companies who are now expanding into the next tier of less developed markets, and deeper into local cultural contexts. It’s no longer about global campaigns touting Western ideals. With technology, we can deliver a hyper-localized customer experience. And customers expect it. They demand it.

In return, localized experiences build loyal customer communities that marketers can tap for insight, feedback, and influence. That’s another way to diversify groupthink that drives the bottom line.

Let’s move to the digital realm. My passion is to dissect how issues of bias, diversity, and inclusion play out in technology. Here we’re talking about the bottom line for society as a whole. In a post-digital era, digital spaces are our spaces.

As technology is integrated into every facet of our daily lives, we’re seeing that it’s not integrated fairly. Social media can amplify bias and power inequalities. Artificial intelligence systems can have bias, meaning they replicate the inequities of the past, lock them in, and even amplify them going forward. Amazon shut down its AI-based recruiting tool for discriminating against women. Google had to retrain its image algorithm that offensively depicted races. Facebook served up biased value decisions in ad targeting. Chatbots threw racial slurs. Facial recognition algorithms performed best on white, male faces, leaving out the rest of us.

Diverse teams designing our technology help avoid such failures. I also believe many failures will resolve as our systems collect and train on more and more data, which will in turn reflect our more and more diverse society. This means even more investment in these systems, and if diverse teams aren’t part of this investment, expect to see more failures — on a societal level, and also reflected in the bottom line.

Finally, to make progress on diversity and inclusion, we have to have the language to map it out or we will remain stuck in the past, throwing around the same tired ideas. Language shapes our perception, and in turn our cognition. So here’s my advice: research and understand terms like “gender-neutral,” “performance ally,” and “filter bubble” to lend your voice to the debate. It won’t effect much change to “walk the talk” if we are still talking about it at a fifth-grade level. Speaking the language of diverse leadership pitfalls and practices is part of setting the stage for better business outcomes.

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

I was really afraid that globalization would homogenize cultures. We lived through decades of English language expansion, global ad campaigns, and a westernization of the digital space. Technology threatened to accelerate such trends.

But instead, technology has created a space for culture. From people being able to shop online in their native language, to indigenous languages being documented and revitalized, technology has given language and culture the luxury of entrenchment.

I help my clients create content that inserts itself directly into culture to meet customers in their context, and to design systems that are fair and inclusive on the multicultural playing field. I believe that acknowledging and honoring cultures is good for the world, and I’m honored to do my small part.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“Better one times red, than 100 times pink.” It’s an old Spanish saying. To me it means: don’t skirt around the issue, instead, do the hard part first, or if it’s all bad, get it over with all at once.

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?

My career achievements were built on my 90-hour weeks doing M&A early in my career. So I’m grateful to my finance bosses who set nearly unachievable deadlines and somehow motivated me to meet them. It was hell at the time, but I learned and advanced so much in those years that I skipped going to business school — it would have only slowed me down. And the motivating factor was their leadership.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

I’m still social distancing; I’ll pass. But it was my pleasure meeting virtually with you.

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