Ms. Sophia Velastegui’s love for science and technology started at an early age. Like many of us, watching Star Trek and appreciating the references to science and engineering became a seed that was sown to later sprout into a career in technology. For Sophia, it was the Heinsenberg compensator for the Transporter. Her curiosity was peaked enough for her to “transport” herself to the library and investigate.
That curiosity continues as the important role Velastegui as the General Manager of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence product organization. At Microsoft, she works on the part of the Microsoft Graph, called the Knowledge Graph, which strives to bring AI to every individual and organization by powering AI experiences in Bing, Office and Microsoft
Named one of Business Insider’s most powerful female engineers in 2018 and 2017, Velastegui’s past work includes serving as the Chief Product Officer at Doppler Labs and leading the Head of Silicon/Architecture Roadmap at Google and working on Special Projects at Google’s Nest. She has also directed the “Think Tank” Program Management and Laptop & Special Projects Product Management groups at Apple.
Where this is a woman, there is a way
In addition to her superhero thought leaders at Microsoft (see sidebar), Sophia points to two influential women in history who also helped shaped her decision to become an engineer: pioneer scientist in physics and chemistry Marie Curie who, through her work in radiation, was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize; and Mae Jemison, the first African America woman in space who, incidentally, also appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both, says Sophia, pushed the boundaries of science and technology in an environment where they had no other women role models. “They were brave, tenacious, and curious across multiple disciplines,” says Sophia.
Yet, the barrier women still face in the tech field is not one of just smoke and mirrors.
“Women are making major gains in getting into engineering and science, and it’s a heartfelt blessing,” says Velastegui. “Sadly, however, women are still often on the receiving end of stereotyping and multiple implicit biases.”
But Sophia feels there are ways to encourage women to pursue technical careers.
“All parts of society should be included to foster an environment of belonging,” says Velastegui. She promotes small lean-in groups with cross-mentoring and support group and maintains that it is equally important to make work a psychologically safe environment where “…team members share information and collaborate without being penalized nor negatively judged for mistakes or failures or for challenging the status quo.”
“We need to hold establishment accountable through metrics,” Velastegui continues, “to promote diversity across many categories: ethnic, cultural, religious, and generational. Success will be fueled by diverse talent. “
Walking the talk
For her part, Velastegui is working to change the status quo for women in engineering, as well with as in youth and minority groups. She spends a lot of time in her daily work and outside activities helping to facilitate growth and encourage new engineers and entrepreneurs.
“I am constantly working with engineers and scientists of all ages,” says Velastegui, “And I am especially focused on college students as I serve on the board of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering in providing strategy and direction.”
Velastegui works toward advancing diversity both in the tech sector and through her personal activities. Beyond her work at Microsoft, Velastegui is on the advisory board of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering, and the Create X incubator that helps brings startup culture to the students thru the “program pillars of 1) Learn, 2) Make, and 3) Launch”. It provides the framework for entrepreneurial confidence for all students, regardless of major or year of study. This program has had widespread reach in bringing entrepreneurship across all of Georgia Tech.
Additionally, Velastegui serves as the board director of Elwyn.org, nonprofit servicing children and adults with disabilities. And, she has also served as the innovation advisor to the South Korean President Jae In Moon’s Labor dept from candidacy to presidency.
AI, meet Office 365
When we asked about her work at Microsoft, Velastegui pointed to the real and productive collaboration among engineers at the company that brings
new Artificial Intelligence capabilities to real people’s daily lives to make their tech experiences more simple and powerful.
“At Microsoft, we work with the Office team to infuse artificial intelligence into Office 365 in numerous ways,” she explained. “One project I worked on was to bring new capabilities to Excel. As a result of the work from myself and team, Excel now has machine learning-based stock and geography data types and is able to understand your entries related to stock and geography to pull in relevant data from the Microsoft Graph automatically. Stock data type users can insert detailed information like fund names, share prices, ticker symbols, etc. into an Excel spreadsheet. This gives people fundamentally new building blocks. The Excel and AI teams worked together to understand Excel customers and what AI-infused experiences would enrich their lives, and then we set out to make it happen,” she concluded.
The project, of course, is not without challenges but that’s just another word for “opportunity” in Velastegui’s vocabulary. She explained that the “Microsoft Knowledge Graph” has the potential to pull in world, work, and user knowledge from across Bing, Windows, Office 365, and other sources to connect and provide access to data that drives insight and productivity.
“We have,” maintains Velastegui, “the challenge to surface AI across varying experience canvases.”
Lesson learned and learning
Two key lessons Sophia has learned and which she shares in her leadership role should resonate with anyone — despite their career choices. Keeping an open mind and being willing to adapt to changes is critical.
“Ask questions to facilitate dialog and exploration,” Velastegui says, “Do not close your minds to dissent and lead on to a constructive debate if needed.”
Secondly, she says, remember that, “Weakly held strong opinions are not fundamental truths. Opinions are a working hypothesis that should be used to guide your thinking, decisions, and actions. As a leader, we should always question new ideas and ensure they’re supported by fact. However, when there is mounting evidence and experience that shows our ideas and beliefs are wrong, we need to be open-minded and not resist change.”
Velastegui’s star path began and continues to be paved with curiosity and learning — even while she hikes and rock climbs with her family.
“You have to learn and think differently than your peers continuously,” she concludes, “Make connections that don’t seem obvious.”