A Conversation with Susan Fonseca


Susan Fonseca

Susan Fonseca has been instrumental in launching Singularity University (based at NASA), Women@TheFrontier, and most recently “SheWorks!” She is one of the most brilliant and dynamic thinkers I have ever had the privilege to know. Susan is a founder, convener, and leader on a global scale. As you read this brief interview, I’m sure you will enjoy her passion and vision, as well as her remarkable capacity to celebrate and empower others—and be inspired by her vision for our children’s education.

Most recently, I came across a clip of you on stage with Bill Clinton at a Clinton Foundation event describing Singularity University. Can you tell me about that and about your role in the founding of Singularity University?

Susan: Yes, it was the Clinton Foundation’s “Future of the Americas” Summit, and President Clinton asked me two questions: First, What is Singularity University? (Which is the clip I believe you are referring to.) And second, Where do I see the future going for Latin America and what will be the biggest disruption in the next 20 years? And my answer to that question was: Women!

Women are 50% of the world’s population and account for over 80% of consumer decisions. As a market bloc, our impact is greater than the economies of China and India combined, with a global estimate of reaching $40 trillion by 2018. And yet, women are not equally represented at the decision-making tables or given equal recognition for inventions or innovations that have transformed the world. In the next decade, women and girls from regions like Latin America will be more empowered, digitally connected, and financially independent than ever. Their collective voices and their ability to generate exponential companies is about to reach a tipping point. So for me, the biggest disruption coming is women!

Susan, you were born in Honduras, correct?

Susan: I grew up in Honduras, but I was actually born in New York. My parents were in the Peace Corps and stationed in Honduras. So I’m a product of two worlds, two languages, two cultures. The Clinton Foundation wanted a speaker that could represent Honduras and Latin America, someone involved in exponential startups and socially good impact initiatives related to gender diversity. It was an incredible honor to be asked to join the conversation and to represent the country and region that gave me my start.

But I have to tell you, I received this honor partly because my friend and colleague Rebeca Hwang was supposed to keynote at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) a week before the event, but she had a conflict and submitted my name, instead. The Clinton Foundation saw me speak at the IDB and that’s how my name was added to the short list of candidates being vetted to join President Clinton, President Moreno (President of Colombia), and Carlos Slim (a Mexican billionaire) on stage for the Future of the Americas Summit. So I am truly grateful to Rebeca for “passing the mic” to me. The IDB event is also where I met Silvina Moschini, my Co-Founder at SheWorks! Women do pay it forward and support each other. Their sisterhood inspires me.

As to your question of my role in the founding of Singularity University (SU), it was a journey that I could not have scripted or thought about while growing up. When I met Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamonds, I was a Washington, DC attorney helping to negotiate an international free trade agreement called CAFTA-DR (between the United States and Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and The Dominican Republic). The presidents of Central America had formed a coalition and the Honduran president was its Chair. He asked me to lead their diplomatic agenda and organize their formal visit to the United States.

While in DC, and because of my background in law, I met Ray Kurzweil at a Colloquium event hosted by friends Martine and Bina Rothblatt. The event centered around a mock trial, and I was asked to defend the Constitutional rights of an Artificial Intelligence. Martine Rothblatt, who also started United Therapeutics, Geostar, and Sirius Radio, would represent the rights of the corporation wanting to “shut down” the AI. Ray was part of the panel of subject matter experts. It was a wonderful experience! Martine and Bina are amazing at bringing together incredibly diverse thinkers and innovators for open and creative discussions on future trends and topics of great impact and significance. And thanks to them, I met Ray. When Singularity University was being conceived, Ray Kurzweil (and Peter Diamandis) called me to ask if I would help them launch and establish the organization.

I am considered “SU’s Founding Architect” for putting together the initial pieces that would eventually become the DNA of Singularity University. Our goal for SU was to engage the world’s next generation leaders and design solutions to impact one billion people! Google was a supporter from the get-go. That was in September of 2008, and at that point we only had three months to get ready, because we decided to unveil our company at TED 2009.

