The future of inclusive hiring practices with Frida Polli
Becky Morrison, Owner of the production company The Light, passes the mic to Frida Polli, CEO and co-founder of Pymetrics, a company using neuroscience and AI to improve the accuracy, fairness, and diversity of hiring and talks about the future of inclusive hiring practices and how she used science to spark entrepreneurship.
Becky: Hi! I’m Becky Morrison, owner of the production company, The Light, and you’re tuned in to Pass the Mic by the Rosie Report podcast. In each episode, the guest from last week, me, talks to another rebel for good, change-makers who bravely opted out of traditional employment and turned their life’s work towards a mission that is also changing the paradigm of work. Last week, I talked to Lauren Ruffin about the future of production, and this week I’m so excited to chat with Frida Polli, CEO and co-founder of Pymetrics, a company using neuroscience and AI to improve the accuracy, fairness, and diversity of hiring. Welcome to the Rosie Report podcast, Frida.
Frida: Thank you. And thank you for having me.
Becky: Yeah! I’m so excited to be speaking with you today. So let’s get into it.
Becky: How would you best describe what you do?
Frida: Sure. I am a former academic scientist turned entrepreneur. I spent about a decade being an academic neuroscientist at Harvard and MIT, and have now basically leveraged all the scientific knowledge and advancements that we were building up in the lab, to create a company that leverages that science, as well as artificial intelligence, to understand people and their fit for a job in a much more fundamental human way than looking at their resume. And then uses artificial intelligence engines to match those people to their best fit job. So essentially, we’ve created a soft skill platform, which looks at you holistically as a person, your cognitive style, your personality, your social traits, and uses that understanding of you, which is a much more three-dimensional picture of someone, to understand what careers and jobs you might be well suited for, and then it helps you connect with those jobs and careers. So that’s Pymetrics in a nutshell.
Becky: Wow, amazing. I remember when I first started out in the industry, I had my piece of paper that I would print out and mail to people when I was applying for jobs.
Frida: Yeah. And I would say that unfortunately, the resume is such an ingrained part of how we evaluate someone, and despite all of it’s very well-documented problems. So let me just list them. The resume doesn’t actually predict job success. That’s probably problem number one. Problem number two, which is just as bad, is that it is full of variables that are linked to race, gender, socioeconomic status, and really inextricably so. So if you’re using a resume to make decisions, it’s really, really challenging to try to remove bias. So that’s another problem. So it’s not predictive and it’s very biased. And so that’s probably the worst of both worlds. Now, why do we still use a resume? Well, because it’s ubiquitous, because it’s easy, because it’s so ingrained in us that I think people just don’t know what else they could be doing.
And so I think it’s challenging to try to take people away from those training wheels or that crutch. That having been said, I think modern workforce technology, Pymetrics included, has developed better ways of understanding someone’s fit to a role. So we do soft skill assessment, which is looking at, as I mentioned before, your personality, your cognitive traits, your socio-emotional makeup, which really at the end of the day is far more predictive of whether you’re going to be successful in a role. That’s one way of doing it. There are other platforms out there that are really trying to assess someone’s capability for a job in a very direct way, rather than assuming capability based on a resume, and so on. So I think that there are pathways to a better decision-making system for the workforce. It’s just changing people’s beliefs and behaviors around the resume, I think have proven challenging, but to be expected, I guess.
Becky: Deep. So you were doing this before 2020-
Becky: … I imagine. So back then, before 2020, if we can even put ourselves back in that time period, what could you see that others couldn’t?
Frida: You mean that’s relevant to 2020, or just in general?
Becky: In general, in general. There’s clearly something that you were seeing that other people didn’t see. So can you speak more about that?
Frida: I think there are many things, but I think one thing that we could see is this real… So again, I just mentioned how it’s hard to rip people away from the resume. However, what we could clearly see and what others are also clearly seeing, is that hard skills have a very, very short shelf life. Deloitte came out with this report saying that the average hard skill has a shelf life of three years. So what we can see really clearly is that… And then that just became dramatic during COVID because entire industries were becoming defunct. Or if not defunct, very impacted, whether it’s retail or airlines or whatever. But that was happening even before. So imagine a situation where your hard skills, the things that you have learned over time are increasingly obsolete in a short period of time, and with COVID now have become screechingly obsolete.
