As building diverse workforces and diverse workplaces becomes more important, I want to profile business leaders who have been thoughtful and intentional in creating workplaces that embrace different people, needs, and skill sets.
In this interview with May Habib, co-founder and CEO of Qordoba, a content intelligence platform, we discuss different elements of diversity and inclusion, including just how much the language you use counts. After all, brand voice and language can make or break your success.
Habib, a Harvard University alumna, serves as a member of the World Economic Forum and a fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. She is an expert in natural language processing, machine learning, and technology investing.
Serenity Gibbons: What responsibility, if any, do you feel leaders have regarding building diverse workplaces?
May Habib: Everything starts from the top, and this is one of the most important things that we can do as leaders to have a single-generation transformative impact on society. There’s nothing that can be faster than this, and responsibility has to start from the top. You ask your recruiters for a diverse pipeline. You ask your hiring managers for diverse candidates. You refuse to sit on hiring panels that don’t show you diverse candidates. There’s so much power that leaders can wield to create diverse candidate pools. And from there, may the best candidate win, but a leader’s ability to insist on diverse pipelines is so necessary.
Gibbons: What’s one piece of advice you would give to a minority considering a future in business?
Habib: Establish mentors every step of the way. Mentors have been instrumental to my own personal success. What mentorship does is a couple of things. One, it’s the one-on-one advice. It’s that inside story. It’s the how-they-did-it that can really be opaque to folks who are outside of the network, minorities included. The second thing that mentorship does is it catapults you and leapfrogs you into an established network. Once a mentor-mentee relationship has built up a lot of trust, their network becomes your network, and that’s been instrumental in how I’ve navigated my career. I think if you are a minority, you’re already starting with a bit of a handicap, and creating mentors and investing in mentor relationships is so key to building those same and deep networks.
Gibbons: If you could go back and talk to the child version of yourself, what would you say to prepare yourself for your entrepreneurial journey?
Habib: Even though I’ve taken a lot of risks in my career and my regrets are few, the regrets that I do have are about not taking even more risk. So I would ask that child to dream big — as she did — but also to fear failure a lot less and take on as much risk as she possibly can. Because the worst possible thing to happen is really not so bad at all.
Gibbons: What do you see the U.S. business landscape looking like in 10 years?
Habib: A lot more of the economy is going to be gig economy than it is now, and we’re already approaching something like 30% of new job creation being part-time or project-based work. We’re going to see that increase, and that’s going to create a lot of opportunities. I also believe in this concept of ultra-learning: Learning really hard things in a very short period of time is going to be the hallmark of people who can navigate that kind of change in their industries very quickly. I believe we’ll have many more industries that need to try to teach people really hard things in really short periods of time.
Gibbons: What’s your current view of diversity in the workplace, and how has it evolved?
Habib: As a minority and as a woman, I’ve always worked in industries where I was a double minority — from banking to sovereign wealth to, now, enterprise tech software. And I think my views have evolved from “I’m completely blind to it because I’m just very focused on climbing the ladder myself” to “I have a responsibility every step of the way to make sure others who don’t look like everybody else — whether that’s sexual orientation, gender, class, and certainly ethnic and racial background — feel comfortable, can feel at home in the environment in which I work, regardless of what level I’m at.”
Gibbons: As an executive in the natural language processing space, how do you feel your work is impacted by diversity issues?
Habib: We care about this so much that we’ve literally developed technology that allows companies to make sure the content they’re producing is inclusive, and that’s important because you have an employer brand that lives on the internet and in digital channels in the public sphere that you can’t control. If you’re trying to create those diverse candidate pipelines, it’s going to be really important for you to think about the language you’re using and its ability to either promote or discourage diverse candidates from wanting to be associated with your brand. So it’s funny that I feel like life has come full circle. I’ve obviously cared a lot about this. I started off in an all-male group in banking, and now we’ve got a leadership team that’s 50% women and 75% non-white. It’s incredible, and it makes a lot of sense that we’ve developed this technology because it’s clearly important.
And I feel like [my] gender has actually been a strength. Our company’s at the epicenter of AI content natural language processing. In a lot of ways, we could be looked at in a really threatening way, that we are eliminating editing jobs by having AI take over. I do think coming at it from a feminine perspective — my leadership style is definitely a feminine leadership style — has been a more empathetic approach to the prospects that we’ve talked to. As a result, it has resulted in some really deep customer relationships that are based on trust. When you’re new in a space, and you’re trying to create a category, it’s an evangelical sale. Coming to a potential customer with a collaborative, consultative mindset about how these new technologies are going to impact their workplace, their job, and their function is a huge benefit. And I do credit that to a more feminine style of leadership.