Asma Shabab breaks the rules to reveal how tech impacts humanity

“We need people who understand the impact of technology, and understand the responsibility.”

From Istanbul to Los Angeles, Dubai to New York and beyond, Asma Shabab—named a 2019 Woman to Watch for her thought leadership on how technology impacts humanity—is exactly that.

“Here’s to the rule breakers, the rebels and the transformers,” Brandberries editor-in-chief Hamza Sarawy, who compiled the list, wrote.

Shabab has always been a rebel, which she defines as continuously exploring how to challenge herself.

At school, where she excelled in academics and extracurricular activities, she loved finding creative ways to address whatever was happening around her.

Today, in her globe-circling career, she defines rule breakers as those who have the guts to question.

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“A rule breaker is someone who does things differently,” she told Industrious from her Dubai home.

“Everything is possible if you’re ready to take the first step and go for it.”

She brings that ethos to everything she does—from her two master’s degrees (the first an MBA, the second in strategic public relations) to a career that has spanned marketing, politics, public relations, and now technology.

Throughout it all, she’s found that the way to make a difference is through questioning. Questioning existing processes; questioning whether there’s a different, better, new way. Also: listening.

“Can I listen from a different point of view?” she asks herself when examining a new challenge.

Shabab grew up in Karachi, Pakistan.

“It’s a city where there’s so much contrast in lifestyle, religious outlooks,” she said. “A city that houses so many people from all over Pakistan. It’s also a commercial hub. I love the energy.”

At her private (and “strict!”) Parsi high school, she was exposed to various religions through her fellow students—and notes how lucky she was to get that sort of exposure from an early age.

Since she was a talented artist who both painted and sculpted, her mother encouraged her to go to Paris to continue her art education. And though Shabab ultimately chose business as a direction, her art background has, throughout her career, helped her to bring a different point of view and creativity to her work.

Shabab on stage at the 2018 Dubai Lynx Festival

The Institute of Business Administration in Karachi had a combined Bachelor and Master’s of Business Administration. She decided on marketing as a focus.

After graduation, she worked in a state oil company as a management trainee. She soon realized how much she wanted to travel. She’d only ever traveled out of Pakistan twice.

“That was the North Star in my life,” she said—the guiding principle that today has her hopping continents.

She moved to Dubai, then to the UK. There, she became fascinated with the concept of public relations—“the embodiment of influence”—and applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to study strategic public relations at the University of Southern California.

“It was one of the highlights of my life,” she said. “There were students from literally every corner of the world.”

When the program ended, she returned to Pakistan to work in public relations with a focus on lobbying and politics.

She was reading The Audacity to Win at the time— David Plouffe’s inside look at the historic victory of Barack Obama, who she’d heard speak while at USC.

Technology, she recalls, was not really a driver in conversations yet. But once she finished the book, she realized that she couldn’t be an effective communicator if she didn’t understand technology.

Six years later, in her role as an IBM digital strategy and communications consultant, she works on addressing challenges and opportunities that come with implementing complex technologies like AI and IoT to make people’s lives better.

Shabab on a glacier in Iceland

Though the learning curve was steep, she’s now so well-versed in AI and IoT and their implications on business that she’s regularly asked to speak at conferences around the globe.

“AI is the way the world is going to work,” she said. One of her favorite topics to speak about is AI bias and innovation.

“What systems are going to make decisions based on algorithms created by humans?” she said.

One way to combat bias in AI, she firmly believes, is to have more diversity among those who write the codes that make up AI systems.

Representation in tech spaces like AI and robotics matter, she said, but is currently missing from many spaces.

Shabab focuses on how technology is driving digital change. It’s why she became a consultant: to address how technology can impact sustainable development and impact global issues like poverty and education.

“We need people who understand the impact of technology,” she said, “and understand the responsibility.”

One of Shabab’s favorite trips among many in recent years was to Miami, Florida.

“We were in the middle of the ocean,” she said. “There was a shipwreck. I jumped in. I wanted to see the shipwreck.”

And though swimming is a challenge for her (“I’m horrible at it, self-taught”), she welcomed the discomfort.

“You need to be comfortable in discomfort,” she said. “That’s the only way you’ll grow and challenge yourself, and ultimately succeed.”

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