Diversity in Science: Making a Difference on Aging Brain Research

Discover how aging brain research benefits from diversity in science. And help address disparities in health by taking the MindCrowd online test.

When we learned about Dr. Huentelman’s MindCrowd project and his team of scientists, two things caught our attention. First, he achieved diversity in science. His team consists of more women than men with a variety of backgrounds. Next, his cognitive function and aging brain research study was designed to allow everybody to participate.

Achieving diversity in science is no simple feat. Science can benefit from the varied perspectives brought about by a diverse team. Each team member contributes different approaches to problem-solving and research analysis.

Not only has this team achieved diversity in science in their workplace, they also want to engage the largest and most diverse group of people to take part in the MindCrowd study. Many demographic groups (including women and Latinos) are often absent from clinical trials and scientific research studies. Minorities’ lifestyles, genetics and environmental factors are not studied or taken into account. This lack of representation has serious consequences like inaccurate findings and/or healthcare disparities.

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MindCrowd is the largest online scientific research of the aging process. Backed by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in collaboration with the Universities of Arizona, Miami, Emory and John Hopkins.

Its goal is to find out how to extend quality of life by helping people keep their cognitive abilities in old age. In simple terms, they are trying to help us keep our thinking, learning, understanding skills and working memory for as long as we live.

Given the impact of the study, we sat down with Dr. Matt Huentelman, TGen’s Professor of Neurogenomics and Dr. Carol Barnes, Regents Professor and Director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Arizona, to learn about this powerful project and to listen to some of their insights on achieving diversity in science.

Bonus for those who read to the very end. These two scientists share their recommendations on dealing with COVID-19.

If you want to take part in the study, grab your laptop, desktop or tablet and visit mindcrowd.org. The test takes about 10 minutes, it’s like a video game and you will find out how your brain compares to others like you.

MindCrowd, the Most Diverse Aging Brain Research Online Study

Dr. Matt Huentelman envisions a future where successful aging prevents age-related disease. Discover how aging brain research benefits from diversity in science. And help address disparities in health by taking the MindCrowd online test.

Dr. Matt Huentelman envisions a future where successful aging prevents age-related disease.

RSM – Matt, what led you to study the aging brain?

MH – Aging has always fascinated me because of its complexity. Our differences in aging are due to our genetics, our lifestyle choices, the diseases we have, and even diseases we may have had and recovered from. The long-time frame of aging in the human being is such a tough thing to study… and I have always been attracted to that. The process of time – aging – amplifies our individual differences, which is both interesting and difficult to study at the same time.

RSM – Carol, are there similarities between the animals you have studied and the human aging brain?

CB – Yes, there are actually many similarities between them. I have been studying memory and the aging brain for over 4 decades in rats and monkeys. And there is one kind of memory we can test across animals – spatial memory.

That’s the kind of memory that allows you to remember your way home or where an object is in relation to another. Something you may have noticed people with Alzheimer’s dementia have trouble with.

Spatial memory worsens with age across every examined species, including humans. Of course, a rat is old at 2 years of age, monkeys at 22, and  humans at 65. So far, the fundamental biological process of “brain aging” is similar across species, but sped up in other animals compared to humans.

RSM – What is the difference between normal brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease?

CB – Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other dementias are not part of normal aging. Furthermore, only humans develop Alzheimer’s disease – other animals do not. Thanks to this difference we are able to use these other animals to define what to expect for normal aging.

There are two consistent changes in normal brain aging. A lower number and reduced function of connections between brain cells or synapses. And a reduced ability to strengthen the connections made between cells that are thought to be the biological basis of memory.

So, in normal brain aging you may forget which word to use, you may lose things or make a bad decision once in a while. You may even forget what day it is but remember it later.

While Alzheimer’s usually occurs in an aging brain, its changes happen in a cell type that is well preserved in normal aging. Some warning signs of dementia are life disrupting memory loss, confusion with time and place, difficulty having a conversation or completing familiar tasks. The good new for us is that, only 14% of people over 70 have dementia symptoms.

Latinos are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. And they are severely under represented in scientific research studies for Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. Taking the MindCrowd memory and reaction time test can help scientists find out how to slow down brain aging.

And they are severely under represented in scientific research studies for Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. Help scientists learn more about the aging brain by taking a short memory game at MindCrowd.org

The MindCrowd Project: A Scientific Study of the Aging Brain

RSM – What is MindCrowd and what is it trying to achieve?

MH – MindCrowd is an online scientific research study of the brain whose ultimate goal is to learn how to slow down brain aging. That way, people can preserve their memory for their entire life. And by doing so, avoid diseases of learning and memory like Alzheimer’s.

To achieve this goal we need to engage one million participants with the most diverse backgrounds in the United States and the world.

RSM – Who should take the MindCrowd memory and attention test? Why?

MH – Everybody who wants to be represented in scientific research or is curious and would like to know how their brain compares to others like them. All they need to take the memory and reaction time test is to visit mindcrowd.org on a laptop, desktop or tablet.

