Like the person for whom the prize is named, the winner of the 2023 Dianne Bevelander Prize, Karen de Sousa Pesse, is an activist at heart, with a deep desire to bring about change in society.

The Brazilian-born-and-raised, Brussels-based 31-year-old is doing this in multiple ways – through her role as a Senior Executive at Salesforce, where she works on key trends shaping the public sector, supporting governments and institutions in their digital transformation; she is also engaged in a growing number of speaking engagements, including a recent keynote at the RightBrains Celebration Event 2023, organised by our first Dianne Bevelander Prize winner, Geke Rosier. Karen is a leading voice on the topic of bias in Artificial Intelligence and the importance of gender perspectives in technology on various public platforms, such as TEDx. In the past, she has initiated a movement that shares best practices with individuals in the Global South who have limited or no resources and aspire to pursue study and work opportunities abroad.

In announcing Karen as the second-ever prize winner in June this year, jury member Dr. Natalie Cleton described her as a role model "in the true spirit of Dianne Bevelander's efforts to empower women and to highlight and honour those who have made a significant contribution to the professional advancement of women." Dr. Cleton added, "She is a role model, not only for Latin-American natives but also for Latin-American women, for women in the field of Artificial Intelligence, and for people who care about equity and equality in the AI disciplines.”

In the lead-up to ECWO’s annual conference, where she was presented with the prize, we spoke to Karen, who shared insights into her own journey, motivations and much more.

You grew up in Rio de Janeiro and earned a BSc in Nanotechnology Engineering at the UFRJ Polytechnic School, followed by an MSc in Engineering from Ghent University. You’ve worked at IBM, Microsoft, and now Salesforce in roles focused on digital strategy. However, you have a powerful pull toward social justice, which is very human-centred. How does this fit into your professional life?

Some people say it is my strongest quality, but it can also be a weakness because if I see any kind of injustice, I cannot sit still and must do something about it. I believe in the role of mentors in any professional journey - I am grateful to have had several really wonderful ones - and I’ve often spoken to them about this. While they recognise how important it is for me to work for gender equality and equality for people who come from different backgrounds, they have cautioned that I should not spread myself too thin. Still, I find it hard not to. I believe that we should all do what we can to make the world a better place, but I feel like we have taken quite a few steps backwards in recent times, which requires us to really play our role.

What in your upbringing – your family and the place where you grew up – sowed the seeds for the person you have become?

I have been asked this question before and have answered by pointing to certain things that have shaped me, but one day my mother told me: “Karen, you have always been that kind of person. Since you were a child, you have never taken no for an answer. It’s almost as if you were born this way.” My mom says I have always sought to be independent and to fight for what I believe in – and have always been a bit of a rebel. That’s her perception, but I guess she would know since she’s known me for almost 32 years!

You come from a country and city where inequalities are far starker in everyday life than in much of Europe, where you have lived for the past decade. What role, if any, has this played in your belief in taking care of both your own professional journey and the social injustices you see around you?

What was most powerful in this regard was the fact that I actually went to pretty good schools, even though my family did not have a lot of means, so I always navigated through different worlds. It took me a while to realise that my parents were putting their needs aside to prioritise my education. My father especially was extremely focused on me getting a high quality education because he knew that it would advance me as a person. As a young child, you don’t notice the differences – like why I lived in an ordinary apartment while my friends lived in penthouses; like why my family was not able to jet off to Europe for holidays like my schoolmates. Today I see how important this has been to my journey. The lives of my childhood friends, my friends from my neighbourhood, are very different from those of my friends from the school that I attended. I am able to see how access to excellent education is such a fantastic way to advance a person. I have had a few “aha” moments since I moved to Europe that have caused me to reflect on how many brilliant people there are out there who don’t have the chance to shine because they don’t have the right means.

