Lan Guan: ““Effort-less” connections ”

“Effort-less” connections — Being able to strive for “effort-less” connections with people around you as a key skill. Networking doesn’t need to be formal and something that requires a lot of effort. For example, prior to COVID, I traveled a lot as a consultant. In order to maximize the connections I could make, I made it a […]

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“Effort-less” connections — Being able to strive for “effort-less” connections with people around you as a key skill. Networking doesn’t need to be formal and something that requires a lot of effort. For example, prior to COVID, I traveled a lot as a consultant. In order to maximize the connections I could make, I made it a goal of mine to have one conversation per flight with the person sitting next to me. I even wrote a blog series about “people sitting next to me” to share what I learned from their stories.

As part of our series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lan Guan.

Lan Guan is a Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and she is the global lead for Solutions.AI within Accenture’s Strategy & Consulting domain.

In this role she is responsible for working with clients to develop and implement data and AI strategies for their organizations. Lan has spent the last 18 years at Accenture working with Fortune 100 and large multinational clients across industries.

As an experienced Strategy & Consulting professional, Lan brings deep expertise in transforming all forms of data into actionable strategies and plans to maximize market opportunities for clients. She specializes in data strategy, cloud architecture, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path in AI?

Of course! And thank you for having me. There were two main forces that really drove me into AI — math and economics.

Growing up in China, I developed a natural knack for math because of the country’s emphasis on math and science in primary education. For me personally, I found beauty in using math to identify patterns and bring structure and understanding to a chaotic world — everything can be boiled down to elegant equations.

I never regret that I did not become a mathematician. I came to the U.S. to pursue my Ph.D. in Quantitative Economics with a full scholarship awarded by the U.S. State Department’s Distinguished Young Foreign Scholar program. I became fascinated by economics because it’s all about trade-offs — minimizing costs and maximizing returns with the scarcity of resources. For example, when I first arrived, I was bewildered to see so many laundry detergents in the grocery store! The free-market abundance allowed for many choices, but this brought chaos and choice paralysis. I thought there needed to be a way to reduce the number of options and optimize limited resources to drive the biggest returns. I realized AI was a smarter and more automated way to apply this.

I believe these two diverse fields — math and economics — made the perfect combination for accelerating impact of AI in the 21st century as I was able to apply my passions and partner them with AI to solve unlimited business challenges.

What lessons can others learn from your story?

When many people think about AI, they think that it requires experienced coding skills or attending university for a computer science degree. My path into AI wasn’t typical and had its share of challenges, but I pursued it. Passion alone wasn’t enough, but because it was purpose-driven, I was able to harness the power of AI. Coming from a STEM field, I was able to adapt to changes and apply core skills to develop my expertise. From there, I would encourage acting on your hunger for a particular field to let it thrive, which is what I encourage my own peers and colleagues to do.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

During my Accenture tenure, I’ve worked with many Fortune 100 and large multinational clients across industries. One fascinating project I am proud of is working with startups to improve adult learning by using AI. FutureofU: Skills. Jobs. Growth., an initiative that Accenture recently launched, helps upskill people for in-demand careers and bring them back into the workforce. Let me give you an example of how AI-assisted learning works.

One of the collaborators that I’ve been working with uses AI to optimize each learner’s curriculum to bridge their gaps in understanding as precisely as possible. We are seeking to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum by breaking it down into the smallest conceptual pieces possible, which we call “knowledge atoms” to crack the curricular genome and continuously surface hidden relationships between these tiny knowledge components using machine learning. This AI-powered innovation drastically improves the individual’s understanding of each tiny element of the curriculum and propels their learning journey significantly.

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?

I am very grateful to my 1st grade teacher in China, Mrs. Chen, who taught me the importance of adaptability and in her own words, “Counter changes with changelessness.” The first Hanzi character I learned from her as a five-year-old was water, as she said this character holds a lot of power in China. Water is a powerful symbol because it is so adaptable. Under pressure, water acclimates to survive in every environment. When it’s cold, it hardens to become snow or ice and when it’s hot, it becomes steam. Flowing water itself will find its way over, around or through obstacles that are in its path; even though it adapts, it sticks to a fundamental principle. While conforming to its surroundings, it never loses its original identity.

Throughout my career, the need for adaptability in the workplace — to learn and unlearn — is critical to navigating new and novel situations. To be the most successful leader I can be, I continually remind myself of the water symbol I learned from Mrs. Chen. A successful leader is one who has this ability to adapt to finding ways around obstacles and is constantly looking at ways to change to be competitive, while also keeping a strong hold of core values.

What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?

I believe embedding AI across all fields is opening, and will continue to open, countless opportunities for society.

Another AI trend that I’m excited about is “Lifestyle AI.” To me, AI doesn’t always have to be something flashy and cutting edge that is associated with sci-fi films. It’s also important to improve everyday societal life around us by embedding AI into how we shop, eat, exercise and live. At Accenture, we are helping clients implement intelligent customer service bots with a mix of human and digital touch, decrease the time for food delivery using self-driving vehicles, use emotion AI to test reactions to ads to increase conversion effectiveness, and much more.

This leads to my next point of AI for people, which goes beyond Lifestyle AI and affects deeper than paradigm shifts in societal norms by improving individuals’ well-being based on their own nuances. For instance, AI is being used to optimize individual nutrition plans and personalized virtual training coaches. We’re using AI to help visually impaired people order from restaurants. It’s even being used in the makeup industry to help reduce the time-consuming activity of searching for the best makeup for our individual skin. AI is beginning to solve obvious pain points around us that have been previously neglected.

