Recognize that gender bias is often unconscious and unintentional yet also recognize that not every challenge or setback has something to do with your being a woman. I did not even think about this at all until I was confronted with gender bias late in my career and realized that maybe it had an influence.
I had the pleasure to interview Irene Veldstra. Irene is connecting possibilities as Regional Vice President Benelux at Getronics, leading a business across three countries. With a passion for people, for business growth as well as for her customers, she leads with relentless energy and optimism, with focus, with transparency and efficiency, empowering her teams to think and act big. Irene joined Getronics in November 2017. Under her leadership during a high-paced company-wide transformation, she fostered resilience, she created a culture of ownership, a culture of transparency and entrepreneurship while achieving the company strategic vision and improving its financial performance. The Getronics customer engagements have moved up the value chain into more diverse domains and the commercial relationships that she leads are better than ever. Before joining Getronics, Irene had various international positions in the ICT industry at Getronics, Orange Business Services, Atos, the UN World Intellectual Property Organization and has worked in the Netherlands, Finland, Canada, USA, France and Switzerland before moving to Belgium.
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?
As a young child in the Netherlands my father was always at the forefront of computer technologies. My brother, sister and I used to play with boxes full of obsolete punchcards and my father brought home many different types of early computers. When he then gave me a book about it when I was about 9 years old, I started programming in Basic on an Acorn BBC Micro. It all came natural after that. After finishing school I hesitated between studying medicine (my uncle is an orthopedic surgeon) and studying IT: I chose IT. Soon after that I discovered that I had consulting and commercial talent and that I wanted to work in different countries. I did all of that and I am a geek and techie still today, really.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
Persistence pays off: If you have your mind set on something and stay focused on it, you can make it happen. “You can make it happen” also means “you need to make it happen yourself”: a lot will have to come out of your own resilience, your own drive and your own proactivity.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
I have the exciting opportunity to work on re-establishing my company Getronics in the country where it was once founded in 1887: in The Netherlands. This is so great because despite today being a global company and while we have almost completely disappeared from that market for more than a decade, Getronics is still a household name in The Netherlands.
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?
Every path comes with challenges, opportunities, successes and setbacks and I honestly am grateful towards a number of people that I count among my coaches. It is important to have coaches along the way, to take guidance and advice from and I personal get inspired by everyone around me that I can continuously learn from, including my sales team for example. I get inspired by what I see as other’s greatness and I hope to inspire others. Most recently I am grateful towards the former HR director of my company who asked me if I was interested in the role I have today and for the group CEO that has granted me many opportunities since then and his and the management board’s continued faith in me.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
See my previous answers
What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
See my previous answers
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 AI does have that potential, but at the same time we are at controlling end of it and we have all the knowledge and power to prevent it from posing a danger to humanity. In this Information Age, progressing into the Age of Artificial Intelligence we should stay ahead of any negative potential and we are at the right early stage of awareness to ensure we can always, in simple terms, switch off the robot. We cannot prevent AI to become very prevalent and that for many good reasons, but we can control it.
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?
Assuring the public is all about the right communication: it comes with explaining what AI is in clear and simple terms to have everybody understand it, the great and good impact it can have, and why certain measures could be taken to prevent threatening impact. I believe that the majority of people may know less about what AI is and what good it can do, but they know the Terminator, The Matrix or Minority Report movies.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
I have not done enough to bring goodness to the world but I hope that the people I had had the pleasure of mentoring so far inspired them to pursue their careers, to be optimistic, to never lose their passion, to be resilient. A tiny bit of goodness. Recently Getronics started a partnership with the Social Business Trust in the UK, it is through these kinds of partnerships that tech companies can have a positive impact on society.
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?
This probably applies to women in any industry:
1) Stay true to yourself and not let anyone or anything diminish your passion and the pursuit of your aspirations. This comes with self-awareness: learn what motivates you and what you need in a work environment to stimulate that. Then pursue your path with that in mind and take your future into your own hands.
2) Recognize that gender bias is often unconscious and unintentional yet also recognize that not every challenge or setback has something to do with your being a woman. I did not even think about this at all until I was confronted with gender bias late in my career and realized that maybe it had an influence.
3) Find a coach or a mentor, this can be any person in or outside of your business, a family member, a friend or a professional coach for example, which helped me.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
What is very important in my view is that companies start initiatives to promote women. I am not in favor of enforcing quotas, but there are many more things that can be done to increase the number of women from engaging with schools to having corporate diversity programs.
Anyone in a senior position is usually already a strong personality and not a ‘yes-sayer’. If as a woman you call for action, outcome and commitment, you are easily labeled as ‘difficult’ or ‘high maintenance’, rather than ‘demanding’, which is what a man would be called with the same skills, which has quite a more positive meaning. This evaluation can have an impact on a woman’s reputation in a split second without her even knowing about it. This why it is so important that the company you work fosters diversity and creates awareness about unconscious bias.
Another factor is promotion of female role models. While there is plenty to learn from male role models, there is still less focus on female role models and a role model enables you to picture becoming like that person.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
My life lesson quote is “never a dull moment”. This describes my life as it has been a whirlwind of evolutions, journeys and unexpected changes. I somehow seem to find myself going from one extreme situation to the other. I have lived and worked in 7 countries, I have stayed at home for a while, I have had a broad range of experiences, downs and ups. I am driven by transformation and continuous learning and development: if this is not around me and I work in a kind of “maintenance scenario” then I will become impatient. The need to run at 100 miles per hour every day after something big or challenging keeps me happy!
