Elevating female perspectives in tech

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Karen de Sousa Pesse is a Senior Executive at Salesforce, a provider of cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) software and other business solutions, and a celebrated keynote speaker with a passion for shining a light on topics such as bias in Artificial Intelligence, and the importance of gender perspectives in technology. 

An exceptional career path

Karen’s story stems from a humble beginning; growing up, she did not imagine that she could pursue a career in the STEM field as a woman. Her partner at a certain point in time, however, was studying engineering, and something about the potential of the field to change and improve the world, piqued Karen’s interest. When sharing her blossoming ambitions to become an engineer with a female friend, she was met with surprise – her friend had also considered the option but had the ingrained belief that engineering was a ‘male’ profession. Karen’s initial curiosity eventually sparked a full-blown passion to study BSc Nanotechnology Engineering at the UFRJ Polytechnic School. Living in the city of Rio de Janeiro at the time, and with limited financial means, Karen was determined to advance her prospects through internships or scholarships abroad. She got her first big international break with a prestigious internship in London, where she fell in love with Europe.

Although Karen had an idea and ambitions for her career trajectory in the field of engineering, she was flexible to pursue avenues where the doors of opportunity opened for her, and she was receptive to the idea of embracing unexpected possibilities. She contacted every possible European university and about five opportunities came up out of 200 e-mails. It was a female professor at Ghent University who set the wheels in motion and supported and mentored Karen to make a move and to continue her studies in Belgium. After a work placement in a research lab in Japan that installed solar panels in vehicles, she eventually landed an opportunity at IBM on a major pharma project operating in Switzerland and Germany, where she could explore technology as a vertical. The role eventually evolved into a project lead position. “That was when I realised – this is it. This is what I really want to do for the rest of my life.”

After IBM, she moved to Microsoft and is currently enjoying the energising company culture at Salesforce. “I am extremely honoured to work on key trends shaping the public sector and supporting governments and institutions in their Digital Transformation, where we deliver projects that benefit society – and I’m so positive about the company culture and working for leaders who I truly believe in.” She was especially motivated to work for a company with strong ethics and values like Salesforce after a telling interview with another company where she was posed with the question: if you could sell a project to the government for five million euros knowing that it would be successful, versus a project of ten million euros that will most probably fail, what would you choose? She thought it was an obvious answer and chose the five million euro project, considering the position of the taxpayers, but was told it was the wrong answer and she did not get the job. “I was so disgusted, and I realised to which extent key people and companies that shape our society can be motivated by a singular focus on money. That’s why I’m intentional about where I work, and which topics I address as a thought leader.”

Impactful influence as a public speaker

As a public speaker and female business leader, Karen is very often seen speaking about AI, Machine Learning, how we can use technology for good – and how we need to be aware of its pitfalls. During her recent TedXBrussels presentation on the topic ‘The Importance of Gender Perspective in Technology’, she explored the dangerous nature of a data-driven world where women are underrepresented, creating a massive bias in many areas: technology, security, healthcare, banking and more. “I feel compelled to address this topic, because women are not a minority, but they are viewed as such when it comes to things like access to credit and crash-testing automobiles. We cannot exclude female perspectives when building products – we are at least half of the key demographic.” She is conscious of the fact that working from the female perspective is ‘not a fluffy agenda’, and tries to be empathic when unearthing people’s motivations, biases, and personal experiences when she meets resistance or an attitude of defensiveness around the topics that she addresses. “It can be very dynamic –sometimes I feel like gender perspective and diversity and inclusion are fading from people's agenda, but progress is also being made. That’s why I feel prompted to share my viewpoint to help promote a balanced outlook on the conversation.”

The importance of celebrating achievement

Karen is no stranger to industry awards, including McKinsey & Company Next Generation Women Leaders, and the Jane M Klausman Women in Business Award by Zonta International, amongst others; and most recently the Dianne Bevelander Prize in 2023. With the latter, she follows in the footsteps of the inaugural Dianne Bevelander prize winner, Geke Rosier, founder of Rightbrains. She is proud of these achievements and recognises their importance in the promotion of a more gender-balanced industry: “I’m firm in the belief that we need to celebrate people to help prevent burnout. Pursuing such topics can be very exhausting to the people who feel passionate about it – especially since it’s not always in their KPI’s. Awards and recognition validate these efforts and energises women and male allies in their pursuits.” She also acknowledges that awards create visibility and can be a powerful vehicle for creating awareness. 

The role of female networks and mentorship in Karen's career journey

Karen believes that female networks like RightBrains play a critical role in connecting women with opportunities at different stages of their careers. It was a female network that connected her to a life-changing internship when she was a vulnerable young master’s student; today she is not only consciously giving back, but also still actively leverages her female networks when exploring opportunities. “I encourage women to become part of all sorts of networks and to explore mentoring relationships – as many as they can. Each mentor offers a unique perspective and brings unique insights and experiences to the table.” Karen is humbled by the steadfast support of both male and female mentors through different stages of her own career. It was a male leader at IBM who went above and beyond to help her pursue an opportunity to study Innovation and Entrepreneurship at MIT. “I owe a very large part of my career success to male mentors and allies too.”

Her most meaningful metric of success

When reflecting on the achievement in her career that Karen is most proud of, her metric for success transcends any industry recognition that she has achieved to date. “I didn’t have that many ambitions for myself growing up, but when I eventually discovered my driving force and pursued it so wholeheartedly, I felt compelled to spark that same hunger for self-actualisation within my own family. I really wanted them to join me in Europe on their own merit; and I’m so proud to say that my brother has started his studies in electrical engineering at the University of Porto this year. Having been able to support my own family has been priceless to me.”