The OneHaas alumni podcast is thrilled to welcome Dr. Victor Santiago Pineda – a social impact entrepreneur, globally-recognized human rights expert, and a leading scholar on inclusive and accessible smart cities.
After immigrating to the U.S. at seven years old and navigating life with a disability, Dr. Pineda graduated from the Haas School of Business in 2002 and has since gone on to advise fortune 500 companies, negotiate international sustainability agreements, founded and runs the foundation World ENABLED, and is an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Sciences.
Dr. Pineda chats with host Sean Li about moving to the U.S. from Venezuela, and the different opportunities that gave him, his work to enact social change in the world, and why building inclusive environments benefits everyone.
*OneHaas Alumni Podcast is a production of Haas School of Business and is produced by University FM.*
The impact that moving from Venezuela to the U.S. had on Dr. Pineda
“My mother was told that I would not be able to be educated, that I would not be able to have a job, I would not be able to form a family. And all of those ended up being not true, because it wasn’t my physical limitations that constrained me but the lack of public policies, the lack of institutions, programs, and laws that allowed somebody like me to thrive. That all changed when I came to California.”
How Dr. Pineda is enacting worldwide social change with his work
“We’re not going to fix these challenges by only pointing out what’s wrong with the world, but rather what’s investing in what’s right with the world. So what we’ve invested in, in a partnership with the city of Amsterdam, was a three-year project on leveraging AI to map access barriers. Now that’s important for disaster risk management and for emergency preparedness, as well as for infrastructure upgrading and climate adaptations.”
How listeners can make an impact and support Dr. Pineda’s mission
“We can each become advocates for more inclusive innovation, no matter what sphere we work in. I think sharing my research around AI, this playbook on inclusive cities, the autism-friendly design guidelines, as well as some of the work we’re doing to build a global advisory council on inclusive innovation becomes ways that the very talented Haas community could connect with real systems change.”
Dr. Pineda’s thoughts on ensuring AI is used as a force for good in the future
“I think we need to open up our hearts. I think we need to be grounded with who we are as individuals, what we value, and really create a more intentional approach to how we direct our attention. Because what you appreciate, appreciates, right? If we’re in a fear economy, we’re feeding fear. For an economy that’s investing in more integrated, holistic approaches, we’re building those.”
- LinkedIn Profile
- The Victor Pineda Foundation
- World Enabled
- My Disability Justice Youtube series
- Victor Santiago Pineda’s book: Building the Inclusive City: Governance, Access, and the Urban Transformation of Dubai
Other recommended reads in this episode:
- Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life) by Kat Holmes
- Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Sean: Welcome to the OneHaas Alumni Podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li. And today, we’re joined by Dr. Victor Santiago Pineda. Dr. Pineda is a serial social impact entrepreneur, globally recognized human rights expert, and a leading scholar on inclusive and accessible smart cities.
He is a two-time presidential appointee and serves as the president and founder of Pineda Foundation. World Enabled, and a film production company, Windmills & Giants. He is also an adjunct professor at the College of Environmental Sciences.
Welcome to the podcast, Dr. Pineda.
[00:42] Victor: Thank you so much. It’s exciting to be back and engaging with the Haas community.
[00:49] Sean: Yeah. So, what I didn’t mention, Dr. Pineda, is that you’re also… you’re Haas undergrad class of 2002.
[00:57] Victor: 21 years, that’s remarkable.
[01:00] Sean: Time does fly. We like to start off these podcasts with my favorite question, which is, we’d love to hear your origin story — where were you born, how were you raised, and usually that unravels for us how you’re passionate about what you’re passionate about today.
[01:16] Victor: Well, I have a unique story, in a sense that I was born in Venezuela but I was also born into a world that wasn’t designed for us. I tried to remember that I came into living a life that was unique because I stopped walking when I was seven. By the time I was in high school, I needed a machine to help me breathe. So, for those listeners that aren’t able to see me, I sit in a sophisticated electric wheelchair and I use a machine that helps me breathe.