Lack of representation in medical research often translates into health care disparities. Quite often, scientific research is done in person. That is not convenient for those who work full-time jobs, have more than one job, or live far away from a University. This results in a lack of scientific and medical information for these underrepresented groups of people. This can then translate into poorer medical care.

In short – the discoveries made in science and medicine are most specific for those groups who take part in scientific studies. We recognize that this is a problem, that some groups of our United States “melting pot” are being left out of research.

We hope that by conducting a study online, we can encourage everybody to be part of our human brain research and help end disparities in healthcare.

Participating in scientific research is a step towards addressing disparities in healthcare. Test your brain and be counted!

Participating in scientific research is a step towards addressing disparities in healthcare. Test your brain and be counted!

CB – We want to expand MindCrowd to include studies of people across the United States that are representative of the population. Most studies of cognitive health in aging have been small, cross-sectional, and geographically and ethnically constrained. We need to study more people so we can understand what groups will benefit most from what types of treatments.

A so-called Precision Medicine approach such as used in cancer research, is a must to understand how to avoid age related cognitive decline. We want to be in a position to guide public policy and health decisions, and to take the next steps to personalize intervention strategies. When we apply these approaches to the process of aging we call it Precision Aging.

How to Achieve Diversity in Science

RSM – What do you believe it takes to achieve diversity in science?

MH – I strongly believe that diversity in science is driven by actions that encourage participation by young students. We have to begin to encourage grade and high schoolers to consider science as a career. Help them understand that they can be leaders in high tech fields. So, I believe it starts with a focus on the young minds out there.

It is critical to develop and support programs that have a focus on the recruitment of diversity into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math-based fields). Support the teachers who foster and represent diversity in the grades and high schools. Help students of all types understand that their future is their own and that they can overcome any perceived pre-destiny.

I admit that it is a tall order. That our society for all of its opportunities has competing stereotypes that serve to push certain groups away from some careers. However, in science, we thrive on creativity and differing viewpoints and world views… so I really view a lack of diversity as a disservice to science and medicine.

CB – I served in many service capacities at the Society for Neuroscience, including President. One of the working groups I was involved in was tasked to try to figure out why there are so few female Full Professors in Neuroscience. At that time it was about 11%. While there are about 50% women graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, somewhere after that we start to lose women – the classic “leaky pipeline.”

No one has a good answer, of course – other than active mentoring, and developing support groups.

The situation is even more severe with respect to achieving ethnic diversity in science – where the numbers are even more extreme. Most now think we need to start at early ages to show kids how amazing STEM can be. Getting them to actively participate and realize they can be ‘good at science.’ But first, we need to tackle as a nation health and wealth disparities that need not exist.

Diversity in science: Making a Difference on Aging Brain Research

Diversity in science: Making a Difference on Aging Brain Research

RSM – What would be your message for women who are considering a career into STEM?

CB – Find out what really keeps your attention – find something you are passionate about – and, if it is in the STEM field – I say go for it!! There will be challenges to overcome as in any area of life – but I believe the key is to follow your heart with respect to where your passion is.

Every day I feel lucky to be in a position to ‘go in and learn and discover something new.’ My determination to understand brain aging and memory so that I can help people maintain their brain health is truly sustaining. To be sure, there are obstacles to overcome for women in STEM – but if we don’t fight to do and excel at what we love – we all lose.

I’ve gotten many awards for my work and have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. But the award I treasure most is the Mika Salpeter Lifetime Achievement Award for mentoring women in neuroscience. So, a final word – once you find your stride in STEM – encourage others.

COVID-19 Recommendations for Dementia Caregivers

RSM – What are your recommendations for people who live and care for others with age related memory issues during this quarantine?

MH – For the caregivers, life during stay-at-home orders and quarantine can be especially challenging. Here are some suggestions that are important to consider.

Keep yourself well: This is the time for the caregiver to pay special attention to themselves. Follow the basic precautions, such as hand washing, physical distancing, don’t touch your face, and clean high touch surfaces (like doorknobs) frequently, and follow the guidelines about face coverings.

Keep others well: Remember that you can carry the virus and not show symptoms. So, when you are in public you should wear a mask.

Think of others, think of the people those you encounter will be in contact with and make sure you protect them. After all, it’s not only about you. This is a pandemic.

Keep physical distance but don’t socially isolate: It is critical to protect the most vulnerable by observing physical distancing guidelines, but we cannot let this slip into social isolation. We know that a lack of social interactions has a negative effect on the brain. Humans, by nature, are social animals and this aspect of the pandemic is perhaps one of the most significant.

Be creative about ways to keep in touch with loved ones. Each case is different, but consider video visits, phone calls, and writing letters. There are many games that can be played online with a loved one. And sometimes listening to music together or sharing a meal on a video call can be calming.

COVID-19 Recommendations for Dementia Caregivers: Keep physical distance but don't socially isolate

COVID-19 Recommendations for Dementia Caregivers.

