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Microsoft’s Ana Arriola visits SCET’s Newton Lecture, discusses her career and the decolonization of tech

SCET’s Victoria Howell with Ana Arriola

Microsoft executive and former Theranos employee Ana Arriola wakes at 4:00 am, then swims at 5:00 am at the Microsoft office, followed by breakfast at home with her family, and a full workday managing a team of engineers and designers. Arriola’s hard work along with her dedication to diversity and inclusion make Arriola the estimable tech executive she is today. Arriola spoke last week at the Richard Newton Lecture Series at Li Ka Shing Auditorium for more than 300 UC Berkeley students. In discussion with SCET’s Victoria Howell, Arriola described her career path, relating the rare and remarkable experiences she’s had in Silicon Valley—from an elevator ride with Steve Jobs to her notorious involvement with Theranos.

At her Newton Lecture, Arriola created an open question platform where students could post questions they wanted to be answered. The question with the most traction concerned her involvement in Theranos, the infamous, now-defunct breakthrough biotechnology company, and her former business relationship with the company’s founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes. The question stated simply: “Talk about Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes.” Arriola added that chapters two and three in Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou are about Arriola and her team. 

While Arriola was working for Apple, someone at Theranos connected her with Holmes. Arriola and Elizabeth first met at Copa Cafe—a popular VC hangout—and Arriola was immediately charmed by Elizabeth and her ideas. 

“For raising capital, you need to have that hustle, and she had the hustle,” Arriola said.  

Later, one of Arriola’s team members alerted her to the problems and lies of the Theranos technology. 

When she approached Holmes about the issue, Elizabeth said “Don’t you want to be rich?.” Arriola said that she told Elizabeth to “basically f*** off,” and she and her team left shortly after. 

Early on in their relationship, Elizabeth Holmes sold Arriola on Theranos and her dream by relating their backgrounds to one another, saying that they were similar because they both overcame adversity. Arriola later came to find that their backgrounds were actually very different. Elizabeth came from a wealthy family, whereas Arriola’s parents moved to the U.S. as undocumented immigrants. 

Ana Arriola, Victoria Howell, and over 300 audience members

Arriola is a queer, Latinx womxn of trans and nonbinary identity who has spent her career working to decolonize technology, specifically AI, databases, and models by bringing in people with diverse backgrounds into her work. Arriola’s upbringing heavily influenced the work she does today, which requires strong technical skills, facility in managing people, and including all voices. She recommends that as one enters into the commercial world, it’s important that one has a sense of safety and security in the spaces one’s in and creating. 

Decolonizing technology requires the tech company to build a better world with that technology and how it’s being built. Because tech companies carry so much economic, political, and cultural influence, it is vital that the company works to build a more inclusive workforce. 

Currently a general manager and partner at Microsoft, Arriola oversees developments in AI, research, searches, and ads. On a daily basis, she combats fake news on the internet and monitors for terrorism and other threats. As a manager, she oversees a mixed duty team, engineers, design engineers, among others. 

“[A team] should be like a jazz band where you’re jamming together and it makes the hard stuff easier,” she added.  

Arriola hopes that as students leave college and enter the workforce, they continue to pursue their passions. She also noted that one should do startups before one has a family. 

Her final words of wisdom related to data, ethics and privacy. “We’re at the intersection of time, we’re being mined as an energy source,” Arriola said. “Many people are getting rewarded and making money off of our data. You own that data. Log out and remove your data. You should!” 

Arriola is a “huge believer in accountability.” In her mind, it all comes back to how can we decolonize technology to ensure justice in tech and the workforce.

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