During these challenging times, diversity and accessibility are more important than ever for global tech companies — and nobody knows the space better than Pratima Amonkar. As Microsoft’s Board Chair of Diversity, Inclusion, and Accessibility, Pratima champions women in tech and mentors young business leaders, while also helping to ensure that diverse perspectives are represented as Microsoft plans for the future.
Pratima also serves as Microsoft’s Asia-Pacific leader for cloud Independent Software Vendor (ISV) partnerships, so she knows the needs of modern digital enterprises, and brings a genuinely international perspective to this critical global problem. With 23 years of experience in different positions in the IT industry, Pratima also understands how diversity and inclusion play out at universities, start-ups, and SMEs, as well as at large multinational corporations.
Diversity and accessibility are also key priorities for Dathena, a deep-tech and AI digital security pioneer that partners with Microsoft as an ISV. Helping Dathena to lead the way on D&I issues is Girija Balasubramanian, a veteran HPE executive who joined the company earlier this year as EVP Sales and Partnerships. She sat down (virtually) with Pratima to discuss the future of accessibility and inclusion in the tech space.
GB: Pratima, thanks for joining us! Perhaps you could start things off by telling us a bit about why accessibility is such a priority for Microsoft.
At Microsoft we strongly believe that there are no limits to what people can achieve when technology reflects the diversity of everyone who uses it. Building accessibility into everything we do helps us empower people of all abilities to achieve more and do what they love. We have an opportunity and a responsibility to create inclusive technology that works for all of us. Accessibility is all about creating experiences that are better for everyone and AI can add a layer to personalize each individual’s needs. AI has the ability to change what's possible for people with disabilities.
So if in the past you had to adapt to the world, in the future the world will adapt to your individual needs and preferences. There are over 1 billion people in the world who have disabilities, many of whom need assistive technology. But only 1 in 10 have access to the products they need, so many of them can't fully participate in our economies and societies. Accessible technology can allow them to fully join and contribute in these communities.
It's also important to remember that 70% of disability is invisible, so you don't always know what challenges the people around you are facing. And finally, remember that disability — whether temporary, situational, or permanent — is something that can affect any of us, or someone we love, at any time.
GB: Why is it important for tech companies to take leadership positions on this issue?
Accessibility is an opportunity. We've learned that companies that embrace best practices for employing and supporting people with disabilities in the workplace outperform their peers. A 2018 study in partnership with Accenture, Disability:IN, and the American Association of People with Disabilities found that over a four-year period, the 45 companies identified as standing out for leadership in areas specific to disability employment and inclusion had, on average, 28 percent higher revenue, double the net income, and 30 percent higher economic profit margins than their peers.
Accessibility leaders also attract and keep top talent, as inclusion is especially important to millennials. When asked, millennials — who will be 75% of the global workforce by 2025 — say they want to work for employers that share their values. Diversity and inclusion are on the top of their list.
GB: What does that mean for Microsoft? Could you share some highlights of your company’s accessibility initiatives?
Accessibility has become core to Microsoft’s mission to empower individuals and organizations on the planet to achieve more. Our mission doesn’t just begin and end with the products we create and the services we offer. It extends to the culture of our workplace and weaving accessibility into the fabric of our company. We are passionate about creating products and services that are accessible for everyone — including people with disabilities. We are now taking an integrated approach to inclusion. We have prioritized embedding accessibility into the DNA of our company — including our culture, systems, and products — in order to build a sustainable culture of accessibility that lasts well into the future.
By embracing accessibility, we have begun to build a culture of inclusion that extends across all teams (HR, Dev, Marketing, Finance…) and into our hiring efforts. By hiring talent with disabilities, we’re better placed to create innovative products that help meet the needs of everyone with accessibility embedded into those products and not just bolted on as an afterthought. By having systems across the company, we are thinking about accessibility from start to finish, in a more proactive vs. reactive manner.
We’re creating an ecosystem that drives innovation to change what’s possible for people with disabilities and maintains our continuous focus on the future. Perhaps the most important thing we have done is to start to manage accessibility like a business, with systems, trackers and processes to measure our progress against a clear maturity model.
