Tuesday, May 17, 2022
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In Conversation With Laetitia Cailleteau
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Managing Director Data & AI Europe Lead, Global Lead for Conversational AI at Accenture, Founder Of The Liquid Studio Innovation Lab In London, Reserve Member Of High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) on AI, Speaker At World Events Like World Summit AI

While growing up in a small village in France, all Laetitia wanted was the right opportunity to better her life. She gave her best in school and gained government grants that helped her pursue an Engineering degree in Computer Science. Recalling her university days, Laetitia says, “I didn’t even have a computer as we didn’t have the money.” Fast forward to the present day, she is the Managing Director leading Accenture’s Data &AI Europe and the Global Head for Conversational AI. With over two decades of solid experience in consulting at Accenture, Laetitia is now an inspiring leader, mentor, author, and speaker at world events like World Summit AI. Her journey is beyond inspiring and worth sharing with the world to give hope to many people and help them realize that sometimes life can be tough, but with perseverance and determination, one can come out of any situation.

Driven by innovation, Laetitia founded the Liquid Studio, an innovation lab in London, where she spends most of the time working with her team offering cutting-edge technology solutions using Artificial Intelligence, IoT, Security, Cloud, Blockchain, Augmented Reality, and Extended Reality. Laetitia is also a reserve member of the High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) on AI, a government body set up by the European Commission. The main objective of HLEG is to bring policies that allow the development of AI systems to effectively impact the freedom, health, and safety of the larger society.

Laetitia’s Early Life & Career

Laetitia also offered support to young individuals from socially deprived backgrounds through foundations like the riseUp and the Cherie Blair Foundation. Early in her career, when she struggled due to an unbalanced perspective on her work-life, Laetitia’s fellow mentor – Jenny Garrett, helped her see the full picture and gain new perspectives.

She also realized the importance of quality time spent at work and outside of work and learned to enjoy being a mum and a leader in Tech.

Today wearing so many hats and juggling around several interesting things, Laetitia has reinvented herself and says, “It’s all about trying to find the right balance and what makes you happy ultimately.”

With a keen interest in solving complex problems, Laetitia gains energy from having space for innovation and building connections that can make a long-lasting impact.

We all face hardships in life, but it is the way one overcomes them and shines in life is that sets us apart. Even today, Laetitia’s zest and willpower to transform her life, solve real-time problems like social isolation and loneliness through technology, and bring her best to the table are truly inspiring.

Join us in learning more about her life journey, the challenges she faced along the way, how Laetitia overcame her hardships, and the daily choices that led to where and what she is today!

Laetitia-Cailleteau-Interview-AlignThoughts

Well, let’s rewind a bit. Can you give a glimpse of your childhood and your dreams as a child? What did you dream of becoming an adult? 

I didn’t have a typical childhood; I grew up in the French countryside, in a small, rural village. My mother was only a teen when she had me, and raised me by herself for the initial part of my childhood.

Later, when I was three, my mom got married, and we had a slightly better family life. I faced difficult social integration challenges, there was just not much money at home, no opportunity, no culture either.

My ambition as a child was always to get some freedom; I wanted to make my own decisions, make my own living, and not worry about materialistic things.

Wow, what a journey! From a small town all the way until now, the accomplishments you’re making are incredible.

Who or what has been the inspiration? Do you look for inspiration within yourself or have external forces to push you to do more?

It’s not just one person who inspires me; there have been different people in different phases of life.

My mom is a true inspiration – she keeps me grounded. She has the world’s strongest level of integrity, worked hard all her life, she has always been selfless, generous, and caring.  She says, “on n’est jamais mieux servi que par soi-meme” which translates to “if you want things done, just do it yourself”.

I also look at external sources like Simon Sinek and Brené Brown. They inspired me because they unpack society and humankind, what drives us and makes us happy. I have always felt that I was not fitting in; they help me understand myself better but also realized that many of us are going through these same experiences.

I’m also inspired by tech that can change the world. I love finding new solutions to complex problems. For example, 4 to 5 years ago my team and I created Homecare – a ground-breaking AI smart-home solution that helps older people connect to a suite of digital services using voice and screen interactions, through Internet of Things (IoT) devices. It was developed to complement real-world care and aims to help users combat social isolation and loneliness. We now have issued patents and more than 100 end users. Check our latest interview at AWS re:Invent.

That’s wonderful to know how you use your skills to solve real-time problems and get inspired. Fighting social isolation and loneliness is key to our mental health and wellbeing.

Do you have any favorite work desk quotes that you look forward to, perhaps from the tech world or motivational life quotes?

I really like this quote from Amy Cuddy “Fake it till you become it”. She is quite magical.

I love the quote and her story because it illustrates the power of visualization. What it really means is that by visualizing confidence, growth mindset, or any other things you wish – will help you realize or demonstrate those qualities and attributes in real life.

There’s indeed a lot on your plate. You’re the Europe Data&AI Lead, the Global Head of Conversational AI, a leader, a mentor, mother of three kids, and much more. So, how do you manage your time and set priorities? What’s your technique around this?

For me – It is about finding the right balance between what I have to do and what gives me joy.

