Building successful businesses of the future requires strong leadership and a propelling vision. For Dr. Reima Shakeir, it’s essential that vision include equitable and inclusive teams. Shakeir is the CEO of Women in Innovation (WIN), a nonprofit organization bringing together women innovators in New York, London, and San Francisco.
Vivaldi strongly believes in WIN’s mission to close the gender gap in innovation. Vivaldians are on the global leadership and chapter leadership teams and have even been ambassadors of WIN.
Vivaldi spoke with Shakeir about advocating for women’s careers, the expectations of Gen Z, and how we define innovation.
How would you explain the mission of Women in Innovation?
Women in Innovation was founded to close the gender gap of the representation of women in the innovation space. If you look at innovation firms, only 25% of top firms are actually led by women. If you look at innovation best-sellers (books and written content), only 16% are written by women. In Fortune 100 companies, only 25% Chief Innovation Officers are women. Obviously, there’s a gender disparity that we need to not only monitor closely in terms of data and how we’re moving the needle, but also to think of outside-the-box ways by which to close these gaps.
What key focus areas do you think are vital for creating equity in the innovation space?
Looking back at my own career and the interviews I’ve done for my own research around this area, there’s a lack of executive leadership sponsorship. Only about 56% of junior level women report having a senior leader who actually advocates for them. Mentorship is one thing, but someone who is willing to put their neck out there when it comes to decision-making and say, “I want this person to lead,” that’s a different story. Around 49% believe it’s more challenging for them to reach senior management positions than it is for men. If you don’t have somebody who is advocating for you, with intentionality, it’s very difficult.
If people think there’s only one spot, there may be more of a perception around competition, rather than an idea that we can build larger networks to help each other in a different way.
Absolutely. One of the main challenges women feel impede their advancement is a lack of opportunity to broaden their skill sets. Creating those spaces where you’re tapped into networks or thought leadership that’s constantly giving you previews of trends.
Another piece is peer to peer support networks. This is often where women are more hesitant than men to ask a connection for a favor or advice out of a fear of being perceived as opportunistic or weak. I think there’s room for us to really strengthen each other by creating those spaces for networking, which is one of the mandates of WIN. The last piece is a lack of female dominated inner circles. Around 75% of high-ranking women have really strong ties to female circles, which led to job placement level, and it’s 2.5 times greater than women with small networks or male dominated inner circles.
To talk specifically about the innovation piece — do you have a preferred working definition for “innovation”?
Innovation has been one of those terms that could be anything and everything. I favor the definition that innovation is a process of making changes, large and small, radical and incremental, to products, processes, and services that result in the introduction of something new for the organization that adds value to customers and contributes to the knowledge store of the organization and is profitable.
There are so many ways that people can work in innovation-related spaces. With your background as a professor, what are students looking for when it comes to career opportunities around innovation, business reinvention, and technology?
I get to talk about my favorite topic: Gen Z. Let’s start by saying that the one certainty today is uncertainty. Over these past few years, with the global pandemic, rocketing inflation, climate disasters, Russia’s war on Ukraine — Gen Z is really growing up and navigating a very complex and uncertain world, along with the rest of us. They are re-thinking foundational elements of day to day life, be it building decentralized networks of emotional support to advocating for greater responsibility from companies and brands, and questioning the world they want to live in. Gen Z is truly beyond the binary in every single sense of the word. And like many of their peers, perhaps similar to millennials, they want to put their efforts into and work in companies that they can feel good about. The three pillars that have historically been relevant to my students have been sustainability, equity and integrity. These are what they look for in companies when they are joining.
One of the other things we’ve heard about people entering the career world is that they are looking for companies that have practices that reflect their values with regard to DEI. Is that something you’re seeing people evaluate more?
Gen Z is one of the most diverse generations of its time. Gen Z is a generation of inclusivity and belonging. So, the question becomes, how are you actually creating a culture of belonging in your organizations? Only 76% of companies admit that they do not have diversity and inclusion roles to begin with, so to lead into the future, leadership is going to be tasked with understanding and taking action to reflect the cultural landscape of this workforce and building an organization that reflects those values from the ground up. It’s not a choice anymore, it’s an expectation. That’s why Gen Z-ers have no problem job-hopping if they don’t find that the company is hitting those targets. Their world view is organically one of inclusivity and fairness, and they really have the expectation of organizations that they work for to reflect those values.
Are there any organizations or companies that are doing a good job of fostering belonging and inclusion in a better way?
When we see someone like Larry Fink, from Black Rock, writing an open letter that says we’re not going to do business with folks who don’t care about ESG, who don’t care about diversity, that’s a huge statement. It gets people thinking. I would say the trend is now moving more toward how we can be more intentional in our diversity efforts; let’s stop making a business case out of diversity, and try to be a bit more authentic in how we are engaging because it’s the right thing to do. Wharton just launched an MBA focused on DEI. If you’ve got a leading business school in the world dedicating a whole MBA to it because more and more leadership from corporate spaces are asking for it, I think that’s very telling.
You’ve worked in the nonprofit and philanthropy worlds – what is the approach there to innovation?
This is extremely complicated. When you think of innovation, inherently there’s risk involved. In the nonprofit and philanthropy space, there’s an accountability to donors, and so they tend to be risk averse. I think innovation has many nuances and interpretations in the business community and the same is true of philanthropy. What’s important is that foundations understand what they mean by the word and apply creativity in looking at how we’re solving for problems.
What’s happening next for WIN?
We have an exciting year unfolding for our community. Keep an eye on some of the initiatives we have coming up, the programming that we have, and how we’re aligning on our mission and sharing out our progress to our communities. Stay tuned and check us out at womenininnovation.co.
Dr. Reima Shakeir is an international scholar, author, and CEO of Women in Innovation. She previously served as COO at the Edmond de Rothschild foundations, and teaches at the MBA level at the NYU Stern School of Business and The Wharton School of Business.