Randi Zuckerberg on Tech’s Future

HR Tech Conference keynote speaker Randi Zuckerberg discusses her predictions for the future of consumer technology.
By: | September 13, 2018 • 7 min read

What’s the best way to get ahead as a woman in the male-dominated world of technology? According to Randi Zuckerberg, you need to have a masculine first name. Joking aside, she said that during most of her career, particularly during her time at Facebook, she fielded many questions such as “Where’s Randi? I thought I was meeting with Randi.” Surprise, she thought.

Zuckerberg kicked off Wednesday morning’s events at the HR Tech Conference with her opening session, “Future Consumers: Decoding the Trends and Opportunities Today.” She didn’t spend too much time discussing the more well-known Zuckerberg other than mentioning they’re siblings. Instead, she discussed her whirlwind life—starting when she was accepted to Harvard University, where she hoped, by entering the music program, to one day become a Broadway star. Unfortunately, she was turned away from the program and instead studied business marketing.

She moved to New York after graduation and worked at a well-known advertising agency.  One day, her brother Mark called and said he was working on a start-up and wanted her to be the team’s digital marketer. With stars in her eyes, Zuckerberg flew to California picturing that the Hollywood glam and old-world charm would be there to greet her in her brother’s office. Not so much.

Only slightly disappointed, Zuckerberg figured she’d work at the start-up for a year and then move back to New York. In the meantime, she set to work on Facebook. There was something truly inspirational about the scrappy start-up, she said. The small team had a real passion; they truly believed they’d change the world. At the time, though, they were competing with already established tech giants that offered employees fancy lunches and amazing (expensive) perks. How could Facebook compete for the best engineering talent?

Zuckerberg said that they decided to use their passion of entrepreneurship to attract talent. They would host all-night hackathons for everyone in the company to join so that they could all feel like entrepreneurs. The submissions had to be passion projects that were separate from contributors’ everyday jobs.

Nothing was considered too outlandish in the hackathons—the goal was to bring forth the“wildest” ideas, which, of course, weren’t always winners, such as the trampoline hooked up to your smart phone to record a specific jump as your unlock screen. To unlock your phone, you needed to recreate that exact jump … which was pretty impossible.

Zuckerberg presented one of her ideas during a hackathon, which was met with skepticism. She wanted to know what it would look like if everyone using Facebook was his or her own broadcaster. So, she set up a mini-studio in a closet and broadcasted herself in real-time on Facebook. Both of her parents tuned in and that was the end of Facebook Live with Randi Zuckerberg … or so she thought.

A few weeks after the failed broadcast, Katy Perry’s team called Zuckerberg and said that Perry wanted to launch her world tour on Facebook Live with Randi, to which Zuckerberg said “Great!” and quickly amassed a team to work on legitimizing Facebook Live.

“In that moment, I thought, ‘What would my male colleagues do?  Would they say, ‘Sorry, Facebook Live isn’t a reputable show?’ ” Zuckerberg recalled. “No! They’d say, Sure, come on in, so that’s what I said, too.”

In 2011, Katy Perry was the first Facebook Live broadcast, which became a hit. Millions of viewers tuned in, which created a snowball effect. Former President Obama asked to do a Facebook Live Town Hall and eventually it turned into a weekly White House live broadcast. And now, there is a Facebook Live button on 2 billion profiles around the world.

“I didn’t see myself as an entrepreneur when I went out to Silicon Valley. I was a supportive person in marketing, ‘supporting’ the entrepreneurs,” said Zuckerberg. “Every one of us is sitting on that 2 billion button idea. It depends on if you’re encouraged to take risks and not be afraid of failing in pursuit of your idea.”

After her massive “failure” turned into a success, Zuckerberg did what any profitable executive would do … and left her job at Facebook. The reasons, she said, were complicated.

She mentioned that she struggled with a number of technology-specific problems out in Silicon Valley, the first being that she was often the only female leader present at meetings.

“I struggled with how do we make it so that companies that change the world and give voices to everyone have the representation at the table,” she said. “I had to step away from the tech world to figure it out.”

Another issue was distribution inequality of the “digital divide.” Zuckerberg said she was fortunate enough to grow up in a zip code that offered her privilege to explore technology, among other things. But that wasn’t the case for everyone—if you were born into a disadvantaged zip code, your opportunities were severely limited.

Other concerns included wondering how the tech created today would be used in 15 to 20 years. She said drinking the Kool-Aid is easy to do in the early stages of a tech company, but what are the possible ramifications down the road? Are we thinking responsibly about the tech we create? For example, virtual reality. The immersive experience has huge potential for doing good, but, Zuckerberg wondered, will we eventually be treating teenagers for post-traumatic-stress disorder because they’ve been immersed in war video games that seemed so real?

Though she stepped away from Silicon Valley and the tech hot spot, she hasn’t stopped watching what’s coming down the pike or investing in new technology herself. Zuckerberg described four predictions for the future consumers of technology based on her own observations and experiences. First, consumers of tech will see everything as media; second, they will value scarcity and experiences; third, they will think about their careers differently; and finally, they will want a healthy balance of technology.

“Every one of us is a media company. If you reach even one person inside of your company online with the tools you’re building and communication, you’re a media company,” said Zuckerberg. “You’re on the front lines of how people spend the majority of their week and how they’re getting that communication. So the content, the media and the platforms you’re creating is the No. 1 most important media tool that so many people see and are engaging with, and creating content on and for.”

Zuckerberg observed that the trend away from short content is on the rise, as people are looking for more thoughtful, long-form content.

There has also been a huge surge in pop-up experiences—restaurants, stores, photo opportunities—and Zuckerberg hopped on the bandwagon herself to help instill a sense of scarcity in a world of unlimited content. Her pop-up, Sue’s Tech Kitchen, was created based on a passion of hers—getting more women and girls interested in tech.

She spent time researching the exact moment when girls often lose interest in tech: age 9. Using that information, she set out to create a dessert café run by robots and 3D printers. She wanted the kids to play with their food and learn about tech and show them that tech can bring a family together instead of keeping them apart. The most popular items in the café were the 3D-printed S’mores and pancakes made by robots.

“We had all these families that hadn’t pursued STEM or tech come and it opened up opportunities to talk about AI and robotics and skills they need for their careers in a way that feels non-threatening and non-overwhelming,” said Zuckerberg.

The ideas of entrepreneurship and passion were key themes in Zuckerberg’s talk. She routinely touched on each topic, underscoring again and again the idea that we are all entrepreneurs who have that “2 billion button” idea within us, but what it takes for that idea to surface is something uniquely HR: company culture.

“It depends if you’re in the right atmosphere where you’re encouraged to be creative to let those ideas out,” she said, adding that people shouldn’t be afraid to take risks and sometimes failing.

Danielle Westermann King, staff writer for HRE, received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications and is now setting her sights on human resources. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

More from HRE