It is a testament to these men (Ray and Peter) that they asked a young Latina woman to help shape the initiative. And I had to also step up and have the courage to say “yes” to something unknown. Even the students/participants would be taking risks because they had to collaborate, and in 10-weeks, launch team projects that would make a difference in the world.

Our first program started in 2009. My goal was to bring together the founding individuals, because something that I have always enjoyed doing is bringing different perspectives, backgrounds and cultures together. It was also important to me that the participants were from different parts of the world, had different experiences, economic backgrounds, and gender. Central was to include women as part of this exponential conversation. Technology, science, and high level leadership are key to SU, but also team spirit, collegiality, and building solutions while maintaining respect for different opinions.

How did Women@TheFrontier come about?

Susan: I was always asking myself: Where are the women presidents? Where are the women leaders in technology? Who are the Einsteins that are women? Why so few female voices at the decision-making tables? This led me to launch Woman@TheFrontier. I wanted to identify the trailblazers and disrupters who were inventing the future. Originally the idea was just to find them and convene them as a pipeline for Singularity University and NASA. But, because of the demand, it quickly became its own thing. We were creating a pipeline around the world. The goal is to find, fuel, and fund these women. We wanted to create visibility in order to show the variety of women and voices as science and tech role models in the world.

You also recently launched your latest venture, SheWorks! Can you share a bit about that?

Susan: SheWorks! is a cloud-based platform that matches talented professional women with job opportunities. I helped launch it because models of employment are rigid and the world of work today doesn’t effectively support or include women who are mothers and caretakers. That’s why almost half of all mothers leave their professional career! (43% of women in the US leave the workforce because they cannot balance their job with caring for their family.) Closing the gender employment gap could add between $2-4 trillion in US GDP and $12 trillion back into the global economy.

And the trend is not rigid office hours; it’s mobile, remote, flexible work with contingent workers projected to reach 50% by 2020. Reward systems and promotions based on how long you spend at the office—or how late you can stay at an after-hours networking event—do not support diversity and inclusion or the way women and moms do business. So for SheWorks!, we decided to help accelerate the shift by building the talent pipeline and helping them and companies re-engage a new world of work that is more transparent, rewards excellence, and allows for win-win scenarios both professionally and personally.

Reflecting on your journey, what connects it all?

Susan: When I look back, I think the one unifying theme across my career is to provide access and opportunity for individuals whose voices are not heard. And women are the ones who’ve usually been left out. Maybe not actively discriminated against, but the model hasn’t really been opportune for us either. We need to recreate the model, build new structures, change policy, and increase the pipeline of women leaders so we all have an opportunity to access resources, capital, and networks. As women, we’re also accountable to remove barriers by sharing knowledge, money, experiences.

After your launch from that founding meeting at Singularity University, you had hundreds of articles written about you. Financial Times, Business News, you name it. I reached out to connect but you were getting so inundated with inquiries that I couldn’t get through to you, so I contacted the Jim Martin institute at Oxford on a Sunday morning in February of 2009. Within 15 minutes, they sent me your private email. Once I reached out to you, within 15 minutes you asked, “Can you meet here in California at noon tomorrow?” I thought, wow, they move fast! I caught a red-eye, met with you and a few others, and I thought, “these are some of the most extraordinary people I have ever met.”

Susan: If you remember, we did not plan to have high school students our first year. Really, because we were not even prepared for the volume of adults who would apply. Our website crashed within hours of Ray’s TED Talk. We didn’t even have dorm rooms, meal plans, or classrooms ready. The idea of bringing in young high school students was not in our scope. But you really presented a great reason why we should include young kids. Because of you, we said yes to including Cushing Academy students our very first summer. And they were not just setting up tables and building part of the infrastructure, they were witnessing the collaborative process of a startup. It was great for them to see that what was important was the conversations that would happen, not if our AV was working. Thank you for that red-eye to California, making a great argument for why we should include these kids, and believing in us. There wasn’t even proof of concept yet!

