Cindi Howson on tackling microaggressions, fraught conversations, and more

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VentureBeat is committed to a world where the AI is ethical, diversity and inclusion aren’t just buzzwords, and leaders in the AI space who are working to make that happen get a spotlight. As part of that, we were lucky to sit down with Cindi Howson, chief data strategy officer at ThoughtSpot who helms the company’s customer enablement initiatives.

In her role at ThoughtSpot, Howson’s directing the conversation around what it means to hire the most qualified candidate for a job — and how to make sure that hiring process swings open the door for every candidate, not just the usual white, male suspects. She also advocates on behalf of women in STEM, as well as focuses on finding and inspiring the BIPOC kids who are neglected at every level of the education, and too often left behind.

See the first four in the series: Intel’s Huma Abidi, Redfin’s Bridget Frey, Salesforce’s Kathy Baxter,  and McAfee’s Celeste Fralick.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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

CH: I’m chief data strategy officer at ThoughtSpot. There’s three parts of it. I work with our top customers helping them execute their data analytics strategy. I work with our product teams evolving our product capabilities. And then thought leadership, whether it’s writing, speaking, or hosting the Data Chief podcast, produced by, the makers of IT Visionaries, and sponsored by ThoughtSpot.

VB: Can you talk more about the work that you’re doing, both for your own company and your own personal passion projects?

CH: I asked one of our interns, the head of Black Engineers Who Code, why is it so hard for Black and BIPOC kids to get into STEM? And she said, “I was not taught calculus — my high school didn’t even offer it. I had to take it online. I got my first laptop only in college.”

And so you compare a student coming from that kind of school system or environment with somebody who’s had parents giving them laptops in junior high or elementary school, who sends them to the best schools. By the time they get to Stanford or MIT or wherever else tech companies are recruiting, that gap just gets wider and wider. This is where, as an industry, we have to focus on diversity and inclusion, but I also want us thinking about assessing somebody’s aptitude to gain these skills, no matter which stage of life they’re at or where they’re coming from — if it’s formal education or different boot camps or employer-provided training.

VB: Can you talk more about the work that you’re doing, both for your own company and your own personal passion projects?

At ThoughtSpot, I also chair or champion our diversity and inclusion efforts that are specifically sponsored by our CEO, Sudheesh Nair. We have divided it into different pillars. The one that I lead is related to volunteering and giving. We look at what organizations we want to donate to in terms of sponsoring funds. But then the volunteering and giving is really around the concept that we have a pipeline problem in the tech industry. If we can get people more excited at an earlier age, then hopefully we can close the diversity and talent gap. This includes working with groups like the Mark Cuban AI Foundation, where we’re sponsoring one of their boot camps in the fall — Girls Plus Data and Women in Data.

We scout out the organizations, and meet with their leaders to understand their approach, and who the students are they seek to influence or get excited about data analytics. The first Girls Plus Data workshop we did was one of the most inspiring or fun classes that I’ve gotten to teach, and I’ve been teaching data analytics for 30 years.

I’m really excited that the one we’ll be doing next will be in my home state. Atlantic City is really a tale of two cities, super rich and super poor, and this so this bootcamp gets at socioeconomic diversity and ethnic diversity as well.

VB: Can you talk about being a woman in tech and how that’s influenced your career?

CH: Being a woman in tech — what can I tell you? There are good days and there are bad days. I was thinking, is it getting any better? I was having a conversation with the CDO last week. She expressed a concern to me that I hadn’t thought about. Was it more overt 20 years ago, much more blatant, whether it’s sexual harassment or being passed over or being asked ‘Where do I get the coffee?’ — and now it’s much more subtle? The microaggressions that continue to undermine our self-confidence, undermine the possibilities of working in high tech.

I was reading a stat this morning that we don’t have a pipeline problem, but we have a leaky pipeline problem. Forty percent of women who majored in one of these areas leave within the first three to five years, because you just think — this is not a lot of fun.

If I ask somebody, what’s the deadline, or who is accountable for this, I can get called aggressive. The way women and men have responded to the pandemic — I can not skip a beat, even though I have experienced personal losses. You can’t mourn those personal losses. You have to show up. And then when I just get a tremor in my voice because we’re going to lay some people off, I’m labeled emotional. And yet a man who actually gets teary-eyed,  he’s called vulnerable and in touch.

VB: Do you see this changing? I know it probably won’t stop just because we actually recognize this, but do you see that bringing these microaggressions up, making them more visible — do you see the industry changing now that we talk about it more?

CH: You can look at two comments made in the industry in the last month by very powerful, important, influential CEOs [saying] ‘I’m not concerned about diversity. I’m concerned about merit.’ On the one hand I agree with him — please, don’t ever hire me because I’m a woman. Hire me because I am the best talent. But I also want you to recognize that unconscious biases and lack of a network and no time to network or go play golf may limit the exposure you have had to me. Let’s pay attention to both, but they’re not mutually exclusive.

But I look at it at an individual level, and at a company level. I see this slow but steady progress at ThoughtSpot. And we absolutely have our problems. But I look at some of the progress and the commitment from every single level to be data-driven in it, and to have these hard, uncomfortable conversations. If anything, 2020 has forced others to confront this, but I feel like we’re not better at having these conversations. Come to it from a place of wanting to understand the perspectives and get to a better world for everyone.

VB: It’s frustrating that just having conversations is so fraught.

CH: Well, it is fraught. Whoever’s in power, whether it’s men or Caucasions or — you don’t want to say the wrong thing. You don’t want to offend anyone. I think people have gotten quite hostile. Then it’s just better to be quiet, and that’s not ideal either.

VB: Is there anything else you want to touch on?

CH: What I want people to think of is that unconscious bias is real. We call it unconscious because you don’t notice. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human. The more that people can recognize that, then I think that goes a long way to just acknowledging how difficult this can be. But I believe that a diverse and inclusive world is a better world, and if that’s not good enough, look at McKinsey’s data. Higher profits. Two to three times the revenue growth of less diverse organizations. In an AI-driven world, it’s critical that we get this right.


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