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Joanna Riley Of Censia: “Nobody cares”

What we do is disruptive in two ways: not only do we change the way that companies evaluate talent, but we also transform the actual talent landscape. We’re transforming talent (which includes hiring, evaluating, promoting, reskilling and firing) by actively gathering, cleaning and organizing talent data from thousands of professional sources and then applying machine learning […]

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What we do is disruptive in two ways: not only do we change the way that companies evaluate talent, but we also transform the actual talent landscape. 
We’re transforming talent (which includes hiring, evaluating, promoting, reskilling and firing) by actively gathering, cleaning and organizing talent data from thousands of professional sources and then applying machine learning and AI to reveal meaningful insight into the data, such as a candidate’s loyalty, what types of companies they’ve worked at, whether or not they’ve been through an IPO or are a high performer in a particular field.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna Riley, a former professional rower and FBI trainer turned Tech Entrepreneur, who is unleashing humanity’s full potential by transforming the way that companies find, hire and evaluate their talent. In this interview, she shares how outdated technology and data overload is keeping people out of jobs, and how AI and machine learning are disrupting the hiring and talent industries and opening up doors for people who have previously been excluded from job searches.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Like many founders, my story is one of wanting to create a solution. I grew up dyslexic, which made me realize that not everyone could be evaluated the same way, and that sometimes, apparent weakness can become amazing strengths. Sure, I couldn’t read, but I learned how to speak persuasively, how to ask great questions and listen intently, and those skills have served me well throughout my entire career.

Talent is one field where people are constantly being judged on subjective and biased things, like where they went to school or what their name sounds like. That’s why I decided to create a technology that harnesses the power of AI and ML to really unleash humanity’s full potential by optimizing talent and giving everyone a chance to get into the right job for them.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

What we do is disruptive in two ways: not only do we change the way that companies evaluate talent, but we also transform the actual talent landscape. Here’s how.

Talent is one of the few remaining parts of business that uses keywords to evaluate people, which is a technology that is inefficient and easily manipulated. Anyone can add keywords to their resumé (and men tend to put a lot more than women), and all the keywords have to line up for a person to even make it into the pile, where all too often they run into unconscious bias. The other half of the problem is that talent data is messy and inconsistent at best, making it really hard for both humans and machines to search it.

We’re transforming talent (which includes hiring, evaluating, promoting, reskilling and firing) by actively gathering, cleaning and organizing talent data from thousands of professional sources and then applying machine learning and AI to reveal meaningful insight into the data, such as a candidate’s loyalty, what types of companies they’ve worked at, whether or not they’ve been through an IPO or are a high performer in a particular field.

And what we’ve found is that when we search for talent this way, the people that come out on top are better fits, more productive, and on average 3 times more diverse than the previous shortlist created by humans. And best of all, we deliver all this information in one screen, freeing 90% of recruiter time to focus on meaningful work such as meeting candidates and working on strategy.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can’t think of any particularly funny mistakes that I made when I started Censia, other than not realizing how powerful this data management platform is. We just celebrated our third year anniversary, and our business has evolved and grown exponentially. Not a month goes by where I don’t learn of a new way to use this technology to help companies improve how they do things.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Those who know me know that I am a really gregarious and curious person, and if I hear someone say something that resonates or inspires me I will go find them and talk to them so I can learn to understand how they think. Shakti Jauhar, the former SVP of Digital HR Transformation, Operations and Shared Services at PepsiCo is one of those people, and one of the great things he’s taught my team and I how we can ask better questions. Asking how we can ask better questions forces us to step back and spend more time looking at the big picture, and this led us to shift our business model into market intelligence and offering a broader suite of services at a larger scale.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Of course! And I’ve actually got a great example from our own industry. When companies first realized that recruiting was flawed they brought in a lot of testing and technology that interrupted some of the human relationships that existed in offices. Mentorship and guidance were replaced with anonymous testing and performance reviews. Interviews were replaced with computer screening. Work became more and more and more isolating, and it started showing in people’s performance. There has never been a higher talent churn rate than today. That application of technology can easily leave people feeling really discouraged because humans are not wired that way.

Those disruptions were aimed at creating greater efficiency, which they did, but they did it at the cost of long-term retention and employee well-being, which are major disruptors for a company.

Increasingly companies are focusing exclusively on automating the manual, phone to error and bias tasks that we do every day. The things that are stretching us too thing as humans because we didn’t evolve to review 500 resumés in a few days. We evolved to sit down and look people in the eye and talk about where they see themselves in 5 years, and with technology, we can create the time and space for people to become human at work again.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Culture-Fit and Ownership Matter more than Skills

When we first launched our company, we got swept up in hiring the best of the best, just like so many other tech companies do. The competition for unicorn talent is ruthless. But what we found is that actually the people who were aligned on mission were much better performers. When people’s hearts are in what they do they engage and become resourceful because they also want to disrupt the status quo and create real and lasting change. Skills can be taught, talent can be coached, and when everyone is aligned on mission, you lose the drag and start to soar to new heights.

Always Solve your Client’s Problems

It doesn’t matter how great your product is: if it doesn’t solve a problem, then people will not spend money on it, and you don’t have a business. And the key to figuring out what people really want is to listen intently and ask questions. When we started Censia we were actually using our technology to deliver candidates to our customers, but we then discovered that they really liked adjusting the search models themselves as it gave them more control and helped them feel more comfortable with AI search technology.

Remember: No One Really Cares

My dad always told me: “Nobody cares.”

Now, this doesn’t mean that people don’t care about you, but rather than most people are so wrapped up in their day to day lives that they don’t even notice the things that you are worried about. This is why it’s critical to be yourself and to be kind to yourself. You are the only person who can love yourself completely, and when you come from that secure place and show kindness and empathy towards others, you move through life’s ups and downs with much more ease.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Of course not! There are always more areas where we can improve on how things are done!

The pandemic led us to one of our latest products, called ReadyToHire, (www.censia.com/readytohire) in which we use AI and our platform to match displaced workers and at-risk workers to jobs at companies who are hiring. This has been a big success with more than 3 million people moving through that pipeline, and we’re so glad that our technology was robust enough to support people during these really difficult times.

We’re also about to undergo another major evolution, but I can’t announce that one quite yet. You’ll have to come back in another month or two to see how we shake up the industry further.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

There are so many great books and podcasts out there, but I’d say the most important one is Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Christopher Voss. It really drives home the importance of active listening.

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

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” — Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein is one of our history’s greatest minds and yet he failed at school and struggled in life. My own struggle with dyslexia and a complete lack of coordination led me to become a professional rower, an international trainer for the FBI, and to where I am today. People are overlooked every day because we don’t know how to unlock their genius, but their time is coming.

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. 🙂

Don’t focus on inventing the next big thing. Focus on creating something that solves a problem or adds a benefit for everyone using the current big thing, and you’ll have an instant marketplace.

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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