Intel exec Huma Abidi on the urgent need for diversity and inclusion in AI

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As part of the lead-up to Transform 2021 coming up July 12-16, we’re excited to put a spotlight on some of our conference speakers who are leading impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in AI and data.

We were lucky to land a conversation with Huma Abidi, senior director of AI software products and engineering at Intel. She spoke about her DE&I work in her private life, including her support for STEM education for girls in the U.S. and all over the world, founding the Women in Machine Learning group at Intel, and more.

VB: Could you tell us about your background, and your current role at your company?

HA: This one is easy. As a senior director of AI software products and engineering at Intel, I’m responsible for strategy, roadmaps, requirements, validation and benchmarking of deep learning, machine learning and analytics software products. I lead a globally diverse team of engineers and technologists responsible for delivering world-class products that enable customers to create AI solutions.

VB: Any woman and person of color in the tech industry, or adjacent to it, is already forced to think about DE&I just by virtue of being “a woman and person of color in tech” — how has that influenced your career?

HA: That is very true. Being a woman, and especially a woman of color, you are constantly aware that you are under-represented in the tech industry. When I joined the tech workforce over two decades ago, I was often the only woman in the room and in meetings and it was very obvious to me that there was something wrong with that picture. I decided to do my part to change that and I also proactively sought leaders who would help me progress in my career as a technical leader as well as support my DE&I efforts.

From early on in my career, I volunteered to be part of Intel’s initiatives working on creating a diverse and inclusive workforce. I participated in hiring events which were focused on hiring women and other under-represented minorities (URM) for tech jobs. To help with the onboarding of new URM hires, I led cohorts to offer support, and help make connections and build their networks. To ensure retention, I mentored (and still do!) women and URMs at various career stages, and also helped match mentors and mentees.

I am especially proud to have founded the Women in Machine Learning group at Intel where we discuss exciting technical topics in AI, while also bringing in experts in other areas such as mindfulness. During the pandemic it has been particularly challenging for parents with small children, and we continue to provide support and coaching to help with regards to work-life balance.

After meeting the 2020 goal of achieving full representation of women and URMs at every level (at market availability) in the U.S., Intel’s goal is to increase the number of women in technical roles to 40% by 2030 and to double the number of women and URM in senior leadership. I am very proud to be part of Intel’s RISE initiative.

VB: Can you tell us about the diversity initiatives you’ve been involved in, especially in your community?

HA: I am very passionate about technology and equally about diversity and inclusion. As mentioned above I am involved in many initiatives at Intel related to DE&I.

Just last week at the launch event of our AI for Youth program, I met with 18 young cadets –mostly Black and Hispanic youth — who are committed to military service as part of a Junior ROTC program. We had a great discussion about technology, artificial intelligence, and the challenges of being a minority, URM, and women in tech.

I support several organizations around the world for the cause of women’s education particularly in STEM, including Girl Geek X, Girls innovate, and I am on the board for “Led by,” an organization that provides mentorship to minority women.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESDOC) girls lose interest in science after fourth grade. I believe that before young girls start developing negative perceptions about STEM, there needs to be role models who can show them that it is cool to be an engineer or a scientist.

I enjoy talking to high school and college students both in the U.S. and other countries to influence them in considering a career in engineering and AI. Recently, I was invited to talk to 400 students in India, mostly girls, to share with them what it is to be a woman in the tech industry, working in the field of AI.

VB: How do you see the industry changing in response to the work that women, especially Black and BIPOC women, are doing on the ground? What will the industry look like for the next generation?

HA: Women make up nearly half the world’s population and yet there is a large gap when it comes to technical roles and even more so for BIPOC.

There have been several hopeful signs recently. In recent years, there has been an increasing number of high-profile women in technology as well as in leadership roles in tech companies, academia as well as startups. This includes Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube; Aicha Evans, CEO of Zoox; Fei Fei Li leading human centered AI at Stanford; and Meredith Whittaker working on social implications of AI at NYU AI Now Institute, to name a few.

Media and publications are also helping highlight these issues and recognizing women who are making a difference in this area. In the past few years I have participated in a few VentureBeat events and a panel to discuss and bring forward issues like Bias in AI, DE&I, and gender and race gaps in tech industry. I am grateful to be recognized as a 2021 “woman of influence” by the Silicon Valley Business Journal and 2021 “Tribute to Women” by YWCA Golden Gate Silicon Valley for the work I have done in this area.

All tech companies are tackling with lack of gender parity issues and it is well understood that unless we build a pipeline of women in technology, the gender gap will not be narrowed or closed. When they put measures into place around achieving more gender diversity, there should be an explicit focus on race as well as gender. It’s especially important to get more women and underrepresented minorities in AI (an area that I am working on), because of potential biases that a lack of representation can cause when creating AI solutions.

Focused efforts need to be made to provide women, especially BIPOC, leadership opportunities. This is possible only if they have advocates, mentors, and sponsors.

These issues are common to all tech companies and the best way we can make real progress is by joining forces, to make collective investment in fixing these issues, particularly for the underserved communities and partnering with established non-profits.

Earlier this year, Intel announced a new industry coalition with 13 major companies to develop shared diversity and inclusion goals and metrics. The coalition’s inclusion index serves as a benchmark to track diversity and inclusion improvements, shares current best practices, and highlights opportunities to improve outcomes across industries.

The coalition is focusing on four critical areas: 1) leadership representation 2) inclusive language 3) inclusive product development and 4) STEM readiness in underserved communities.

These are examples of great steps in the right direction to close diversity, gender, and race gaps in the tech industry going forward.

[Abidi’s talk is just one of many conversations around D,E&I at Transform 2021 next week (July 12-16).  On Monday, we’ll kick off with our third Women in AI breakfast gathering. On Wednesday, we will have a session on BIPOC in AI. On Friday, we’ll host the Women in AI awards. Throughout the agenda, we’ll have numerous other talks on inclusion and bias, including with Margaret Mitchell, a leading AI researcher on responsible AI, as well as with executives from Pinterest, Redfin, and more.]

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