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Dr. Vivienne Ming

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May 8, 2018, 13 min read

Interview by Julia Wagner




For this week’s interview, Julia got together with Dr. Vivienne Ming in Berkeley, California. Named “10 Women to Watch in Tech” by Inc. Magazine, Vivienne is a  neuroscientist, serial entrepreneur, philanthropist and book author, improving education and health through machine learning and cognitive neuroscience in an actionable way. Notably, she also has a fascinating transgender story.


In the conversation, we talked about Master’s degrees used for signaling, science fiction helping to be visionary, creating personal growth through algorithms and empowering everyone to reach their maximum potential. 


Vivienne, please introduce yourself.

I started my professional life as a theoretical neuroscientist, just across the street at UC Berkeley. Over the last ten years, I’ve been an entrepreneur, I have done philanthropic work, scientific work and just pure personal projects of a range - working on building AI to help treat diabetes, bipolar disorder and researching bias and inclusion. Also, I built companies in education, workforce, and a variety of different domains. You can probably sum it up as: How do people improve people?


You have published a book called ‘The tax of being different’. Can you share what this concept is about?

In the Western world, the idealized model of the perfect employees is a white straight male, ideally from a wealthier background. The vast majority of people do not fit this description. The concept behind the tax of being different is in some ways conceptually similar to the pay gap. The pay gap is based on the assumption that women get paid less because they have fewer opportunities, are less qualified and don't negotiate as hard. However, even in contexts where women demonstrably are more educated and at a population level represent more of the elite workforce (you often see this for example in the Middle East), they are still paid less on a matched basis. Statistically, when there are a man and woman in a financial analyst position with the same educational background, the woman still gets paid less. The tax addresses and quantifies this problem.


Women in the tech industry [...] (often were) needing Master's degrees when men only had Bachelor's degrees.[...] It is just signaling.


What did your research show?

Using a massive database of 120 million people through the company I was the Chief Scientist at the time, I built models to infer how good you were perceived to be at a job you never held, based on your first name. What did ‘Jose’ need in addition to get the same probability of promotion for the same quality of work as ‘Joe’? What we found was kind of shocking: Often Jose needed a Master's degree to be competitive with Joe, who held no degree at all. In the United States, a Master's degree means six years of additional education and six years of opportunity costs (missed-out salary) which translates into an overall dollar value. It turned out that that number is roughly three-quarters of a million dollars - just to get into the game early in your career. For women in the tech industry, it was about a quarter million dollars, often represented by needing Master's degrees when men only had Bachelor's degrees, by working longer on the job, by going to more elite, expensive universities, for having more exceptional backgrounds.


If you see that there is a peer in the workplace whom you outperform or outqualify and still he is rewarded more in terms of salary or promotion: How do you adequately react?

The somewhat harsh and most simple answer is: paying the tax. If you want to decrease bias about the quality of your work: longer education, go to more elite universities, win awards. But - that's the very thing that we're measuring. I frequently have young women come to me and ask ‘Should I go get an MBA?’. Yes, there is growth in getting that additional education. But it turns out most of its real-world value has nothing to do with growth. It is just signaling the growth you have already had - And that is not fair.

The most effective strategies here is to be able to articulate this at a corporate or policy level and communicate that this tax is an overall economic loss. There are individuals paying this tax and companies are losing as well - by promoting and hiring the wrong people.


Overwhelmingly, you do not promote people for being a collaborative leader, but for [...] being the loudest person in the room who makes decisive decisions.


Back to 'What can you do?', very concretely?

Two things. First: Go do good work. Stop waiting for people to give you a project that you really want to work on. If you can't find anything at work you really want to work on, then create your own project. Do something you truly believe in in the world. And if it's just you in your free time, do it anyways. Secondly: Share it with the world. I pretty fundamentally disagree with some of the rhetoric around things like ‘LeanIn’ and negotiate harder for your salaries. A lot of that tends to be ‘Hey women, be more like men’. I say: Be yourself and make certain that people see the value in that. Go out and do good work and then make sure that there is an audience for it. For instance, I did the work on the ‘Tax of being different’ not because it was part of any company I built. I did it because it needed to be done and it needed to be communicated. And when I had the chance to speak with people like you, journalists and thought leaders, when someone asked me to be on stage, even though they didn't ask about this I shared it. It turns out: Understanding bias and inclusion using machine learning on a data set of 122 million people is a very different and relevant way of understanding the problem.


What do companies get wrong about leadership and productivity?

