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raceAhead: A Microsoft Engineer Reinvents Herself

October 4, 2018, 6:53 PM UTC

Can the same principles that lead to breakthrough technology lead to breakthrough humans?

Yes, says Navrina Singh, an inventor, innovator, principal lead for AI Product at Microsoft, and now, breakout star at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. But just not in the way you might think.

I made the mistake of watching her delightful 2016 TEDx talk after I had put on my mascara for the day, an indication of how unexpectedly poignant her philosophy on personal reinvention turned out to be.

She began by establishing her bona fides. At an earlier job at Qualcomm, she was part of a team who developed products that enabled data, not just voice, to be sent wirelessly. “That is the same technology that makes every app run on your smartphones,” she says. “A part of me lives in your life, each and every day, every time you send a text message, do FaceTime or post on Facebook. It is truly humbling to know that, in some way, my life’s work powers your life and your work.”

She describes that familiar moment when you realize you need to do something new with your life. Sometimes, like in her case, it’s born from grief. Other times, it comes from opportunity. The trick is to make those moments explicit, because they happen all the time.

“A mirror moment is a moment when you see clearly the choices in front of you to either stay the same or to change. It is a moment that can be positive and filled with joy or it is a moment extremely negative surrounded in sorrow,” she says. “Either way, it is a moment that makes you pause.”

What follows next, which I won’t spoil, is her compelling case that the same steps that inventors use to create new products can be used to re-engineer your own happiness. But unlike similar manufacturing ideas applied to decidedly non-agile beings, in Singh’s hands, the effect is deeply human.

“For me, transformation is when the gap between who you are and who you aspire to be closes,” she says. It will be different for everybody, so having a roadmap helps. But so does having a tribe.

It takes guts just to want to change. But, “[i]n self-transformation, it takes the same dose of courage to be able to share your aspirations and transformation goals with a network that has been set in place to ensure that you can see your path forward.”

Singh reminded me of two things. First, it matters who gets to make tech, particularly deep learning technologies. But also, that the work of personal transformation can only happen in community. At any given time, a person on your team, in your network, in your life is struggling to close the gap between who they are now and the next best version of themselves. Just showing up means so much, especially when the person is you.


On Point

The bad news about Amazon’s minimum wage newsThe company’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $15 was largely lauded as a step in the right direction, but a blog post from the company this week casts that news in a different light. Amazon announced that it is doing away with employee incentive pay including monthly bonuses, as well as stock option awards, a move that could lower the take-home pay of hourly workers over time. Until recently, hourly Amazon employees have been granted one share of Amazon stock at the end of each year of service, with an additional share awarded after five years.Fortune

Predominantly white, wealthy communities get disproportionately more Hurricane Harvey aid
The problem is how federal funds are distributed. Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds buyouts and acquisitions of homes destroyed by storms, but they’re distributed by local councils in ways that favor small wealthy enclaves over poorer, more concentrated communities. Taylor Landing, a small town of just 228 people received $1.3 million in funds to help just 22 hurricane-affected residents. Nearby Port Arthur, a poor and one-third black community, 50,000 people whose homes were destroyed had to split some $4.1 million in funds. 
Think Progress

White men hold the vast majority of leadership roles in colleges with top football programs
A new report card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) finds almost no year-over-year improvement in the representation of leadership positions at top-level college sports programs and conferences, which included university leadership roles. The study found about 85% of people in all leadership positions were white, and some 73% of college presidents or chancellors and nearly 77% of athletic directors at the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools were men. White men also hold nine of 10 FBS conference commissioner positions.
AP News

YouTube does a poor job scrubbing violent, white supremacist propaganda from its site
My friend and former colleague Chauncey Alcorn would say I’m being polite; his investigation has found that the streaming platform hosts many white nationalist vloggers who routinely post incendiary content, most of which documents their own violent brawling. It wasn’t until four members of Rise Above Movement or R.A.M., a violent white nationalist group, were charged in crimes related to the Charlottesville riots that the platform deleted their busy YouTube channel. It had been up and running for years. What took so long? “And If R.A.M has been booted for either hate speech or promoting terrorism, why hasn’t YouTube booted other alt-right extremists for doing the same?”

The Woke Leader

A white supremacist goes to grad school
Peter Cvjetanovic became the tiki-torch carrying face of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. After his photo and racist rally cries went viral, he became the subject of an unsuccessful campaign to have him expelled from his undergraduate studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. “I will defend tooth and nail my views as a white nationalist. I love my culture and will fight for it, but never in a violent way,” he said at the time. He has now publicly disavowed those views, but his subsequent admission to the famed London School of Economics, where he is pursuing a master’s in political theory, has made some students uncomfortable. It’s also raised questions about how schools should weigh the “political views” of prospective students.  (Registration required)
Higher Education

Has Ole Miss learned a lesson about dealing with racism?
Ed Meek, 77, is the University of Mississippi grad and donor behind the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, which was established in 2009 with a $5.3 million gift. But when Meek posted a public Facebook message complaining about declining property values around the university, with a picture of two young black people wearing party dresses—implying that people like them were to blame, the post was widely shared and quickly decried as racist. The journalism faculty held an emergency meeting and a public forum was called. Their swift response is markedly different from previous incendiary incidents, and the students are taking note. “They were literally looking us in the eyes and just listening to us,” a student said of the administrators. “So I thought, ‘This is actually different, this could mean something.’”
New York Times

Tulsa, Oklahoma mayor opens investigation into the deadly aftermath of the 1921 race massacre
Mayor G.T. Bynum will investigate whether there are mass graves from the now infamous riot and massacre that left hundreds of black residents dead, razed an entire community and obliterated generations of black wealth. The announcement came after a Washington Post story raised unanswered questions about the event, and as the community prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the incident. "We owe it to the community to know if there are mass graves in our city. We owe it to the victims and their family members,” he said in an interview. You can find an hour-long documentary with photos and candid interviews with black and white witnesses/survivors here.
Washington Post


In all of my experience I have never witnessed such scenes as prevailed in [Tulsa] when I arrived at the height of the rioting. Twenty-five thousand whites, armed to the teeth, were ranging the city in utter and ruthless defiance of every concept of law and righteousness. Motor cars, bristling with guns swept through your city, their occupants firing at will.
Adjutant General Charles J. Barrett