And that was something we could see from a long time ago, is how do we help people whose jobs are going away for whatever reason, feel like they still had a place in the world of work. Because everybody has the place in the world of work. Everyone has many places in the world of work. It’s just how we’re measuring people, is really yielding a situation where… There are entire categories of people that feel like, oh, this job that I was so good at has gone away, therefore I am no longer relevant. That’s just a bad way to think about people because we all are relevant. We all have great opportunity to be successful at work. It’s just, we’re not measuring people. We’re not assessing people in the right way. So we’ve been seeing that now for awhile. And I think, as I mentioned before, COVID has only accelerated, exacerbated this because of how dramatic the impact on certain industries and not others has been.
Becky: Can you say more about what you mean when you say that a hard skill has a shelf life of three years and what that means?
Frida: Yeah, sure. This is research that Deloitte did and others, basically saying that if you take a particular hard skill, something like a coding language or something, things are evolving so quickly that whatever that… Take, I know how to use Salesforce or whatever that skill may be. Things are changing so rapidly that in a few years time, that skill will be obsolete and I’ll have to upscale myself on something else. Does that make sense? As opposed to maybe 20 years ago where if I learn how to use a typewriter, that was going to last me for a long, long time because the typewriter didn’t go anywhere. Does that make sense? And so that’s the problem with anchoring on hard skills, is that okay yeah, you can learn this, but in a few years time, you’re going to have to learn something new, update it and so on and so forth.
And so it really makes someone’s underlying capabilities, their soft skills, much more important to understand them, like what can you actually do in this moment, because what you’re going to need to do in three years time is going to be dramatically different anyways. So that’s the less important. Does that make sense? And all of the research shows that it’s far easier to train someone in a particular hard skill if they show the underlying capability, than it is to just be like, oh, well, you’ve had this hard skill therefore it’ll be easy to teach you this new hard skill, though those two things are not as related, if that makes sense.
Becky: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Totally.
Frida: … and rely on capability.
Becky: That totally makes sense.
Frida: Yeah. And then the other thing that we saw is, and this is not a news flash to anybody, is that what’s really interesting about the economy these days is that it’s actually middle skill jobs that are being dramatically impacted for a variety of reasons, in particular by automation. And so what they found is that low skill jobs are hard to automate, and so what are called high skill jobs. But that middle skill part of the economy which impacts a lot of people is really the one that has been most severely impacted over time and continues to be impacted, because there are elements of those jobs that are accessible to automation and so on.
And so the challenge with anchoring people on hard skill assessment is that the people that are more likely to be impacted by some of the trends that we’re seeing in the economy, are those that can least afford to be impacted, and so there’s this tie of what’s happening in the economy to certain socioeconomic groups that are really suffering. And again, that’s because we’re anchoring on what people’s jobs have been historically, as opposed to saying, forget about what you’ve done historically, let’s evaluate you in a much more holistic way and see what you could do. Because soft skills are much more resilient and much more able to overcome socio economic challenges that people might’ve had in acquiring certain hard skills.
Becky: For you, was there a defining moment when you knew you had to take action, or when you saw what you’re seeing and that caused you to co-found Pymetrics, or really shift the course of your work?
Frida: Yeah, I think for me it was a question of my own career development. I was in my mid-30s and I really enjoyed being a scientist. I still consider myself a scientist. But I had kind of gotten into a place where I was primarily doing research, and as much as I love research, it didn’t feel fulfilling because it didn’t feel like it was having enough of an impact on people’s lives. And so I kind of was in this place where I really am enjoying the science I’m doing and we’re learning a lot, we’ve uncovered all these amazing discoveries about people, but it’s not leading to anything tangible. And so it led me to start exploring, well, how could I make some of those discoveries more tangible? And that led me to getting an MBA. And it was in the MBA program that I saw people basically searching for careers, and companies coming and searching for new recruits and that’s when the proverbial light bulb went off. I was like, oh, wow, we’re still doing this the way we did it when I was in college and that was a while ago. And we know all these new ways to evaluate people. Why are we still stuck in decades-old ways of doing things?