Carol A. Barnes, Ph.D.

Regents Professor, Psychology, Neurology and Neuroscience
Evelyn F. McKnight Chair for Learning and Memory in Aging
Director, Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute
Director, Division of Neural Systems, Memory and Aging
University of Arizona

Matt Huentelman Ph.D.

Professor, Neurogenomics Division
Scientific Director, Center for Rare Childhood Disorders
Head, Neurobehavioral Research Unit
Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen)

What will we and the world be like when this is over?

Gustavo Carvajal is the #IDEAcatalyst, an open-hearted and open-minded thinker with a passion for dreaming ideas and sharing them with a world that he wants to improve and make more flexible. Today he tells us what we will be like when this is over.

Gustavo Carvajal Red Shoe Leader Award

Gustavo Carvajal- Winner of 2019 Red Shoe Leader Award

Gustavo Carvajal, one of the winners of the Red Shoe Leader Award 2019, and the creative mind behind some of our most successful communication campaigns, is a coolhunter and anti-marketer born in Bogotá who has resided in New York for many years. From the Big Apple, he shares his unique, fresh, and multicultural perspective through #IdeaTherapy consulting sessions.

Briefly: this is his story. The #IDEAcatalyst shares his passion for ideas through #IdeaTherapy: creative consulting sessions for marketing and communication. Gustavo has contributed his qualitative experience in advertising agencies, thus promoting his Coolhunting platform. He specializes in marketing and communications for lifestyle and social causes.

Before settling in New York, he worked in the film and television industries. He was part of the international marketing teams at Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) and Disney. Gustavo is the International Cultural Ambassador of the Patronage Ruta de la Amistad – World Monuments Watch 2012.

Lover of dynamic ideas, Gustavo believes in the importance of being empathetic in the ways in which we communicate with each other, especially in a world that feels vulnerable as a result of the new normal. We are, the IDEACatalyst says, in an era where emotional intelligence needs the effective use of our “EQ” (emotional quotient) for necessary societal changes to take place.

We spoke with Gustavo about the way the world is changing, the repercussion of these changes on each one of us and how things will be when this is over.

We have to work together to create a better future. An inspirational quote by Gustavo Carvajal #IDEAcatalyst

We have to work together to create a better future. An inspirational quote by Gustavo Carvajal #IDEAcatalyst

Anti-Marketing: An Important Tool for When This Is Over

Aline Cerdán – Please tell us about anti-marketing? What is it and how does it work?

Gustavo Carvajal –Innovating, frequently means to step out of our ‘comfort zone’, which affects costs, production processes and interaction dynamics. It also requires an open-minded leadership and causes an increased risk for the operation.

Today, forced confinement has promoted introspection as a vehicle to search for trails leading to the light at the end of the tunnel. This healthy exercise is not frequently applied within work teams, even less so at the level of companies and their ecosystems.

The starting point of anti-marketing must be at least a certain ignorance about the new product or service. This way, the team can discover it as a consumer as well as define the type of communication matrix that is most appropriate for launch or sustainability campaigns.

Part of the creativity must be applied to the renewal of marketing strategies, so that communication about products and services is not just aesthetic ‘noise’. Anti-marketing can definitely stimulate a jump-start and the visualization of how we are going to position ourselves within the ‘new normal’ world that is already happening.

AC – How do you think life will be transformed as a result of the restrictions brought by the global pandemic? How will things be when this is over?

GC–We will live at a distance. With events that will be impossible to attend physically, but that we will be attend virtually. There probably won’t be a shortage of virtual therapy sessions when someone discovers that they’ve been left out of a Zoom party. People won’t be able to claim that the invitation was lost in the mail and an entire digital etiquette manual will be built on the fly, just as new pathologies will be added to the catalog. Instead of “spiritual” retreats, more and more digital detoxes will have to be made available.

At the other end of the equation, there will be classes to rescue the art of interacting in real-time with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers. We’ll all have to learn to ‘digest’ losses, where the feelings of mourning will be even more intimate, since the absence of social rituals will not allow us to face them as a group. There is a risk of becoming colder in difficult situations, but hopefully not indolent.

Creativity will rescue us when this is over- Photo Credit- Sharon Mccutcheon-Unsplash

Creativity will rescue us when this is over- Photo Credit- Sharon Mccutcheon-Unsplash

When This is Over: No More Business as Usual

AC– What is “GloCal” and what part will it play in our lives when this is over? How do you think we’re already being redefined by this concept?

GC – The social distancing that’s bound to continue and the more widespread adoption of home office setting will lead to the impracticality of the use of mass transit services. This will determine the existence of demographic groups that won’t be able to leave their communities, in addition to the highly vulnerable groups and the most cautious sectors that will not be able to travel.

I have always known that the more ‘local’ you are, the more ‘global’ you can resonate. This applies to both rural and urban settings. This concept is a tool that we could use with our friends and neighbors to be more aware of the resources at hand.

