A Q&A with Nicole Hu, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer at One Concern
One Concern is joining International Women’s Day 2021 in celebrating all women and their achievements. As part of this year’s choose to challenge theme, we are calling out gender bias and inequality. At One Concern, we’re constantly working to uncover our blind spots — to make One Concern a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive place to work. Currently, our team comes from 5 continents and 20 countries.
Nicole Hu, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer at One Concern, leads the technology team, comprised of more than 30 percent women. We sat down to virtually chat with Nicole about founding One Concern, her journey in the tech industry and gender bias.
How was One Concern established?
- It started four or five years ago at Stanford University. One Concern’s CEO Ahmad Wani, earthquake scientist Tim Frank, and I were friends. We used to talk about how there were so many forceful issues and basic issues that had not been solved. As we continued our conversations, there was a summer where Ahmad went home to Kashmir for his engagement. During his time in Kashmir, a major flood occurred. Immediately after he came back to Stanford, we had a conversation on how ‘this is a big issue.’ We wondered why flooding still posed such a problem for so many. We came up with the idea to see what had already been created in the structural engineering world and looked into using machine learning or AI to solve the problem. The problem was that we still didn’t know what the impact could be after a disaster, so we took that as a problem statement.
- We took two classes on machine learning and structural engineering. We focused on the earthquakes first, because that was Tim and Ahmad’s background. We then created an algorithm focusing on predicting damage from an earthquake. Our professors encouraged us to go and explore what the potential impact of this could be. We reached out to multiple city emergency managers and were pleasantly surprised. They found our problem statement and what we were doing very impactful. After having those conversations, we felt it was our responsibility to see this through, and we decided to create the company.
What does One Concern offer? And what value does it bring?
- What we do is we provide resilience as a service, a service which helps different organizations, cities and individuals look at what the impact could be because of a disaster. What would the impact of climate change be several years from now? How could we help organizations in decision-making or what they should be doing differently? What could they do to prepare and reduce risk and reduce the impact in their cities or their organizations? Our overall goal is to make sure that if a disaster happens, a city or an organization reduces disaster impact because they’re doing things ahead of time, or even within the moment. The data models that we provide help to reduce risk while making disaster science more efficient and practical.
What are some challenges on the lack of women in engineering, and what advice do you have for women taking on leadership roles?
- Women should go and do it. There are not enough women being represented in engineering. If you think you can, if it’s your goal, be bold and make it happen.
- Five years ago, I never would’ve imagined myself as an entrepreneur. Now when I look back, I can see how my confidence has grown. I have so many people around me to learn from, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity. Be bold. Find people around you who can help you, but also believe in yourself and in going through the journey.
Why do you think it’s important for more women to join the tech industry?
- There should be equal representation in all fields women would like to go into. When I went into the tech industry, I didn’t see enough women being represented and it was hard to find a mentor. However, if no one’s taking that first step, then it’ll remain a problem moving forward. I believe gender should not prevent you from following your passions, whether those passions are STEM or an art. More representation of women will help bridge that that gap that we see right now.
- With more people and role models in the market, you encourage more people to think out of the box and think about looking at fields they would traditionally not go into. It starts with few people taking that step and more people moving forward.
What first sparked your interest in working in the tech industry?
- When I was very young, I was interested in math, and I was pretty good at it. I ended up taking a computer class which was logical and made sense to me. I asked my parents for a computer because I was really interested in learning more. My parents were very encouraging and never limited what I could or couldn’t do and that really helped me as well. From there, it just naturally happened. I moved from math to logic to getting exposure to more classes. Then I realized, ‘tech is something I really enjoy and would like to pursue.’
How have you seen the industry change since you’ve joined, if at all? Do you see more inclusivity?
- People are talking more about change in the industry, and I think it’s a good first step. The first step is acknowledging there’s an issue of women being underrepresented. Building a network of advocates who support women, whether they are men or identify as other genders, also makes an impact. A lot of prominent women and technology leaders are speaking about gender discrimination openly and companies are being supportive of that discussion. Many working people are actively trying to improve the hiring process and HR practices. We have come a long way, but there is a lot more to do. The industry has taken a big step in recognizing the issue and trying to work towards making it better.
- I am grateful to be at One Concern where there is a strong emphasis on ensuring there’s more diversity, equity and inclusiveness. I’m personally very grateful for my two co-founders who are men, and are very supportive. They have made equity, diversity and inclusiveness a requirement.
What are some challenges that you have faced as a woman in the tech industry? And how have you overcome these challenges?
- Not having enough role models can affect your self-confidence. I think that’s the thing you struggle with when you don’t see enough representation. It’s just inherently harder to think, ‘how would somebody like me succeed?’ However, talking to my peers and teammates and having support has definitely helped me. Looking back and seeing what we’ve accomplished has also helped me a great deal and helped me become more confident as a person.
What advice would you give women professionals starting in the tech industry?
- Be curious and have a desire to learn more. Grab opportunities, don’t shy away from them. Don’t be nervous or think you won’t do a good job. There are so many interesting things to learn. The world will open up if you just take that first step.
What are some of the women who have inspired you?
- My mother will always be my biggest inspiration. When she was young, she was very poor and didn’t have anything. At an early age, she had to work, do household chores and study. She didn’t have any money to go to school and had to ensure she had scholarships for all of her schooling. She was the first generation in her family to become educated in every sense. My mother is a very strong woman. She maintains a work life balance and still makes sure she’s learning and contributing to society. She’s my role model.
How do you #ChooseToChallenge, today and every other day, gender bias in the tech industry?
- I mainly work on the impact of gender bias at One Concern. We openly talk about and tell people that everybody comes with inherent bias in my reports. There’s nothing wrong in admitting that your biases make you uncomfortable sometimes. The first step is acknowledging any inherent bias. Then, we discuss it, look at the data and review the results in terms of hiring or compensation.
- It’s about having the conversation in a non-threatening and data-driven manner so people understand why gender bias is important and why there is still a gap within the company. I lead a decent portion of the company, specifically the technology portion. If I’m able to inspire people in my company and help them recognize bias, we can work toward bridging the gap.