So that was kind of my journey to starting Pymetrics, was just seeing that problem firsthand. And then also experiencing it myself, because again, I had this 30 page, 50 page, very long resume. I don’t know how many pages it was because that’s what an academic resume looks like, and yet it told me nothing. And I do mean nothing, about what I could do in the business world. That’s a classic example of all of my hard skills. Yes, I can operate an MRI machine. Yes I can use E-Prime, bore no relationship to what I might do in the future, and yet obviously I had capabilities and talents that I could apply to a future career. But it was patently not obvious from my resume so I needed a soft skill assessment that could tell me, hey Frida, I know you’ve been a scientist for this many years, but let’s look at all the other careers you could be and let’s tell you what you could do. And so it was really like knowing that we had this great technology that we can apply to this problem. That was point number one. And then point number two was experiencing the very pain that I was trying to alleviate in society at large myself, and saying, wow, this is a real problem.
And I’ll give you a perfect example. When I was in business school I was getting recruited by Novartis to go run their neuroscience imaging program to test drugs, which would have been the obvious leap from what I had been doing previously, which was doing studies on people using among other things, MRI machines, as well as behavioral experiments and so on. So it would be very obvious for me to go work at Novartis, doing those experiments. Now I knew in my gut, I had zero, and I mean zero interest in going to develop drugs. I was like, I will die a very quick death if I go down this path. And so that’s a perfect example of my hard skills. That was a direct line to what I could have done, and I knew just in my, I don’t want to say my gut. I don’t know if it was my gut, my soul, something, that was like, not going to go there. And because from a soft skill perspective, I think I would’ve made a very poor fit to a pharma company developing drugs.
So that’s what I mean, but I think we have to really expand how we look at people and say, not what have you done, but what could you do? I think that’s a much more future-facing and really critical way to be evaluating people, especially in this time. I mean, you can imagine, whatever happens with COVID, there is going to be massive change. And whether some industries come back, or some industries decline, I don’t think we’re just going to, even if a vaccine came tomorrow, it’s not like we’re all going back to February of 2020. That’s just not going to happen. And so there are going to be massive shifts, which were already happening because of technology and outsourcing and all this other stuff.
So, there are a lot of people that are thinking about a federal program for how do we reskill, upskill people. And I think when we start thinking about that, we cannot rely on the tools of the past because they’re just going to fail us, since we really need to start thinking about what people could do, rather than what they have done. And I think you can only start thinking about what people could do if you’re actually evaluating them holistically as people, rather than on this two-dimensional piece of paper that’s just a bunch of words.
Frida: Dating is a good analogy. We don’t use personal ads in a newspaper to figure out who we’re going to go meet up with for a drink. Granted, a dating profile may not be as three-dimensional as we would like, there’s still people… But I think it’s a step in the right direction, it’s more three-dimensional than a piece of paper which used to be a personal ad, and by the way, it still is a resume. Work really has not caught up to where most people are in their consumer lives, whether it’s dating or products or movies, we’re using behavioral science and artificial intelligence to make choices, and the world of work just really hasn’t caught up with that yet.
Becky: Does Pymetrics, the features of Pymetrics or the offer of Pymetrics, does that exist right now? Is that something that people have access to?
Frida: Yep, absolutely. We are primarily a tool that is used by entities. So, by companies who are looking to hire people, by schools that are looking to provide their students with an understanding of what they could be well-suited for and point them in the right career direction. However, we do have an open to consumer play that we’re doing now around this whole idea of reskilling. It’s called Restart and Reskill, and we’ve partnered with a number of other technology providers to have what we call a layer cake of technology that enables reskilling. So again, back to this idea of you need to assess someone’s soft skills, tell somebody, hey, I know these are the things that you could do. Then you have to understand what their hard skills are right now, and then evaluate the gap to whatever soft skill job you may be recommending in the future, and then link them to reskilling programs.
And we’ve put together this layer cake in this platform that we call Reskill and Restart with other partners, and there a consumer can just go on and log in and go through Pymetrics. And then additionally, these other pathways that I was mentioning. So if they are looking for new careers they can actually get pointed in the right direction, which we think is a really critical thing for people to be engaged in right now, especially during this time where they might be furloughed, they might be exploring other options because they’re worried that the economy for their industry is not going well, and so on and so forth. So yes, it is available.
Becky: How would you define the mission that you’re on?