Today, great talent inserted in the community can find possibilities of expression in existing organizations or new groups so that unsuspected collaborations can blossom at a global level. This will be new support networks that create community and at the same time interact with the networks that each member currently has.

When this is over- Photo Credit- Annie Spratt-Unsplash

When this is over- Photo Credit- Annie Spratt-Unsplash

Entertainment and Our “New Essentials”

AC – How will new essentials be defined? How will consumption change when this is over?

GC – Lifestyles are evolving rapidly. In the recent past, the fascination with a brand was based on the wide variety it offered. The “New Normal”, as the prevailing reality, can mark the return to a more generic product, both due to the production capacity, price, availability of supplies and the desire to buy local to rebuild communities.

During their quarantine, a revealing number of consumers have discovered a series of expenditures that were inserted into their daily agenda in a mechanical way, like a routine. This circumstance opens the opportunity to discover ourselves beyond being “Objects for Consumption” and to review how we invest our time and resources. Our real choices.

With more people telecommuting, it will be vital to find more pioneers and promoters who are focused on promoting stores and small business. Individuals integrated into the neighborhood for consumers to explore in more intimate and controlled spaces. This format would refute the ‘Destination Store’ that has been promoted so aggressively and which we have repeatedly turned to. This moment is an opportunity to adjust our “essentials”.

AC – How do you feel areas like entertainment and tourism will be transformed when this is over?   

GC – Currently multiple platforms have been delivering content for free. But behind each piece of content there are creators. When it comes to culture, it’s important to stop to think that the talent behind the creations has also been impacted by this. The operating models of companies and organizations must include this factor even more when planning for various future scenarios.

The availability of tons of content promoted to “kill time” does not help the solution. This is all the more paradoxical when audiences, now truly captive, discover that many of the content forms are not designed to be consumed in‘ loop ’24/7.

Media overstimulation requires periods of silence. It is imperative that we all learn to spend more time with ourselves. As a personal opportunity for reflection and human recharge.

Likewise, there are examples of active citizens who provide well-being to communities that come together around particular interests. This is the case of a young Iberian poet who just in March was scheduled to launch her book in South America. For obvious reasons, this was postponed. However, in conversations with friends, they came up with a very poetic solution … #PoesiaEnTuSofa (#PoetryFromYourCouch) via Instagram.

In the end, we have all been affected in one way or another by this global circumstance. Perhaps the way to face vulnerability is through the force of hope and the multiple manifestations it has…in my case, in the form of poetry that emerges in the spring.

Ideas for when this is over

Ideas for when this is over

Imagination to the Rescue!

AC – You believe creativity will be the basis of productivity, can you elaborate a little?

GC – The average marketing professional has had a “One-Size-Fits-All” approach when it comes to providing answers to consumers. Over time, we have found that this approach is too limiting.

In a way, we have to understand that we are all creative and that we can make creativity intrinsic to everyday moments. It would be beneficial if we understood the creative process as an integral part of productivity and not exclusively as a playful exercise.

We can only build a “new future” if we have an “out-of-the-past” attitude to be part of the solution, we all have to put our hearts, minds and hands to work. Feel, think and DO.

AC – How can we go from reactive to proactive?

GC – Although such an unexpected circumstance initially implies a natural attitude of reaction, we as a community must have an aptitude for action. It is a call to use the sense of ingenuity for community well-being and thus build ties, lasting bonds that design and forge the future.

It is time to take advantage of flexible, future-oriented thinking – with the ability to adjust the sails to the wind, to challenges – and exercising a leadership which includes empathy. It is a time to experiment solutions and get “modest big” common achievements.

In the end, all of us have simultaneously learned during these weeks to live without some things that we previously considered absolutely essential. It is time to focus on the “On/Off” interaction with our surrounding environment. And above all, it’s time for a much-needed personal, family, community, and business introspection. So, as a group, we can make life a little bit better.

Follow Gustavo Carvajal’s #IDEAcatalyst #IdeaTherapy

Instagram: @IdeaCatalyst

Twitter: @IdeaCatalyst1

Inclusion: Pushing for Real Results in Academia

If there’s someone pushing for real results in diversity and inclusion at all levels of academia, that’s Dr. Alison Davis-Blake, the eight president of Bentley University.

RSM #IWDleader Hall of Fame

RSM #IWDleader Hall of Fame

Before this role, Dr. Davis-Blake was the Dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan (2011-2016) where she positioned the school globally for its new mission to develop leaders who make a positive difference in the world. Prior to Ross she was the Dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota (2006-2011.)

Dr Davis-Blake was the first female dean at both Carlson and Ross and is Bentley’s second woman president. She is a talented scholar with expertise in strategic human resource management and organizational design for effective management of human capital.

For breaking the glass ceiling in a historically male-dominated sector, and for relentlessly pushing for real results when it comes to full inclusion in academia, we honor Dr. Alison Davis-Blake with the 2020 Hall of Fame.

