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Susan Gonzales On How She Pitched Her Role At Facebook And Why She's Now Focusing On Diversity In AI

By Vivian Nunez at Forbes

Susan Gonzales walked into a coffee meeting with the VP of Policy and Communications at Facebook with data in hand. The company was still young — it was 2011 — but she knew that with a Menlo Park move and impending growth they would need someone to lead community engagement. She also understood that she could be that person.

“There wasn’t an existing role for me at Facebook but I could see there was an opportunity to be created,” explains Gonzales. “I arrived at the coffee meeting fully prepared with proof points, printouts and testimonials to communicate the need for someone to lead external community building for Facebook. It took some time, but I eventually became the Director of Community Engagement.”

The common thread throughout Gonzales’ career has been her ability to listen to her gut and let it guide her into the next chapter of her career and life.

For over five years, Gonzales built out Facebook’s first community engagement and communications strategy, launching programs like Facebook Academy summer internship program and advising Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, on diversity.

Towards the end of her tenure in 2016, Gonzales knew she was ready for different and the crossroads between artificial intelligence and diversity beckoned.

“We need diverse perspectives at the table in the development of AI tools,” explains Gonzales. "We cannot wait until the tech industry has a more diverse workforce. There is an opportunity to work with the science community to understand their needs to avoid unintended biases.”

Right now, explains Gonzales, facial recognition tools have a high probability of not recognizing people of color.

“Facial recognition tools will ‘recognize’ your face based on data,” explains Gonzales. “If the data only includes information based on white males, the tool will function accordingly. Consequently, the facial recognition tool may not recognize a darker-skinned person. Today, darker-skinned females are the most misclassified group by facial recognition AI with an error rate of 34.7%, while lighter-skinned males had an error rate of only 0.8%.”

In this new iteration of her career, Gonzales works alongside AI companies to ensure that they are having the conversations that will help reduce error rates and better understand how to make the technology reflective of those who use it. It’s a season of career change that has taught her about the importance of constantly innovating while also being mission-aligned.

Creating your own role

For Gonzales, whether she’s working with clients or working under the umbrella of a larger company, it’s about creating the role that both made sense for the skillset she had and the one she wanted to develop. For Latinas who are looking to create their own role, Gonzales explains, “Conviction and courage is key. We need to have the conviction for what we are pursuing and the courage to make it happen. We need to be risk takers, which can be tricky because Latinas are not often encouraged to take risks. In my experience, taking risk can feel counterintuitive but, this is how new opportunities are created.”

On moving onto the next thing

It’s never easy to transition from one season to the other, but it’s important to constantly challenge yourself to do so, particularly in your career. For Gonzales it was about noticing where she was and what she was yearning for next. “I had been at Facebook for five years creating and directing the company’s community engagement strategy,” explains Gonzales. “I experienced unbelievable growth at the company and learned a lot from my global colleagues. But Facebook is still one company and l had a desire to broaden my scope and give myself the flexibility to work with a variety of organizations. I wanted to apply my years of experience in communications coaching to a broader set of leaders. I realized my work at Facebook was done and it was time to pass the baton.”

Notice where your interests gravitated towards in the past

One of the exercises Gonzales did when trying to figure out what her next step would be was notice the parts of her current role that she had gravitated to the most and could potentially expand on. “I was intrigued with algorithms and AI while at Facebook,” shares Gonzales. “I worked closely with the Accessibility and Social Good teams and learned much about AI and its use for social good in the global community. I experienced how fear and uncertainty can be created when the community doesn’t clearly understand the benefits of AI tools. I saw the positive impact of AI and recognized an opportunity to help AI leaders communicate their story effectively.”

It’s okay to be uncomfortable

Transitioning from one career to the another can be nerve-racking, but Gonzales suggests leaning into the fear instead of fighting against it. Especially when you’re the only one who understands the vision at first.

“It’s very helpful to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” shares Gonzales. “It can be exhausting being the only one at the table with a certain perspective. I often looked to Latinas who walked a similar path before me for encouragement. I was consistently motivated by their words of wisdom. I repeatedly heard, ‘get comfortable with being uncomfortable.’ Opportunities can be created from an idea that may not make sense to others at the time.”

While you’re navigating the ins and outs of building your career, remember that no one’s path is linear and that the best beacons of light throughout your growth will be the mentors who help shine the way.

“It started with a Latina from Washington, D.C.,” explains Gonzales. “We got to know each other as friends and a couple years later she offered me my first job in D.C. I spent a total of 10 years in D.C. because of this one mentor. A network of mentors and sponsors throughout a career is essential.”

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