Frida: The mission is very simple. It is basically to help everyone realize their true potential. And I think there are so many ways in which a person’s true potential is not realized in the world of work. And I think there are two primary reasons I think for that, and I’ll just outline both of them. One, I think is that people don’t know what the option set is. Think about the way you chose your career. Well, I don’t know about you specifically, but many people, their thinking is, I grew up in a family, my dad was of this, my mom was of that. I went to school. The people around me were primarily this, this, and this. It’s very limited. It’s extremely limited. How many unhappy doctors, dentists, bankers, fill in the blank, do you know, because they are like, my dad did this or my mom did this, or my neighbors did this, and they really weren’t even exposed to anything.
And we still, I don’t think do a great job of exposing people to all of the different possibilities. In my opinion, we should do way more internships at the high school level and so on, before sending people off to college with this general idea of what they want, even though they’ve never really tested that. So that’s one big problem around realizing someone’s potential, is they just have never even explored all of the different opportunities that they could partake in.
And then the second thing is bias, right? So if you are looking at the world today, and you look at certain industries, be it, let’s pick on technology and finance. They’re still primarily white and they’re primarily male. And so as a woman, or even more as a woman of color, let’s say, I don’t see myself reflected in those industries. And I also do experience more bias if I try to go into industries that are still primarily white or primarily male. And so that’s another reason why people’s potential is not realized. So those two things, basically. The lack of understanding of what my true option set is, and all of the biases that still exist are two of the main things that are limiting people, realizing their true potential and what we’re trying to overcome. And they’re not small problems to overcome. Let’s just be clear. They’re very deeply ingrained. And I think Pymetrics is a part of the solution, it’s not the full solution. There are many other things that we need to do in order to help people realize their true potential.
But I always say, if all of a sudden tomorrow, everyone was forced to use Pymetrics, we would be in a place where people would be way more satisfied and productive at work, and there would be less bias. I stand by that 24/7. The problem is getting people to a place where they feel like, yes, I see the problem. I want to change it. There’s just a lot of resistance I would say to, just like anything in life, changing something that’s been done a particular way for so long.
Becky: Well, let me ask you this. Do you think if we were to snap our fingers and everyone was to use Pymetrics, there would be less bias or there’d be less bias in hiring? Because my question relates to… And I’m thinking so much of what you’re saying is fascinating and I relate it to my work, which is in film production. And I can see how there’s one aspect of diversity and inclusion is hiring, and then the other aspect is once those people get there, what is the way that they’re being treated? How are we organizing their work?
Frida: 100%. Yeah. I’d say it’s both. We are used not only for hiring, but also for mobility, reskilling. So if you were thinking about promotions or moving people around, if you were using Pymetrics, again, that bias would be overcome. Does that make sense? So there would be that. However, as I mentioned, Pymetrics is a part of the solution, it’s not the only thing that you need in order to fix these problems. And I think it’s sort of a chicken and an egg situation. And what I mean by that is the following, so again, I’m a neuroscientist, right? I think a lot about how the brain interacts with bias. What I mean by that is this. There are basically two primary thinking systems in the brain. Daniel Kahneman’s written about this, Thinking, Fast and Slow. But we don’t have to get all geeky. There are two systems. One is this fast, quick system, and then the other one is this more slow system.
The fast, quick system, basically just is a pattern recognizer. What that means is, if primarily I see Caucasians in a particular job, I just associate that job with Caucasians. That’s just because my brain, that fast thinking system just gets co-opted into thinking that way. Does that make sense? And the slow thinking system is not thinking that. It’s thinking, oh goodness, there are too many white people in this job. We should be more diverse, blah, blah, blah, all of that. But the fast thinking system is not evolved. Let’s put it that way. And by the way, they both had a place in evolution. The fast thinking system came around because when you see a tiger, you don’t want to sit around and think for 30 minutes what you should do. You see a tiger, run, right? So there’s a reason we have that fast thinking system and it’s not going anywhere. It’s hard hardwired into our brain.
Now, to your point. What about when we bring someone into a workforce, how can we change the way that we perceive them, or make them feel included and all the rest of it. We can try to use the slow thinking system to make them feel more welcome. Absolutely. And we should absolutely do that. However, the best way, unfortunately, to change people’s thinking about a particular group of people, is to include them more in that group. Does that make sense? Because then that fast thinking system no longer only sees Caucasians, let’s say, in this field, but sees a much more diverse slate of people in this field, and therefore updates it’s pattern recognition. Does that make sense? So it really is a two-pronged approach.