I do look at the world from a unique perspective, which is the perspective of somebody with significant physical limitations, but also somebody that received a lot of support, a lot encouragement, a lot of opportunities. And those were all just accelerated. And by the time I got to Berkeley and by the time I joined Haas, the origin story is really about the profound influence that my family and my experiences, and Berkeley had to nurture my intellectual curiosity, as well as my commitment to social impact.
[02:50] Sean: When did you come to the U.S.? Did you come with your family? Or, did you come for college?
[02:54] Victor: Yeah. I arrived at the age of seven. At 1985, my mother was told that I would not be able to be educated, that I would not be able to have a job, I would not be able form a family. And all of those ended up being not true because it wasn’t my physical limitations that constrained me but the lack of education, the lack of public policies, the lack of institutions, programs, and laws that allowed somebody like me to thrive.
And that all changed when I came to California. My first-grade teacher told the students that, if anybody would volunteer to push me to the cafeteria that the kids would get an extra 15 minutes of playtime. So, all the kids raised their hands and wanted to be my friends. That type of inclusion doesn’t cost anything. It’s just about the ability to create a sense of belonging. And I took that as, not only a nurturing experience for my own growth, but actually a framework for the leadership, a framework for public policy, a framework for innovation, a framework for driving new approaches that could unlock human potential.
That’s really what my mission has been and why I incorporated, while still an undergrad at Haas, the Victor Pineda Foundation, to really focus on empowering governments and corporations to embrace and unlock human potential.
[04:57] Sean: Well, thank you for sharing that. Let’s dig into that a little bit. We’d love to hear your life’s work, so far. And I know, if anyone goes to Dr. Pineda’s LinkedIn, it’s a pretty long, long resume, very impressive. Working for the World Economic Forum, or working with, I should say, and all these different organizations. Can you just share a little bit more about your work?
[05:25] Victor: My work is financial extension of my life journey, my mission. And I was always motivated by the need to foster inclusion, but to also do it in a way that was innovative, that was disruptive, that was generative, right? So, it’s about leading both companies and governments, helping innovators, and visionary executives to look at the ways that cultures can change. And those cultures, whether you’re in a Fortune 500 company or whether you’re a major managing city, those cultures that embrace diversity and look at actively identifying and eliminating barriers are those companies, organizations that can do more, that can create more purpose, more passion, more impact.
So, my background is I studied at Berkeley, both Haas and political economy, and last year is in regional economic development in the Department of City Planning. And then, I realized that economic development, political science, economics, and business were just drivers for economic growth, but we needed to get a better sense of the social fabric that creates the conditions for real quality of life or real substantive freedoms or real ability for humans to have agency for developing human potential beyond just GDP per capita.
And so, I did my PhD at UCLA with a focus on social policy formation while recognizing that economic development and social development need to go hand in hand. So, I worked with some of the world’s leading scholars, including Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, to incorporate his ideas around capability, human capabilities, and how we could create a framework that was really enhancing human agency.
We guys had a lived experience with disability and realized that disability was not a medical condition. It wasn’t a deficit or a liability, but could be an asset, and it could be a basis for understanding the human condition of unlocking potential if we get the right frameworks in place.
The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) became a really important civil rights law that changed the face of the nation. But also, people don’t know stimulated and accelerated digital transformation. When you think about Stephen Hawkings and some of the tools that were developed so that he could synthesize speech, that could predict the phrase that he wanted to say. Those pathologists were the forerunners of these large language models in generative AI. The idea that you could choose a few words and have a computer predict what you want to say is really what’s revolutionizing the world right now with generative AI.
So, disability community very much has been at the forefront, the vanguard of mainstream tech transformations. So, your phone’s text speech or voice recognition features are all part of the ecosystem of technologies that were identified, first, to benefit people with visual, hearing, or physical impairments. And so, like a Microsoft executive that I had the pleasure of sharing a keynote stage with says, the assistive technology of today is mainstream technology of tomorrow.
