Joanna Riley

Founder of Censia

Joanna (Jo) Riley is an entrepreneur in technology for the Future of Work. Jo is on a mission to eradicate human bias and enable companies to measure people by merit and capability. As CEO and Founder of Censia, she has led her team to build an artificial intelligence and machine learning-based predictive recruiting solution powered by one of the largest talent data platforms in the world—automating the process of identifying talent for opportunities in the most efficient and fairest way possible.

Currently, she is the Chapter Chair for Young Presidents Organization, (SF Bay), is part of the Harvard Business School Presidents Program and is an active angel investor. Jo has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Women in Tech, Diversity’s Council of the Most Influential Women, and as CEO has led her previous company to a successful IPO.

Where did the idea for Censia come from?

I’ve been in talent intelligence for the last decade and have traveled to more than 100 countries to talk to executives and leaders about their most significant pain points. Across the board, they all said that their biggest challenge—and their greatest fear—was not having enough good people and being unable to find top talent. The digital revolution had given them access to endless online profiles, but the data was messy and overwhelming and there was no efficient way to search it.

Companies face a two-fold challenge: first, there is too much information to sort through, and second, humans are prone to affinity bias—in other words, hiring people who resemble themselves. This is a well-known fact and a massive hindrance to growth because diversity can really accelerate a company’s growth.

Keyword systems are inefficient, and manual searches are prone to affinity bias. This is why we decided to revamp the talent industry from the ground up. We harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to learn and model what makes a successful employee or leader. We took the talent industry from one-dimensional keyword searches to holistic, multidimensional talent models.

This is why we created Censia. We simply wanted to design an algorithm that finds talent while eliminating bias.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I start my day with a quick workout, and the rest of it is filled with back-to-back meetings with customers, partners, teams, advisors and investors. As a CEO, I’m responsible for everything, but I have learned that to put my energy where it matters the most,which, for me is centered on creating a strong vision and alignment among my team members. I hire people who can do the job and believe in our mission, and then I empower them to do their best work. There is nothing more energizing than seeing them ace their projects and drive our company forward.

Whenever possible, I make it a point to unplug and connect with the people I love. The hustle is part of my core and makes me the happiest. I am incredibly excited about Censia, and right now, we have more demand than people, which means long hours, but this will change as we scale.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I am entirely customer-centric, so I always start by looking at what the customer pain points are, what is currently being done to solve them, and how we can do better. Once I understand how those pieces fit together, and how to execute a strategy successfully, I hire the best and most aligned people to make the solution a reality.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The one trend that I am excited about is finding talent that was previously overlooked because of bias and unlocking all of that human potential and growth.

Technology has enabled us to drive so much change, but a lot of people have been left out due to their race, their sex, and their age, among other reasons. We are now at a point where technology has taken us beyond that, and we can truly see people for their talent and their potential. The stereotype of what a “good employee” looks like has crumbled, along with other stifling concepts. We’re finally shedding the weight of the old ways and moving into a future of work that is truly revolutionary.

Censia is on a mission to change the way people get hired by removing the bias that plagues three billion professionals globally by increasing equality and gender parity in talent acquisition. Discrimination in hiring is a deeply embedded issue around the world, and I am very excited that artificial intelligence is tackling this massive problem with such efficiency.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I have several habits and mindsets that make me more productive. First, I always hire people who are smarter than me and aligned with my vision, and then I delegate to them. I am really honest with myself about what I like doing and what I am good at, and those are the things I focus on. I am also a big believer in seeking advice from others and concentrating on actual impact, not buzz. In the tech space it’s so easy to get caught up in the news, but if you’re not solving your customer’s pain points, you’re not built to last.

What advice would you give your younger self?

My dad used to always tell me: “Nobody cares.” It doesn’t mean they don’t care about you, but most people are so wrapped up in their own lives that they don’t care about the things you’re worried about. So be kind to yourself. The only person who can love completely is you, and when you are empathetic to yourself and others, you can move through life’s ups and downs much more quickly.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

This is an interesting question, and being that I am such a customer-centric person, I don’t think there is anything I wouldn’t reconsider if everyone were convinced of it.