And I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been asked by people, regarding gender equality, I’ll never forget this, I was asked by somebody, a professor actually, she asked me this very specific question. She said, “So, how do you feel about recommending women for fields where women are underrepresented? How do you feel about that?” And I said, “Well, I feel great because I’m a woman entrepreneur. I think it’s awesome.” And she was like, “Yeah, but aren’t you putting them essentially in harm’s way?” And I was like, “Well, what do you mean?”
And it’s true that a lot of the research shows that women that are in male dominated professions are judged more harshly. And we don’t even need the research to tell us that. I think we know that from an instinctive level. And I think it sucks. I’ve experienced that myself. When I was very pregnant with my third child, a well-known investor basically said to me, “Oh, I’m sure you’re going to be taking the foot off the gas now and thinking more about your kids than your company.” And I was just blown away. I was like, “Whoa, you didn’t really say that, did you?” And so yes, I’ve experienced that kind of bias and all the rest of it, myself.
That having been said, I don’t know a way around it. It’s unfortunate, but I think in order to change that slow thinking system, the people who are forging the way are going to be exposed to crappier circumstances. You know what I mean? While the slow thinking system catches up, and the slow thinking system, sorry, the fast thing system catches up and the slow thinking system also starts to kick in. Does that make sense? I just don’t know a way around it. I wish it could be easier, for myself included, and hopefully it will become easier. But I do think that there’s some level of, yeah, I guess putting women in harm’s way, so to speak, if we want to enter professions where we’re underrepresented. I don’t wish that upon women. I don’t wish that upon myself, and I don’t enjoy it when it happens to me. I just don’t have a great solution right now, other than that.
Becky: It reminds me of that metaphor of the glass ceiling, which I always find to be quite violent and painful, when we talk about the idea of breaking through a glass ceiling. There’s shards of glass. And for those women who are those trailblazers who do that, that is not necessarily a comfortable place to be. It’s not necessary.
Frida: It’s not, it’s not. No. And I mean, again, I wish we could snap our fingers and make it not be that way. And hopefully we’ll find a way to make it not be that way. But in the meantime, I think we have to accept that and just say, yes, unfortunately, women who are putting themselves in occupations where there aren’t a lot of women, we’ll experience that. And then provide them with the tools, the support, and all of that they need to overcome that.
Becky: 2020 obviously has been a unique year for all of us. I know you mentioned your mission is helping people live to their full potential. Has your mission changed at all with everything that’s happened in 2020?
Frida: No. If anything, it’s just become much more important. If you think about the way the pandemic… And it’s really sad I think, the way the pandemic has affected primarily communities of color and women. There are these really terrible stats around how many women are dropping out of the workforce because of childcare. And then communities of color have not only been hit more intensely by the actual virus, but also by job loss. So again, we’re back in a situation where the sins of the past, so to speak, are coming back, and I think we need to do everything we can to mitigate that. It’s not okay to just be like, oh well, you know. Because again, there’ve been lots of articles now on how the recovery, if you’re a Caucasian or if you’re a male, you’re pretty-much back to where you were before… Sorry, certain groups. It had to do with education, race, and gender and certain groups. If you check all those three buckets, you’re back to where you were before and you never really suffered that much. And then obviously, the intersectionality of all the other groups was not nearly as rosey a picture. And so I think we have to address that and we can’t just be going back to business as usual, I don’t think.
And you see a lot of that in the world now. I think you see a genuine appetite for fixing that problem. I think where the rubber meets the road is just, people have been doing certain things for certain ways, for such a long time and it’s like trying to really change the mindset of folks to say, this is not the ideal way to do it.
And a very obvious example is that, I think if we continue to look at the resume for talent, there is, again, I’m just going to say it again, there is no way to remove or call proxy variables from the resume. Men are associated… There are just different base rates of things on the resume between men and women, between people of different ethnic backgrounds. If you take engineering degrees, there are more men with engineering degrees than there are women and so on and so forth. So I think trying to fix the resumes is a little bit of a flawed task. I think what we should do instead is say, look, if you take a soft skill assessment, women are just as likely to exhibit the skills needed for software engineering than men, so how do we explain that versus the gap that there is between engineering degrees between men and women? Do you know what I mean? And so we need to start evaluating people differently and training them differently and so on and so forth, rather than relying on historical data.
