Inspiring AI’s Future Leaders: A Discussion With Rashida Hodge

Original article from by Annie Brown | Photo Credit to Rashida Hodge

It is certainly an understatement to say that Rashida Hodge is an inspiration. A tenacious, 18-year tech exec, Hodge has forged an impressive career centered on exploration, expanding representation, and philanthropy.

In her current role at IBM, Hodge leads product integration of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies for key IBM clients in North America.

Hodge’s story will certainly motivate anyone who has the pleasure of meeting her but may be especially useful to women and people of color looking to begin a career in STEM. 

After our powerful discussion, it became clear that the natural choice was to let Hodge’s story be told in her own, kind and confident voice.

We began our conversation by discussing Hodge’s childhood and early career, during which she explained how family support propelled her towards love for and career in engineering.

I grew up in the US Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, specifically. My upbringing in St. Thomas has had an impact on my life that I would never want to or be able to shake. That, coupled with being raised by teen parents, propelled me to live curiously and intentionally. 

Living on a small island gives you a sense of wonder and curiosity about what’s beyond the 32 square miles that make up your life. It also ingrains a deep appreciation for how deeply you are connected to those around you. Everyone learns to look out for and care for their neighbors. There is a communal reliance and care that is expected of everyone.

I also saw how hard my mom worked to excel in a demanding set of roles at home, work and school. Though she gave up her dream to become a lawyer to give me a stable upbringing in St. Thomas, she pushed me to go further and explore unknown paths. Engineering was an unknown path for both of us. 

We learned about engineering together. When I told my mom, “I want to be an engineer,” she replied, “If you want to be an engineer, we need to make sure you understand what all your options are. Because there are many types of engineers.” 

Hodge poses with her mother
Hodge poses with her mother

She helped me find and successfully apply to a summer program called Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering. The program, at the University of Illinois, exposes high school students to the full range of engineering disciplines. It gave us the opportunity to learn from U of I faculty and to hear engineering professionals explain the day in the life of their engineering practice. It was through that program that I first learned about and fell in love with industrial engineering. 

After that summer, my mom helped me research the strongest undergraduate industrial engineering programs, which culminated in my decision to attend North Carolina State University. With funding from local Virgin Islands scholarships, and an endowed scholarship from NC State, I was able to go to school debt free. It was an enormous blessing to be able to focus on my course work rather than the financial burden of going to college.

After school, how did your education and career progress from there?

While I was still in undergrad, IBM contacted me and offered me an opportunity to interview. That chance turned into part-time work with IBM during the school year, and full time throughout the summer. 

As I was completing my master’s in engineering, I interviewed for roles with a number of companies, including IBM, of course. In what probably sounds like a cliché for an engineer, I had a spreadsheet laying out the pros and cons of all the companies under review. IBM stood out for its long history of innovation and its stature as a key technology partner for the world’s leading companies. 

Hodge at NC State Graduation with Friends and Family
Hodge at NC State Graduation with Friends and Family

I joined IBM full-time as part of a highly coveted program called the Supply Chain Leadership Program. The program recruited people with about five years of experience and an MBA. I didn’t meet any of those stated requirements, but I believed in my drive and commitment of growing through discomfort. I presented the experiences, skills, and abilities I did have and landed a spot in the program.

The program transformed my career. It helped me build a reputation as someone who’s willing to take risks. From there, I took two international assignments – in Slovakia and China, and kept raising my hand for tough, challenging, uncharted roles.  

If I had listened to what everyone else told me and counted myself out because I didn’t meet the stated requirements, I never would have applied to the program. But I knew I could bring value to the table, raised my hand, asked to compete and my career was enriched from this experience.

How are you involved in AI at IBM? What interested you in that field at that time, and how did you grow with it?

For my first 10 years at IBM, I was in the supply chain or operational side of the business. After a 3 ½ year assignment in Slovakia, I came back to the US to begin my executive MBA at Duke. As I studied industry trends, it became clear to me that Marc Andreessen was right when he said that “software is eating the world.” I wanted to be a part of that transformation and moved to the software side of the business. 

Timing is everything. Not too long after I made the switch to our software business, IBM’s then-CEO, decided to commercialize Watson and make it its own business unit. I had the opportunity to work closely with the senior vice president who was tasked with gathering a core set of leaders to create this business unit from the ground-up.