The influence of great women leaders

Red Shoe Movement—Why do women make great leaders?

Alison Davis-Blake —In a recent study published by Harvard Business Review, researchers found that women in leadership positions are rated equally or more competent than men in leadership positions. I am not surprised by this data which also show that in particular, across thousands of the 360-reviews used for the research, women leaders were highly rated as “excelling” in “taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty.” I have personally found that women are more likely to engage in integrative (both parties win) negotiations than distributive (win-lose) negotiations in the workplace. It is also my feeling that due to personal experiences of exclusion women can often be more sensitive to the need for diversity and inclusion, thus unleashing organizational potential for creative and innovative solutions.

RSM— How have women helped you along your career?

ADB—Women have been essential to my career as sponsors, mentors, collaborators, and supporters. While the importance of sponsors and mentors is well understood, I think we overlook the vital role of collaborators and supporters. My female collaborators have provided a space where it was safe for me to be myself, to vet concepts, and to test ideas. A space where it is safe to express incomplete thoughts in private with a collaborator or a supporter is vital because so often women face a smaller margin for error in public. I have also been the beneficiary of a great many women who were working on the front lines but who went out of their way to tell me that they were supporting me as a female leader and wanted to see me succeed. Their votes of confidence kept me going during some of my most difficult days.

President Alison Davis-Blake pushes for real results

President Alison Davis-Blake pushes for real results

RSM— You were the first female dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and at the time that made you the highest-ranking dean at any U.S. business school. Why did it take so long to have a woman in that position? What changes were you able to implement during your tenure there?

Business schools and fields of study have historically been male dominated. And there is a very, very long road to the deanship. One must obtain a Ph.D., get a good academic job, obtain tenure, become a full professor, and get some administrative experience. That can easily be a 20-year process. And, research is clear that just like the corporate pipeline data reported by McKinsey & Company each year, the academic pipeline is extremely leaky at every stage with fewer women than men (proportionally) advancing to the next stage. Thus, there is a pipeline issue with regards to women achieving the highest ranks of academia, from which administrators are typically chosen.

When I became dean, it was not uncommon for only 10-15% of the full professors in a business school to be women, and, based on that, one would expect very few women to be in senior administrative roles and even fewer to be deans.

While at Ross, I led strategic efforts to increase global study opportunities for MBA and Bachelor of Business Administration students and formed new partnerships with universities around the world. Through this work we expanded activities in India, Japan and South Korea. Domestically we expanded our Executive MBA program to Los Angeles and introduced the Master of Management and Minor in Business programs.

We also completely revamped our undergraduate curriculum to make it more experiential and more integrated, better meeting the needs of today’s learners.

Iris Bohnet, Dean, Harvard Kennedy School shares how to get real results in gender inclusion.

What can be done to get real results?

President Alison Davis-Blake

President Alison Davis-Blake

RSM—54% of university professors who work full time in degree-granting postsecondary institutions are White males while 27% are White females. Only 2% of the following groups are full time professors: Black males, Black females, Hispanic Males and Hispanic females. What is the reason for this disparity in both gender ethnicity and race?

ADB—If doctoral programs don’t begin with a diverse group of students, subsequent stages of the pipeline will continue to be less and less diverse. The long and leaky pipeline is the underlying reason for all of these disparities. This is why efforts such as the Ph.D. Project, which focus on increasing diversity among doctoral students in business, are so critical to generating a diverse set of faculty and administrators for the future.

RSM—Can you share the story of a male champion who supported your ambitions along the way?

ADB—When I was an associate department chair, my chair (who I was in line to replace in several years) spent time introducing me to every key leader on campus and telling those leaders how much they would enjoy working with me. He was an extremely well-connected and well-respected person on campus. Those introductions, which took quite a bit of time to accomplish, were invaluable when I later became a department chair and then senior associate dean.

Want real results? Set the example!

RSM—As a leader, what are you specifically doing to level the playing field for women in academia and elsewhere?

ADB— “Diversity & Inclusion” is a key feature in Bentley University’s strategic plan. We have put hiring practices in place at the university to ensure that we are developing a strong pool of gender, ethnic and racially diverse candidates for every faculty and staff position. I believe that setting the example starts at the top. When making my own personnel decisions, I’ve mandated that all executive searches feature a broad slate of highly qualified candidates. And the results have been very positive. My Provost is a woman of color, my CFO is female, and my Cabinet (the people who report directly to me) has a roughly equal number of women and men. As we work together every day, we demonstrate that the contributions of men and women are equally valued and that both women and men can be successful at the highest levels of Bentley University.

Board diversity is also a top priority for both Bentley’s Board of Trustees and me. We are actively working to add women from all industry sectors and, importantly, women from academia to our Board.

RSM—What has been the most difficult lesson you’ve had to learn to get to where you are?

