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“We need to start with recognizing where we are.” with Akhila Satish

Recognize! We need to start with recognizing where we are. I would argue that all of us, regardless of our race, gender, or sexual orientation, have biases toward other groups of people. Our biases are a set of hasty cognitive shortcuts we employ because we are human. But they are also, as we’ve seen, extremely dangerous […]

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Recognize! We need to start with recognizing where we are. I would argue that all of us, regardless of our race, gender, or sexual orientation, have biases toward other groups of people. Our biases are a set of hasty cognitive shortcuts we employ because we are human. But they are also, as we’ve seen, extremely dangerous and toxic to our society. Progress starts when we look within, assess ourselves, and identify where we should be.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’, I had the pleasure to interview Akhila Satish.

Akhila started her career in the life sciences, working in research at the University of Michigan and the National Institutes of Health. Her published work includes papers in Nature and Human Genomics.

She then founded CyberDoctor, a healthcare communications company. In 2013, CyberDoctor became the first company to run a successful clinical trial on a digital therapeutic for diabetes. For her work on CyberDoctor, Akhila was honored as a Rising Star at Health 2.0, a semifinalist in the Healthcare Innovation World Cup, and a Global Leader in Innovation and Entrepreneurship from the Center of Healthcare Innovation.

Akhila received her Bachelor of Science in neuroscience with honors from the University of Michigan, her graduate degree in biotechnology from the University of Pennsylvania, and her MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business.

She is passionate about scientific literacy and changing the existing paradigms of bench to bedside research. In her free time, Akhila enjoys rock climbing, hiking along the beautiful California coastline, and pursuing her New Year’s resolution of reading one hundred non-fiction books.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Igrew up in Manlius, New York. It’s in a beautiful part of New York State, near Syracuse. I feel incredibly privileged to have grown up in the kind of place where you know your neighbors, you feel safe running around as a child, and you have a deep sense of commitment to your community.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I am an obsessive reader — I have piles of books wherever I am, all the time. A few years ago, I read one hundred non-fiction books within a single calendar year! As a child, I was deeply inspired by fiction from L.M. Montgomery, Lousia May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Lewis Carrol. As a teenager and young adult, I loved Homer and Thucydides, particularly the Iliad. Reading every day is as necessary for me as water or food — it feeds my brain in a way nothing else does!

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Fight the good fight” is something my high school history teacher would tell us that has stayed with me. It reminds me to use my energy everyday to try, in some small way, to create a better world.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as the capacity to organize a group of individuals around a common goal, with a clear, sustainable, and strategic agenda. In relation to our topic of diversity — I would add that a true leader has the capacity to create a space in which divergent experiences and viewpoints can enrich each other and be a source of growth.

As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

There’s this fascinating intersection I have to point out: we’re discussing stress in an article about diversity. We experience and respond to stress in ways that are very much shaped by our backgrounds. It’s imperative that we take the time to recognize these differences — that there are stronger stigmas in certain groups around mental health treatment, to realize that an occurrence such as being pulled over by the police, which may be moderate stress for one group, is high stress for another. It’s important to understand and appreciate that we are products of our lives. So my ability to experience and manage stress is a byproduct of who I am and who I show up as in this world (a minority female) and the privileges I have had in my life. It is also highly influenced by the work I do every day at Meseekna.

At Meseekna, we study the impact of stress on our decision making as defined by the five elements of a stressful situation — VUCAD (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, and delayed feedback). In a stressful situation, it’s key to identify which element is causing you the most stress and neutralizing it quickly. For example, in a situation fraught with uncertainty, identifying what you know and what you don’t know can often assuage the sense of “I have no idea what’s going to happen next.”

The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

I have a view on this that is fundamentally grounded in the work that we do at Meseekna. I believe that the pandemic unleashed these incredibly stressful forces of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and delayed feedback all at once — and when faced with this kind of sudden tumult, there is a great deal of frustration and chaos, but there is also this incredibly powerful moment of introspection that occurs on a national and individual level. It’s the moment spurred by the question “HOW DID I GET HERE!?” or “HOW DID THIS HAPPEN!?” that crosses our minds during a crisis.

