Episode 8 – Battling Bias in AI

FortressIQ | Intelligent Insights for the Modern Enterprise
Episode 8 - Battling Bias in AI

For leaders, the promise of AI needs to be offset by an understanding of the risks. A lack of diversity and the inherent bias in technology influences many critical decisions around health, education, the workplace and society in general. It’s not the fundamental technology that’s racist or sexist, but the data on which we train the algorithms or the unconscious biases and prejudices of the developers. Battling these biases within and beyond the workplace includes addressing workplace equity and essential diversity and inclusion programs and initiatives. Beyond the world of HR and technology, one path to battling biases involves building awareness at a young age or through professional mentorship.

In today’s episode, Fortress IQ’s founder and CEO Pankaj Chowdhry and series producer Elizabeth Mitelman talk with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lead at Google Sherika Ekpo about the unique challenges, impact of racism and sexism on society, and successful approaches for tackling bias in AI.

Talking Points:

  • Sherika’s journey from government to Google
  • How to be a good ally and the definition of allyship
  • How to address pipeline issues in STEM and AI education
  • Conquering the challenges in biases in the tech industry
  • Why does diversity matter so much?
  • The importance of mentorship at various levels of your lifelong journey
  • Advice for the next generation of tech leaders


Sherika Ekpo’s Official Website


If you enjoyed this episode, subscribe and check out our series at fortressiq.com/podcast. Thanks for joining us today on hello, Human.

Full Episode Transcript:

Jon: Hi and welcome to hello, Human, a podcast to explore ideas and feature humans working in AI and technology. Sherika Ekpo, the Global Diversity & Inclusion Lead at Google for Artificial Intelligence, joined us today on the hello, Human podcast where we discussed the latest topics in AI and how it’s being applied in the real world. 

I’m Jon Knisley, the host of hello, Human and a long-time technologist helping companies win in the market with emerging technologies. A big thanks to Fortress IQ for sponsoring the program, and be sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. 

In this episode, we are going to explore battling bias in AI. Decisions around health, education, the workplace, and society, in general, suffer as a result of bias in AI. Addressing this challenge within and beyond the workplace includes exploring workplace equity, and essential diversity and inclusion programs. Beyond the world of HR and technology, battling biases starts at a young age or with professional mentorship. 

This is part of a new series on the hello, Human podcast focused on women in AI. A big thanks to Elizabeth Mitelman for coming up with the idea for this series and spearheading the production. For the next 10 episodes, we are excited to celebrate and promote women at the frontlines of AI and highlight the critical contributions they are making in the world and how they are paving the way for the next generation of female leaders. 

For this special episode, Fortress IQ’s founder and CEO Pankaj Chowdhry and series producer Elizabeth Mitelman have a fascinating conversation with Google’s Sherika Ekpo and explore some of the unique challenges, impact on society, and successful approaches for tackling bias in AI.

Pankaj: Sherika, thanks for joining us today. 

Sherika: I’m excited to be here on March 8th, International Women’s Day to kick off the hello, Human Women in AI series. I’m excited to celebrate women today and every day. 

Pankaj: My first question was, how did you get here? You’ve got a diverse background, I’m sure there are some incredible stories. You were at the CFPB during the Obama years, in diversity during the Trump years at the US Digital Service. I’m sure there are some crazy stories there, but I’d just love to hear about how you made that transition from government and how the world looked there from a D&I perspective, into helping the world in Big Tech to try to be better.

Sherika: Well, Pankaj, thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to share this opportunity with you. Wow, how did I get here? That’s a really good question. I actually want to start at the beginning because I am the product of two parents who immigrated here from the Caribbean. With immigrant parents, they’ve always instilled the importance of education. Initially, the thought was, do you want to be a doctor, a lawyer—some of the typical fields that are shared with children at a very young age that are very prestigious, no less. I’ve always walked away with I wanted to help people. 

For me, helping people was actually going in to be a nurse like my aunt, until I realized I didn’t like blood, so that quickly went out the window. But then I thought about how else I can help people, so I started my career at JPMorgan Chase in the finance space. My thought was okay, maybe I can help people with loans or very commercial products that were tangible, and that I could create access for people. 

I did that for a couple of years, really ended up in our back-office operations for a number of products and did some asset and wealth management, and then transitioned into business school full-time, which is where I developed my passion and love for human resources. That human resources background and being in business school in Maryland at the University of Maryland’s business school and so proximate to DC really opened up a world of opportunities for me to entertain government.

