Monday, April 15, 2024

In Conversation With Dr. Léa El Samarji

Global Data&AI Sales & Services Lead at Avanade, Women in AI France Ambassador

A leader filled with empathy, a team member who loves to help others, and a person who wants to better our society, Léa is currently the Global Data&AI Sales and Services Innovation lead at Avanade. She is also the France ambassador for Women in AI, a nonprofit do-tank working towards inclusive AI that benefits global society. In her current role with Avanade, a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture, she helps her clients develop sustainable solutions based on Data, AI, and IoT. Driven by a helping mindset, Léa loves to mentor the youth and help them with their initial experiences in understanding technology and business challenges.

Not all of us are born with opportunities, some of us have to create them. The way Léa stood committed and motivated to her dreams right from a young age and created her own opportunities to succeed in life is quite inspiring.

Today we are so proud to have a conversation with her. Join us in learning about Léa’s journey from a small town in Lebanon to Paris, what made her choose the career path in tech, the challenges she faced along the way, and the choices that led to what she has become.

What were your dreams as a child and what were you curious about?

When I was a child, I was curious to create something unique and innovative, at the same time making people happy and fulfilled. My dream was to make the world a better place, where people are happier, and the planet is in a better state than we found it. As I looked for ways to achieve this goal, I became interested in learning about new technologies and how they can save lives. At the university, I studied mathematics, physics, and science and eventually chose to work with AI and cyber security.

Can you share your journey from being a student to stepping into work life to pursue a career in AI & Cyber Security?

After studying engineering and getting my License degree, I got an internship from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to study Cyber Security in Paris to get my master’s degree. All this didn’t happen overnight, and it took hard work right from the beginning. I was always among the first in my class and got good grades and it finally paid off.

I started my work journey at Alcatel-Lucent Bell Laboratories and simultaneously did my Ph.D. for three additional years. This is when I did deep research on AI and got more profound knowledge of the prediction of algorithms and AI.

For example, I have worked on securing machine networks and defending against cybercriminals. During this period, I also traveled a lot across China, and Europe to pitch my latest research and innovation, published many articles, and attended several scientific conferences.


After that, I joined the financial services industry to work with Société Générale and helped them with solution developments to secure their clients’ online transactions.

Back then, traditional banks suffered from cyber attacks and did not fully understand what needed to be done to solve, predict, or detect new and complex attacks. I was super happy here because I could put all my learning from my Ph.D. into use and develop ML algorithms to protect the bank’s clients and secure their transactions.

Three years later, I got promoted as the AI Tribe lead of Société Générale. In this role, I was involved in supporting multiple Business and Service units such as investment banking, retail banking, and HR, to help them improve efficiency and customer satisfaction with AI.

At the same time, I became a member of the Europe Commission AI Task Force. During this time, I helped shape the regulations around AI and discussed key ideas with peers to help companies build secure, trust-based AI solutions. I must say those were intense years of my life.

Having a healthy balance of work and personal life is quite challenging, especially as a working mom. How do you manage so many things? Can you share some tips for a good blend of work and life?

To be very honest, it is super hard to crack this. But I think it’s okay if we have some days, where we’re not feeling good. The most important thing is to know how to overcome it and get the support you need both mentally and physically. It’s also fine to ask for help from a friend, colleague, or family. At the same time, employers and teams should understand the struggles of parenthood.

During the pandemic, I remember attending meetings with my newborn and apologizing before the meeting started, as I had to have her beside me which was strangely very well received at work. I was lucky because everyone at Avanade understood the challenges of being a parent and balancing work and life.

Just like all other hard times, the pandemic taught us that we must adapt and change the way we were doing things. So, if you are transparent and kind while being helpful, the people around you will adapt and show empathy for you.

What was the motivation in your life and what kept you going despite challenges?

I was born in a poor, male-dominated country. So, I knew that I had to work hard if want to achieve and be successful in life. So, I really rolled up my sleeves and got great grades, because I know this is what will allow me to go further to fulfill my dreams. Yes, I worked very hard when I was young but also had super supportive parents. They knew that I was kind of smart and I wanted to succeed, and they always stood by my choices. For example, when I got the internship opportunity and wanted to travel at such a young age, they did encourage me even though I was the first girl in the entire family to have left the country, alone!

Why Avanade and what do you enjoy most about your role?

I was super interested in the position I was offered in the beginning because it is all about how artificial intelligence and IoT can bring value to the business end users, and I was leading at the Europe level. As an ‘AI and IoT director for Europe,’ I really wanted to use these new technologies to bring value across Industries and across Europe and make people happier which was something I dreamt about even as a child. So, it was a perfect role for me.

I’ve helped businesses in six different regions across Europe, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, and the Nordics, to build AI and IoT-based solutions for their clients. We see a huge interest in combining AI and IoT and this is indeed the future. I recently got promoted to be the Global Data&AI Sales and Services Innovation lead. I’m enjoying digging into outsourcing and the Manage & Evolve approach that brings cost-effective Data&AI solutions at Scale for our clients.

What do you do differently now in comparison to your 20s? Do you share some lessons with your younger self?

This is an interesting one. Something that has changed is that now I have more trust in myself and there’s no way someone can tell me you cannot do it because I’m a woman or am so young, you cannot put me in a box, and I cannot accept that anymore. But when I was young that has been a challenge for me.