When these kids came from my school, you imbedded them fully with you and with the people who were the first cohort of Singularity University. They got to see both the behind the scenes start up and the perspective of the cohort. I remember you were wondering if you would get enough people to fill a 40-person cohort and then you got 1,200 qualified applicants. When our students came back to Cushing, they were fully energized and were powerful change agents at Cushing. They wanted to transform the school so that it looked like Singularity University. What has been paradigmatic for me since that time has been, “What would a school look like if it were more like Singularity University?”

Susan: Jim, you’ve been the biggest champion in creating an ecosystem and educational environment that allows for exploration; a place kids don’t just dream big but also mold themselves into change agents.

What does the first step look like? For the school, the parents, the faculty, the board members, the kids: surround yourself with people who are not constrained in a single mindset, but where the group welcomes trying new things, taking time to practice and vet ideas. It’s about conversations that are inspirational and where teachers and mentors act as guides in the process and say, “let’s follow through on that thought.” That is what education can be and should be.

It would be an active place, forward looking and thinking about the future, especially for these kids. Singularity University was conceived not by looking at other institutions of learning. None of us were academics. We had a blank canvas mindset. The core team hadn’t built something like this, so in a way there were no constraints. So with SU we built the initial curriculum by asking ourselves: What would we like to hear today? What would transform our minds? Who would we want to talk to? If this were a peer-to-peer horizontal framework, not a hierarchy defined by age, pedigree, or background, what would we want to learn, and from whom?

To some extent, we need to let our kids also guide us when creating curriculum. They have a voice and they can help us re-engineer better educational systems if we give them a chance to participate in the framework.

How can we foster and encourage curiosity and freedom of structure for all education? How can we create an experience where participants are not just being talked down to or told information, but are presented with tools like Google Glass, or a 3D printer and allowed to experiment with the parts, to assemble them into something else? Because technology is just a tool. The value is to unlock ideas and fresh perspectives. So we should have confidence in these young minds, let them bring us ideas. As adults we should try to defer more to our students and “pass the mic,” to be guides to help them secure the resources they need to launch initiatives and design solutions.

With the Cushing kids at SU, we presented the same grand challenge that we posed to our adult students: we asked them, “If you could impact one billion people across nations, cultures, or different languages, what would you do?” We also asked them to provide us with their needs, including experts they wanted to talk to or technology or tools. Their solution was to invent a type of paint with nanotechnology that could use be used inside and outside a home, to keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter, free of lead or poison or toxic materials. It could change per day to take care of you. And the wonderful thing about their idea is that it can be done! It is just an engineering problem. It was a very clever idea presented in 2009.

I think as adults we should also be open to learning with our students. Even if we haven’t used the technology or platforms or software, that’s okay. It’s not about being embarrassed; it is about a shared opportunity to learn and be together. We should at times be the students ourselves. That is where I see the future of education.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI.

2 thoughts on “A Conversation with Susan Fonseca

  1. Margo Ott, RN

    Susan and Jim, I thank you for sharing this conversation. I am a fan of Paulo Freire’s pedagogy which highlights many aspects of this discussion such as the limitations of depositing information. Best practices in education are clear in this conversation – teachers and students engaging in dialog and inquiry without the need for authority. Moreover, “students that are increasingly imposed with problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world, will feel increasingly challenged and obliged to respond to that challenge. Their response to the challenge evokes new challenges, followed by new understandings; and gradually the student come to regard themselves as committed” (Canestrari & Marlowe, 2013, p.111).

    Susan, your experience with Honduras, CAFTA, and the Clinton Foundation are intriguing; I hope that experience will help Women @ The Frontier and She Works be an international success with empowering women as well as protecting vulnerable populations (another aspect of Freire’s work can be applicable here: Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

    Margo Ott, RN, RICSNT

    Canestrari, A. & Marlowe, B. (2013). Educational Foundations: An anthology of critical readings. US: Sage Publications, Inc.

  2. Susan Wood

    Interesting read. My thoughts often turned to the possibilities of the pony barn with this vision of creativity.

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