And I think those are all threats around my work, is how do I help, from my perspective as a regulator, serving three U.S. administrations and the U.S. Federal Access Board, my work as a researcher and a professor at Berkeley and other universities, to help inspire a new generation innovators and social change makers. Or, whether it’s the work that my foundation, my philanthropic efforts, how do we invest into the transformative, both ideas, technologies, and people that could build the future we need?
[10:09] Sean: That is really interesting. Your work sounds so exciting because of not only, obviously, the impact it can have, it has had, and will continue to have. But I’m trying to wrap my head around it, because I was just recently traveling in Asia, and it bothered me so much that how they design the cities are not very friendly for differently abled people.
And this is something I noticed because I have young children and we had to stroll with them around. And I was just having a hard time even pushing them around. I couldn’t imagine anybody else trying to navigate these places. And it really bothered me to the core, because coming from the U.S., I feel like there’s still ways to go. But we’re so much better.
And so, I guess, what I’m wondering, as I’m hearing you say this, is, how do you think we can change the world to catch up to this idea that helping differently abled people is actually beneficial to your society and economy at large?
[11:10] Victor: When you look at some of the studies published by Accenture on amplifying accessibility, it’s not about supporting a small minority of people. It’s about looking at the life cycle of the whole range of bodies, physical, cognitive, sensory experiences. And if you can create product services and workplaces that allow that broad range of human experiences to thrive, you will not only have better product services, happier employees, more dedicated workforce, but you’ll actually have that have long-term potential. You’ll have people that are living with purpose and understand that there is a social fabric that creates the conditions for human flourishing.
So, let me very specific. When you are in Thailand and you are moving around with your wife and your family, if you were to have your grandmother with you on that trip or if you were to have several kids with you, you would be experiencing the city with a range of physical barriers. And those barriers would be exhausting.
Currently, in the world, 25% of people experience barriers in cities because of disability or aging. And those structural challenges are also social challenges. We continue to have negative attitudes and discriminatory, maybe, even just implicit bias, against folks that lie on the outside the middle of the bell curve in terms of human functions, physical, sensory, cognitive, normative distribution. But if you could open up your company, your workplace, your HR practices, your innovation divisions, to look more broadly to have a radical inclusion framework into the work that you do, if you have that broader framework, you’re actually unlocking capabilities that you didn’t even know you had.
So, Sean, I think the core here is we all have obstacles. We all face challenges. And disability the only minority that anybody can fall into at any time. So, it’s in our enlightened self interest to identify and eliminate these barriers and to recognize the importance of this inclusive design, of this inclusive innovation frameworks.
And my foundation and the companies, the work that I do, is supporting companies and communities to unlock that, either by building more inclusive environments, develop training programs, or just providing advisory services that help teams do more and do better and create a sense of belonging for both their staff and their customers, stakeholders.
[14:46] Sean: On that note, as I’m listening to you share all this, I wonder if you have some simple wisdom or practices for listeners to be in that inclusive mindset every day, because in today’s world, I guess, and time and age, there’s so many distractions, right? And you’re absolutely right. I feel like I’m very aware of the environments and how it impacts other people. But what are some practices or bugs or something that… how do we practice what you preach, basically?
[15:21] Victor: Let me give an [inaudible 15:23]. And one is my book called Building the Inclusive City. And that’s available on Palgrave. That was over ten years of research of Dubai and how Dubai was looking at changing its policies as well as the ways that it was starting to incorporate an inclusive mindset in the way that the city was being built, from a perspective of accessibility, right?
[15:53] Sean: Right.
[15:54] Victor: I have upcoming book coming out in January called Inclusion and Belonging and Cities of Tomorrow, Governance and Access by Design. But then there’s other great books, a book by my friend, Kat Holmes, who, for many years, led the inclusive design teams at Microsoft, Google. And she’s now at Salesforce. Her book is called Mismatch. And she says disability isn’t just a medical condition. It’s the mismatch between an individual and their environment. And the mismatches are the building blocks of exclusion.