My research finds that there is an enormous amount of productivity in a lot of companies which is untracked, unrewarded, unpromoted. The most pronounced forms of those behaviors are things like collaborative leadership, things that are often called emotional labor. Which are absolutely not unique to women but are much more common in female employees than male employees. Overwhelmingly, you do not promote people for being a collaborative leader, but for being what's called a hierarchical leader, for being the loudest person in the room who makes decisive decisions. Even women respond strongly to that as a sign of leadership to be awarded when in fact, it is much less associated with actual productivity gain.


“Believing that I can do it is distinctly different than the delusion that I will always be successful.”


Say I am an individual and I want to identify a project to make an impact, outside or inside of my work. Is being visionary just how you tick or do you have a trick to think bigger?

It's both. Thinking big will inevitably come easier to some people than others but everyone can do it. And while, early in my life, people told me I would win a Nobel Prize someday, I very clearly and early learned that I was never going to live up to that. And then I gave up on life and it took a long time to come back from that. The funny thing is: Now I work on projects that in some ways are just as crazily ambitious as that.

One fundamental insight is: Believing that I can do it is distinctly different than the delusion that I will always be successful. I always believe I can have an impact, meaning I can learn, discover something truly new, and get a chance to share it with the world. By design, many of my projects fail, although I try to make certain that the majority does not. They are not consulting or engineering projects. At the beginning of every new project, I have no idea how I am going to approach that problem, for instance, 'Can we improve the rates of suicide prevention in tech space suicide hotlines?'. Being a scientist, one of the first things I will do is read every piece of research I can find. Nothing is truly new in the world. So why do I think I can do something different than all they do? Why do I think that I can make a difference in my son's diabetes when it is an existing multi-billion dollar industry with many massive corporations already trying to work on it? The one thing that is common across all of my projects is probably the fact that I'm a fan of science fiction. When I read a science fiction book, I'm almost always thinking 'How could I build that?'.


Elon Musk also says about himself that he is inspired by science fiction. Is there something that can serve as an equivalent inspiration to science fiction if you are not interested in it?

Let me explain a little more why I find it interesting. I am a bit of a snobby science fiction fan - When I'm reading it, what I actually want to understand is the impacts of these ideas. The best science fiction is about how the world is transformed - for good or ill - based on often one thing or a small number of things. It's not just a geeky exploration of a bunch of cool ideas. There is one thing that is very consistent in research between men and women, which I can believe is entirely culturally driven but could also have deeper underpinnings: Women and young girls as well are often much more driven by purpose, by ‘Why?’, by the impact things have on the world, in some sense just the act itself.


How does that impact you in real life?

When I get recruited to be Chief Scientist for these big companies, the most common misfire on the side of the recruiters is approaching me with statement likes ‘We've got the coolest problems for you to solve here as Chief Scientist. We've got big nasty data problems, complex databases, and the most fabulous distributed computing challenges.’ None of which interest me whatsoever. Essentially you have just said to me ‘We’ve got really hammers and really neat workbenches’, as though that is why I would choose to be a craftsman. But what is the problem you are actually trying to solve? The only time I ever even considered taking such a job was what Amazon pitched me for what I would call a Chief Scientist for People position. They said: In seven years, we will be a one-million-person company and your job will be to make their lives better. It would involve real-time experiments, machine learning, AI and all that sort of stuff that I do, my toolset. But the ‘why’ is what they lead with. That was so strong that when I decided not to take the job (for different reasons), I made a counteroffer: If I can make a million people's lives better, I'll do it for free, as a fellow. They obviously didn't take me up on that offer.


“Women and young girls as well are often much more driven by purpose, by ‘Why?’, by the impact things have on the world.”


What is your advice for bringing yourself to approach massive-scale, seemingly science fictional things?

Firstly: I personally believe I can do these things because I truly fundamentally believe that the purpose of having built them must be served. Secondly, work backward from the impact you want to make, and suddenly it does not sound so crazy anymore. For instance, I worked on a project to build AI that would predict ahead of time when manic episodes are going to happen. That might prevent individuals with bipolar disorder from being fired or divorced, or committing suicide. Research shows that that's possible. Next question from there: How do we reach as many people as possible? We started with the data on their phones. We are never trying to find an application for a cool technology, we always start with a problem that needs to be solved.


It seems to me that there are a lot of recent books and movies with ‘girl’ in the title. I would personally prefer to speak about ‘women’ if the person has a certain age or maturity. How do you feel about that?