With the government being in our backdoor really gave me a chance to put a microscopic lens on what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. I entered the government workforce—the federal workforce—with the Department of Homeland Security. I spent five years there, and what I will tell you is the government is a very mission-driven environment that really thrives on the growth and development of others. The workforce was aging, so there was a very concentrated effort on the development of young talent and leaders who wanted to make a difference. That’s where I found my niche.

I was able to get in at the ground level with just my MBA and really grow my management and leadership capabilities there. I did that under the direction of our CFO, and I led a lot of for-people operations because at that point I’m saying while I can help the Department of Homeland Security, let me go and tie it to something that I’m very connected to which was finance from JPMorgan, so I went to work for the CFO.

Shortly thereafter, I started asking myself how I can help other people get into this mission-driven work. I love serving. I love being able to think about policies and how they impact immigrants at ICE and some of the other agencies that DHS FEMA serves. I went into talent acquisition because the greatest way for me to share the gift of government and service is by telling my story and allowing others to join me. 

I got the opportunity to think about talent acquisition at a broader level and at an agency level at CFPB. As you can imagine, being at CFPB—the agency that President Obama at the time and Senator Warren started—and being in those elevator banks with Senator Warren as she would get us all excited about serving the American people and increasing financial literacy, was one of the highlights of my career. 

For me, it was about building out talent pipelines—internship programs, diversity and inclusion pipelines—that could get more talent into serving the federal space. From there, another opportunity came to lead people operations at the United States Digital Service. With that came a lot of responsibility because as you noted, it was a very interesting time to serve under a Republican president. Let me just say what it is.

Pankaj: A different president.

Sherika: A different president, right? Some of the policies were different. Of course, the players were different, but our mission was the same. What I really appreciated about the United States Digital Service was the opportunity to work with technologists who had come from the valley to work with government leaders. Who were very steadfast in their craft to really still provide digital services and improved offerings to folks in the military through the Defense Digital Service—through the VA—to our veterans who have served our country and deserve so many benefits and support after their service. 

When I think about how I got here into big tech, it was listening to and seeing some of the trends in the workforce that got me inspired to think more critically about why the technological landscape and workforce looked the way it did. While at USDS, I did our first inaugural D&I plan and really realized a couple of key things. 

One, females rock. Our leadership team at that time was 60% female. I sat in a room with directors who looked like me. The men were in the minority for the first time, which is not normal for a tech company or agency, let alone one in government. That was exciting. 

The other thing that was very obvious to me is that in our engineering community of practice, we had some gaps. Many of those gaps were around female representation as well as race and ethnic representation. We needed to find ways to get more Black+ representation, more Latinx representation, and more indigenous representation in the engineering community of practice. 

I did some research, looked at all the big tech annual reports, and saw that they too had a representation challenge and said, I want to go to a place that has infinite resources and can really help solve this problem at a macro level. That’s Google—big name, big dollars, big impact. That’s what landed me where I am today. 

At this point, I have the pleasure of serving as a diversity, equity, and inclusion lead for our research and artificial intelligence space, and there’s a lot of opportunity for growth and development, and we’re definitely leading the way there. 

Pankaj: One thing that’s been fascinating for me, knowing a lot of Googler friends, there is definitely a special way of thinking of resources that aren’t limited. We usually come to a problem in this constrained mindset of we’re limited to this resource or this resource. It’s sometimes terrifying when that constraint is removed and you just see what a blue sky would hold, interesting. 

I want to talk a little bit about, selfishly, how someone like myself—I’m a founder in technology. Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen a sea change in the definitions of all the characteristics of D&I are. The most recent one is the concept that people would say, well I’m not a racist. Being not a racist, versus being anti-racism, versus being an ally. 

I’d love to get your view on how people like myself that have been fortunate and being in these roles can be allies not only to people like you, but to people that you’re trying to bring up also, and create an environment where we can make sure that diversity, inclusion, and equity are front and center in our missions.

Sherika: Thanks for that question, and thanks for your partnership and allyship. I think over the last nine months or so, we’ve just seen a huge uptick in social unrest. We’ve seen black and brown people, what I would say, terrorized. We’ve seen images play across the media of people who are not afforded the luxury of de-escalation like some other groups. As a result of that, we stepped into this space where as a society, as a country, as a world, we have to step back and say what’s happening, why is this happening, and what can we do to change it? 