You were motivated to action out of these realisations, starting what came to be known as the DiversiBe movement …

I took the decision early on to share what I learned when it came to applying to universities, or internships, or jobs in Europe. I was lucky that I have an uncle who, after gaining his degree, ended up working in the United States, and became very successful. This provided a real-life example of the path that I wanted to follow – to leave Brazil and achieve something abroad. The university where I studied in Rio had students from all different backgrounds – a quota system made for a very heterogeneous student cohort, and I knew that many of the students there were absolutely brilliant but came from poverty, so had very limited access to opportunities. Once I got going on my journey, I started to share information about how to apply for scholarships and other elements of making the leap abroad at a Facebook group, and this became a whole movement. I shared things like my cover letter and my CV that helped me secure a job, so that others could see what might work for them.

That’s amazing Karen!

Actually, I don’t necessarily see why this is amazing. This should have been the minimum. I tried different ways to get into a Masters abroad and, when I saw what succeeded, it was natural to want to share that insight. I was supposed to be ordinary. I was able to break through, and I wanted to let others know it was possible. We should all be supporting each other. We should build communities that help others in a way that changes lives.

In many ways this is what Prof. Dianne Bevelander built ECWO on – not on fixing women but on creating communities of change within organisations that can work for all women. It’s wonderful that you have this same mindset.

I wonder if this is the perspective of someone from the Global South who does not grow up with a lot of resources. I believe that if we collaborate and share we can all grow together and that’s part of why I continue to work on this cause.

When did gender enter the picture for you?

In helping people from Brazil, I soon realised that people coming from developing countries have a lot of issues to deal with and, in parallel to that, I noticed that women were having an extra layer of difficulty. I also began to notice the intersection of identities and how this impacted study and work opportunities abroad. I noticed the layers of discrimination and difficulties that a black woman from Brazil faced, or that a man from an Arab background encountered. With this realisation, DiversiBe grew to be a network focusing not just on gender equality but equality for all.

And that then informed your overall desire for change that’s evident in your TEDx talk and your growing work as a keynote speaker, particularly as it pertains to biases and AI?

Yes – and my path of learning is continuing. I have also come to see how the so called “cisgender white males” are also struggling in different ways, not in terms of their earning capacity, but for example in their mental health. I feel so strongly that we need to come together to figure out how we can all thrive in society, because the current ways do not seem to be working for anybody.

How do you work to try change the picture? It can feel overwhelming.

I talk about it. People are so often unaware of the system that they live in and how it affects people within it differently. I tell people it’s like air – you don’t see it but it exists and once you know that fact, you cannot not be aware of it. I have been reading a lot about unconscious biases and how they influence how we operate and how we see people. It’s what led me to my current topic –how biases are being fed into AI models; how we are imprinting our bad way of operating in society into this crucial technology. I have, however, chosen not to get upset about it but to do something about it instead. I began thinking about how I would approach this from a project management point of view, how to approach this as a change management project and what is needed for this. All change management starts with awareness so this is why I talk about it, to individuals and on different platforms. My key ask when people listen to one of my talks is that they leave it with a desire to talk about the biases in society - and how these can turn up in AI - to their family, friends and at work. I am now moving onto brainstorming about how to help materialise an equal society including taking bold steps with KPIs. I know quotas are controversial but having grown up in Brazil and attended a university that had a diverse student body because of quotas, I believe they can sometimes be a temporary measure to level the playing field.

What is next for you? What lies over the horizon?

It might not sound ambitious, but I am so happy where I am right now. I have always thought about what is next and right now, for the first time in my life, I am really enjoying the moment. I am super fulfilled at work and my personal life couldn’t be greater.

You can listen to Karen speak about ‘The Importance of Gender Perspective in Technology’ in this TedXBrussels talk in which she alerts us to the dangerous nature of a data-driven world where women are underrepresented, creating a massive bias in many areas: technology, security, health care, banking and more.

More information

Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) is committed to fostering inclusion. Our founding purpose in 2014 was to empower women and to create a level playing field by building communities for organisational change. Today, ECWO has expanded its perspective to embrace a wider vision of a world of inclusive prosperity. Our new mission is to create a sense of belonging for everyone within organisations through diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), anchored in social safety. We strive for settings where everyone feels valued, respected and supported. We conduct research and produce evidence-led educational programmes, events, coaching, advocacy, and advisory services. We stay true to our roots, and we have evolved to recognise that achieving true inclusion and equity requires encompassing all, regardless of gender or identity.

ECWO Storytelling