How You Can Future-Proof and Differentiate Your Business

Image Description: "How you can future-proof and differentiate your business" with Frances West, a Chinese woman with short dark hair, white top, and dark jacket.

Just when we thought the pandemic is the biggest thing we have to deal with, then comes the Great Resignation, because we don’t have enough labor. And now there’s talk about pending recession. And then, on top of that, we have wars going on. The world is turning upside down, so if you are a CEO, or you’re a C-suite executive in business, your head is spinning about all the changes and all the challenges you face in business.

So, how do we, as a community in this kind of a very unhinged environment, still be able to talk about accessibility, get the attention of the C-suite executives to make decisions, make investments, and put a priority on accessibility or digital inclusion?

Frances’ Personal Experience

My perspective of accessibility comes from my personal experience as a first-generation immigrant born in Taipei, Taiwan, who grew up in Hong Kong, and came to the United States when I was 19. I can relate to how I wanted to be in mainstream society, whether it’s in the workplace or in the marketplace. When I started getting involved in accessibility at IBM Research, to head of the team worldwide, I can feel and see some parallel between an immigrant experience trying to break in, and also a person with a disability and trying to be recognized.

I truly believe that, and also I have lived the experience that thanks to a company like IBM, and also my personal family, accepting the diversity, or accepting the difference that I bring to the table, and then celebrating that and then turning that into an advantage.

Just to give you a little background about my life and my journey. All my life I’ve been the tallest girl, in a society that really doesn’t value height as an advantage. Remember I’m Chinese, the kind of traditional view of a Chinese girl, demure and slight and delicate. Here I am, quite tall. So, in the school play, I always get the assignment to play, for example, a tree.

Being the tallest girl actually gave me a different perspective. I still remember when I was growing up, we have to be weighed in on the first day of school every year, and my classmate literally will wait for me to get on the scale and the height and they will laugh because I will be the heaviest and the tallest girl.

I remember going home crying about, I guess in today’s terms, you would say that I was bullied, and my mom just looked at me and said, “What’s wrong with that? You got noticed!” So, that’s how my mom raised me. Anytime there was adversity I faced, she turned it around to say, “Hey, the teacher won’t know the other student, but they will know you because you’ve been laughed at, so you end up on the positive.”

Career with IBM

In 1979, joined IBM as a systems engineer in Lexington, Kentucky. Despite my English not being great, the company recognized that I had a desire to learn and sell. In the years that followed, I held mainstream roles. Then, in 2002, I joined IBM Research. This is where the PhDs from MIT and Caltech worked. Nonetheless, I went there to head up IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center.

The truth is that I knew nothing about disabilities. I saw it as a great opportunity to work with scientists and developers. One of the first things I did was interview senior executives. What they told me holds true today. They said accessibility is about personalizing the technology for an individual user in that we have to think about designing technology to be the simplest form. The simplest form tends to be the most elegant form, which is the hardest to achieve.

That’s the first point IBM Research instilled in me. The other is that it’s a global topic because it’s a human topic. They asked me to be a champion of the effort to bring the whole concept of accessibility globally. Later, I became IBM’s first Chief Accessibility Officer in 2014. The biggest point about this is that the industry began to recognize this as a field.

Today, a lot of people will say, we don’t hear anything about IBM doing accessibility anymore. This is interesting because it really is also an indication of accessibility — at least from the business perspective — has to be in the context of a company’s strategy because we’re a for-profit organization. We’re not an advocacy group. IBM is going through another kind of transformation. IBM has been in the technology business for over 120 years now, and so, every, 10, 20, 30 years, we go through a transformation.

We’re now into the infrastructure, what we call infrastructure business, like AI and hybrid cloud. So, in the entire IBM portfolio, very few products touch the user. Therefore, accessibility as a topic is not as visible as some other user-facing technology companies.

Why Trends Matter

By 2016, I graduated from IBM. However, I wanted to continue working in this field and elevate this topic from technology or compliance to business imperatives. I formed my own company and wrote a book on the topic. This was also a reaction to some of the diversity, equity, and inclusion movement. Recall back in 2015, there was a big Google women-led walkout demanding “an end to the sexual harassment, discrimination, and systemic racism that field this desstructive culture” in tech.

Since I’m a woman and a minority over the age of 50, and now I’m legally blind without my contact lenses. I hit all the categories of inclusion. For me, it’s important to talk about not just inclusion but what I call “Authentic Inclusion.” Authentic inclusion is the interaction of inclusion and technology.

So, when I look at a problem, I come in from the technology angle. What I wanted to do through my book, my talk, and my advisory work, is to educate the C-suite that if you are going to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), which is probably the hottest topic, you need to think about technology. In this case, technology translates into digital inclusion and accessibility.

It requires looking at the business trends because when you reach the upper management and C-suite level, you look beyond the horizon to understand where the trend is going when making investment decisions. Often, I go to these leaders and talk to them about business trends.

There are three or four major megatrends happening to make this topic a business imperative, not just compliance. Why is that? First, you look at the demographics. The aging population issue is huge now. The birth rate is going down, down, down.