This interview, for instance, is a good example of experiences that fill me up. Meeting new people and establishing long-lasting connections is equally fulfilling to me as getting things done with my team.

Some tasks can be less fulfilling; I work in a big organization, and we have loads of processes and paperwork. Acknowledging you can’t always do what only you want.

I tend to have a space for the unknown in my day, and it’s actually exhilarating to me. I need to have a balance already within work, or it gets quite difficult to balance the life outside of work.

I have three kids, two girls and a boy. I have a daughter in her final year of primary and one in secondary. My son is now a teenager and beginning to wonder what he wants to do as a young adult.

Unlike adults or colleagues, kids don’t come to you on a schedule. Most moments in our relationships are unplanned albeit they tend to follow some patterns. I am prepared for the unexpected – typically after dinner and create this time capsule.

With my little one, for example, it’s a little ceremony of cuddling at night, but my older daughter hates it. She, in fact, loves spending time with me whilst doing her homework. I try to be creative, especially when they get older.

It is a different ceremony for each kid, creating quality space so we can feel the warmth of the family and the kids don’t feel that I am always running away to work.

Okay, so maintain a balance within work life to help achieve a quality personal space that can help build a good bond between family members.

Yes. We only have dinner at the table together unless there is a very special reason. It has become a very exceptional treat for the kids to be allowed to have dinner in the living room in front of the TV. We have our routines and some ground rules as a family.

I think so too. It’s the small things that sometimes make your day.

Indeed, you need to find ways of appreciating and celebrating. We, French, are a little bit more cynical about these things. But we are living in England, and this helped me see the cup half full! I have a more positive outlook on life since we live here and trying to appreciate and celebrate everything I possibly can.

That was exactly my next question. How do you reward yourself for accomplishing your significant milestones or even small goals?

Now, this has been a hard one for me. I found myself guilty for a very long time – having a career and not spending as much time with the kids as other mums was a hard choice to make peace with.  So much so that I was really struggling to enjoy myself and celebrate milestones at home and at work.

Six years ago, I met a fellow mentor at the Cherie Blair Foundation. Her name is Jenny Garrett; she had just published a book called ‘Rocking Your Role’ about woman breadwinners. The book and Jenny’s grounding helped me massively see the bigger picture and start enjoying being a mum leader in Tech.

I now have a coach outside work. It is “me time” – One hour a week – a safe place to articulate stress points and help think things through with a broader set of lenses than just my own.

I also regularly make time for swimming, massages, and self-care. The ultimate treat is a new experience or adventure – preferably abroad to discover new places with my little tribe.

Would you mind sharing with us the question your coach asked you, which made you pause and take a step back?

I can’t remember exactly – it was more of a gradual process.

I used to bottle up loads of micro frustrations – consulting can get quite challenging and competitive; I was on edge, oversensitive, felt I wasn’t heard, and the situation was not fair.

Jenny offered a new perspective and made me realize how blessed I was to be part of the project, albeit with its set of challenges. She really helped me get out of my emotions. I started seeing another side to it, and it helped me come out of the loop I was in.

Okay, thanks for sharing your candid thoughts! What is your confidence booster, both as a young person and now?

I think for a very long time, and still very true, my confidence booster is I know I can do it if I spend the time. I can solve quite complicated problems. If I want, I can really work hard too.

We all need to constantly improve to reach our full potential. How do you improve and what helps you as a leader?

The feedback from my teams and the market.

Being invited to conferences where you speak to hundreds or thousands of people is incredibly rewarding – the feedback, acknowledgment, new connections are a unique way to gauge the quality of your work and gain confidence in its quality and your value add.

What are your thoughts on constructive criticism? And how do you deal with negative criticism?

Feedback is a very complex topic.

When I was younger, I used to just brush off good feedback and focus on the negatives. My head would swirl in an eternal loop on the negatives, literally making me feel horrible and probably not the most productive state of mind. It is when I stopped wanting to prove myself to others that the feedback virtuous circle started.

Personally, I think it depends on how secure you feel and how much you trust the person delivering the feedback. If you are insecure, feedback is likely not to be interpreted in the right way – good or bad. More time needs to be spent on how you deliver those messages. If you are in the right place, any feedback is an opportunity to reflect and learn!

That’s so thoughtful! And indeed, there’s always room for improvement and growth.

Absolutely! Trust in the people delivering the feedback is quite important.

Being convinced the individual providing the feedback is well-intended is as important as the feedback or your interpretation thereof.

Giving your trust to people is also a complex topic. I see two major camps– people making you earn their trust – this can be a very long and complex process, and people who instantly give you their trust but may be very fast at taking it away.

I used to be in the first camp and moved to the second overtime.

So, have an open mindset to trust people first and then believe the process and take it forward accordingly.

Yes – unfortunately it doesn’t mean that you don’t get disappointed. But it opens a lot more doors to opportunities and trustworthy relationships.

What was the turning point or lightbulb moment that led to where you are today in both your personal life and career?

The turning point was seven years ago when I intentionally built connections and a support system outside my immediate work bubble. I had an awakening – and realized that the consulting life – moving from one challenging project, a client to another was very thrilling – but didn’t give me enough continuity and anchoring in the broader industry.

