Levi-Strauss’ Dr. Katia Walsh on why diversity in AI and ML is non-negotiable

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As part of VentureBeat’s series of interviews with women and BIPOC leaders in the AI industry, we sat down with Dr. Katia Walsh, chief strategy and artificial intelligence officer, Levi Strauss & Co. In her career she has forged paths for people from every intersection of race, culture, class, and education, giving them the tools they need in an AI- and data-centric world to be creative, solve problems, develop new solutions, and change the game in their roles across their companies. She’s passionate about the power of diversity, about empowering her employees, and about using technology for good. Learn more about her career, from communist Bulgaria to Levi-Strauss’ first chief strategy and artificial intelligence officer, and her DE&I manifesto below.

See the others in the series: Intel’s Huma Abidi, Redfin’s Bridget Frey, Salesforce’s Kathy Baxter, McAfee’s Celeste Fralick, and ThoughtSpot’s Cindi Howson.

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

I started my career as a journalist in communist Bulgaria, where I personally experienced the power of information through a story I wrote while still in high school. That experience led me to become an investigative reporter who aimed to impact human lives, democracy, and society overall. After the fall of communism, I pursued further education in the U.S. During my master’s studies, I discovered the power of new communication technology and specifically, the internet, to amplify the power of information. I then continued my education through a PhD. program that specialized in new communication technology. It was at that point that I became fascinated with a third power, the power of machine learning and its ability to drive desired outcomes. This convergence of three powers — information (or data), technology (or digital), and machine learning (part of artificial intelligence) became the focus of my career.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve used my passion for these three powers to help global businesses win with digital, data, and AI. Throughout my career, I have worked to enable companies to thrive through these powers. I’ve used digital, data, and AI to help both digital-born and established businesses become customer-centric, indispensable to their consumers, and grow. I’ve found myself gravitating to companies that not only strive for profit but also stand for doing social good in the world.

Today, as the first chief strategy and artificial intelligence officer for Levi Strauss & Co., I’m responsible for digital strategy and transformation, while infusing our culture with data, analytic, and artificial intelligence capabilities. This helps us put our fans in the center of everything we do, drive business value across the company globally, and serve as a platform for doing good in the world.

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

One of the myths about digital transformation is that it’s all about harnessing technology. It’s not. To be successful, digital transformation inherently requires and relies on diversity. Artificial intelligence is the result of human intelligence, enabled by its vast talents and also susceptible to its limitations. Therefore, it is imperative that all teams that work in technology and AI are as diverse as possible.

By diversity of people I don’t mean just the obvious in terms of demographics such as race, ethnicity, gender, and age. We critically need people with different skill sets, experiences, educational backgrounds, cultural and geographic perspectives, ways of thinking and working, and more. For example, on the teams I’ve led, I’ve had the privilege of working with many advanced degrees and also people with no formal education. Why? When you have a diverse team reviewing and analyzing data whether it’s for decision-making or algorithms for digital products, you mitigate bias, you move the technology world closer to reflecting the real world, and you are better able to serve your customers who are much more diverse than most companies give them credit for.

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

I consider the world to be my community. As an American and European citizen who’s worked at global companies, a global perspective comes naturally, but it’s also important for fostering diversity. The teams I’ve led have been located all over the world, from Boston, Toronto, and Dallas to all geographies throughout Europe and the U.K., plus Singapore, Shanghai, Mumbai, Bangalore, Johannesburg, Nairobi, and Cairo.

At Levi Strauss &Co., diversity of skill sets has played a key role in our digital transformation. In addition to engineers and computer scientists, our growing AI team comprises statisticians, physicists, philosophers, sociologists, designers, retail employees, and distribution center operators. I recently initiated and led our company in its first-ever digital upskilling program, a Machine Learning Bootcamp. By design, it tapped employees with no previous coding or statistics experience working in all markets and functions of the company throughout the world.

The goal was to train people who have deep apparel and retail experience and upgrade their abilities with the latest machine learning skills. In eight weeks, we took people who had never seen code before and trained them to work with Python, use libraries, program neural networks, write automation scripts, and deliver value from coding. This combination of apparel retail expertise and machine learning skills is already resulting in new ways of connecting with consumers, new efficiencies, new creative designs, and new opportunities for our storied brand.

This first-of-its-kind-initiative in the apparel retail industry helped us cultivate more diversity, and attract more women into the traditionally male-dominated field of AI. For example, women represented almost two thirds of our first machine learning graduating class, and the graduates are located in 14 different locations around the world.

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?

Like anything in society, our industry would benefit greatly from the work that women, especially Black and BIPOC women do. We owe it to the world to have more diverse talents creating the current and future solutions and products of technology and artificial intelligence.

Human-centric design by definition means design of and for all humans on the planet. I am personally very grateful to the brave women who have helped uncover and expose bias; advocate for equality, representation and fairness; introduce necessary regulation; and keep solving the myriad of problems that have traditionally stemmed from lack of diversity in our industry.

I look forward to seeing more women — across all ethnicities, Black and BIPOC included, more backgrounds, more skillsets, more geographies, and more perspectives consistently present and evident in our field. This will amplify the power of digital transformation and enable businesses and organizations for future success, while literally changing industries, society, and the world.


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