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Melissa McSherry, SVP Global Head of Data, Security, and Identity Products at Visa, came to the AI space in a roundabout way — she was originally a social studies major as an undergrad, with only one statistics class under her belt when she graduated. But in her first role out of school, she became hooked on data when she started diving into solving business challenges using statistical methods.
As part of our ongoing series of interviews with leaders in the AI space about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in a white cis male-dominated field, McSherry answered some questions for us about her role at Visa, the efforts she’s made to ensure that DE&I is top of mind for the team she leads and the company as a whole, and her own ongoing focus on breaking the silence where racism and prejudice thrive.
See the others in the series: Intel’s Huma Abidi, Redfin’s Bridget Frey, Salesforce’s Kathy Baxter, McAfee’s Celeste Fralick, ThoughtSpot’s Cindi Howson and Levi-Strauss’ Katia Walsh.
VB: Could you tell me about your background, and your current role at your company?
I lead Visa’s Global Data, Security and Identity Products team, which serves our clients and partners with predictive models and benchmarking tools to reduce fraud and drive customer engagement, underwriting, and marketing effectiveness. As Chair of Visa’s Data Council, I’m also leading Visa’s strategy on data-related activities, with a focus on making sure we are making the investments now to position us for a future where data is even more important.
I have a fairly atypical background for this kind of work, with a social studies major and just one semester of statistics, but after diving into survival models and statistical approaches for my first role out of college, I’ve enjoyed translating business and technical problems, and landing at Visa where we are using AI in exciting ways to solve complex problems.
VB: Any woman in the tech industry, or adjacent to it, is already forced to think about DE&I just by virtue of being “a woman in tech” — how has that influenced your career?
I think almost everyone has, at some point, experienced being an outsider — for women in AI and tech, I can guarantee this has been part of their experience at least some point in time.
And we all know how hard it can be. The extra bandwidth that gets taken up dealing with being an outsider can be a drain on the mind space and effort one needs to deliver the kinds of amazing outcomes necessary to become more successful leaders of larger organizations. In my experience, having a strong sense of purpose can help keep our eye on the ball and not get distracted with some of the challenges we often face — it gives you permission to do things that may feel risky but that you need to do in order to grow.
VB: Can you tell us about the diversity initiatives you’ve been involved in, especially in your community?
We’ve built a mentorship program to enable belonging and inclusion within our Data, Security and Identity Product team, and more widely at Visa.
Studies have shown that underrepresented minorities and women who engage in mentoring (both as mentor and mentee) achieve greater career outcomes and higher job satisfaction — so we’re focused on building out this program to facilitate both personal and professional growth. We also started a book and podcast club to discuss matters of inclusivity and social justice, and recently read So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo.
Finally, we’ve spearheaded a newsletter with discussion of current and topical issues relating to diversity and inclusion. For example, we recently highlighted the disproportionate effect the COVID pandemic has had on minority-owned small businesses.
Structural racism and prejudice thrives on silence — so it’s critical that we have these conversations and foster greater awareness, which is a key step in dismantling these systemic issues.
VB: How do you see the industry changing in response to the work that women, especially Black and BIPOC women, are doing on the ground? What will the industry look like for the next generation?
I do think the industry is becoming more inclusive, largely because we’ve had amazing talented people pointing out how badly change is needed. People like Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, and Cathy O’Neill, author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality. These leaders are holding us accountable and identifying where we have gaps.
We know we need more diverse representation of women and other minority groups in data and AI building these tools, because if you don’t have that diversity of experience, viewpoints, and opinions in the model-building and governance stages, places where bias can inadvertently creep in are less likely to occur to you, and the risk of building biased AI goes up.
Building in fairness through diversity and inclusion is a critical part of building good, responsible AI. At Visa, for example, we’ve launched a cross-company program to develop a permanent approach to fighting bias and promoting fairness in our growth as well as our use of AI and algorithms.
This is supported by initiatives such as the Visa Black Scholars and Jobs Program — a $10 million investment over the next five years that we launched in December 2020 in partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to commit to increasing the diversity of our teams and develop the next generation of future Black leaders in technology.
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