This new network helped me gain new perspectives and took me out of my comfort zone.

Okay. All of us, at some point, can feel demotivated to keep going both in our personal and work life. It can be as small as just showing up at work or something serious like getting depressed and being stuck in a sad space in life. So how do you push yourself and bounce back when you find yourself in such situations?

Whether it’s work or personal life, remember the things that energize you and the those that drain you. So, I guess if you’re in a sad place, it means you are focussing too much on things that drain your energy or affect you negatively.

For example, innovation, conferences, and meeting new people make me happy. So, create the space that makes YOU happy. Maybe just try to find whatever makes you happy and do a little bit more of it often.

So having more self-awareness can help. Know yourself better!

You need to think about what makes you happy as often as possible – possibly every day. Coaching or journaling can help.

Let’s take this moment and request our readers to try and think about at least three things that made them happy today.

Indeed – keep asking yourself every day. Just don’t give up until you find this feeling of grounding and happiness.

For example, things that make me happy can be:

  • Having a bit of a lay-in at the weekend
  • Welcoming friends for dinner or organizing social events or trips
  • Decorating the house
  • Date night with my husband
  • Have a new lightbulb moment at work
  • Making new connections
  • Giving a hand to others
  • Winning a sales or a competition
  • Delivering good workshop or good work for a client

Wow, these are some great ways to find happiness in our daily lives.

Let’s move on to the subject of women breadwinners and their challenges. Recent research from Women in Space Sector UK found that even children of accomplished women have a preconceived notion about gender stereotypes. This research indicated that women need to ‘sing praises’ about their work-life at home so that kids become aware that even mothers can be breadwinners. What are your thoughts about this?

I take my kids to our ‘Bring-your-kid-to-work’ day, and they love it. They think I have a good job because I am involved with cool technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Virtual reality, 3D printing etc. embodied in tech gadgets – like Digital assistants, VR kits etc.

They don’t understand the background or the intellectual challenge of being in this new space.  They celebrated my first issued patent as I was jumping around loads, but they were a bit blasé for the subsequent ones.

And that’s okay, I think.

They will become wiser as they go, we need to give them time to integrate these experiences with their own world.

Okay, so let them learn from what the world gives them and allow them to also have their own experiences to build upon.

Were you always sorted about your career and which profession to pursue? Today, you are working with AI and many other new technologies. How did you choose which subjects to specialize in at the university?

In the early 90s – many were thinking (quite rightly) that Technology was the future. This is why I chose a Computer Science degree. I’ve always been logical and good at math – and I prayed this would work. At the time I didn’t own a computer nor knew how to operate one. My motivation came from the sole belief that this would be the best way for me to get a good job and be financially independent as a woman.

In my last year of Uni, I did an Erasmus exchange. That’s how I came to the UK and realized the cultural differences with France. It was a very positive and encouraging environment; I had a very inspiring tutor, and excellent grades. We even published an academic paper at the time on Bots and AI called “Using KADS to Build Agents for E-Commerce”.

I joined Accenture – at the time known as Andersen Consulting – straight from Uni.  Did loads of eCommerce and transformation work, until 6 or 7 years ago when cloud gave new life to AI, and I jumped on this wagon again.

Do you think a college degree plays a vital role in one’s career or success overall? How important and relevant is it in today’s world?

Well, that’s an interesting question. I would never say that study doesn’t matter.

If you come from a difficult social background, it’s challenging to have a better life without adequate educational qualifications.  It’s all about opportunity.  A college degree was the survival strategy in my case. I had no open doors. I didn’t even know how the world was working at that time or where to knock.

The country you live in may also matter. I have noticed that in France your studies define your professional life much more than in the UK for example. In France, if you’ve studied literature, you would never be able to find a job in the scientific sector, which is not the case in the UK.

I think so too. It also depends on what job she/he would be doing. For example, if someone wants to become a programmer, they need to upskill themselves and gain knowledge around the core concepts of computing like algorithms, how does the computer work, etc. And some subjects cannot be easily understood in a short span of time and needs time to study end-to-end.

Also, the country one lives in, and their social status can indicate the direction to move forward. But pursuing higher education or holding a degree can always be an advantage, in my opinion.

Yeah, I think if you can, you should definitely not stop yourself from getting a college degree.

I agree! So, the final question for the day. What advice would you like to share with the people reading your interview and the young generation to be successful and happy? What characteristics do you think a person should cultivate to succeed in life?

This is a conversation I have with my son often. As we move in the 21st century, there is an acknowledgment that the younger generation will live longer and change jobs at least 3 or 4 times in their lifetime. As such, this paradigm shift should put less pressure on our younger generation to find their path so early in life. It should also offer them later opportunities for “reinventions”.

My advice is if you can – try to get a good degree in a space you enjoy. If you can’t – either because it makes you viscerally sick or because you have no clue what to do, this is fine – just don’t let that define you – there will be loads more opportunities to learn in your adult life and make a good life.  Never give up aspiring to do what you love.

It was truly inspiring talking to you, Laetitia! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, tips, and life journey with us. And, we wish you the best in all your endeavors!

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