The history of black people, slavery, Jim Crow, and everything else of this country definitely sets the stage for what we see today. Your question is really, what can you do as an ally? I think the first thing is we need to define what an allyship is. Allyship is really around how we support folks who come from marginalized groups, or historically underrepresented groups. 

When I think about that, if you are not from one of those groups, allyship essentially is being able to use your social capital. It is being able to use your ability and influence to support someone from an under-represented group in a way that gives them access and equity to things that you have as well. 

There’s one thing for me to be a mentor for a young black woman who looks like me and try to create opportunities for her in the tech space where I am. But it’s another thing to have someone who doesn’t look like her—let’s say it’s a male, let’s say it’s a white man—who can also champion and use his influence, circle, and capital to support this woman in her goals as well. 

I really just think about some of the challenges that are faced when folks want to be allies. A lot of the things that I hear is I don’t know how. I don’t know where to start. Sherika, tell me what to do. Sometimes, when people of color hear that, they are further burdened by the need to educate the majority, which defeats the purpose. 

What I will tell you is being at Google, we are really big on education. We try to meet people exactly where they are. Are you at the beginning of your DEI journey—your diversity, equity, and inclusion journey? Are you somewhere in the middle? Or are you one of those seasoned co-conspirators? Because there’s a difference between allyship and being a co-conspirator. 

A co-conspirator is someone who’s not only willing to lend their network, but they also lend their actions. They will physically use their bodies and their minds, and sacrifice that for others. We have a number of co-conspirators in our work phase or ecosystem as well. But really, it starts with defining what allyship is. 

It also takes an opportunity for allies to get together to understand what it is that they’re willing to sacrifice. It’s an on-going dialogue. There is no box to check, and there is no formula to use that will give everyone the outcome that we’re looking for. It is an iterative process, and we have to understand where people are on the continuum so that we can then meet and create solutions to create a more inclusive environment.

Pankaj: You talked a little bit about the history of it and how it all started hundreds of years ago. I’d like to get your thoughts on something a little bit more near and dear to what we’re doing today in AI and STEM, talk about education and pipeline, and get your thoughts on what we can do to try and address those pipeline issues of women of under-represented communities, and science and technology. What can we do there to increase exposure or whatever else we will need to do to try to solve that problem?

Sherika: Yes, and thank you for that because there are a couple of things that I feel very passionate about. One, I’m a mom of three. I live in the valley, and my son has been a direct beneficiary of my time at Google. When I say that, I mean his elementary school partners with Google to provide coding support in kindergarten. He had Googlers in the cafeteria helping him with a Scratch Exercise in kindergarten. 

I think about how fortunate we are to have that support, but I also think about my home community, which is Washington DC where I grew up. At the elementary school right on Georgia Avenue, I did not have that support. I did not have computer access in the rooms. When you think about K-12 and the opportunities that exist, I think there are a number of opportunities for tech companies, trade associations, and nonprofits to partner with very early on. 

And when I say K-12, I mean K. Right? Let’s start them off at kindergarten to learn more about the cool jobs that exist. I think part of the issue with the partnerships is we don’t allow kids to understand what it means to learn Scratch, and then the type of job that you can have 20 years from now if you learn how to code or if you are an engineer. 

A part of that is us not clearly understanding where the future is going to lead-based on innovation and technology, so there’s a gap there. But I do think that there are opportunities very similar to what we do at Google. We have the exploreCSR program. We have Code Next where we have high schoolers come in to learn the basics about coding through mentorship with Googlers after school. We also have a component of that program where we have parents involved so that they understand and can learn how to support their highschoolers along this journey. 

So there’s a number of things that we can do in terms of partnerships at the K-12 level, but I think that we have to go a step further. I’m a proud graduate of Howard University, which is a historically black college and university. All I knew is that the folks who were in our Computer Science program in the School of Engineering were always busy, like heads down, heads down, heads down. 

One of the things that I know is faculty at some of our historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions can also use a refresh on some of the latest technology and the curriculum, right? Technology is moving so quickly.

Pankaj: It’s lifelong learning, yeah.

Sherika: It’s lifelong learning. We can also benefit from these partnerships that we see a lot in large- and medium-sized tech companies have with faculty development and professional development for that staff. Because if our faculty are upskilled, then that means that our students will actually benefit from that as well. 