GB: At Dathena, we care a great deal about diversity and accessibility. But young companies don’t have the same resources as a giant like Microsoft — so how can startups play their part in building assistive tech?
One of our biggest learnings has been that accessibility needs to be built into the company culture and throughout everything we do from the very beginning, not ad hoc later in the process. This means that the aim should be to build technologies that empower everyone –across the full spectrum of disabilities — to unlock their potential when at work, school, or in their daily lives. This, as I have said before, is a huge opportunity to address the needs of over 1 billion disabled people.
Also, don’t forget that inclusion drives innovation. It is a myth that accessibility impedes innovation or that it requires more resources. Designing with and for people with disabilities leads to greater innovations for everyone. We all benefit from inclusive design. Real examples are innovations like closed captioning, which was developed for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, but is now widely used in bars and restaurants.
GB: So startups should also be making accessibility part of their DNA?
Absolutely! Accessibility needs to be included and defined in the development lifecycle activities of the organization. This includes planning, designing, building and deploying, testing, and collecting feedback, to ensure that accessibility is baked into the development lifecycle and is part of the normal engineering processes.
Designing for inclusivity not only opens up our products and services to more people, it also reflects how people really are. So thinking about inclusive design from the very start of product development makes a lot of business sense for both startups and bigger enterprises.
GB: You’ve held technology leadership positions at some of the largest software companies, including IBM and Sun Microsystems. What advice would you give to aspiring young tech talents?
Yes, I’ve had a very exciting career across many countries and with some large companies as well as startups. In my current role, I lead the work we do with our largest cloud technology partners as well as some of the next-gen ones. So I’m fortunate to meet people of various levels of experience and talent.
Over all these years, I’ve seen a few attributes that I believe are super critical, and they all center around learning. The people that are most successful are those who are willing to learn, make mistakes, and grow. The days of knowing-it-all are far behind us. Now the people who succeed are the ones who are willing to learn-it-all.
What is important, though, is the ability to judge when one needs to step back, review, and take corrective action in order to move ahead. Being agile is critical for individuals as well as for businesses. Finally, I would say that one needs to be fearless in the pursuit of customer-centric tech excellence.
GB: You area pro-bono mentor with several startups and other organizations, including Female Founders. Why do you think mentorship matters for women in STEM and for achieving gender equality?
Much has been written about why mentorship matters. Mentorship helps build and grow talent, creates a community of people with similar needs and experiences, and helps women to grow exponentially. That makes it a critical tool that most organizations now use to attract and retain top talent.
I strongly believe that the best mentorships are a two-way process, with both the mentor and mentee gaining from the relationship. We need to stop thinking about mentorship as a one-way street — and that’s particularly necessary in tech companies.
While I mentor some really great talents across companies, I actively seek out young, fresh graduates or newbies to the organization. They bring a freshness of thought and unique perspective that I truly value. Similarly, mentoring startups helps to keep me aware of larger customer trends and real challenges that technical companies face.
GB: One last question. In your role as the APAC Head of Cloud Solutions Partners, you’ve orchestrated impactful partnerships with a diverse range of ISVs across APAC, including with Dathena. What excites you most about the partner network?
Dathena is a great example of one of our most important partners –– my team and I started working with them at an early stage. The technical expertise of Dathena’s team, the vision of their leadership, the impact of their product and the innovative solution they provide is exciting, and we are grateful for the work we do together.
One of the most interesting things is the customer impact that our tech partners like Dathena bring to the table. We work with some of the biggest and most strategic names in this area, as well as ones that are looking to make their first breakthrough. What excites me is the potential we unlock with each partnership.
Incidentally, around 500 million apps are expected to be built around the world over the next five years, which would be more than all the apps built over the last 40 years, according to our CEO Satya Nadella. In Asia Pacific, this is one of the biggest catalysts for growth in cloud adoption in the region. Driving digital transformation through innovative tech solutions is the best part about my job.