Technology and AI will get women off the bench

UN Special Advisor Radia Funna believes taking a futurist approach will help boost diversity and tackle the problems facing humanity

Radia Funna, the founder of organisational strategy firm Build n Blaze, is an entrepreneur, strategist and special advisor to the UN in transformation and innovation.

Ahead of the Women in IT New York Virtual Summit on October 28,  she explains how taking a futurist approach can help boost diversity and tackle the problems facing humanity.

Gender and racial diversity are human, not moral issues, according to Radia Funna, who believes that “the diversity of who we are is useful to all of us.”

As the creator of the theory of the exponential human, Funna argues that the 21st century offers a great opportunity to eradicate the stereotypes that have been an obstacle to growth and success.

“It’s about the co-evolution of human and machine”, she explains. “Where we are as human beings having co-evolved with what I’ve called xMachines – coded to be intelligent, informed and autonomous, rising at about the time we landed on the moon. What does that mean, what does 50 years evolving with these machines mean?”

Funna is the founder of Build n Blaze, which helps companies to make the right organisational and strategic choices. Last year she launched a streaming station, Build n Blaze TV, at the UN General Assembly and featuring the concept of xHuman. 

“I felt that this could be a guide to how the UN can engage with the next generation of humanity, especially online,” she reveals.

“Mostly young people who have an interest in saving the world, but they don’t have a framework to corral around. The UN has a framework in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but most people don’t know it exists. So how do we make that connection and have people know they can use it if they care about the climate, and gender parity, alongside the UN through, a decade of action. The aim is to use this platform for the next decade to help the UN meet Gender 2030.”

AI plus humans

As well as being the start of the UN’s Decade of action on its SDGs, 2020 also marks the organisation’s 75th anniversary. At the UN Assembly in September, Funna spoke about AI versus humans. Albeit, her stance is one of AI plus humans; in other words, collaboration rather than concern that machines will replace humans.

“When we were switching from the horse-drawn carriage to the horseless carriage, we were worried about the carriage drivers,” she points out. “We thought they wouldn’t have jobs.  And now as we’re switching to the driverless cars, we’re worried about the drivers of the cars.” 

“But I think the opportunity here is to get people away from jobs that we don’t do as well; repetitive tasks that give us carpal tunnel and the like; dangerous tasks that kill us underground or give us black lung. Instead, go for things that people do better.” 

“As I look at technology and AI, it could be an opportunity to take half of the population off the bench, and I’m talking about women. If humanity wants to move forward efficiently, I think we are making a big mistake by maintaining these old ideas that hold back half of the population.”

Funna adds: “We also need them off the bench, and everybody’s brain involved because we are destroying the planet. We have very little time, approximately 10 years, to turn this around; otherwise, we are going to leave a disaster for the next generation.”

Career diversity

Funna has enjoyed a diverse career. She had ambitions of becoming a lawyer, a writer, an actress, a singer and a dancer – and managed to satisfy them all.

After studying theatre arts, English and law, she had a variety of legal and theatrical roles before landing what she calls her first ‘real’ job with Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance company. Her remit was systemising a major contract with Medicaid and developing training programmes.

After 9/11 Funna found herself out of work, so she tried writing, acting, singing and dancing. But the low pay drove her back to the more lucrative corporate world. The return included developing strategies for major brands, such as Nike and Calvin Klein. The next career move was to the recruitment sector.

And, it was as Global Practice Manager for Heidrick & Struggles, which places CEOs and board members, that she became aware, for the first time, of being a role model and the issue of the ‘glass ceiling’.

“Heidrick & Struggles had a woman problem,” Funna recalls. “It is one of the top firms in the retained search space, but women couldn’t get past a certain point, and they were leaving in droves.” 

“First, I wanted to understand why women were not being promoted. I asked the leadership, and the answer was pretty much the same – women did not bring in the multi-million-dollar contracts. The men did. So, it wasn’t about the woman; it was about the practice.”  

“Women did not have the multi-million-dollar relationships that the men had. They did not have any girls’ clubs, at least not in the way in which men had boys’ clubs. Think about how many private clubs, including golf clubs, dinner clubs and the like that, up until recently, did not allow women to join their ranks.”

Forming a girls’ club

Her answer was to forge a link between Heidrick & Struggles and the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. It brings together the top women from around the world.  

She explains: “I needed to find an appropriate girls’ club, not a golf club or a squash club like what the guys were doing, but someplace where women of power, of knowledge, were working and where I could showcase my women and help them build relationships.” 

Funna helped select the top woman from each of the company’s five regions to attend the summit. She devised a system for them to learn, actions to take in the workplace and ways of tracking their progress. In addition, the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit holds an Evening With dinner four times a year. Funna organised a cocktail hour before each one. 

“We developed a leadership programme for 25 women, designed to progress their careers on boards or in government. It sold out very quickly, and people felt we needed to make it bigger, and wanted to be involved. They included Chelsea Clinton and Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi; we had all these fantastic people who were excited to hear about this.”

“Within a year, one of our women leaders was the top board recruiter in the world and was tapped to co-lead Heidrick & Struggles’ CEO & Board practice a few years later.” 

“The women I gathered became a club within the organisation, but it wasn’t enough to have a programme of mentorship, you needed a programme of sponsorship and access.” 

Blazing a trail

Funna’s next contribution to the diversity agenda was spearheading the firm’s relationship with the World Economic Forum. This involved helping CEOs to think differently about global recruitment practices. The key message was not to replace a woman with another woman or a black person with another black person. Instead, being open to everyone was more likely to lead to multi-racial and multi-gender boards.

Funna’s career took a different direction when she developed the theory of disruptive organisational strategy at the end of 2010. She explains: “It was the idea that the 21st century is disrupting how we do our work. We only think of the disruption in our work in terms of technology and change management, but that’s not sustainable. We must evolve as we cannot address work today with the same 20th or 19th or 18th-century strategic development or operational systems.”

With that in mind, she founded Build n Blaze in 2012. It was ahead of its time, which meant there was some market resistance. It finally got off the ground in 2016 when the UN Secretariat was looking to transform the UN’s innovation strategy. Funna was seconded to the UN to do the work and launch an innovation unit.

On the D&I front, she got behind the UN’s SDGs, particularly around education which, she says, “is the greatest inclusion tool. It’s ignorance that helps foster a community of exclusion.”   

Gender violence

One area she was keen to tackle through education was gender-based violence. Funna created a stove-side chat to discuss the issue.  

“We brought in this wonderful South African innovator who had created the Wonderbag,” she reveals. “Women would spend the whole day cooking over firewood, getting lung cancer because of the smoke inhalation. You could bring something to a boil, put it in the Wonderbag and it can keep it boiling for eight hours. And it’s a life changer – the opportunity to go to work or do something else.  And then come back, and dinner is ready.” 

“So, we used that as our bridge technology to have the conversation around and how that can reduce gender-based violence, having the meal ready, having some level of independence, having some knowledge.”

After her secondment with the UN – she retains a special advisory role to support their innovation drive – she developed the xHuman theory.

“I’ve spent a lot of time, and I’ve become more and more of a theorist and a futurist and looking at the fourth industrial revolution and figuring out just when the organisational strategy comes in,” says Funna. 

“This 21st century is more than anything a great opportunity because I believe that we are the most powerful humans that have ever lived. I believe that we have a chance to eradicate the stereotypes that have got in the way of our growth and success.” 

“I think we can change the world, we can eradicate quite a few things that have been impossible in the past, but I think that the biggest thing we should take away from this is that it’s a matter of choice.”

Hear more from Radia at the Women in IT Virtual Summit New York. You can register your place here.
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