The Five Things that most excite me about AI over the 5 years
1) AI is technology that creates value from big data, generated by all the devices, the services, the records we keep. It crunches numbers faster and creates efficiency and connects dots(bytes if you will) to produce outcome faster than any human can, and this gives great potential in many areas if it combined with the strengths of the human connection
Summary: We can apply this opportunity for example in Healthcare and Precision Medicine — Medical DNA analysis or even personal user DNA kits will generate data about us as individuals — all that information gives doctors access to incredible knowledge tailored to a specific patient, enabling fantastic precision in treatments and diagnosis and prescription medication. This is very precisely targeted to specific tolerances, medical history and susceptibility, of YOU.
Getronics has an electronic patient file product that is used in chains of hospitals that can be tailored to this.
Where is the value: it is the combination of this outcome from AI with the judgment and the emotional intelligence of the doctors in this example.
2) AI gives us great opportunities if we apply it beyond targeting efficiencies and corporate cost savings by focusing on the human interaction, as we as humans are the beneficiaries of AI
Summary: Nobody wants to feel like a number, interacting with a robot that’s there out of corporate cost savings and efficiency objectives, ‘let’s implement a chatbot because it’s cost efficient’, we turn on a computer and it’s there.
What we do at Getronics is going to be based on that value, that end-user experience, we are not going to apply tools and check off a box to make sure we’re cool and in line with the competition. We will do this super-focused on the user, what is their benefit, the value to them: keeping the user-experience as the first priority, the key performance indicator will turn AI into benefit.
3) AI enables focused decision making in scenarios where there is a need to make decisions leaving all emotion, all ethics, all bias out of the equation
Summary: a human is creative, emotional, biased, irrational: biased, something that you will avoid when using AI, if it’s well programmed and controlled — see the concerns next.
4) AI based decisions will provide assurance and certainty because they are based on big data, allowing us as business to provide predictive services, predictive maintenance and prevent problems before they ever occur
Summary: Getronics predictive network monitoring service for example will enable us to warn network users about problems on their devices before they occur because it can recognize patterns and determine in a split second which other devices are at risk
5) AI will allow us to ‘leave’ processing data and knowledge to the machines, enables us as humans to apply our creativity, emotions, connections, our values and senses and in a new and focused way
Summary: any customer buying anything will look for benefits, efficiencies, relief from non-core distractions, that allow us time and means to focus on what is important.
The Five Things that most concern me about AI over the 5 years
1) It is the Tech leaders responsibility to inform and reassure people in our society about the incorrect notion that AI will take over the work in a kind of “Terminator’ movie scenario:
Summary: The public impression that AI will take over the world in a kind of Terminator scenario gives us as Tech leaders the responsibility to inform and reassure our society what AI is what AI does, it is our role to counter fear or resistance in people and focus on benefits and positive impact it will have in so many areas. Smart machines will not take over the world, if we remain at the forefront and at the end.
2) AI in the form of chatbots and natural language processing can frustrate people into feeling like numbers
Summary: Calling a helpdesk. How many people really want to speak to a chatbot processing their answers (eg. please say ‘yes’ or no’), most people want to get this part over with and talk to a human as soon as possible. A business such as ours has to keep this in mind when designing an AI based service.
3) AI is a fast-efficient data processing, decision-making algorithm. It can only decide based on the context that we set, the input, the data that we give: this can result in the wrong decisions based on a too-limited context
Summary: AI is a lot of programming and algorithm based of big data to make decision. If we give it 10.000 pictures of dogs it will be able to recognize of any random picture whether it’s a dog nor not, but it will nor recognize a cat until we give input on what a cat is. It risks even classifying a cat as a dog, producing the wrong outcome!
4) AI is what it says: artificial, it’s Programmed Intelligence, it isn’t a human brain that thinks, and any use of AI will have to have a human connection. The real value is in the combination of humans strengths such as ethics, emotions and creativity with AI.
AI intelligence can read how a person should feel by looking at eyebrows: what it is programmed to know about eyebrows, frowning, going up, signaling a certain emotion. But maybe the person has a headache or a migraine, or looking into the sunlight: there is where the human connection comes in, a judgment only a human can make.
5) AI can be a great risk if we do not balance the value and the benefits with its potentially uncontrolled power
Risk of machine learning, is making stone-cold rational and dangerous decisions, everyone knows the example of chatbots that were shut down because they started communicating in their own language that we no longer follow: we have to monitor based on ethics, morals, risk and threat assessments, emotions: the big questions and challenge we face as tech leaders is: how will we safeguard that? How do we balance the value, the benefits with potentially uncontrolled power. It is up to our role as humans to keep control of input and output, we should not only be at the center of the benefits, but also at the limits of inputs and outputs.
The Getronics perspective is that the AI will provide more good than bad and that addressing the risks and concerns are the hands of the tech companies producing AI. It is up to us in the tech community to challenge ourselves and to work together to strive for the combination of human strengths with strengths from computing, by applying emotional intelligence, empathy, ethical judgments, creativity and interpersonal relationships.
AI is in the middle, it will not take over, this intelligence has nothing to do with the human concept of intelligence, computers will do things faster, more efficient, in a context that we set, and that we have to control. AI starts with humans, ends with humans: the end-user experience, a key strategic focus for Getronics.