Becky: I have a final question for you. It’s the million dollar question. What does the ideal future of inclusive hiring practices look like?
Frida: I think the answer I have for that is, it just goes back to what I was saying about the brain. So again, we’ve talked about system one, this fast bias thinking system. System two, this much more slow, thoughtful way of evaluating people. I think the future of inclusive workforce decisions in general, centers around changing systems, not people. I think for a very, very long time, we have spent a lot of time and a lot of money on things like unconscious bias training. And you still hear it. And people think that a very quick, fast unconscious bias training program is going to solve everything. Or even not a quick one, maybe a more longer-term one. The data are unequivocal. Unconscious bias training, diversity training does not work. And again, it’s back to that fast thinking system is not amenable to change unfortunately. The only way it changes is if the demographic of a certain job actually changes. You’re not going to change it by telling it, it’s biased.
So I think we have to stop trying to fix human beings and their thinking, and we have to start creating systems that mirror our slow thinking system. Our slow thinking system absolutely believes in equality, absolutely believes in diversity. That’s the thing to understand about human beings. The slow thinking system is right on that diversity train, the fast thinking system is undermining it every step of the way. And it’s just us as human beings. It’s very similar to, I don’t know, you want to lose weight or you want to exercise more? Your slow thinking system is like, yes, I’m going to do it. I’m going to have a plan, and your fascinating system is like, oh that chocolate cake looks good. Or that bed, it looks really comfy right now. So it’s just fundamentally the way we are as humans. And so instead of trying to fix that fast, unconscious, more like, not animalistic, but less evolved part of ourselves, let’s work on creating, hiring, promotion, reskilling systems that actually embed the philosophy of our system to thinking in the way that we actually do things.
And that can be very simple. Let’s start talking about goals for diversity. Let’s talk about transparency. How do these tools actually, how are they working? Let’s have some transparency around these tools. Let’s have metrics. You can’t change, you can’t manage what you can’t measure, basically. So I think there’s some very simple things that we can do around our systems that will reflect system two thinking. And again, obviously, you can use unbiased technology like Pymetrics as well. But we know what works. Now we have to create systems that use what works, rather than we’ve spent so much time and effort trying to change people’s thinking, and I just think that’s a flawed way of doing things. And again, the data prove that out. So that’s what I would say. That’s what the future of inclusive hiring, promotion and everything else, it’s about changing systems, not people.
Becky: I love that. Change systems, not people. I love that. It’s very relevant, and I think it’s fascinating to see how much… It’s totally relevant.
Frida: It’s totally relevant. And again, I don’t know why we got on this kick of changing people. And I see it all the time. I see it all the time. People are like, oh, but we can’t really change this until we change the culture. And I’m like, that’s changing people. Do you know what I mean? That will come. I feel like it’s backwards. You have to change the systems first, and then the people’s brains will follow. And of course you need to be mindful of what the people’s brains are doing, because they’re going to continue to be biased and so on and so forth. I’m not saying ignore culture, ignore all of that. But I think that changing systems in the ways that I just described, having goals, having metrics, being transparent, having accountability and using unbiased technology, is the way forward, not exhorting people to do better. Which, again, it’s like telling someone to just lose weight or don’t do drugs or whatever. You’re not providing them with any tools. People need tools.
Becky: Right on. Yeah. Thank you so much, Frida. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about this. It’s fascinating. I feel my brain activated, my slow brain and my fast brain’s activated. Where can people find more information about your work online?
Frida: Yeah, sure. Pymetrics.com is the best place to go, and there’s all the information that people would want to find out about.
Becky: So that’s it for this week’s episode of Pass the Mic by the Rosie Report. Tune in next week when Frida talks to Jessie Kernan, We Are Rosie’s very own Head of Strategy, Insights and Partnerships. Until then, subscribe to the Rosie Report podcast on Spotify and Anchor, and be sure to check out more stories on building a future of work for everyone, by everyone, at therosiereport.com.