“How did they do that? How did they get there?” Companies succeed because of the people who build them – operating leaders who grow businesses to new heights and make decisions every day that can impact entire industries. Each month, our Operator Spotlight gives you the inside track from one of our incredible Operator LPs (Limited Partners) who are changing the game – building and scaling some of the world’s most successful companies. Read on for lessons learned and mistakes made, perspectives from the top, practical advice, and ideas on what’s next.
This month, we spoke with Rashida Hodge, Vice President of Customer Success, Azure Data & AI at Microsoft. Rashida is a technologist and executive leader at the forefront of AI and emerging technologies that are changing how businesses operate. Currently she leads the Data and AI Customer Success Worldwide Commercial Business at Microsoft, accelerating data-driven digital transformation for customers through a differentiated and connected customer experience.
A former Fortune 40 Under 40 recipient, she leads technology innovation strategy, develops diverse teams, and orchestrates global technology transformations.
You’ve held big roles at big companies. Where have you made an impact in your field? Have you broken any rules that led to interesting results?
RASHIDA: 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.
Very few people were paying serious attention to AI when we launched the IBM Watson business unit. Now, it’s top of mind across board rooms, typically included in every client discussion on emerging technologies, and it brings forth a discussion of curiosity at family dinner tables. Over the last 10 years, a much richer and broader understanding of the technology has surfaced and we have a better understanding of how AI can and should be applied. Honestly, living in the heart of this transformational shift has been incredible.
Today, we have robust platforms, repeatable patterns of success, and industry differentiation. To know that my early experiences and engagements – both successes and learnings – informed the industry and shaped the use of technology across companies and platforms is extremely humbling.
What’s something people often get wrong about customer success?
RASHIDA: Many enterprises underestimate the value that customer success brings to the core strategy, growth, and sustainability of the enterprise. Customer success is the heart of understanding the why, builds the fidelity to determine the what, and delivers the how in execution. As we continue to mature and grow in the world of cloud, customer success will more and more be seen as a required function.
Not everyone gets dubbed the “Superhero of IBM Watson AI”! Share how your interest and expertise in AI came to be.
RASHIDA: Honestly, I wish I had a cool, sexy story to tell you about how I planned this out entirely but life is a mixture of hard work, perseverance, grit, timing, and a dash of luck. And I ended up in the AI space based on a combination of all those factors. When IBM decided to commercialize Watson into its own business unit, I had the opportunity to work closely with the senior vice president, Mike Rhodin, who was tasked with gathering a core set of leaders to create this business unit from the ground-up. I was fortunate enough to build out the technical delivery team to deliver our early engagements. Through this experience, I had a front row seat to the roller coaster ride of bringing a product to market, aligning customer expectations to the journey, and bringing the value of this technology to life for our clients globally. And frankly, one of my clients gave me that nickname because of how intimately I advocated for them through this journey. I will always treasure this designation because it represents what I love about serving my clients – helping them achieve success, value, and meaningful impact for their business.
A move to a new company after 19 years is a big shift. What was a key learning you uncovered during that transition?
RASHIDA: I am just thrilled to be at Microsoft. To have the opportunity to work for a company where we are focused on empowering every person and every organization to achieve more is remarkable and aligns with my passion for doing meaningful work and enabling customer success. The key learning for me during the transition is that we are lifelong learners; and regardless of our experience and previous performance, there is always more to learn. During this transition, I realized that pivoting not on what you have done in the past, but instead indexing on the pace at which you can learn, the comfort in being uncomfortable and being open to feedback are the real winners in being successful.
What are some of the influences that led you to your views on how culture and diversity are the keys to commercial success?
RASHIDA: Now you have hit a nerve, and a passion for me indeed.
As a black woman in tech, I understand the reality of what happens when we neglect to do the work of having inclusive and diverse environments. For a large majority of my career, I operated under the “tax”; and partially still do.
I’m black, a woman, and some say I look “youthful”. We have to remove the unspoken taxes that put undue pressure and burden on a particular identity, because we need the room to be colorful, varied and full of richness.
For me, commercial success starts with talent – diverse talent from all angles, lenses and perspectives. It is important for us to pay attention to how and who we recruit, because technology mirrors our society. And when we do, we must focus on retention. Diversity equals seeking out the talent and providing the right atmosphere to retain the talent. I describe this often as inviting a bunch of cool, interesting people to a party only to have a lame party. The food is bland; the music is a snooze; and zero effort was put into these phenomenal people having a great experience. So, yes, who is going to want to stay at that party? Surely not me, or anyone who wants to have a good time. We need to do the work to find the talent and then ensure we have a fabulous party!
If we have learned anything over the years, it is that technology is not just a business imperative but a humane imperative. So, as we architect, build, and implement technology solutions, we need to ensure diverse talent is in the mix and technologies are relevant and applicable to broad, varied groups of people.
What’s something you’ve done successfully, personally or professionally, to empower the next generation of underrepresented leaders? What’s one thing you want to take on next?
RASHIDA: A few years back, I heard a message that challenged me to think about the difference between significance and success. It pushed me to think deeply on “my why”. Why do I show up day after day and work hard with grit and passion? After much thought, I walked away with the reflection that success is about choice and decisions for our own personal benefit; while significance is about choosing a life and decisions that benefit others. In the early stages of my career, there was a burning passion to make my successes meaningful. But over time, I learned that we have a role to play in contributing to and supporting the environments that shaped us.
As a child of teenage parents who totally relied on scholarships to afford college, I took the bold step in 2012 of starting an endowment at North Carolina State University to provide need-based aid to women and people of color studying in Industrial Engineering. This was not financially easy, but I believe it was a necessary sacrifice. I wanted to offer to others what was offered to me – the opportunity of an education.
It would have been much easier for me to make this level of a contribution once I had made much more money, reached some greater pinnacle of success, or donated as part of a trust once I passed. But it was important for me to establish significance now; because we cannot wait for the perfect moment to act, and establishing significance requires real sacrifice. My goal and desire is to continue to live a life of significance by enabling advancement and opportunity for others.
What’s your secret super power?
RASHIDA: My ability to build from my circumstances, which was learned and adopted from my dear mother. My mother gave birth to me as a teenager, and endured not only her own shock, but the shock of many others in our family and community. Through the crushing pressure of disappointments, family whispers, and her newfound love for me, my mother made the decision to be relentlessly resilient in spite of her circumstances. She refused to allow her circumstances as a teen mom to stop her from getting her education and rising through the ranks of our local hospital and becoming the VP of Engineering Operations. Through her experience, she equipped me with my super power of building from your circumstances. My mom’s teenage mind bore out a resolve that imprinted on me a tenacity and vigor for life; and I firmly believe it is up to us to take the resources present and finesse them into our own personal greatness.