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Gretchen O'Hara | Vice President | US AI | Sustainability Strategy at Microsoft

Gretchen O’Hara: A Proficient Business Leader with Proven Track Record

“Curiosity, creativity, and my entrepreneurial spirit have shaped my journey from schooling, directly into the technology industry,” says Gretchen O’Hara. She says her passion for solving big challenges helped her utilize the power that lies within her to create a sustainable impact in the world. Currently, Gretchen holds the position of Vice President, US AI & Sustainability Strategy at Microsoft, and holds an experience of 25 years in the tech industry across the US and worldwide.
Over the last 25 years of Gretchen’s journey, it was her eagerness for the cloud market that prompted her to start in the hosting business before it became a mainstream phenomenon. As an entrepreneur, she witnessed the power of cloud computing and its ability to enable every person and organization to access enterprise-level benefits leading to the democratization of IT for all.
Below are the highlights of the interview conducted between Insights Success and Gretchen O’Hara:
How do you diversify your organization’s offerings to entice the target audience?
One size does not fit all. At Microsoft, we are committed to understanding our customer business objectives to ensure maximum growth and impact. An analysis of the customer industry, obstacles, target audience, and goals is necessary for customization to meet the needs of those cloud capabilities. That is our key to diversification and developing a strategic roadmap that leads us to our customer’s success. For instance, without a structured plan and understanding of customer requirements, oftentimes, one can employ a cloud capability meant for consumers to an enterprise that does not address critical requirements such as security, privacy, reliability, and mission-critical availability. On the flip side, one may offer similar solutions to the SMB market, which looks like a good fit on paper, but in reality, those capabilities are too complex, expensive and will not meet the specific needs of the customer. Hence, an insight into customer intention is crucial for ensuring customer satisfaction and success.
How do you strategize your game plans to tackle the competition in the market?
When you lead with a purpose-driven mission, bigger than a person or any organization, consequentially you tackle the competition. Every organization needs to instill a purposedriven mission into their business model. This captures the essence of growth and motivates every individual to contribute their best. My strategic approach to competition is simple but effective; address the customer and partner needs, combined with a purpose-driven mission – and you will effectively compete to be your very best.
It is crucial to understand the ecosystem, capabilities, partnerships, and identifying solutions that will provide holistic value to the customers in a broader spectrum. Collaboration is key and ultimately it all comes down to customer and partner obsession. If you are consistently captivated by the customer and embrace a growth mindset, it shifts the way you compete. One focuses less on direct competition and more on providing the best experience and value for the customer. The purpose of the competition is to bring the best solution and experience at the forefront of the customer.
What are the vital traits that every businesswoman should possess?
Authenticity empowers people to deliver their absolute best to any mission. It is crucial that every woman brings her own unique leadership style rather than continue on a path already built, to ensure collective action and success. As a businesswoman, one must practice empathy while allowing room for experimentations and mistakes for the team to grow as individuals.
A growth mindset is an attribute I practice professionally and personally since it is important to embrace change to deliver your best self. Lastly, I am always curious, celebrate the diversity of people, and practice grit. I believe these traits assist one to overcome the biggest obstacles, despite the failures encountered along your life journey.
As per your opinion, what roadblocks or challenges were faced by you in a corporate business? And how did you overcome them?
Throughout my journey, two specific roadblocks were common; Perception and Community. Perception is a market constraint. This challenge focuses on efforts to overpower/preserve a perceived appearance to accelerate opportunity and access for people in the business. Microsoft is a trusted brand, with ethics and responsibility upholding privacy and security, hence people invest in us. As an organization, we have to work really hard to prove these presumptions through action to accelerate in the industry.
The second challenge is creating a vibrant community. For women in the cloud business, oftentimes there is a lack of more women helping other women; to have an uplifting, supportive technical and business community. Social media campaigns around gender equality and closing the gender gap is a required step. However, the reality is we need to build a much bigger and broader network of female representation in technology, and it is an industry imperative task. The lack of female mentors and sponsors to help our entrepreneurs succeed is evident from the classroom to the board room.
Have you in any way contributed towards the cause of Women in Cloud? 
Our mission at Women in Cloud is not limited to simply changing the conversations and bringing diversity, as we are taking it one step forward with economic development and access to opportunity. Economic access is a pivotal point in this critical movement as we try to make a sustainable change that will eventually trickle down into our education system for future leaders and innovators.
The hard-hitting truth is that if female entrepreneurs are hurt in the area of building solutions, and female-run companies continue to go out of business, then filling the funnel all day long by bringing in more representation will not make a sustainable impact. Unlike any other organization, Women in Cloud has a unique strategy to build visible shifts around gender diversity, to create an ongoing cycle of opportunity and bring together allyship at a global level. I think that is the magic of Women in Cloud. Over the last three years, I have learned an incredible amount from female entrepreneurs and allies that have come to the table with me at Microsoft; women and men coming together to focus on education, access, and sustainable growth as an opportunity to grow our global economy.
What are your insights on “The myth of meritocracy”? And how it could bring a change in today’s business arena?
Meritocracy defines that hard work paves a path for success. But my perspective on the myth is exactly why Women in Cloud was born; there simply is not always equitable access for women today. Statistics tell us that women-owned businesses are currently on par with men, i.e., 40 percent or so; but we fail to disseminate industries and analyze women representation from STEM which is less than 5 percent. Currently, there is less representation of females in technology companies. Even more troubling, less than 3 percent of C-suite female leaders are women of color. So, the idea that hard work results in triumph contradict reality, which is, there exist natural blockers that are ingrained in the system that we must change.
How do you cope up with capricious IT and other technological trends to boost your personal growth?  
When you stifle innovation, you stifle personal growth. The nature of being in technology is that it is ever-changing. We are always innovating, and that disruptiveness is something that allows all of us to grow because we are forced to disrupt ourselves in the process. Technology forces you to be agile, have a growth mindset, and ultimately accept failure to improve learning because of the pace of transformation. I appreciate the industry for forcing me to accept these rapid shifts because it allows me to bring my best self to the community every day. I am a firm believer in the opportunity cloud allows, because it forces you to be the best that you can absolutely be at any given moment.
What are your future endeavors/objectives and where do you see yourself in the near future?
Every leader has to ask where they want to be. A proactive plan helps a leader lead. From a leadership position, I am intrigued to explore the power of Artificial Intelligence. The democratization of AI and the ability for everyone to have access to information that was previously unknown is what I want to help democratize for all.