There was a sharp disconnect in the realities of the pandemic for individuals — driven in large part by systemic racism. When you’re struggling, but your neighbor is struggling somehow less, and you have this overarching global problem (the pandemic), that creates a really strong set of emotions

For example, I read recently that in Maine, black people account for more than 22 percent of COVID 19 cases, but make up merely 1.6 percent of the population. That’s horrifying and inexcusable. When you add the trauma of what happened to George Floyd and Breanna Taylor, or countless others, to the conversation, it brings those tensions out, prompting the necessary introspection that we see now.

The fear I have for our nation engaging in this dialogue at this moment is that our research shows that during crisis and stress, stakeholders tend to migrate toward unidimensional solutions, rather than multidimensional solutions. This is playing out now, in moves that read as “diversity theater” where corporations or organizations donate large sums of money to causes but lack follow through in programming initiatives.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

This is a great question — it’s important to hold ourselves accountable not just for speech and articulation, but also action!

My passion project in the diversity and inclusion area is my non-profit initiative, The Science Runway. At The Science Runway, we catalog stories of successful women in the life sciences to inspire the next generation of little girls. We have benefitted hugely from a diverse leadership team that has constantly pushed us to highlight a similarly diverse population of women.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

The biggest danger organizations face is obsolescence through a lack of recognition of their own blind spots. The best protection against blind spots is diversity! As a leader, you don’t know what you don’t know — but someone on your team may know that already. The more diverse the experiences, expertise, and backgrounds your team has, the more knowledge you have at the table.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

Recognize! We need to start with recognizing where we are. I would argue that all of us, regardless of our race, gender, or sexual orientation, have biases toward other groups of people. Our biases are a set of hasty cognitive shortcuts we employ because we are human. But they are also, as we’ve seen, extremely dangerous and toxic to our society. Progress starts when we look within, assess ourselves, and identify where we should be.

Unpack Your Bias! We need to be able to discuss and unpack these biases in a safe environment, where peers help us understand the nuances that we may not grasp initially. We need to have a space in which it’s possible to voice these thoughts, hear and understand how problematic they are, and change our point of view.

Use Empathetic Metacognition! Countless acts of racism, microaggression, and bias are committed every single day. Progress requires us to pause when we see ourselves engaged in a bias, consider the person’s point of view, unpack the bias, and move forward in a more equitable manner. That pause is the metacognition that we work on developing at Meseekna. We call it “empathetic metacognition” because instead of merely reflecting on your own thinking patterns and choices, you are making the active, cognitive effort to imagine how your own thinking patterns and choices are shaped by your environment, privileges, and opportunities and critically- inferring how others’ metacognition is shaped by their environment, privileges, and opportunities.

Be Brave! It’s important to lean into advocating for a more equitable and inclusive society. It may not always feel comfortable, and it may feel like you could get it horribly wrong — but you need to lead with your best intentions. As one of my good friends says, “you can’t be afraid to say what’s right because you’re afraid you’ll say it wrong.”

Practice! We can’t click our heels three times and arrive at a land of inclusive, representative, and equitable society. It takes repeated effort, and continual practice at empathetic metacognition.

At Meseekna, we’ve created an easier way for organizations to work through these steps: Planet Aequum! We immerse teams in the simulation world of Planet Aequum, where they have the opportunity to recognize and unpack bias among an alien population in a safe space, while working to make Planet Aequum a more equitable society. Then we guide the teams through the parallels to the real world, developing their skills of empathetic metacognition.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I believe we can, someday, achieve an inclusive, representative, and equitable society. It is an incredibly long road from our current state to that place –which could be cause for despair, but also inspiration for us to make progress quickly! In order to achieve this kind of society, we need to fully understand and tackle our issues of systemic racism and discrimination headlong. The current status of affairs is fundamentally broken, and requires massive change.

As I mentioned earlier, that kind of massive change effort requires deeply thoughtful and analytic leadership guiding us toward complex, multidimensional solutions, rather than quick band-aids that do not offer long term hope. Getting those leaders into local, state and national offices requires us to do one small thing: VOTE. Vote for the kind of thinkers you want leading the changes we need.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I love meeting entrepreneurs, authors, and leaders who blend multidimensional thinking with scientific research and insight. Daniel Pink, as an example, is an author you have interviewed whose work I have read and enjoyed. His work on “when” we should complete tasks is something I have built into my life and reiterate constantly with my team.

How can our readers follow you online?

I am on Twitter (@akhilasatish) and Medium (https://medium.com/@akhilasatish)

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