What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?

While I’m very excited about the future of AI, I believe there are some things that we need to be aware of to thrive with AI innovations:

Responsible AI — It’s important to strive to maintain transparency and accountability in AI models and also ensure people are well-educated on the potential benefits and unintended consequences of AI.

Amount of investment required — Alignment with business priorities is crucial for a successful AI strategy so any financial investment and time spent results in realized value.

Is AI creating disparities? — We must remember that AI models don’t rely solely on data to be accurate and operational — they also require a human touch and intervention to capture nuances and remove biases that machines alone cannot distinguish.

Lack of AI skills — AI is a growing industry in the 21st century, but there is a large gap in talent in the many fields of AI. We must find talent and continue to invest in upskilling those with hunger and a knack for analytics.

Concentration of talent — STEM skills are ubiquitous at large tech companies but are also needed across startups, SMBs and more established larger organizations.

As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?

We are focused on innovating to improve the way the world lives and works. We use our understanding of technology and its impact to help address complex business and societal challenges, driving inclusive growth and sustainable business performance. We believe it is our obligation, as business leaders, to navigate responsibly and to mitigate risks for our clients, our people and society.

Specifically, within Accenture Applied Intelligence, we’re focused on making sure Responsible AI is embedded in all our AI solutions and projects, from both a technical and organizational perspective, as well as guiding our clients so they have the confidence to deploy Responsible AI within their businesses.

What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?

Our AI teams strive to design, build, and deploy AI in a manner that empowers employees and businesses, and fairly impacts customers and society. Responsible AI is at the core of how we help clients innovate. As organizations look to scale their use of AI, they want to be confident that their systems are going to perform reliably and as expected.

Part of building that confidence is ensuring they have taken steps to avoid unintended consequences — that can mean everything from mitigating bias in their data and models, to making sure their data science team has the right skills and processes in place, to developing governance structures for where and how AI is applied. Responsible AI is not purely a technical pursuit — there are organizational, process and skill elements involved as well.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

I have a passion for developing and leading programs that address the urgent need for more women in technology, ranging from empowering minority women from immigrant communities with STEM skills to inspiring young makers from around the world to innovate.

I work with a non-profit called Upwardly Global whose mission is to help immigrants coming to the U.S. to upskill and reskill to find jobs suited to their professional background. While these individuals may have been doctors, CPAs, lawyers, or other highly skilled professionals in their home countries, they may not be able to obtain the equivalent certifications or licenses to continue with the same profession here. It is very important that they don’t lose their motivation and drive as these women and immigrants in STEM fields could be our future leaders.

As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would you advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?

I personally believe now is a prime time for women to thrive in the AI space, but each of us needs to do our part too. We need to help women prioritize:

Boundary-less opportunities — Consider pairing STEM skills with an industry they’re passionate about; this could range from healthcare to entertainment. Also, they should be open to change and new ideas to grow their skills beyond their degrees, including pursuing additional certifications.

“Effort-less” connections — Being able to strive for “effort-less” connections with people around you as a key skill. Networking doesn’t need to be formal and something that requires a lot of effort. For example, prior to COVID, I traveled a lot as a consultant. In order to maximize the connections I could make, I made it a goal of mine to have one conversation per flight with the person sitting next to me. I even wrote a blog series about “people sitting next to me” to share what I learned from their stories.

Women helping women — Women should prioritize creating more opportunities for each other which can include building a team that consists of women with a variety of backgrounds and skillsets.

Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?

Throughout my career, I have been a champion for continued learning.

As a woman, I find fulfillment in getting involved with various leadership initiatives, including serving on the advisory board of the Recruit3X program, which aims to significantly increase the number of women data scientists and data engineers at Accenture.

I also pioneered a partnership with Columbia University to recruit top data and AI talent that has successfully attracted more than 100 women technologists — experienced hires as well as campus recruits — to join our Applied Intelligence practice.

At the end of the day, I think it’s important for women to lift and empower other women, especially in a field like consulting, that historically skews male.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?

A favorite quote that I continue to carry with me to this day is, “San ren xing, bi you wo shi yan,” by the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. It translates to “amongst three people walking, one can certainly be my teacher.” Meeting anyone — even daily — provides you with the opportunity to learn from their good merits and check yourself by reflecting on their bad merits and correcting those within yourself. The goal is to teach yourself about constant self-improvement and growth.

We should all try to be methodical in our lifelong learning and make it a daily habit to set a theme and devote time to increasing our knowledge. As if it’s a ritual, I frequently ask myself questions like:

What new things have I learned recently?

What podcast series have I tuned into this month?

What Blinkist non-fiction titles have I listened to this week?

What HBR or Economist article did I like the most today?

By being strategic and carving out a bit of time for even small learnings, it allows me to learn and grow over time.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

If I could start a movement, I would encourage everyone around the world to learn one basic math skill, since not every country or person is given this opportunity. Ideally, I hope that this movement will not end until everyone masters at least one equation. Imagine if every individual could learn a math equation, no matter how basic, and find out that they enjoy it. This movement could be the key or spark for some individuals to unlock dormant potential. Furthermore, with purpose-driven passion, some of these individuals can end up pursuing a STEM field and find themselves exceling as the next leaders in their community, country or even globally.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Authority readers can find my LinkedIn profile here.

To follow Accenture’s work, visit our webpage here.

Thank you for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success.

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