When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people on the planet about what digital means to them, the answers are fascinating. This interview is part of an ongoing series that offers real perspectives from real leaders on the ubiquitous topic of Digital. 

Anousheh Ansari is an Iranian-American engineer and co-founder and chairwoman of Prodea Systems. Her previous business accomplishments include serving as co-founder and CEO of Telecom Technologies, Inc. (TTI). On September 18, 2006, a few days after her 40th birthday, she became the first Iranian in space. Ansari was the fourth overall self-funded space traveler, and the first self-funded woman to fly to the International Space Station. Her memoir, My Dream of Stars, co-written with Homer Hickam, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010.

Audrey McGuckin (AM) – Anousheh, tell me what digital means to you from your vantage point.

Anousheh Ansari (AA) – It’s interesting, when I read your blog from Chief Anthony Holloway and how the St Petersburg Department are using the latest bullet resistant vests, I would say this is a combination of digital, technology and mindset in a digital era. For me, when I think about digital the first thing that comes to mind is INFORMATION. It’s about taking difference aspects of a business, digitizing it and making it on-line. When we think about moore’s law it’s about increasing speed so that it makes your product more accessible and costs then come down exponentially. My company is about digital content, data, analysis of that data, artificial intelligence, learning, security of that data and all of that LIVES IN THE DIGITAL WORLD.

AM – Can you give us some real examples of this to help bring this to life?

AA – Sure. How I like to explain it is, that Digital is the ability to take things that were not SMART before and give them the capability to collect and communicate data. By adding digital circuitry, we can then communicate. Let’s talk about digitizing agriculture. FACIAL RECOGNITION FOR COWS. Organizations have developed facial recognition software for dairy farms that can memorize the face of a cow in six seconds and monitor the activity of an entire herd without wearable tracking devices. Algorithms allow software to alert a farmer when cows show early signs of lameness or when they fight over the best feed. When cows fight, it typically disrupts the entire herd and interrupts them from feeding for up to two hours, which certainly has an impact on milk production. Digitizing agriculture will allow farmers to make decisions based on data rather than emotion or hype. When you have precision management observing what things work, what works, what does not work, on a meter-by-meter basis and a plant-by-plant basis, there is no emotion, there is no hype. There’s just good decisions and maximization of productivity through information and data.


AM – Incredible Anousheh. Without fail, hands down, every time I interview a leader on this topic it’s just fascinating.

AM – Can you talk to us about what Digital means from a leadership perspective.

AA – There are two pieces to this. First, when I look internally it’s about how do we create an environment for innovation and constantly disrupt ourselves and take advantage of the trends. This means we can’t afford a traditional hierarchical structure. This just slows us down. SPEED IS OF THE ESSENCE and we need leaders who are comfortable with the velocity of our business and our environment. Second, it’s about how digital changes are impacting our customers. We have to be proactive with understanding our customers’ needs even before they do. This means we need leaders who are OBSESSED WITH CUSTOMER INTIMACY. So now you start to see the dilemma here. We need exceptional technology leaders, that can move with speed and also have superior customer relationship skills. Not easy to find and not easy to develop.

AM – Tell me more about the culture and environment in your company.

AA – The fact that things are moving fast, we have to create an environment that allows our engineers to ITERATE QUICKLY. There are always multiple variables. The way you keep up is to use trial and error. Create a culture that allows people to fail fast, but it has to be without fear, but there’s another piece to this… the secret is that the FAILURES HAVE TO BE SYSTEMIZED to make sure we learn from them.

Interviewing Anousheh was incredibly insightful. She laid bare the dilemma faced by many organizations….what does it take from a leadership perspective to be technology savvy yet at the same time be customer and relationship articulate. We also heard a similar dilemma from Dana Landis at Google, which she coined the phrase as– “Born Digital v’s Going Digital.”

Audrey McGuckin consults with top CEOs and HR Executives to solve their toughest and most complex talent and personnel challenges. To connect with Audrey on how she can assist you and your organization, visit our contact page or message her directly at audrey@audreymcguckin.com.