So, how do we create better matches between people and their environment? Between employees and their companies? Between companies and their communities? Between policy makers and innovators? How do we create systems that fit together?
So, I think those are some things that are exciting. There’s a lot of publications on our website at worldenabled.org and things we’re doing through my foundation, pinedafoundation.org. So, those are some ways. There’s also a very fun series of 24 little micro documentaries that we did with Doha Debates in YouTube and Instagram, called My Disability Justice. So, they’re short 60-second videos from disability activists all over the world. And you can find all that on our website. I encourage people to connect with me on LinkedIn and to educate yourself. There’s lot of other influencers in this space. So, just be open and ally in learning about this work.
[17:41] Sean: We’ll definitely include links in the description for everything that you just mentioned. And since we’re on the topic of Dubai, COP28 was just there. Do you mind sharing a little bit about that? Because I know you just returned from the climate summit there.
[17:57] Victor: Yeah, there’s a lot of threats that the world is facing. And it’s this perfect storm of climate change, inequality, digital transformation, phenomenons around housing shortages. There’s just such a range of various challenges. And I think that we need to think a lot more about holistic transformations.
What I did was I participated in four or five events as a speaker sharing my perspective inclusive innovation and looking at ways that policy makers, philanthropists, and business leaders could, not only make greater commitments to inclusive climate action, but rather create ecosystems with partnerships that allow for more meaningful, sustainable, and innovative approaches to tackling these challenges.
We’re not going to fix these challenges by only pointing out what’s wrong with the world, but rather what’s investing in what’s right with the world. We’ve invested in a partnership with the city of Amsterdam. It was a three-year project on leveraging AI to map access barriers. Now, that’s important for disaster risk management and for emergency preparedness, as well as for infrastructure upgrading and climate adaptations.
But that is going to be a great resource. We’re publishing the first artificial intelligence playbook on inclusive accessible cities. So, that could help cities around the world and companies create partnerships around leveraging AI for creating better insights around obstacles in cities. And likewise, with the government of Qatar, they hosted the World Cup and they wanted there to be a legacy around access. They wanted to create an autism-friendly design guidelines because their stadiums incorporated features for the autism community to enjoy sports and recreational activities.
So, I wanted to extend, what would it look like to build an autism-friendly city or a city that was both incorporated in our diversity into the planning of the city? So, those are some innovative ways that we’re looking at urban design, technology, and training with cities to really create more inclusive environments.
[20:53] Sean: That’s fascinating, because even for, like you said, the everyday person that feel like they are “matched” with their environments because of their physical abilities, you just made me realize that a lot of people still experience… you never know when you might experience that mismatch, right? It may not be as visible as a physical difference. And we see it all the time, obviously, during the pandemic and whatnot. It could be a mental barrier, not a physical barrier. And it’s fascinating that what you’re talking about, your work, doesn’t just impact differently abled people. It actually has a massive impact on everybody. Because, like you said earlier, you never know when you might become physically disabled and…
[21:40] Victor: Part of the community.
[21:41] Sean: Right.
[21:42] Victor: We don’t discriminate. Everybody’s welcome. I think the question becomes, how do we build an experience where disability is not stigmatized. I just had a message this morning. A dear friend who’s a professor of philosophy just had a stroke. And he’s known me since high school. So, how do we create a way so that, regardless of what aging or other sort of challenges you might face, you could still live a life of dignity?
Another friend of ours in Dubai, Fatma Al Jassim, a wonderful activist and young woman. recently developed difficulty with speaking. She’s such a bright voice for her community that she’s struggling to find a way to express herself in a new identity of being non-verbal, right? I think that technology could really bridge those experiences so that we don’t have to sit on the sidelines if we encounter a change in the way that we interact with the world, but rather can bridge the way that we interact with the world and, in effect, change the world to interact with us, no matter what might unfold in our lives.