In my personal opinion, the use of the word ‘girl’, vastly more widely used than ‘boy’ for men, is obviously meant to infantilized women. Women are used to referencing themselves and their friends as girls. As I have not been raised in that culture, it is foreign to me. Why would I let anyone refer to me as a girl? No grown man would allow someone to call him a ‘boy’.


There is a cultural desire to be youthful and beautiful that I think is captured in the word ‘girl’. It is one thing for that to be the ugly cultural norm for the men around. It is another for women to embrace the word and use it as a regular self-reference. Personally, I did not grow up being told that I needed to raise a family or that I shouldn’t do math. And I don’t have this idea that I should be a ‘girl’.


“Why would I let anyone refer to me as a girl?

No grown man would allow someone

to call him a boy.”


Do you see any other tensions?

Women in certain parts of the world, especially in the Middle East and India, are taking the lead in the emerging intellectual economy. They are suffering from a lot of stereotypes, but they are actually outpacing men in the intellectual economy because men are culturally trapped in the idea that they are supposed to do viral, visceral work. This could lead to some serious social issues as women gain more economic power. If women are more than two-thirds of the economy, why are men still making decisions for them?


What's an advice you would like to give to your 20-year-old self?

It's not about you and it's not about whether you're happy. It's about building your own purpose and keep serving it.

And then I would add one additional little piece which is: It's going to be OK. If you have the courage to just work incredibly hard even though you're unhappy, the gifts start to come. One of those gifts is happiness. But you have to wait for it to be given to you.


“The only way [a promising future is] going to happen is not if people like Elon act like heroes and try to do this all by themselves. This happens if there is an entire world full of people like us, all pointed in the same direction.”


And to close, as an example of continuous learning: What something that yourself from just one year ago has learned?

My life has been pretty incredible for almost a decade now. In a way that's hard to believe, I certainly never would have believed it when I was 20. But even over the last year the scope of what's possible, the kind of people and the scale of problems have increased. I always said that unless we are building a solution that improves the lives of a billion people then it's not worth doing. Now I'm working on projects we actually get to reach a Billion people. A year from now, the scale of everything will feel small compared to what we will be doing over the next year or over the next five years. There's a small part of me that still feels like I'm a terrible person and I have no right to any of the happiness. There's a big part of me that still feels like I'm a fraud. But there's a growing part of me that simply thinks that I might actually have a chance. I often talk about being able to build the future that I want my kids to grow up in, as a kind of wild aspiration and a philosophical statement. I have to say on self-reflection I have bought into the craziness that I think I actually get to do that. And I think the greatest privilege in the world is being able to share that experience with as many people as possible. You mentioned Elon Musk. I love his line that “I want to die on Mars, not on impact.” Well, the only way that's going to happen is not if people like Elon act like heroes out of an Ayn Rand novel and try to do this all by themselves. This happens if there is an entire world full of people like us all pointed in the same direction. Maybe that direction is Mars, maybe something even more ambitious. And over the last years, I've come to believe that that is actually possible.


Thank you for the interview.

It was a pleasure.





Interview Extension:

Read additional interview questions about concrete projects Vivienne is working on and her outlook on society-level problems and solutions.


What is something that you're right now particularly passionate about?

About six months ago I started thinking ‘How do I have an even bigger impact?’. I don't love running companies. I love solving problems and I love sharing what we've learned with people. Back in November, just about four months ago, we started an independent think tank called Socos Labs. We're exploring the future of human potential in education and workforce inclusion, health and well-being and the very nature of innovation itself. It turns out innovation today, whether you're talking technology or not, is a driver of what it means to be human. We don’t just think about ‘What should education look like today?’, but ‘What should it be for the society we want 20 years from now?’ What actually makes a difference in a little child's life, such that when they become an adult, they are the person we want them to be? Whether it's poetry, journalism, science, business, or anything that they decide is meaningful. I am a firm believer that the world will then be a better place.


Ambitious men have been promising us spaceships, AI, and self-driving cars. If every little girl had been given the reins to her own potential we would already have them.


What hinders them today from becoming what they want to be?

Inequality. Look at the scope of the numbers: Generically speaking, people like ‘us’ live in sort of a privileged bubble of education and economic success. Some people have called it ‘the creative class’. It seems like there are 100 or 200 Million such people worldwide - that's like a rounding error in the global population. People like Raj Chetty and James Heckman have looked at global equity and researched how likely it is that you file a patent in your life. How likely are you to be a part of the wealthy elite if you start from different socioeconomic backgrounds? The truth is: If you start from a poor background, the chance of you having that kind of an impact is basically none. If you look at the middle class versus what we might call the wealthy elite - the differences are an order of magnitude. As I once put it and was very flattered to be quoted at the Grace Hopper conference: Ambitious men have been promising us spaceships, AI, and self-driving cars. If every little girl had been given the reins to her own potential we would already have them. Or every little kid, more generically speaking.


