After St. Stephen’s, what came next?
I got into Emerson College, in Boston, and it didn't go too well. I experienced what some would call "reverse culture shock." Because I had a U.S. passport, you would think that going back to the States would be just fine but because I had grown up overseas for eighteen years, coming back to the U.S. was very hard for me. I felt like I saw a lot of racism and I just didn't fit in. A lot of the stories of my life that I was trying to use to connect to other people weren’t working and I ended up feeling very disconnected and I didn't do very well academically. I ended up getting a job so that I could make some other kinds of friends and gain some immediate gratification. I got promoted quickly and enjoyed my time there. My parents knew I wasn’t doing well mentally and didn’t want to throw away money on college that I wasn’t really attending, so I came down to D.C. to live with them, continue school locally, and continue to work. Eventually I got involved in the workforce, I married, and now I have a five year old little boy named “Dean” aka Dino as my Italian family would call him.
You are the Founder and CEO of Amivero, an IT services company “leading IT innovation” through what your website describes as a “human-centered and data-driven approach.” These two principles, “human centered” and “data driven,” could easily contradict each other; what motivated you to emphasize the “human” element of your company’s approach and how does Amivero strike a balance between these two concepts?
In technology you always have the users of the technology. And so in that regard, we are human centered in that we want to develop technology that meets the needs of our end users. “Amivero” comes from “ami,” meaning “friendly” and “vero” meaning true and real. This name captures our human-centered approach. We respect the fact that everybody is an individual and is in different places in their life and they value and are motivated by different things. We have built a culture around helping people as individuals and doing what is best for them; we’re a people business. It takes people to build and leverage technology. It’s important to us to ensure that the people are taken care of and that we help them to be their best selves.
At Amivero, we use a data driven model to be human centered. For example, if an end user of a new mobile app is saying that they're in the field and their hands are sweaty so they’re having problems accessing features in the app or maybe they're law enforcement and they're carrying a gun at the same time, or maybe they have a glove or whatever the case is, we try to make things easy for them. We gather data and put a value metric on each of the different data points to help us create human-centered solutions, informed by data.
So, Amivero is in no way a typical IT services company; to start with, your company's name is a mash-up of two Latin terms, “amicus” meaning “kind” and “vero” meaning “true.” As a CEO, you have distinguished yourself for your emphasis on inclusion and empowerment in the workplace. What are the origins of your leadership style?
A lot of it comes from my St. Stephen's experience. Thankfully, I was raised in environments where in many cases, I was the minority myself. I lived in West Africa for a couple of years where I was by far the minority at school and in the country itself. And when it comes down to it, we as people, we want to be accepted and we want to be loved and supported. We also want to also be able to share our experiences because that helps us connect to each other. When we have bias for whatever reason that can really limit one's ability to build close relationships with others and that prevents us from achieving the most that we can in those relationships because we're not accepting somebody because of their background or political view, their race, their gender etc. And if we get rid of those biases, then we really see the individual for who they are and what they have had to overcome without the filters we have grown up with or learned over time. I think my approach comes from growing up overseas. We all have great things that we have to offer and we should learn from each other.
At Amivero, my goal is to run an organization that I'm proud to have my son work for one day and it hasn’t been just about money; profitability is important, we have to be profitable, but it’s important to find a balance.
Amivero works primarily with U.S. government agencies including the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. Why did you choose to focus on providing IT services to the government? What have you found to be the greatest challenge and the greatest reward of working directly with the federal government?
We just had the twenty year anniversary of 9/11. Before 9/11 I was not doing this kind of work. When 9/11 happened it changed my perspective. Having grown up in different countries I experienced safety issues, whether it was apartheid in South Africa or a coup in West Africa or the oil embargo in Haiti and my parents spent their careers trying bring democracy and freedom to other countries. I was so grateful for the fact that, when I was in the States, I didn’t fear, I didn't have to worry about bombs going off or anything like that. And then 9/11 happened and it made me appreciate more what I had. I was also scared out of my mind. I thought things were different, for some reason, in the States because we had this level of safety that existed or maybe it was just cockiness and then 9/11 happened and I realized that we are not invisible, we are not impervious to all of this. I decided that I wanted to help secure our nation in a way that would not impose on people’s privacy or force them to do things outside of the awesome freedoms that we have so I became involved in a program called “Global Entry.” You may be familiar with their kiosks at the airports. Global Entry offers a mechanism for people to choose whether or not they want to be pre-vetted so that they can then get the advantages of a quicker travel experience. It’s hard to find a needle in a haystack but, the smaller the haystack, the easier it is to find the needle. The needle could be a terrorist and the haystack in this case is the general population. If we can have people voluntarily take a background check and bring that piece of hay out of the haystack then it’s a smaller haystack and it becomes easier to find the bad people who want to harm others. This is what led me to working with the federal government and led me to the kinds of customers we have, such as Homeland Security. But there are challenges with the federal government, especially after COVID which has impacted everybody. There are funding constraints because the government is funded by the U.S. people and the government puts a lot of emphasis on getting the best value for the money they spend and because of that it can take a long time to procure services and modernize systems because there are so many competing needs. So, in that way, it’s more challenging to work for the government compared to the private sector but I feel there's a greater mission and that balances the challenges.
As a mom who works in the tech field, I wonder what you think about the increasing popularity of immersive virtual gaming and virtual worlds driven by the growth of platforms such as Fortnite and Roblox? Many of us have VR sets in our living rooms. Do you think these new technologies can bring unexpected benefits to today’s young adults?