When I was a young girl, I was also super shy and that is something that has changed me a lot in me. I was not conscious that girls and boys are equal, that women and men can do the same job. I believe in diversity in the workplace because only then you can have the best results. When you see all the companies where businesses are really doing good, you have employees coming from different backgrounds and more women in leadership positions.

What are the challenges you faced as an expat, and do you have some tips to share with us?

Absolutely! Doing all the things by myself in a new city was super challenging mainly because I didn’t speak the local language very well. For example, I had to open a bank account which I’d never done in my life before that point. So, everything was a new experience. Joining a community with like-minded people who were also settling in the city was quite helpful to me.

How do you reward yourself? What are your techniques behind self-care? Can you share some insights about that?

Let me tell you something. Before the pandemic, I used to set goals and make sure to get them done on time, and later celebrate them. But because of all the challenges and uncertainty that the pandemic brought in our lives, nowadays I am more into celebrating small successes every day. When I wake up in the morning, I want to do something good today both personally and professionally. It can be something small like making a client happy or taking my child out to buy her a gift, etc. So, I’m focusing on really small things that make me and make others around me happy.

Also, it is super essential for me to get one or two hours a week and spend time on self-care.

For instance, I go have a drink with a friend, go to a spa, or do a volunteering activity. I remember when I was a mentor for teens during a hackathon that we scheduled a couple of years ago. Seeing how motivated and happy those kids, coming from disadvantaged areas, were on getting their first program working, really made my day.

Speaking of the youth, what are the characteristics that one needs to embrace to succeed in this career path?

Compared to a decade ago, there are a lot of opportunities I would say. It’s okay if none of your parents were engineers or physicians or have a career in the scientific domain, if you’re motivated to do it, you can still make it. Hackathon sessions for teens are a good place to start so they can get introduced to AI or coding. Also, mentorship programs are great for those starting their career. For instance, at Women in AI, we’re organizing a lot of events to engage young ladies and help them succeed in the Data&AI field. Such organizations are open to all, you just need to know about them and join the movement.

What is your biggest dream in life and what are your next milestones?

I dream of a more sustainable world where people show empathy towards each other.

And about my next milestone, to be honest, I don’t know where I will be, say in the next five years. But I’m sure that I will take small actions to follow my motivation and values.

I would say, aiming for a more sustainable and better world is a very big dream in itself.

Absolutely! Let me give you an example. A client with whom we’re working in the energy sector installs windmills to generate electricity sustainably. So, my team and I proposed an AI-and-IoT-based solution to predict or monitor the behavior of birds to know if the wind is negatively impacting them in any way. It is super important for me to push us in a direction where the companies care about the planet and make respectful decisions.

That’s some great work you’re doing, Léa! It’s very good that you’re taking action in the right direction to nurture our environment.

Is there an experience or a person who has left a profound effect on the way you perceive life, and why?

I really like Jacinda Ardern; former prime minister of New Zealand. I like how she enabled people to cope with change during the pandemic; and the way she persuades many to act for the collective good. She has great communication skills while being transparent and an empathetic leader. Thanks to her, I am no longer afraid of expressing the real me, with my strengths and weaknesses.

We are all constantly adapting to new ways of working and moving into a new style of work and life integration. So, what are your thoughts on leadership, and what is more important, especially at this point?

A good leader should learn to motivate their team daily, be super transparent with them and share all the information to create good vibes in the team rather than create a toxic environment.

The most thing for me is to have empathy at work and be honest with my team. At the end of the day, it feels good to be at work and give your best at work when your colleagues really care about you.

A recent McKinsey report has shocked us all, which found women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rates we’ve ever seen. While we are trying to attract young women, have we lost track of those who are already in the workplace? What should we do so that we help women retrain in the tech sector?

First of all, it is extremely important to adopt a more flexible way of working and trust your women colleagues. Leaders should show flexibility and give their team members the freedom to do things in their style and on their own time, considering their constraints.

For example, some people might not be able to join a meeting because they need to pick up their kids. In these cases, it’s important to let them do what they need to do and allow them to work at a time that is convenient for them, whether that be earlier or later in the day. When leaders show respect and trust toward their team members, they will be grateful and motivated to do their best work for the company.

Trust is also a key element in retaining women in the workplace. When women in the workplace are fulfilled and satisfied, you honestly don’t have to do a lot to keep them around – they will be happy to spread the word about their positive experiences. This can even lead to them bringing other talented women to the company.

It is also important to reward team members equally, as this is a good way to retain them and show appreciation for their hard work. So, equal salaries for equal activities regardless of gender. It’s essential to recognize that these women are helping shape the next generation. Having a diverse team with people from different backgrounds and gender is extremely important especially in the field of AI because we need to ensure that the AI model is ethical and not biased.

A third piece of advice is investing in mentorship programs to allow women to have access to support whenever is needed and access to a community of role models to inspire them.

What is your life advice to succeed?

I would say be yourself, follow your dreams, and believe that you can make it. You can achieve your dreams if you work hard, and you get surrounded by people that can support you. And do not allow anyone to tell you that you cannot do it, just because you’re different.

It was a pleasure talking to you, Léa. Thanks so much for sharing your journey with AlignThoughts. We wish you the best in all your endeavors!

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