ADB—Earlier in my career, I imagined that by this point in my life, the playing field would be more level than it is. So, the hardest lesson I have had to learn is that the playing field is not level and will not be level during my lifetime. I sometimes joke that women of my generation have to work twice as hard to get half the credit. While that may not be exactly true, it has been my experience that women still have to produce better and cleaner results to be recognized. And we know that it is true that women are less likely to be paid equitably. While I believe the world is improving and that many leaders, both male and female, are working to change these dynamics, the work world I hoped for when I was younger has not yet materialized.

President Alison Davis Blake always looking to bring real results around inclusion to academia

President Alison Davis Blake always looking to bring real results around inclusion to academia

Sylvia Acevedo: From NASA to CEO, Girl Scouts

Sylvia Acevedo started off her career as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs, not your regular first stop for a journey to become the CEO of one of America’s most beloved institutions, Girl Scouts.

RSM Hall of Fame

RSM Hall of Fame

She left to attend graduate school at Stamford and pursue a career in Silicon Valley where she held executive positions at Apple, Dell and Autodesk. Sylvia is a life-long advocate for universal access to education and serves as Commissioner on the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics. She’s an expert in mobilizing communities to increase family engagement in education.

After serving as interim CEO of the Girl Scouts in 2016, Sylvia Acevedo was named permanent CEO in May 2017. Under her tenure, the Girl Scouts introduced a series of badges in robotics, coding, engineering, and cybersecurity.In 2018 she was featured among “America’s Top 50 Women in Tech” by Forbes.

For relentlessly breaking through the glass ceiling and opening new worlds to women and girls, we honor Sylvia Acevedo with the 2019 Hall of Fame.

Red Shoe Movement — There are few women CEOs but there are probably even fewer women who are rocket scientists and who participated in an actual mission. Tell us about your experience at NASA and how that helped shape your career.

Sylvia Acevedo, CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA

Sylvia Acevedo, CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA

Sylvia Acevedo —It was my first job out of college, working as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The first program I worked on was called the Solar Polar Solar Probe (SPSP). My job was to help figure out the payload and testing equipment that would be carried on a satellite going to the sun. I had to consider questions like how the equipment would work in the intense heat being generated close to the sun, how it would react to the radiation, how its weight would affect the amount of fuel we would need to carry on the rocket. So to answer these questions I had to create complex algorithms. It takes a long time to launch a new space expedition, and this solar probe finally, decades after I worked on it, launched in August as the Parker Solar Probe.

I also got to work on the Voyager 2 mission, which at the time was passing by Jupiter and its moons Io and Europa. This was a long-range program, which continues to this day, sending automated spacecraft to outer planets to record data and send it back to Earth. The Voyager was transmitting amazing images and data, and JPL needed engineers to analyze them. There were some images coming back from Jupiter and its moons that we had never seen before—just amazing stuff. I really enjoyed my time at NASA—it was such an exciting time to be there doing that work.

After the Voyager 2 had gone by Jupiter, I realized that it was going to take years before it went to the next planet and the next project I was on was going to take decades. So at that point, I realized, “OK, this was great,” but I was ready to go get my master’s at Stanford. Once I had that degree I had the background in engineering and the mathematics expertise to pursue a career in Silicon Valley.

It was a lifelong dream to work at NASA and a true honor to take part in such fascinating and world-changing projects. And the work I did on Solar Polar Solar Probe and Voyager 2 had an incredible impact on the way I think and approach problems. I had to consider the breadth of the universe and the complexities it contained. I didn’t just have to think big—I had to think literally as big as the universe! The infiniteness of the questions and the quest for answers to them inspired me—and it continues to inspire me. I also learned the value of “blue sky thinking”—of generating and ruminating on big ideas regardless of practical constraints—and the important role that each team member plays in the pursuit of big goals.

Sylvia Acevedo CEO Girl Scouts

Sylvia Acevedo CEO Girl Scouts

Sylvia Acevedo share traits of great leaders

RSM— What are some of the key traits of a great leader?

SA—I can trace my thoughts about great leadership back to my experience as a young Girl Scout. One of the first leadership positions I held as an adult was when I was still at New Mexico State University. I was asked to join the engineering honor society, Tau Beta Pi, and I was elected president of my chapter. And I thought at the time, and I still think today, that the experience I had as a Girl Scout earning badges, being a cookie entrepreneur, and working as a team with other girls in my troop on projects gave me the confidence to raise my hand, step up, and be a leader.

Great leaders are problem solvers—they are able to break down big challenges into small, achievable goals. They are able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of team members and delegate accordingly. And they are approachable. Open and honest dialogue is very important and helps avoid misunderstandings, build consensus, and bring out the best in everyone so that they can do their best work.

And great leaders stay curious. I had an investigative mind from a very young age—I was always trying to figure out how to get around roadblocks and obstacles that were preventing me from achieving my goals. I think curiosity is an incredibly valuable trait in a 21st-century leader.

Sylvia Acevedo went from rocket scientist to CEO of one of the most beloved American organizations.

Sylvia Acevedo went from rocket scientist to CEO of one of the most beloved American organizations.

