Laura McGee of Diversio: “Play to your strengths and hire around them”

Don’t listen to people who say you can’t start an AI company without an engineering background. No single person has every skill required to run a company. Play to your strengths and hire around them. As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura McGee. […]

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Don’t listen to people who say you can’t start an AI company without an engineering background. No single person has every skill required to run a company. Play to your strengths and hire around them.

As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura McGee.

Laura McGee is the founder and CEO of Diversio, a Toronto-based tech company that uses machine learning to help companies overcome diversity challenges. Laura was recognized as one of Canada’s Top 25 Women of Influence in 2017.

Laura spent much of her career at McKinsey & Company where she advised private and public sector clients on talent strategy, including Diversity & Inclusion. She led the Firm’s support for the Canada-US Council for Advancement of Women, the Economic Advisory Council, and multiple private sector clients. She also co-authored diversity research in partnership with Lean In and the Wall Street Journal.

Outside of work, Laura co-founded the #GoSponsorHer movement and Summit Leaders, a non-profit that inspires low-income students to build the next billion-dollar business. She is a frequent contributor to publications like the Globe & Mail and Macleans magazine.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?

I actually started my career as a corporate lawyer. I did this for approximately five minutes before a friend of mine kindly told me I’m a terrible lawyer but would be great at business. He rightly observed that I’m more a “big picture” storyteller, which isn’t your job as a junior attorney. I actually ended up at McKinsey, where my focus areas were economic growth and helping large companies improve performance.

I remember working with a national government to identify what ‘levers’ they could pull to grow GDP. We fully expected infrastructure, trade, or foreign investment would come out on top. But to our surprise, we learned the single biggest thing they could do — by a landslide — was get more women and minorities in the workforce, especially in leadership roles. This reflected the same challenge faced by companies: how to retain and advance diverse employees.

This problem struck a chord for me, and I became quite determined to solve it. About a year later I started working with the Canada-US Council for Advancement of Women. We interviewed dozens of CEOs and kept hearing the same thing: “I know diversity, drives performance, but I feel like I’m throwing spaghetti at the wall with programming.” No one was using data, and there were no clear metrics beyond women on boards. Leaders who were laser-focused on key performance indicators everywhere else had completely left diversity off their scorecard.

This is where the idea for Diversio came from: what if companies had a clear set of metrics that could be tied to performance, and used to identify cultural barriers to inclusion? More importantly, what if we built a “recommendation engine” that could help companies solve these problems? One of the Council members saw the vision and offered a small seed investment to get started. I left McKinsey the next day, and quickly teamed up with my co-founder Anya to build Diversio. Neither of us knew how to code, and we didn’t have much capital, so we had to get creative and really hustle.

What lessons can others learn from your story?

First, I would say don’t take failure personally. I had a moment at McKinsey where I realized I was letting the fear of rejection cloud my judgment. I started asking myself on a regular basis: “if I take my ego out of the equation, would I take this risk or go after that opportunity?” The answer was almost always “yes”. Most of them didn’t work out, but a few turned into big successes. So I was rejected a whole bunch along the way, but ultimately came out ahead because one or two of those big bets paid off.

Second is to trust your gut. For example, a lot of people told me Anya wasn’t the right first employee for Diversio because she wasn’t an engineer. Now, Anya knows more about artificial intelligence than many advanced engineers. We also heard that you can’t start an Enterprise SaaS company without venture capital. Yet here we are bootstrapping a highly profitable company. And we got to do it our way.

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

We just launched an artificial intelligence tool that can predict if a company is at risk of a diversity scandal using social media data. It’s been fascinating to see the effect this has on business leaders. It’s one thing to say diversity could improve your bottom line, but it’s a different conversation when you point out that a scandal could take 3% off your market cap within three days of a scandal breaking.

Another interesting project is our partnership with Diversity VC and OneTech to set the global standard for diversity & inclusion in venture capital. We launched with ten funds at London Tech Week in September and have seen a ton of momentum in North America and Europe, including funds like Bessemer, 500 Startups and Balderton. Institutional investors are taking a hard look at where their capital is going, and venture capital firms are feeling a lot of pressure to make real systemic changes. Our platform makes specific recommendations and tracks progress over time. We’re looking forward to industry-wide findings when we re-run the assessments in a years’ time.