The final thing I would say is there’s always an opportunity to go to and partner with local foundations and organizations to do summer camps or app development camps. Some of the most heart-warming stories I hear from young women who are able to go to a camp that’s two weeks, and at the end of those two weeks they have developed an app that’s interactive, that’s real, that’s tangible, and that they can share with their families. And they didn’t have that expectation coming into the camp. 

I think there’s a number of opportunities for us to help develop student identity and potential future careers, build professional development, upskill our faculty at HBCUs and HSIs, and then do some local talent planning and really connect with some of our nonprofits to make sure that we have fun and engaging partnerships and activities for our kids.

Pankaj: I want to thank you for your time. This was really eye-opening for me. I really, really enjoyed it. 

Sherika: Thanks Pankaj, take care.

Elizabeth: Sherika and Pankaj, thank you again for joining us for this special series. Let’s talk about women in tech. […] diversity stays poor. The Boston Consulting Group reports that only around 15% of women work in data science in Europe, clearly showing a big gap for women and other marginalized groups. As a result of this bias, decisions around health, education, the workplace, and society in general suffer. How do you conquer this challenge of biases within and beyond the workspace?

Sherika: Thanks Elizabeth, it’s a pleasure to be here with you. Bias is an age-old issue that a number of women and people of color experience in the workplace. Where do I begin? I think that the first thing we have to do when we think about bias is really to educate our coworkers and managers on what bias is. 

Gender bias is something that I’ve experienced in my time in the finance industry, as well as in the tech industry. But I think the first thing is really calling it out. One thing that I appreciate about the environment that I’m in is we’re very open with one another and we call it how we see it. If for some reason I feel like someone is not addressing me although I’m in the room—I’ve had examples where I’ve done a presentation and there are questions about the presentation, but they will ask my boss who is a male to answer the question instead of addressing the question towards me. 

When I see things like that, you stay professional but you bring that to the attention of your coworker because I think calling it out sometimes is exactly what needs to happen in order for them to recognize their behavior. Sometimes it’s intentional, but sometimes it’s not. 

The second thing that I like to do, and this is an exercise or practice that I actually request of my HR leaders, is to really do some sort of analysis or assessment on pay because doing a standardized pay assessment would really get at the root cause of any gender issues or gender bias issues that we may see. 

Unfortunately, we still work in a place where men are seen as the primary breadwinners, and as a result, their compensation may reflect that. Meanwhile, women are doing the same job and may not be compensated equally for the same work. Again, those types of evaluations and behaviors must be called out. The one thing I will say is mentorship and sponsorship has been something that has really, really played a role in trying to dispel some of this bias and really get to the root cause of it.

While people may be comfortable being paired with someone from the same gender in some of these programs, we often find some of the greatest growth, and it’s bi-directional growth. We see it with the sponsor or the sponsee when the gender is mixed because it is a fact that men and women think differently. But I think that we can learn a lot from one another if we address the issues head-on, seek out mentors or sponsors who live differently than us, and evaluate our overall people processes like hiring or pay inequities to make sure that we are not further influencing or encouraging gender bias. 

Elizabeth: Yes, absolutely. Education about bias and looking at the data, including looking at compensation, of course, mentorship are all extremely important. My greater question is how do you go about explaining to people why this matters so much?

Sherika: That’s a good question. We often have to talk about the business case for diversity, and a lot of it is centered around the opportunity to level the playing field and create products and services that are beneficial and accessible to everyone. The reason why bias is something that we need to guard against is because bias in the workplace is essentially just unfairly excluding someone from opportunities even when they’re qualified. 

In order for us to ensure that people show up in their most authentic and valuable self and way, we have to address bias head-on. The one thing to note is that sometimes bias is unconscious, but that leads to sexism, discrimination, stereotyping, and things of that nature. And when we have that, it stunts innovation and it actually stunts overall growth. It’s something that we definitely want to ensure that we address head-on.

Elizabeth: You touched on mentorship, and for women especially, we really understand the importance of a strong mentor particularly starting at a young age. Did you receive any mentorship throughout your career journey?

Sherika: Oh wow, absolutely. I think the success that I’ve achieved to date is in large part to the mentors who have been supporting me from the time I was a teenager. I was first paired with a mentor through my teen ministry program at church. I was paired with someone who had the profession that I wanted, which was an attorney. I wanted to be an attorney, so they said, it would be great for you to connect with Vicky. She’s a fantastic attorney. She’s doing all the things that you wanted to do. She went to Howard. It will be a great connection. 