That being said, I don’t believe that AI is a threat to humanity—I think a lot of people tout this line to drum up fear and publicity. But I believe that hype, whether it’s about unfounded fears or unearned accomplishments, is often misleading and distracting, and can easily lead us away from doing the work that matters. I am certain that AI will make humanity better, smarter, and will allow each individual to make a more significant impact. It will uplevel society.

I also don’t believe in the myth that some people are born leaders or overnight successes. In my years of entrepreneurship, I have learned that those who are the most successful often endured and persevered through the hardest journeys.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

There is immense pressure on entrepreneurs, and it can get very lonely, which is why it’s critical to seek out other entrepreneurs. They will help you move through the growing pains that all company leaders face, and I have grown immensely by sharing my experiences with other entrepreneurs and learning from them.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

There are two key strategies I use in any business venture.

First, I always start by understanding the customer and their pain points. Censia’s customers already had big software systems in place, and most employees are resistant to the risk of software migration and having to learn yet another tool. On the other hand, they can also be passionate about optimizing their workflows and creating more efficiency. This is why we designed Censia to be both a standalone program and an integration. Therefore our strategy is to deliver AI-powered talent intelligence within recruiting and talent management platforms such as SAP. In doing so, we solve problems and eliminate any bottlenecks that can create resistance when going to market.

Second, I believe that alignment is the key strategy that accelerates business. When everyone in the company is moving towards the same goals and vision, everything else falls into place. Communication is smoother and people are more motivated, which makes it easier to maneuver through the hard times when you know what’s waiting for you on the other side.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I’d say that my biggest mistake was hiring people who have the right skills but were not aligned on the mission. I found that while they were indeed capable of solving the short-term problems, they didn’t bring possess energy that accelerates a company’s growth and the realization of its long-term mission. People who are aligned on the mission have a real ownership mentality and the hustle that it takes to succeed.

During interviews, I always ask people why they want to work for Censia. If the answer is in alignment with what we do, it plays a big part in my final hiring decision.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I love the idea of talent being able to rate recruiters. Not in a public Glassdoor way, but in an Uber way. Before Uber, it was not uncommon for taxis to stink and their drivers to vent to customers on a bad day. There were no repercussions for that. Once customers gained the ability to leave feedback, the quality of all cars went up immediately.

If we can improve the experience for something as fleeting as a cab ride, think about what we can do for recruiting. At its core, hiring is a very personal and important experience, and it would be great if they could give recruiters feedback about the experience so that the candidate experience—which often feels rushed and impersonal—can improve.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I recently spent just over $100 to surprise the office with my favorite focaccia. It comes from a shop that my dad and I used to go to, the kind that only takes cash and it’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten. Being able to share this with my team brings me an immense amount of joy. It feels nostalgic, but more importantly, eating together makes the team feel like family. We all gather around and share what’s going on in life and at work, and connect on a really human level. It’s so easy to get lost in the hustle, and so important to foster that spirit of community within a company.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I use Zoom every single day. Our team is located all over the world, and video meetings are a great way to stay in touch. I’m a very verbal person and love to talk, so rather than spending my time e-mailing, I’ll hop on calls with my team to discuss whatever is on their minds. They get answers in real-time, and I’m not chained to my laptop.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss, the former head of hostage negotiation for the FBI. So much of what we do in life is a negotiation, andhe teaches that negotiations are won through active listening. One of the best negotiation skills I learned from him is to give power to your counterpart. When they feel that they are in control of the situation, they speak more freely, often revealing their bottom line. One way to do this is to ask: “Is it crazy to think that you could do this for me?” By setting the question up this way, the counterpart usually responds that no, it would not be crazy, and then goes on to make their counter offer or reveal a key piece of information.

What is your favorite quote?

Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This really resonates with me.

Key Learnings:

  • Know your strengths, hire people who have the skills and are aligned with the mission, and delegate well. There is nothing more energizing than the massive impact that happens when you and your teammates are doing what they are meant to do.
  • Alignment is key. When everyone in the company is moving towards the same goals and the same vision, everything else works better.
  • Artificial intelligence is transforming how we hire and creating more diverse, more dynamic organizations.
  • Artificial intelligence will greatly improve society. It is already unlocking a massive amount of potential that was bound up in old conventions and biases, and the impact this creates will transform the world as we know it.