I think the listeners on this podcast could really support my mission by engaging with my work. And I think that we can each become advocates for more inclusive innovation, no matter what sphere we work. I think, sharing my research around AI, this playbook on inclusive cities, the autism-friendly design guidelines, as well as some of the work we’re doing to build a global advisory council on inclusive innovation, becomes ways that the very talented Haas community could connect with real systems change.
And whether you’re an entrepreneur within a big corporation, an entrepreneur, or whether you’re a public sector innovator, we really are each designing the future today. We’re each making decisions today that could create a world of more opportunity or more barriers.
I think, for me, I’m focusing on expanding the global impact of my foundation. So, philanthropic partnerships, corporate partnerships are really important. And leveraging the position, research, public policy, and training can really help upskill people and really accelerate communities’ capabilities to adapt to this changing world.
[24:38] Sean: You brought up AI and your research in AI. I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on, there is, obviously, growing fears on the impact of AI on future jobs and things like that. But as an entrepreneur myself, I’m an eternal optimist. I think more opportunities are created. I’d like to hear your perspective on your thoughts on that, on how AI will impact society at large.
[25:06] Victor: I had the great honor of participating in the World Economic Forum’s AI Governance Summit. Those are all the major players, from Google to Apple to Microsoft to a range of startups, a range of governments, all looking at that question. What is the AI governance framework? What are the guardrails that will allow us to mitigate the harms and maximize the benefits?
I serve on the Global Future Council on the Connected World, where we’re looking at that very proactively from a multi-stakeholder perspective. I think that it all comes down to where we invest our time and attention. We do need to mitigate the risks, but we also need to maximize the benefits. What that means is, if I go back to some of my fondest memories at Haas, and I really enjoyed the social business plan competitions, and we participated in some of those competitions because that entrepreneur spirit about unlocked opportunities, leveraging knowledge, resources, those are the ways that we create value, but also ground ourselves in the values — the value of equity, the value of participation, the value of inclusion, the value of meaningful and authentic stewardship, corporate governance. Those are all ideas that I care a lot about. And those are things that shaped my trajectory as an investor and philanthropist. And it underscores the power of innovative thinking to drive social change.
So, to answer your question, what do we need to do to ensure AI is a force of good? I think we need to open up our hearts. I think we need to be grounded with who we are as individuals, what we value, and really create a more intentional approach to how we direct our attention. Because what you pay, what you appreciate, appreciates, right? If we’re in fear economy, we’re feeding fear for an economy that’s investing it in more integrated holistic approaches, we’re building those.
I encourage people to read Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now, those books help ground us in both shaping problem-solving challenges but also to do it in a mindful way. Maybe, if we are more mindful with everything we do, we’ll be better off.
[28:13] Sean: Yeah. I totally agree. Speaking of Daniel Kahneman, it’s my favorite Michael Lewis book, which is the story between Kahneman and Amos Tversky, their friendship. And it’s such a beautiful, beautiful story. I don’t know if you had a chance to read it.
[28:27] Victor: There’s all these relationships, even here at Haas, right? Every year, 2,000 people go through Haas at any one time. Those are relationships that matter. So, I think, in closing remarks, I want to emphasize the transformative power of radical inclusion and the ability to bring participation into our workplace, into our schools, into our communities. It’s not only about reimagining the world, but it’s about building a world where everyone can contribute and thrive.
And I think the work of my foundation, the work of Haas and all the other innovators, change makers with our community, there is a fabric that binds us. And we’re all committed to making this vision of a better future a reality, building a future. We need to start today.
[29:22] Sean: I want to thank you so much for sharing that message and your story. It was a pleasure having you on today, Dr. Pineda.
[29:29] Victor: Well, thank you. And I’d like to come back maybe sometime next year and see how things are developing.
[29:35] Sean: Yeah, we will absolutely love to have you on again.
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