I’m happy to say that she and I are actually still connected to this day. It’s the mentorship that I received very early on in my educational journey throughout my career journey that has helped me take a step back at critical points in my life to really evaluate where I was going against the goal that I had set out for myself. 

That mentorship also helped me to see more clearly some of the obstacles that were in front of me that I could not see because of my lack of industry experience or wisdom. A more seasoned mentor could see these things because he or she had experienced these obstacles before.

Mentorship has played a tremendous role in my success, and what I will tell you is I then take that mentorship relationship seriously, but more importantly I see the value in providing mentorship for others. As a result, I formally and informally mentor many women and men too. Really, it just depends on what they want to be mentored on.

I have people that I connect with about motherhood. People always think that mentorship has to be something so formal and it has to be all professional. In fact, that’s not the case. We can talk about what it’s like to be working from home, be the mother of three, have a very demanding job, and still be expected to produce. Having a mentor to vent with and share best practices with has been a very valuable resource for me. 

Elizabeth: Those mentors, they really do help you realize so much, whether you’re ultimately going into a specific field or profession, or even if you decide not to go into the attorney or legal field. It’s amazing that you’ve been able to return the mentorship to so many other young women and other professionals. My question for you is, for the next generation of women in AI and tech leaders, what advice can you give?

Sherika: There are a couple of things that I would say. The first is to really enjoy the moment. I actually think that being in this pandemic mode, having to work from home, having come out of lockdown, the scare of COVID-19, and the disproportional impact that it had on people of color, I just tell people to take a minute to be in the moment and give yourself some grace. So often we’re expected to perform at the same rates that we were pre-COVID, and that may not be feasible for everyone to do. It really depends on your resources.

After you take that break, and you enjoy and marvel at the moment that you’re in, I would say chart a plan for where you want to go. The technology field is evolving. When I think about all of the quantum research that’s happening right now, when I think about the evolution of AI ethics that’s happening and that has happened over the last five years—these topics were not as heavily discussed back in 2010 because they were new. They are continuing to evolve.

If you have some time to take stock of where you want to be, you may actually identify a career field that’s evolving, and identify mentors or sponsors who can help you get into that space. I think that when you do this assessment of where you want to go, you think about the skill sets that you already possess. 

Do you have hardcore technical skills? Do you need to brush up on a new computing language? Do you need to work on your soft skills, how you present, how well you manage relationships, how well you manage up? There are key things that you need to do in this skill assessment in order to figure out how best you can leverage your skill sets going forward.

Finally, I would say go for the goal. Take the risk. We are in a very constrained environment at the moment. I am glad to see that there is progress on the dissemination of the COVID-19 vaccines, which likely means that we’re going to reopen and be fully operational within the next 6-12 months. But with that comes opportunity. 

Now is the time to chart your path so that you can seize the next opportunity. That opportunity may include you taking risks, and what I tell folks all the time is it is okay to take risks, but make sure that they are calculated. The way that you calculate the risks is based on what it is that you’re willing to sacrifice. 

When I think about a new career opportunity, I ask myself about the scope of the work. I ask myself if it aligns with my values. I ask myself who is the leader of that team? Do I identify with him or her and their thoughts? And then I also ask, will it help me get closer to my ultimate goal? If you know your goals, then you can assess your skills and chart your path. Take calculated risks so that you will end up where you ultimately want to be. 

Elizabeth: Go for the goal—that’s a fantastic point to end on. 

Sherika: Thank you so much Elizabeth. 

Jon: That’s great insight and a great point to end on. To recap today’s conversation with Sherika Ekpo, the Global Diversity and Inclusion Lead at Google for Artificial Intelligence, bias in AI is real across a number of dimensions. Many decisions around health, education, the workplace, and society, in general, suffer as a result of bias in technology and AI. 

Addressing this challenge within and beyond the workplace includes exploring workplace equity and essential diversity and inclusion programs. Beyond the world of HR and technology, battling biases starts at a young age and with professional mentorship.

One additional reminder—this is the first in our new special series on Women in AI, so be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. Thank you Sherika for joining us today, to Fortress IQ’s founder and CEO Pankaj Chowdhry, and Women in AI series producer Elizabeth Mitelman for organizing the program and leading the discussion. 

That’s a wrap on today’s show. Thank you for tuning in, and to Fortress IQ for sponsoring the program. I’m Jon Knisley and this has been hello, Human.

If you enjoyed this session, subscribe and check out our series at fortressiq.com/podcast. Thanks for joining us today on hello, Human.