RSM— Why do women make great leaders? 

SA—It’s a bit of a cliché but I do think women are consensus builders, and that is something we need more of in our leaders today. I think women also tend to have a mission mindset. It’s so important for leaders to have a real understanding of and appreciation for what their focus is, then have persistence and determination in carrying out their mission.

Sylvia Acevedo has brought a powerful leadership style to the Girl Scouts

Sylvia Acevedo has brought a powerful leadership style to the Girl Scouts

RSM— Girls Scouts is responsible for inspiring a great majority of the female leaders in this country. Could you give us some statistics?

SA—Yes, Girl Scout has incredibly powerful outcomes. 50 percent of female business leaders, 73 percent of female U.S. senators, the majority of women who have flown in space, and 100 percent of female U.S. secretaries of state were all Girl Scouts. More than half of the 106 women in the U.S. House of Representatives are Girl Scout alums, and of the nine women currently serving as governors across the U.S., five are Girl Scouts.

RSM—What are some of the skills that girls develop as Girls Scouts that help them pursue leadership careers?

SA—The values of great leadership are imbedded throughout the Girl Scouts experience. You seek challenges and learn from setbacks. You develop a strong sense of self. You learn to identify problems and develop solutions. You build courage, confidence, and character. And you learn to take initiative.

There are some amazing Girl Scouts who are taking on big challenges in their communities to earn their Gold Award, the highest award in Girl Scouting. To earn the award they must identify a community problem, investigate it thoroughly to understand root causes, create a plan of action, build a team of people who can help them achieve their goal, present their plan and gather feedback, and then execute on that plan. Gold Award Girl Scouts use the leadership skills they learn at Girl Scouts to make a real impact, and they go on to do incredible things as leaders in the world.

Don't miss this interview with another amazing CEO, Deborah Gillis!
Girl Scouts White House Camp out

Girl Scouts White House Camp out

RSM—Why is it important to reserve some spaces for women-only experiences?

SA—Women-only spaces and experiences are incredibly important, and that confuses some people who think, “Why are they necessary?” Well, we need those places where we can connect, create, and collaborate, where we can get encouragement, where we can learn skills that we might not have access to elsewhere, where we can get replenished, and where we can hear things tailored to the way women like to learn and lead.

I was one of the few women in tech when I was in Silicon Valley, and in one of my first jobs at IBM, I noticed that the guys would always huddle with the male engineers on my floor, but they would never include me or any of the other women engineers. They would talk among themselves about the agenda, what the boss really wants to hear, and insidery things like that. So I realized that they were exchanging much inside information that we women engineers weren’t privy to. And I tried crashing the party a few times, and they closed up pretty quickly. This was an important realization, the amount of informal networking that really impacts your career that I was shut out of.

There are more women today in all different industries, but I do think it’s still important for us to have spaces of our own where we can do our own informal networking, make those connections, build those relationships, and exchange information of our own!

Sylvia Acevedo visiting school

Sylvia Acevedo visiting school

Sylvia Acevedo reflects on a costly mistake

RSM— In terms of leadership lessons, is there a particular mistake or failure that you now “cherish” because of what you learned from it?

SA—One lesson I learned is the importance of managing expectations in business relationships. In the early days of the internet and the global digital transformation, I was working with Dell in South America. There was one particular deal we were trying to close with a governmental entity and this prospective client was very used to the traditional ways of working with a corporation, which involved having a lot more people on site and considerable investment in brick and mortar plants. We were coming in and pitching a solution that could be fulfilled with only a few people on site—we brought in fewer than ten—because we could do things globally through a dispersed network of team members.

What I didn’t understand was that for this client, the absence of actual bodies in the building was a big deal. Their expectations were not lining up with what they were seeing from us. It was a very large opportunity, with millions of dollars on the line, but we didn’t close the deal because of mismanagement of expectations.

My failure was in not communicating beforehand our vision of the project, the efficiencies we would bring that would actually lower costs, and what it would require on site. To us these things were obvious, but in those days our proposal was still a new way of doing things. The fact that we had such a small in-person team said to them that we had undersized the opportunity and weren’t taking them seriously, so they didn’t take us seriously. We were really speaking past each other. It was a tough—but a very valuable—lesson to learn.

Girl Scouts Daisies

Girl Scouts Daisies

Kees Roks, servant leader, leads by example

Kees Roks, Head Region Europe at Novartis Oncology, has been an incredibly visible inclusion leader at his organization. A servant leader if there ever was one. Read on!

It’s hard to miss him. Kees Roks (pronounced “Case”) is close to 7 feet tall and usually towers over most people at a meeting. The Swiss native, however, could be the quieter person in a room, just taking in what all the stakeholders have to share. With over 30 years of international experience gained in Country and Regional organizations around the globe, Kees has most recently been the Head of Region Latin America and Canada at Novartis Oncology. In this role, he was a key sponsor of the women taking part of the Red Shoe Movement’s Step Up Plus leadership development program. He wore his red tie every week, made sure to meet and support not only the female talent in the program but any one who required his attention.