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

I’m very lucky to have a fantastic group of sponsors and supporters. Two that come to mind are Annette Verschuren and John Ruffolo, who were invaluable in Diversio’s early days. Annette was the first person to get behind Diversio’s mission and push me to take the leap to entrepreneurship. As a highly successful three-time CEO, her vote of confidence meant the world to me.

John helped me figure out how to be an entrepreneur. At the time, he was the founder and CEO of Canada’s largest venture capital firm. When I told him I’d left McKinsey he went above and beyond to get our feet under us, including giving me a partner’s office right beside him. Rather than invest, he gave us a team of advisors and his personal time to work through product-market fit. This was way more valuable than a seed investment would have been, plus we got to keep our equity 😊

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

AI has the ability to synthesize information at scale and find insights and patterns that were previously invisible to us. It can identify unfair advantages occurring within organizations at scale and it can also be leveraged to fix these problems in a smart way. Before AI there was a lot of resource waste through testing and learning. Now we can get to the answer faster. Which means getting to change faster.

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

My top two concerns are diversity and ethics. From a diversity perspective, the AI field does not include nearly enough women and minorities. This lack of diversity is being reflected in products that reinforce existing bias. For example, there is the infamous Amazon recruiting tool that prioritized men. Luckily Amazon moved away from this when they recognized the bias. But it raises the question of how often this goes undetected.

My second concern is the lack of a common ethical framework for developing AI. There are key questions around data ownership and privacy that have not been worked out. As a result, engineers and product owners are making decisions about fundamental questions that many people would not be comfortable with. We almost need an equivalent to the Hippocratic oath for data engineers.

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?

I think it’s worth drawing a distinction here between machine learning and robots that are capable of destroying humanity. We’re a long way off from the latter. In the meantime, we have the opportunity as a society to set standards and a code of conduct about what AI can and should be used to do.

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?

I recently spoke with a senior official in the Obama administration who made an interesting suggestion — what if we empowered an independent organization like the UN to set the terms for ethical AI development. I think people want to know that there is an independent overseer with a broader social mandate, rather than relying on commercial enterprise to do the right thing.

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

I am deeply proud of my team’s work at Diversio. Our tech team and relationship managers are driving real changes at the employee-level, and we see the impact through the platform’s feedback mechanism.

One of the most moving stories involved a client that experienced a horrific act of racism on their worksite. Some of their Black employees arrived one day to find a noose hung up on site. The CEO was horrified and completely changed the company’s priorities. He implemented our anonymous feedback and tracking tool, launched mandatory training for senior leadership, and began having frank and vulnerable discussions with his team. Several months later, we’re seeing the impact of those changes in employee feedback. The number of employees who report feeling safe at work has gone up significantly. Our whole team felt it when those results came back.

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?

Don’t listen to people who say you can’t start an AI company without an engineering background. No single person has every skill required to run a company. Play to your strengths and hire around them.

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

There are fundamental things like startup capital for women founders and access to engineering talent. Another thing that would go a long way is strong mentorship of women in AI companies. So often, great businesses are started by employees at one company who see an opportunity and break off to start another. The more coaching and support women get at the beginning of their career, the more prepared they will be to start their own thing.

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

“Just do it”. I got this advice from Dominic Barton at the beginning of my career as I was debating a pretty big career move. He saw that I was passionate and had conviction, and his broader point was not to doubt myself. If it’s not life or death it’s usually worth the risk.

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.

My team at Diversio started something called #HackInclusion in 2018 that I think has great potential. The idea was to crowdsource ideas to promote inclusion at work from people around the world using social media. The hackathon surfaced about 250 incredibly thoughtful and creative ideas. Technology removes so many barriers to problem-solving, especially around corporate hierarchies. I’d love to see more organizations engage the public in that way.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: Laura McGee

Twitter: @diversioglobal

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