What a Silicon Valley CEO learned from his mother’s career as a surgeon

What a Silicon Valley CEO learned from his mother’s career as a surgeon
Image: Ali Diab
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Born in Palo Alto to Syrian refugees, Ali Diab was raised to believe that his life’s work ought to help dismantle racism and sexism in America and beyond.

He’s now the CEO and co-founder of Collective Health, a tech startup that’s helped companies from Zendesk to eBay customize their healthcare options. Diab recently reflected on lessons learned from his father, a political activist who escaped a death sentence in Syria, and his mother, one of Syria’s first female surgeons.

“My mom would often tell me stories of of how people in Damascus would challenge her, and say ‘Why do you want to be a surgeon? You should stay at home,'” Diab said at the Wall Street Journal’s Women in the Workplace conference on Oct. 23, noting that even when his mom became a surgeon in the Bay Area, she continued to experience sexism and unwanted advances in the operating room. “I just saw the potency and power of having a strong woman, particularly as an economic engine at home. My mom put my dad through grad school, she basically carried the family through my childhood and adolescence… So for me it was obvious that if you don’t empower women to be well educated and have equal opportunity in the workplace, then you’re sort of handicapping half of the family.”

Nonetheless, one year into running Collective Health, the company’s data evidenced a gender pay gap, which shocked Diab; he says he immediately took steps to remedy this, increasing all affected women’s salaries within weeks. Today he says Collective Health “constantly benchmarks” consulting data to ensure it’s paying and promoting men and women equally.

In this conversation with Quartz, Diab explains why ignorance is the biggest threat to America today, why he wishes he complimented his daughters less on their appearance, and his father’s most-impactful life advice.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

My parents are from Syria, and my mom was one of the country’s earliest female surgery graduates. When I was growing up, she used to recount the challenges she faced in her home country trying to become a woman surgeon within a society that felt she should just get married and focus on having a family. My awareness of the challenges she faced as a working woman—which extended well into her time working as a surgeon in the United States—has had a profound impact on my thinking when it comes to gender equality. While we have made strides in the US, the operating room is still a largely male-dominated space, and I recall my mom coming home after long days after we moved to the US exasperated by the discrimination she felt just for being a woman.

To me, the Me Too movement is a powerful expression of the built-up frustration women feel as a result of decades of unaccounted-for sexism and gender-based bullying, like the kind my mom faced. It has given women a voice on the global stage to articulate their frustration and intolerance to being mistreated, which is a critical step forward to addressing this issue on a large scale.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

Yes, absolutely. I strongly believe that in order for a society to flourish, women need to be given equal consideration, opportunity, and rights as men have. I mean real equality—equal pay, equal rates of promotion, equal levels of VC investment, scientific grants, etc. Otherwise, we’re effectively paralyzing half our society and not fulfilling our fullest social and economic potential, which is wasteful and unjust. At the end of the day, I believe we all should aspire to build a just society, and if we prevent women from achieving their rightful potential, then we’re not living up to that ideal. That’s how I define feminism.

3. What do you do on a day-to-day basis to advance gender equality?

As a CEO, my number one priority is to enable all the people who work at my company to achieve their fullest potential and be the best possible contributors to the company’s growth and success that they can be. By that very definition, my job is to make sure that all of the women who work for me—and they are 59% of our total staff—have everything they need to achieve their fullest professional potential. That means paying them the same as their male counterparts, promoting them at the same rate as men, offering an equivalent set of benefits that meet their needs, etc. And I’m happy to report that Collective Health does all of those things. But it’s not enough to rest on our historical performance, which is why we continuously analyze our compensation, promotion, recruiting, and other company practices to ensure that we are holding ourselves truly accountable with data, day in and day out.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

The biggest threat to men in America today is the biggest threat to humanity more broadly: ignorance. Because ignorance breeds fear. And when we’re fearful of something, we have a tendency to either trivialize or, worse, demonize that thing we don’t understand. That ignorance-inspired fear is the first step down the path of despair because it leads to destructive behaviors like discrimination and violence.

That is why education is the single most important facet of any man’s, or woman’s, upbringing. People need to be taught, openly and without prejudice, about the world around them. It is the only way to combat the negative beliefs and associated behaviors that destroy societies. And we can see the very unfortunate and large-scale effects of that ignorance in places like the Middle East where age-old differences, perpetuated by an ongoing ignorance of, and lack of desire to want to understand, the other side’s point of view, lead to never-ending conflict and instability. Sexism and domestic violence in this country, while more subtle, are also good examples of that. And it all stems from ignorance and the “fear of the other” that comes from it.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what’s your biggest inhibition to doing so?

Yes, all the time. I find asking simple questions during the normal course of day-to-day business is very effective and helps lay bare our biases in a tangible way that makes it easier to do something about them. For example, if I asked you, “Don’t you think women should be paid the same as men for a comparable role and level of education and experience?” that has a markedly different effect than if I asked you, “Why are women in this role paid X dollars less than men of equal level and experience?” The specificity does two things: 1) it makes the issue tangible and easy-to-grasp, and 2) it makes it clear what needs to be done, right then and there, to address the issue. Specificity frames things in a much more actionable way, which I believe is critical to getting people to actually do something.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

As the father of two young girls, my biggest anxiety about being a man is setting a good example of how a man should behave and leaving my daughters a world that is better from a gender-equity standpoint than the one I was born into. As a father, my daughters get to see a side of me that even my closest colleagues don’t, and I am acutely aware of the impact that the smallest interaction with them may have on their impression of how a man should behave.

By extension, as a CEO, I’m very aware of the importance of setting a good example, because a lot of people at Collective Health look to me to model their own behavior at work. As a result, I feel a tremendous responsibility to make sure my actions are consistent with the beliefs I articulate to our people. Otherwise, I’m being hypocritical, and nothing erodes trust in leadership faster than hypocrisy. If I want to ask people—be they my children or our employees—to walk the talk, then I had better be the first one to do that.

7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?

I wish they all knew how much I deeply and personally care about their wellbeing, safety, advancement, and feelings of self-worth. I want all women that I know and work with to know that I want them to feel empowered to ask for what is rightfully theirs and to know that I will always stand behind them and support them every step of the way in achieving their professional and personal goals. And that, of course, extends to all women more generally.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

I would say, “Stop making excuses for your inaction.”

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?

Even though I say it out of love, I would probably compliment my daughters less on their physical appearance than I do. I would, equally, do more to compliment them on their grit, intelligence, and perseverance, which I still do a lot of. Being overly complimentary of their physical appearance only reinforces the cultural stereotype of women needing to look beautiful above all else, which there is already sufficient societal stimulus for them to want to do. I don’t need to add to that, even though, again, I say it out of affection and love for them because I genuinely believe they are beautiful and want them to know that I think that of them.

10.  What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

The best advice I ever received from another man I received from my dad, who passed away several years ago. He told me that we should strive to do good without expectation of reward. To my dad, goodness was the truest reflection of who we are as enlightened beings. That is a great yardstick to measure one’s life with, not only because it’s the most noble one but also because it is also undoubtedly the one that leads to the greatest inner peace and fulfillment. If the only person you need to hold yourself accountable to is you, then you’ll never want to let yourself down, because nothing feels worse than that. And that is the exact same advice I would give to young men today: Just do the right thing, be it how you treat women or how you treat the environment, because nothing will make you feel better about yourself than that.