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During Women’s History Month, We Draw Power From Our Differences

Embracing our differences to create a better future for everyone.

At times we’ve all felt pressure to be more like the people around us. To blend in and conform. To be someone less…different. It can be the path of least resistance, and one time or another we’ve all taken it. But throughout my life and my career, I’ve found there’s a better one: embracing our differences. What makes you different is a superpower, and it’s going to help us create a better future for everyone.

I work in technology, where I’m always thinking about what comes next. In the tech world, our creations, our decisions and our choices ricochet around the globe at the speed of light.This is a world where we must talk about the incredibly important role women will have in shaping the future of our planet, because those ideas can reach someone instantly, anywhere.

During Women’s History Month, I want to share some stories with you, about what I’ve learned from being different. As women, we’re often made to feel that way. I can’t think of a single other group of people on our planet that is viewed as a minority and treated that way, when it’s a majority, or close to it. In the tech industry, I am not only viewed as different because I’m a woman, but because I’m African American. That means fewer than one in 30 people in my industry are like me. There were times when I was encouraged to blend in and conform – but I’ve learned that being different can be powerful. As we keep pushing for gender parity, particularly in the tech industry, embracing what makes people different will create a brighter future for all of us. Before I get to that future, I want to share with you the story of a woman who is my inspiration: my Grandmother. 

Gladys Hall was born March 19th, 1925, in Atmore, AL. She was born into a home with a dirt floor, in a part of the United States where the Ku Klux Klan was a threat to her family. Her prospects were defined by the circumstances of her birth and constrained by her race, her family’s money, and her gender.

Her grit in the face of pre-conceptions, setbacks and failures, she gave that to my mother, and my mother gave that to me.  

I also had big dreams growing up and, thanks to my grandmother, a determination to carve my own path. I graduated with a degree in economics and wanted to pursue my love of consumer products and technology. Keep in mind, this was before “consumer tech” was common. That year Apple was worth about $5 billion (and lost $200 million in the first quarter) and there wasn’t a Facebook or YouTube in sight.

Following a stint at McKinsey, I joined T-Mobile, where I was the Chief of Staff to the CEO, then led strategy, then both strategy & business development and, finally, the emerging businesses division. We turned the company around, acquired a competitor, and IPO’d.

I had two children (both of whom I nursed to 12 months), I got promoted and, two years ago, I felt ready for my next challenge. That took me to Microsoft, where I lead all partnerships and business development for Xbox and the Gaming Division.

From the outside, it probably sounds like a pretty easy path, especially compared to my Grandma’s story. But the truth is, when you’re made to feel different, often there’s no such thing as an easy path.

There were times when I felt, when I KNEW the challenges I faced were harder and more frequent, because I am a woman and because I am black. Because people saw me as different.

I was shut out of opportunities and told I wasn’t qualified or smart enough. My appearance and being young got me written off. I once lost my role, my team, and my title, leaving me feeling ostracized and alone. If we flash back further, in college, I remember the day I walked into computer science class – the only black woman there. It was scary and intimidating. Would anyone sit next to me in class or welcome me to study group?

I realize now that those obstacles built my resilience and accelerated my learning and growth. What felt like a setback at the time – in fact was a gift. Each and every one of those challenges I faced because I was treated as different propelled me forward. That is why I believe that embracing our differences will be what propels us all forward. 

It’s not about pretending we are all the same, ignoring our differences, claiming to be “color blind.” It’s not about conforming to a pre-determined, agreeable shape of success, or what an executive is “meant” to be like. It’s about embracing and LOVING what makes each and every one of us unique and tapping into all the power that comes from it. That is why it is critically important that we have diverse and equal representation in technology.  

Why is technology so important?

We are living in an era where the impact and reach of technology is exploding, and where artificial intelligence and technology-based decision making will be embedded in every aspect of our lives. In this world, seemingly insignificant, nuanced choices – a line of code, a price point, a testing approach – can impact and influence billions in an instant.

But while today’s technology can create change almost instantly, our progress in closing the gender gap feels stuck in the past. Every year, we see the data on how we are doing, and it’s just not enough. There are more companies in the Fortune 500 with CEOs named James than with CEOs who are women. A study from Lean In and McKinsey found that the current pace sees us taking another 100 years to reach gender parity in Fortune 500 leadership.

We must move faster, and technology, done right, has the power and potential to close that gap.

What’s important to keep in mind is that technology only knows what its creators teach it in the first place. When early versions of smart speakers/assistants failed to acknowledge female voices (again: half of the population in the world), it became clear that there needed to be a broader mix of creators in the room. These early teams were likely almost entirely composed of men, so only male voices were used for testing purposes.

But that can be changed. In 2010 we built Kinect, a camera device for Xbox consoles that let users play games and apps without relying on a traditional, handheld controller. Using artificial intelligence, it would recognize you and track your body and hand movements as a means of input.

Though it seemed like her future was predetermined, she did not let it define her. She dreamed of getting a college degree and having a professional career.

After graduating from high-school and attending Florida A&M University, she dropped out at the age of 20, married my grandfather and moved to Colorado Springs. Even though she was cutting off her education, she did it because she believed it would be impossible for her to realize her dream in the South. Her marriage to my grandfather ended in divorce and she became a single mother of three children.

No family to rely on. No husband to turn to. No guide for what to do. She used her ingenuity to carve her own path.

She started her own business, doing hair in her basement. She supported herself and her family and, in 1970, with her children grown, she returned to school to fulfill her life-long dream of a college degree. She graduated with a Master’s in education at 45 and became an elementary school teacher.

As we got closer to launching Kinect, a leader on our team, Shannon Loftis, took the device home to test with family and friends. It was super fun, but she noticed a discrepancy: The device was great at recognizing and responding to her husband but didn’t work nearly as well for her, her female friends or her children. 

She went back to the engineering team and asked some questions. Their testing, it turns out, was focused on men, aged 18-34.

The infamous smart speaker failure was not to be repeated this time – because Shannon was part of the Xbox team. She spoke up and pointed out that testing needed to include all types of players, across gender, age and race – which is just what happened.

Shannon Loftis noticed this when others didn’t because of who she is – a gamer, a professional, a woman, a mother, and by embracing those things in her work. And because she did that as part of a team that listened and responded to her point of view, she helped create a better product for all of us. The technology behind Kinect is now integrated into our Azure Cloud, HoloLens, and Windows. It will be used by billions in the years to come. Thanks to Shannon and the Xbox team, Kinect, and all the products and technologies it has become a part of, are more inclusive.

Every day people and teams like the one we have at Microsoft in Xbox are working to make technology inclusive, setting us on the path to embrace, recognize, and celebrate our differences. And when we do that, we make the world a better place.

This is how each and every one of us can have an impact – may it be in the career you pursue, the choices you make, the teams you build. We need to strive for fair representation, not just of women but all groups across race, physical ability, gender, and origin. And it’s not enough for more people to be present – they should feel included, heard, and appreciated for the value they bring.

My grandmother used her determination to realize her dreams. She inspires me to this day, every day. She gave me the strength to push past preconceptions and carve my own path. The strength to embrace and love the things which others saw as different.

Feeling different and being different is a good thing. What makes you different and unique is the source of your superpower. It’s how you’re going to change the world and help create a Future for Everyone.       

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