So, you’re going to have a society that’s aging, not enough young people. Whether it’s World Health Organization, or the UN, everybody’s anticipating that we’re going to have a problem of not enough economic labor resources to sustain the societal movement. This is a huge issue in that we have to lean on technology to help address that.

And then you have legislation. You all know what’s happening, whether it’s Canada, whether it’s EU, there’s all these different accessibility law regulations coming. That’s because technology has moved from the back office, mainframe processing, speed and feeds over productivity, to the front pocket or front purse, in the form factor of like an iPhone.

When you start talking about the consumerization of technology, then things like privacy and security. And accessibility is a must, too. It’s not a “nice to have” because human beings care about their privacy, care about security, care about accessibility, and you already see that this kind of focus on what I call the “human first topic” is emerging. The latest survey from Deloitte indicates that 73% of board members now think about workforce DEI as a key topic. But we’re at the beginning of this.

The Business Imperative for Inclusion

For the first time, we’re seeing that not just price or revenue matters to the C-suite. People and purpose also matter. We have to celebrate because the business is beginning to recognize accessibility is something they have to do.

The biggest CEOs like Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan Chase and Larry Fink at BlackRock are talking about inclusion being very important. BlackRock is the biggest investment community in terms of billions of dollars. Other CEOs are listening to them.

Then there’s Davos World Economic Forum. People go to WEF to talk about the future of the world, society, and technology. Caroline Casey went there and garnered the top companies around the world. She created the Valuable 500, which is the big companies like Microsoft, IBM, Accenture, and Unilever taking a pledge to focus on hiring people with disabilities.

The critic will say that this is performative. But this is the beginning. The Valuable 500 is creating a movement. Accessibility is also entering the mainstream press. Forbes and The New York Times have taken steps to focus on accessibility. The C-suite tends to respond more to the mainstream press.

This all leads to that when I talk to business, government business, nonprofit business, or general business, you know what I try to advise these C-suiters is that you have to understand that, if you are talking about innovation, which everybody talks about, they want to differentiate, then you must recognize and understand that diversity is the difference maker.

Moving Beyond Talking About Inclusion

I can tell you because of my background because I’m different, I look at the problem differently. I solve the problem differently. So, each one of you brings a unique perspective. If you have the homogeneous same kind of people or background, you’re not going to have the breakout creativity.

I also challenge them that talking about inclusion’s not going to be good enough. You have got to operationalize it. When I say operationalize, that means you need to have a process, you need to have a procedure, you need to have governance, and to make it an enterprise-wide or company-wide initiative, not a one-off thing.

You have to think about this as if your future depends on it as a strategic imperative. If you think about it as compliance, just checking the box, in some cases don’t even bother, because your customer, your employee will notice that. That’s why my book title is Authentic Inclusion Drives Disruptive Innovation, and the keyword is authenticity.

Authentic Inclusion(TM) 6-E Strategy Framework

I use the 6-E framework with some of my strategy advisory work.

  • Embrace: Do the CEO and senior board members embrace the idea of digital inclusion?
  • Envision: Can you envision this? What does it translate into a strategy for your company?
  • Enact: Now that you translate it into strategy, can you enact it by creating processes and governance policies to sustain it?
  • Enlist: Can you enlist resources like people, budget, and money?
  • Enable: Are you enabling your employees by training them?
  • Ensure: Do you have the metrics to measure the progress against?

Often, I also talk to the C-suite about leadership in this whole area of diversity or inclusion, especially in the area of disability. For us to be able to lead in this area, you first have to learn. You have to be humble and learn about what this thing is about. Like I learned about disability by listening to people on my team who have disabilities.

You have to listen and go through the lived experience before you lead. To make inclusion to be truly authentic, you actually need more than technology and business. You need to have a leadership approach that’s different.

Why do we need it now? We are at the point of lots of distraction in the marketplace, but accessibility can help to make sure of that. If you do it right, it can provide product differentiation, market expansion, and talent acquisition.

During the pandemic, I reread my favorite book, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. One of the famous phrases from The Little Prince is, “Here is my secret, it is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Accessibility is about the human experience. Maybe you cannot see it. Maybe you don’t have data. We are like a data-driven society. No, sometimes data does not tell the whole story. Trust your gut. Trust your intuition. And, believe me, when you actually talk to the senior executives, you cannot make enough of a case by translating the revenue accessibility is going to bring to the company, but you can change the heart. And, that’s what we need to make this a successful and sustaining movement.


Video Highlights


Speaker bio

Frances West is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, advisor, and technology executive known globally for her work in accessibility, digital inclusion, emerging markets, and organizational transformation. An innovator for inclusion on a global scale, she works with industry, government, startups, and nonprofits to ensure that human diversity is at the core of disruptive innovation.

A trailblazing woman in tech pioneer, Frances’ human-first thinking is rooted in her experience as a first-generation immigrant from Taiwan who rose to be the first Chief Accessibility Officer at IBM. She is the author of “Authentic Inclusion Drives Disruptive Innovation” and the founder of FrancesWest&Co, her global strategy advisory company.

Follow Frances on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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