Kees Roks has built a career on inclusive principles, living them day in and day out. For his exemplary leadership and implementation of concrete actions to open doors to female talent we honor Kees Roks to the 2019 Hall of Fame.

RSM Hall of Fame

RSM Hall of Fame

Red Shoe Movement— What are some of the key traits of a great leader?

Kees Roks, Head Region Europe, Novartis Oncology

Kees Roks, Head Region Europe, Novartis Oncology

Kees Roks—Being a leader is not about the individual leading. In fact, the concept of servant leadership is one that resonates strongly with me. I see this as someone who offers support, is humble and removes obstacles. The idea of leadership being dictating is quickly vanishing. Being focused on my team, helping develop them and ensure they succeed is of utmost priority; after all when your team does well, so does the leader.

 RSM—Why do women make great leaders? 

KR—Diversity is a critical component of leadership and it builds stronger and more efficient teams. Gender is an important pillar and one we have to support.

I have had the pleasure of working with strong and capable women, now and in prior roles. In my experience, the female mind works differently from the male one. I value what female leaders bring to the table – sometimes offering better solutions because they are able to see an issue in a more 360 point of view and take into account the impact from all possible angles.

In my opinion, female leaders offer a different perspective on issues. They deal with challenges and situations with a more reflective and holistic approach; a man’s approach can sometimes be very solution-oriented and single minded. Neither is a negative but this is why we need to have more women in leadership positions to help find a good balance.

Don't miss Andrés Graziosi's interview for the Hall of Fame 2018

RSM— How open is your door for your associates to approach you and what’s the best way to do it? What do you expect people to come with when they ask for a few minutes to see you?

KR—First, at Novartis, we sit in an open space environment so there is literally no door (laughs). Figuratively, there is none because I believe in being fully accessible to my team. Going back to the concept of servant leadership of which the most fundamental tenant is that our people are our most important asset, I am never too busy to make time for them.

However, communication works two ways – as direct and as open as I am, I fully invite and expect them to be equally so. I want them to ask for time, ask for what they need and be proactive.

Kees Roks in meeting at Novartis East Hanover, NJ office

Kees Roks in meeting at Novartis East Hanover, NJ office

RSM— What do you expect people to come with when they ask for a few minutes to see you?

KR—Well, I never give a few minutes; I give as much time as they need. To dive deep into any challenges or have a deeper discussion, it is important to allow enough time to have the conversation.

Once we have that time, I fully expect and invite them to drive the agenda since they asked for the meeting. It is important to come with an opinion, come with what you need from your leader and what you need them to do. This means you are taking ownership and accountability – you are also being a leader. 

Kees Roks leads by example

Kees Roks leads by example

Kees Roks suggestions for men to become allies

RSM—What would you say are the most effective ways to get men to become female champions?

KR—There are many ways to have men become champions. Put them into a diverse environment – perhaps they are the only man on an all-female team and/or work stream. Women have worked this way for years, often being the sole female in a group or team. Invite men to experience it as well to provide perspective. Also, highlight the successes of women on your team. Show how well they are doing to everyone else – prove it with facts. Personally, I also try to create as diverse an environment as possible and find the right balance of women on my leadership team.

That said, it boils down to the organization – as an individual I can only do so much. Companies need to make D&I a priority and include gender D&I KPIs in the objectives. Of course there has to be a balance, it is not just about filling slots with one gender because forcing something is not good overall. However, it is possible. However, it is possible; for example, if there is a leadership position available, have gender equality and diversity in the candidates being invited to apply. More importantly, it is critical to have gender equality and diversity on the side of the key decision makers for these roles as well, so we really find the best candidate based on qualifications.

Kees Roks supporting #RedShoeTuesday at Novartis

Kees Roks supporting #RedShoeTuesday at Novartis

RSM— In your experience, how does having a diverse and inclusive team of executives impact your bottom line? 

KR—What I can say is that having a diverse team and a diverse organization already, we are doing quite well. We are having deeper discussions and making better decisions. 

RSM—At your level of responsibility, what do you spend most of your time on?

KR—People first. In fact, 80 percent of my day is talking to and helping my team. That can be anything from talking, debating, discussing various topics in both formal and informal settings. Being there for them is how I spend the majority of my time.

RSM—In terms of leadership lessons, is there a particular mistake or failure that you now “cherish” because of what you learned from it?

KR—Every experience is a lesson. I do not know that there is one in particular that stands out but I can say with certainty that, as a leaders, every time you come into a new environment you need to calibrate the need for context. I am not known to be always so patient (laughs.) I really force myself to step back and reflect and find the patience I need to help my team succeed. Mistakes and failures never end but how you handle them defines how you move forward. It is an ongoing journey of endless learning.

Kees Roks Head Europe Region Novartis Oncology

Kees Roks Head Europe Region Novartis Oncology