Throughout the G7 nations, women are still statistically less likely to be seen as suitable leaders than their male counterparts. Our second guest in our ‘Women in Leadership’ talk series shares her experience with us.  

Theoretical neuroscientist and CEO of Socos Labs, Dr. Vivienne Ming is a chief scientist, serial entrepreneur, author, and mother of two.

At Salesforce, we believe in creating an inclusive workplace where everyone can be their full, authentic selves, and our ‘Women in Leadership’ talks are all about diversity, inclusion, and challenging gender stereotypes. So, General Manager and Senior Vice President, Salesforce, Petra Jenner was excited to ask Vivienne about her research, and her unique personal experience.

A self-proclaimed “professional mad scientist”, Vivienne opened up about her extraordinary life journey, including the highs and the lows. From severe struggles with mental health to experiencing success as a CEO — her story provides an inspiring example for anyone seeking to overcome personal and professional challenges.

Vivienne shared how, following her transition, she was treated differently –  and even saw her own students changed their assumptions about her expertise. But although being her true self meant subjecting herself to those stereotypes, she added, it was crucial to realising her true potential.

Suddenly, I actually liked myself, and the things I got to do took on more meaning. I got to have an actual impact on the world and I don’t think I’d have ever done it if I weren’t me.”

Dr. Vivienne Ming

Related: 5 Ways To Support the Transgender Community at Work

Here are the key lessons we learned from Vivienne’s story below — but we’ve only scratched the surface of a wide-ranging, informative, and at times, emotional conversation. We recommend you watch it in full here:


When stereotypes go unchallenged, everybody loses out

Socos Labs is Vivienne’s fifth company and the second she co-founded with her wife, Dr. Norma Ming. Through a multidisciplinary approach including computer science and mathematical modelling, the company provides unique insights and advice to partners on a wide range of mission areas and practices, from social inclusion, AI, to treating diabetes. Their core objective is to improve public and private policy.

But before Vivienne could make these contributions to society, she had to overcome prejudice and assumptions about her gender. 

In the high-tech and AI sector where she works, women are 22% less likely to be seen as suitable leaders. And Vivienne told us how her business dealings had often involved meeting venture capitalists who adored her inventions yet would try to insist on installing a man to run her organisation.

She discussed how these limiting assumptions have a cost for everyone. 

“In every country, and every walk of life, there’s human capacity left on the table simply because people have never had the opportunity,” she explained.

Nothing I do is special; it’s just that I had the opportunity to do it.”

Dr. Vivienne Ming

The secret to productivity: why we track the wrong things

Society — and business — don’t just limit people because of gender. We also have limiting preconceptions about what makes people successful or productive. And Vivienne’s research has shown many of these to be wrong.

Working with data from more than a hundred million professionals, Vivienne built an AI model to test what really influences productivity. She found that while your name, school, and last job are reliable predictors of whether you’ll be hired, they have little bearing on the quality of your work.

Indeed, Vivienne found that the best predictor of an employee’s success is their social skills and level of emotional intelligence. This is just as important to a programmer’s code as it is to a salesperson’s sales figures.

For Vivienne the lesson is simple.

It’s not what you know that determines whether you succeed; it’s who you are.”

Dr. Vivienne Ming

This became even more evident when Vivienne shared the results of an experiment tracking the individual impact of half a million employees in a huge, global corporation. 

It revealed that purpose-driven people — who sacrifice their own outcomes to help others because they believe in a larger goal — are the ones who really power an organisation’s success.   

Vivienne explained: “You can be as productive as you want. But if you make everyone around you better, the impact is bigger than one person could ever achieve.” 


Have the courage to be unique — whatever the cost

The problem for organisations, Vivienne said, is that the traits that really influence success are not what we traditionally look for, track, or encourage in our businesses.

According to her research, the person we might think of as a high-value employee — talented, focused, and smashing all their personal targets — may actually have a negative overall impact if they’re unwilling to support others.  

As long as people are committed to the old, hierarchical way of working this problem-solving potential will remain untapped, said Vivienne. But, just as she has experienced, challenging assumptions requires sacrifice.

Her book, The Tax on Being Different, explores the cost of standing out — and the extra work required to achieve equivalent success as someone who conforms to society’s norms; for example, around gender, race, or sexual orientation.

In the long-term, she argues, the trade-off is more than worthwhile. Breaking the mould brings freedom because stereotypes are harder to apply to people who are very unusual.

You can’t opt out of a racist society; you can’t opt out of sexism. But what you can do is be unique.”

Dr. Vivienne Ming

She continued: “The single biggest driver of change is a peer role model – where people see people who are like them, who are leaders. Showing what it means to be different from their expectations. It comes at a cost, but it pays off in the lives of everyone who comes after you.”

This conversation is the second of our ‘Women in Leadership’ series. If you’d like to join us for the next virtual event, Women in Leadership with Hanli Prinsloo!

For more inspiring leadership stories, check out our blog, Ex-CIA Agent Shares Lessons on Women in Leadership