Inhi Suh, US President of Product, Technology, and Operations of USD$10 billion company, DocuSign, is a champion of women in tech and diversity and inclusion globally and she describes this not only as a passion but ‘a core part of who I am’.
As Inhi explained in a recent interview with Women Love Tech, we need to “have women in those senior positions, who have the empathy and experience to be able to share that in the room” where key decisions are being made about everything from maternity leave to a policy for inclusiveness.
Reflecting on her earlier career, Inhi said she was often one of the few women in the room and there were even fewer Asian women working in tech back then but she personally benefited from mentors and allies who saw her true potential.
“Earlier in my career, I did have men who wanted to see more women,” Inhi explained. “And I do think it takes a strong ally-ship in order to progress representation, progress benefits, progress diversity of thinking and problem solving. So I was fortunate where earlier in my career I had a Japanese American man who was very supportive in my career, as well, as a more American, traditional white male executive who both saw tremendous potential in me and supported me. And then I had these amazing women role models, two, that happened a little bit later in my career. One of which was Marie Wieck, she was actually the Chair of the Women’s Diversity Group for IBM before I became Chair of the group for many, many years. And so she was the very first woman executive in the company, to advocate for part time, work, and was the first to take an extended period for maternity leave. And so I think these things helped shape a lot of this, but you need advocates and you need sponsors, and you need mentors, and you need allies, at every level and every stage.”
Inhi was born in Seoul, South Korea. Her family emigrated from Seoul to a small town called Spartanburg, South Carolina in the United States where there was an extremely small Asian population. In fact, she was the first Asian in her school and very few students or teachers had ever even met or seen an Asian person except for on TV.
Moving from a city such as Seoul, which has a population of 20 million people, and is one of the largest cities in the world, to a small US town with 200,000 people had an enormous impact on her, and is why she now advocates so strongly for diversity and inclusion.
“It affected me tremendously,” she said. I realized ‘wait’, because I was neither white nor black and there was no designation even on official documents like, it was ‘other’. Right? So the category is, then if you are you are less than what is known, right? So that affects you on many, many levels. And you get to see the best and worst of society through the environment, the biases, the ignorance; but you also get to see some of the best in society where you see people that show grace, and show love, independent of diversity. So you get to see all of that. And when you process that, as a child, I think it definitely shapes how you see the world. And for me, I think one of the things that I appreciate is the way I approach conflict, because I have such a diverse perspective and understand the importance of voicing different perspectives. This is particularly important for when you’re trying to make partner progress and change.”
There is still a long way to go before we achieve diversity, equity and inclusion but Inhi is hopeful that progress is being made.
“I think overall, by society, and by regions, and all over the world, people are becoming more and more educated, which is really important.” she adds. “I also think the internet has really changed the access and accessibility of information. So I do think there has been a lot that progress for sure.”
The Importance of Education was Ingrained in Inhi
Inhi said her parents ingrained in her the importance of education, and she studied at Duke University and went to graduate school.
“I was fortunate enough to go to a really top university for college,” she said. “I remember my very first linear algebra class, which was in advanced mathematics, there were only two women in the class and there were 30 guys, so whether I was the only Asian in a room to one of only two women in advanced, mathematics or STEM class, I think you start to develop other strengths and skills.
“And then, for me, it became a core piece of I wanted to see more diversity, and I wanted to help the next generation. And so coaching, mentoring sponsoring was something that I just got involved in very quickly. Even at the university, I was involved in, co chairing, and building a group called the Women of Color Association so that more women of different backgrounds could just connect, even at the university through a different lens.”
In what was groundbreaking at the time, Inhi went on to establish similar organizations during her time at IBM and beyond.
“IBM was a great environment for developing leaders,” said Inhi. “It was pretty progressive in terms of forward thinking and leadership development programs and diversity and recognized as one of the top companies for women. And so I had great opportunities to see the best in action. And when I say see the best in action, meaning, you know, how do they balance being a mom or dad in the work environment? How do they balance when conflict arises at work or in society?”
In an environment where leadership was strongly developed, Inhi thrived.
“I, you know, really appreciated it while I was there (IBM) because I advanced so quickly and became the youngest executive in the company at the time,” says Inhi. “I got to see things and got to express things that historically wouldn’t have been able to be expressed because there wasn’t a woman at the table to express them.”
Why Diversity Matters
Inhi said that companies need to realise how much they benefit from employing a diverse workforce.
She said having a “diverse perspective” means a company can better reflect the customers they serve and it’s also important to “reflect the brilliance of the next generation of students coming out of university.”
“It’s more mixed, it’s not dissuaded toward men,” said Inhi of the students coming out of universities. “Actually more women are graduating at a university. So when you look at those stats, and you say, Wait, what’s the working population and technology? And what’s the working population of women representation in leadership, it’s far less than the available talent. And you don’t want, you know, to try to solve the hardest problems in the world, with only a portion of the intellectual and creative capital of what’s available on the planet. No, you want to be able to leverage everyone’s brand.”
One area Inhi shares concern for in the future is unconscious bias with AI.
“That is such a huge problem in AI advancement, because part of AI is on training datasets, and the datasets that you train on are where you have historical datasets on loans, which are predominantly provided historically, over a longer period of time for men,” she said. “So risk, modules are calculated that way. Images, you said association for CEO, like the way search retrieval happens, because of the available datasets. The way certain recognition systems even for cameras for different skin color, size tones; it happens on multiple dimensions. And so if the training set for these algorithms are smaller, you’re going to have more errors, and you’re going to have more unconscious bias, as well as, you know, unknown and conscious bias to some degree.”
Speaking about how to limit the risks of AI and bias being an ever growing problem, Inhi said: “Well, I think one of the big things is for most companies is to be able to be transparent about their approach for AI, like how we’re thinking about training their access to data. Now, DocuSign is in a unique position where the data that we’re analyzing is corpus of contracts. And so it’s a little different, but I do think transparency around data, transparency around training, also making sure that the governance structure to have the people that you also have doing things like data labeling, or the governance around modifications to the results, right, because it’s hands on training, as well. There’s moments where you can have eyes off training and moments where you might have hands on training. So it’s the diversity of perspective, and, and also the methodologies.”
You can watch more of our interview with Inhi Su below. In our Youtube interview, Inhi talks about how DocuSign stays ahead of the curve when it comes to technological innovation and maintaining its market-leading position and the launch of AI Labs and ‘intelligent agreements’.
You can follow Inhi Suh on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/inhichosuh/
You can also read our story on Inhi Suh talking about the future vision for DocuSign here