What’s a belief you hold that might be counter-intuitive to others?

To me, education, workforce, healthcare, innovation, and inclusion are exactly the same problem. The best solutions are the ones that will understand that.

With regards to kids - the simple truth is investing in your kids is investing in other people's kids. And probably if you come from a background like mine, a very privileged one, it means probably all the more so investing in kids that look significantly different than your own.


“The goal is: Design the job itself into a work experience that aligns with your purpose in the world and that will lead to growth, rather than you merely trying hard.”


How do you go from ambition to action?

The nature of real problem-solving in the world is that you get very targeted problems. How do we prove the effectiveness of suicide prevention hotlines? How can we guide parents in teaching their kids the so-called meta-learning skills that they need to raise their odds for better life outcomes? Our answer was to create an app that recommends specific activities that the parents can do with their kids every night, for example, little games they can play or activities for the parents themselves.

Another example is creating growth by design. We are doing this incredible project with a very large Fortune 50 company in which we are forecasting the career trajectory of all nearly half a million of their employees. What we are really doing is trying to find the moments in their life where we can intervene and make a difference. Is being a great programmer ‘knowing how to program’ or is it something, in fact, a lot deeper than that? What we're trying to do with this career forecasting is to build in those deeper qualities, considering a variety of factors as causal agents: training, corporate education, your manager, the role models in the company, your peer role models, the kinds of projects you're working on. The goal is: Design the job itself into a work experience that aligns with your purpose in the world and that will lead to growth, rather than you merely trying hard.


How else can technology help to solve concrete problems?

One of my roles is being Chief Scientific Adviser for an on-demand economy company called Shiftgig. The kind of on-demand economy companies like Uber, TaskRabbit or Shiftgig employ mainly three kinds of workers: underemployed college students trying to pay off their loans, single mothers and thirdly what we might very bluntly say people that are for various reasons not otherwise employable. Being an Uber driver might be helping you pay your rent or making a little extra money on the side. But it isn't actually changing any of the core problems in your life, increasing your pay or skill set. In working with Shiftgig, I proposed to design an AI system that not only matches the employees with the right shifts, but that builds in a development for the employees over a time of for example two years. To lift them out of the shift economy and into a truthful timed job. In this system, there are clear reasons why we are recommending the shift and we see results such as x increase in hourly earnings or the number of shifts that are available to choose from over time.


“The simple truth is: Investing in your kids is investing in other people's kids.”


How do you increase the demands of a shift, and design personal development? The interesting thing about the gig economy is that work experiences are very well-defined: A certain event will have certain people present who have certain skill requirements. The goal is to create a sequence of those, with the right role models and the right stretch skills. I don't think you ever take humans out of the loop on these sorts of projects. But using data science and machine learning, you can do it at scale. One of the biggest things we see is peer role modeling. We make sure new employees are paired with a role model on the job that teaches them the code of conduct and basic skills. They learn code-switching, meaning the application of different behavioral sets for different cultural contexts. Another basic intervention we do is scaffolding (‘guided learning’), by doing such simple things as sending out a reminder via text message to show up in the morning.

Vienne speaks at TEDxBerkeley about her personal story and how she found her personal mission. 

Copyright © 2017 TEDx via Youtube 

About Her

Dr. Vivienne Ming was named one of 10 Women to Watch in Tech by Inc. Magazine in 2013. She is a theoretical neuroscientist, entrepreneur, and author. She co-founded Socos Labs, her fifth company, an independent think tank exploring the future of human potential. Dr. Ming launched Socos Labs to combine her varied work with that of other creative experts and expand their impact on global policy issues, both inside companies and throughout our communities. Previously, Vivienne was a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, pursuing her research in cognitive neuroprosthetics. In her free time, Vivienne has invented AI systems to help treat her diabetic son, predict manic episodes in bipolar sufferers weeks in advance, and reunited orphan refugees with extended family members. She sits on boards of numerous companies and nonprofits including StartOut, The Palm Center, Cornerstone Capital, Platypus Institute, Shiftgig, Zoic Capital, and SmartStones. Dr. Ming also speaks frequently on her AI-driven research into inclusion and gender in business. For relaxation, she is a wife and mother of two.


Read more stories about Vivienne on Harvard Business Review  and Triton Magazine.


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