I really like this question because I am a very passionate mom and my son is turning six and we are currently in a trial phase of allowing him to play Roblox. I think, just like most things, it is about moderation but it is so critical for the parent to be present and to understand the effects on their child. You should know what is happening within the game and take some time, at least at the beginning, to talk through some of it. For example, just because a kid in Roblox can choose a gun to do something does not mean that it’s okay to do that in real life. These games can simulate real life so closely but the players don’t have to handle the reciprocation of any of those actions in real life. In a game, you get to watch an ad for 30 seconds and you get 50 more coins. In a game, you can start over whenever you want. In a game, you do not see the reaction of the person that you just ran into or the animal that you just ate. So in that regard, I don't care for it because it is reducing the human factor that exists in life and you can see this in the younger generation, they are starting to be more in their shells, they aren’t as social nor as personable because they can get so much--whether it’s the dopamine or the adrenaline-- from these games. The games are exciting. I play Pokemon and I am experienced enough to recognize when I am having an addictive behavior. Maybe I'm running late but I want to catch the Pokemon. If I let it impact my life,that’s a sign of addiction. But at these younger ages, you don't have enough experience to be able to make that decision as to whether it's time to let go or not.
On the other hand, there are a lot of benefits to new technologies, even some of this virtual gaming. For example, one of our customers is the Coast Guard. Why put people out in the waters if it costs a lot of money, it's a dangerous situation, et cetera. Why not have them virtually experience trying to break through an iceberg or save a person? There are truly some benefits here. But again, it’s important to remember moderation and make sure we are not losing the communication and the face to face interactions that we innately need as a species.
What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?
One is in work life and one is in my personal life. Personally, it’s my son, I'm so unbelievably proud of him. I'm really proud of who he is and the fact that, through him, I can have an impact on our future by raising him to be good, to recycle, to be an honest person. The second would definitely be Amivero, but actually for a similar reason in that, it's exponential. In my organization I have seen people who fear moving up, who fear being a manager because they fear having a lower impact and lower value to the organization; they think that the closer they are to the ground and to the mission, the closer they are to the customer that we're supporting. And they feel like they can add more value on the ground whereas the higher you go in an organization, you’re further away from the border and the Hill and all the other things that we support. But another way to look at it is, the higher you are, the greater impact you have because you, as a leader, feed the organization's direction and decision making, and so have a greater influence. I guess my greatest achievement would be making it through all the years where I was not confident enough to do it [tackle a higher role] but I really wanted to [found my own company] and then I finally was like, “I'm going to do it.” I knew I wanted to offer paternity leave and all of these things that I felt it was important to include as a good example for other companies to see that it's possible. And to all the people that we employ, they can see that it is possible to work for a company where they truly feel valued and appreciated.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
This is so cliche but, it's the people. It's seeing the impact that we can have on people and their life and the flexibility that we want to offer them.
Has it been a straight path for you, or do you feel you have been tested along the way to achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself? Can you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you’ve surmounted them?
Racism, ageism, being a female in technology, a mother in a leadership role, I've had my challenges. So it wasn't necessarily a straight path. Interestingly, about two years before I started Amivero, I thought I wanted to open up a gift shop. That's what I really wanted to do. One of the things that I love to do is just walk around a gift shop and spend money on things that I'm never going to use but are cute, and they're going to sit on my desk. I did a lot of research. I formed my own business, I interviewed multiple CEOs of gift shops around the Northern Virginia area, I met with commercial real estate companies to understand that aspect, and I chose not to do it. But that was probably one of my “ do I want to continue to do this?” moments. I felt somewhat wrapped up in the whole federal government contracting world and I was just feeling consumed by the industry. I needed to test the waters.
What are some of the most important lessons from your professional experience that you would like to share with the next generation of St. Stephen’s graduates?
We need each and every one of them and whatever it is that they want to do, we need that as a worldly nation. And so don't feel compelled to have to do any one particular thing. One of the lessons of Montessori--my son goes to Montessori school-- is to not emphasize the "what do you want to be when you grow up?" question. How do kids answer that? They don't really know what that means. So instead, the approach to that kind of a question could be more data-driven. For example, when my son was obsessed with construction and he said, "I want to be a construction worker" I said, "what do you think that’s like, when do you think a construction worker gets their job done?" I highlighted the different aspects of the job. And then he can make a determination of what he wants to do for a living based on those aspects of the job. He decided he wanted to build roads. I shared with him that we hardly see construction workers that work on roads because they do it at night when there aren't as many cars on the road. "Would it be fun to work at night?" I asked. And he said, "no, everyone else is sleeping," and I said, "not everyone is sleeping but that's an important aspect of doing that job." I think it's important to emphasize to our children what different jobs entail and, ultimately, that they should do the best they can at what they want to do.
And it's even okay to not know what you want to do. When I was at St. Stephen's I was the director of a play, I had so much fun doing that play and I wanted to be in theater and that's part of why I went to Emerson. And I think my parents told me, "you can't make money doing that." And I wish that I was given the information to know what it would mean, to make the best decision if I followed path X, Y or Z. I wanted to be given the information I needed to make the decision but then left to make the decision on my own. I had no idea what it would mean to go into theater.
Looking back, I miss my time at St. Stephen's and my advice would be, “get out; don’t stay in.” There were weekends [in boarding] where I was watching movies in the lounge and stuff, and that was just fine too but it is an incredible city so don't leave regretting not experiencing Rome and the surrounding cities because there is so much beauty to appreciate, so much history to learn from, take advantage of these once in a lifetime experiences. Meet as many people as you can, learn from their stories and their experiences, try to learn the language, if possible and know that you don't always have to go down Via del Corso, take some of the small streets, discover lesser known sites like the Capuchin Crypt on Via Veneto. I also encourage St. Stephen's students to stay in touch with their friends because we have the means to do that now. We didn't always. So make the effort to stay in touch with your friends when you leave the school because you'll forever have those experiences together.