Interview: Ada Lopez, senior manager, product diversity office at Lenovo talks diversity

Could you give us a brief overview of your professional background?

In many ways, it almost seems foreordained for me to take on my role as manager for Lenovo’s product diversity office. I was born in Cuba and moved to the US at the age of five. When I was 11, my mother passed away and I had to enter the foster care system. As a result, issues related to diversity and inclusiveness have been the key to my survival for as long as I can remember.

As part of my job, I’m now focused on removing technology barriers or biases that might exclude any of our customers, just as I had to overcome issues of cultural, linguistic, and familial exclusion as a child.

To make the statement less abstract, here are a few examples to make it more concrete. I am committed to ensuring Lenovo products’ accessibility to users of all abilities and other underserved populations. My job is very exciting as we have to constantly break new ground. We are working in a long-neglected area with no set answers, which needs us to be more disruptive at a company level, as I’m asking technology specialists to expand their view of what accounts for a successful product.

What made you enter the tech industry? Did you plan for it?

It’s very common for students to sit down in high school and systematically map out their ideal career plans, some decide they want to be a doctor or a lawyer, followed by all the requisite steps to achieve the goal. However, my childhood was a bit too hectic for that linear kind of pursuit. I was considering dropping out of high school and living on my own during my junior year, instead of thinking about how to boost my SAT scores and apply to colleges.

I was lucky enough to have my foster mother and teachers that prevailed on me to see education as crucial to a rewarding future. As a result, I became a high school science teacher after graduating from Florida International University. Prior to Lenovo, I worked at a company designing educational technologies and finding better ways to learn. This is where the throughline comes to my current work, as I developed an award-winning e-book on astronomy that was fully accessible to blind students.

Although I didn’t follow the storybook career path, there’s a retrospective pattern: I’ve always been drawn to work that empowers others, no matter if they are students or Lenovo’s users. Ever since I decided to attend college, I’ve been driven to succeed in order to honour the sacrifices and investments of those who supported me. I like to think my example might inspire others with the knowledge that the traditional approach isn’t the only way to career success.

What are the challenges you faced during your career journey and how did you overcome them?

The lack of confidence has been the most significant challenge I’ve faced, which brings constant second-guessing and self-reflection on what I can and cannot do. This can often become paralyzing: Do I have enough skills, training, or experience to take the next step? Abby Wambach, the great soccer player, once said “you have to demand the ball.” You must believe in yourself and your talents before anyone else does too. It isn’t easy to do, but I’ve acquired it over time and it’s now my second nature. This has led me to learn how to take risks, and I aim to inspire my team to do the same too. You can’t simply play it safe if you hope to do something great, you’ll need to take calculated risks everyday and start to enjoy the tension that comes from pushing yourself.

What wakes you up in the morning?

Embedding diversity and inclusion into Lenovo’s product design and development process inspires my professional journey and gives me purpose. My heart is filled with joy whenever we expand our research and design, and include the voices of underserved populations. Together with product development teams, I celebrate impactful collaborations and ensure that inclusive and accessible design practices are implemented, which is what wakes me up in the morning, and sometimes what keeps me up at night!

Lenovo has been focusing on building a diverse workforce for many years, and I think we’ve done a fantastic job with that. However, focusing exclusively on this goal is not enough anymore, we need to meet the needs of people from different backgrounds and ensure abilities are met. It is not only the workforce we are trying to grow, but also our products to have this diversity and representation.

What advice would you give to people trying to shine in their technology career?

My motto is, ‘Let’s try it and see what happens’. I always keep a full schedule, but at the same time, I constantly find time and energy for a new adventure. People need to strike a balance between digging in and mastering a body of knowledge and remaining free to explore flights of learned inspiration by not getting stuck in a hole they’ve dug. The jazz trumpeter Winton Marsalis made clear that inspiration that isn’t being learned is almost always useless. Before getting into successful improvisations, one needs to pay one’s dues and master the fundamentals. Once you’ve achieved that mastery, you can then add your own individual voice to the voices of others.

Are there still existing barriers for women to success in technology and how can these be overcome?

Although we’ve made progress, there is a lot that remains to be done. However, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach due to the variations between each company. What I can say is that institutional and educational change are essential, which is why I work to promote STEM for women. Beyond institutions, women also need to cultivate their confidence and self-belief. I feel fortunate to work in a company like Lenovo that sees the value in a diverse workforce, and I’m hopeful to see more companies adopting this kind of enlightenment in the next few years to support careers of women working in technology.

What’s your take on AI’s role in enabling a more diverse workforce?

Currently, we are seeing gender bias commonly existing in AI systems, which leads to harms such as discrimination, reduced transparency, and security and privacy issues. Based on research, AI trained on Google News data often associate men with roles such as ‘captain’ and ‘financier’, whereas women are associated with ‘receptionist’ and ‘homemaker’. In addition, only 22% of professionals in AI and data science are women, according to the World Economic Forum’s research. AI has the power to solve previously unsolvable problems, such as cancer and climate change. However, unless the bias issue is addressed, AI will not reach its full potential.

For businesses that hope to use AI to unlock the value of their data, it’s vital to understand the problem of gender bias and work towards effective ways to tackle it. Business leaders need to think carefully about the use of AI across organisations, and use tools to detect bias and enhance transparency, as well as taking a broader outlook of where is the origin of the data, how it is used, and what are the next steps to avoid bias. In this way, businesses can create an inclusive future and workplace, where AI can work to its fullest potential.

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