Hodge with IBM Watson Strategic Partnership Technical Team
Hodge with IBM Watson Strategic Partnership Technical Team

It was an amazing experience to help build a start-up ecosystem within IBM and contribute to a business that will have a meaningful impact for years to come.

After working closely with the leadership team for 14 months, I went on to lead and build the Watson AI Technical Professional Services Team, which implemented and delivered AI solutions for clients.

 In this role, I created a global blueprint for the technical delivery of AI solutions and delivered some of our early client successes globally.  We started out with a small core team in the US and successfully built out a replicable framework to scale in key markets globally, including Australia, South Korea, and Brazil.  It was a fascinating time and a true highlight of my career.

What are some general insights you have from watching AI over the years from such a central position?

AI is a technology that has been around for a long time. But, over the last several years, it has become more consumable, scalable and accessible to individuals. 

I remember when we launched the IBM Watson business unit. No one was paying serious attention to AI. Seven years later, the business community at large has a far better appreciation of how this technology can and should be applied. 

We’re also seeing a shift in the prioritization of data in AI Technologies. In the past, there was heavy emphasis on the algorithm. But we’re seeing how the quality of data is essential. Data is the foundation to any AI system. It’s trained based on data. It learns based on data. It manifests outcomes based on data. You have to get the data right.

What are some things that you see regarding racial and gender equality that you would like to see improve? What is one actionable takeaway that leaders, like yourself in AI can, can act on?

As a Black woman in tech, I clearly understand the reality of what happens when we neglect to do the work of having inclusive and diverse environments. And that’s because technology mirrors our society

Hodge at a recent speaking engagement
Hodge at a recent speaking engagement

We’re all familiar with several publicly available stories on how AI technologies or other emergent technologies have incorrectly identified, Black people or struggled with recognizing the nuances of people of color. Often, fixes for those issues are concentrated on addressing the algorithm versus the innate, albeit unconscious, biases of those developing the technology. 

As we build technology, we need to diversify those building the technology. This is essential to having technologies that are relevant and applicable to broad groups of people. So, my takeaway is simple: recruit, invest in, and retain diverse talent. Make it more than a mandated feel-good imperative. Make it a business and humane imperative. The quality and equity of technology depends on it.

You’re a board member of Girls Inc. and also passionate about investing in women. Are these areas where you see a big return – with regards to building more inclusive environments? 

Absolutely. I would not be where I am if people didn’t support me, weren’t mentors to me, or didn’t give me a chance when I didn’t think I deserved one. Especially as a child, the more that you’re able to have encouragement, I believe the more successful you will become. I am making investments in others, that many made in me.

With Girls Inc., they provide a platform for girls to be strong, smart and bold. Girls, Inc. raises the awareness of possibilities, opportunities and expands access. 

I’ve also made investments in women as a venture capitalist and as a founding limited partner of the How Women Invest Fund.  I entered the venture capital space for two reasons.

One is that when I look at LPs in VC funds, I don’t often see people that look like me. I believe engaging in this process will lead to more investments in women-owned startups and broaden the image of a venture capitalist.

The second reason was that I appreciated that the How Women Invest team grounded the fund on educating LPs on investing and democratized the process by lowering the minimum contribution compared to most firms. 

This was ultimately my entry way to access and allowed me the opportunity to expand with other firms, such as NeoTribe as an LP. 

Hodge at Girls, Inc Mentoring Event
Hodge at Girls, Inc Mentoring Event

Lastly, I am heavily invested in philanthropy. As I mentioned before, I was a recipient of an endowed scholarship at NCState. I can remember attending endowment dinners, and rarely saw anyone that looked like me. So, when I finished school, I was one of the youngest alumni to start an endowment fund for the College of Engineering, because I wanted to expand the image of what a donor looks like. 

As a Black woman, we often discount ourselves as philanthropists. But the truth is, we give even when we don’t have the capacity. Black people give so much to our communities, to culture, and to society. Yet, we often overlook our philanthropic contribution. 

I’m truly fortunate. There have been so many people that have played a significant role in creating the fabric of who I am. That’s why I carry with me a deep sense of gratitude and unshakeable commitment to giving.

Giving has been my way of making my career meaningful beyond titles and accolades. It is my DNA, and the chief legacy I hope to leave behind.